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  • Writer's pictureStella Sevastopoulos, MA

A Brief History of the National Gallery in Athens

What is the National Gallery?

The National Gallery is a newly renovated and extended art museum that presents the history of Greek painting through an impressive collection of masterpieces.


National Gallery Athens

Osenji, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


National Gallery History

Whatever high opinions you might have, you’ll nevertheless be surprised at the awe-inspiring grandeur, beauty and quality of many of the paintings that are housed in the National Gallery of Greece. They tell the story of how Greek artists explored Academic forms and techniques, before moving on to modernist and postmodernist methods, often exploring how these movements could relate to their own Greek reality.


Boasting a collection of over 15,000 works, the National Gallery was founded in 1900. But it took another 68 years before the first building was erected on the site, with a second building added in 1976. The museum’s current director, Marina Lambraki-Plaka (who has held the post since 1992), has dedicated herself to the dynamic development of the museum by organizing block-buster exhibitions and updating the museum’s building. After years of remaining closed as reconstruction, renovation, and extension went ahead, the museum opened again on the 24th of March 2021 – one day before Greece celebrated 200 years of independence, after 400 years of Ottoman rule.


In the foyer, you’ll find a large mural-like work by colourist Panayiotis Tetsis that depicts the street market of Kolonaki, where the artist’s studio was once situated. Tetsis passed away in 2016, having donated a large collection of his works to the museum. He was a master of translating scenes from the real world into expressive analyses of light and colour, with a special eye for capturing the dazzling and dramatic effects of the particular Mediterranean light characteristic of Greece.


On the museum’s first floor live the more Academic works, including those by artists of the Ionian School. Themes and heroes of the Greek Revolution feature in particular, especially in the works of Theodoros Vryzakis. In The Exodus from Missolonghi, which depicts the siege of Missolonghi of 1826, Vryzakis memorably places Jesus and the angels watching from above. The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi pays homage to the Romantic poet, drawn throughout his life to all things Greek, whose support of the Greek Revolution played an important role. Byron fell ill in Missolonghi, where he died in 1824.


When Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire (from around 1453 and the fall of Constantinople, till 1821 and the Greek Revolution), the country was mostly isolated from developments in European art (apart from a trickling of its influence coming through the Ionian Islands which were under Venetian rule). In the meantime in Europe, art was progressing in leaps and bounds, fuelled by ancient Greece’s art, architecture, humanitarian ideals and philosophy, filtered often as they were through Roman adaptations. From the Renaissance and beyond, right up to the Neoclassical movements in European architecture, echoes of ancient Greece reverberated through the centuries even as modern Greece remained in the dark. With the official establishment of the new Greek independent state in 1830, the country had to catch up with Europe in many ways, including in its artistic development. But the Greeks are good at speeding things up when necessary – as the syrtaki proves (a popular folk dance made up of slow and fast steps).


The exquisite works of marine artist Constantinos Volanakis contrast scenes of everyday life by Georgios Jacobides. The works of Constantinos Parthenis and Konstantinos Maleas, meanwhile, conduct an ongoing experiment with modernism. Yannis Moralis, Panayiotis Tetsis and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, take modernism even further into the territory of Cubism and abstract expressionism. While Chryssa Verghi’s seascapes, Giorgos Rorris’s psychological portraits, Pavlos Dionysopoulos’s art made of paper cuttings, and the electric work of Costis Triantafyllou which creates real thunderbolts, prove that contemporary Greek art is both cutting-edge and traditional.


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