Τhe Burning of the Turkish Flagship by Kanaris, c. 1873
It was Nikephoros Lytras, a dominant personality in the artistic life of Athens in the second half of the nineteenth century, who by his painting and by his teaching for some 40 years at the School of Fine Arts 'laid down a line' - that of the Munich Academy - providing Greek painting with an orientation and establishing many of its subsequent characteristics. His studies in Munich (1860 - 1866), his frequent contacts with Nikolaos Ghyzis, and his visits to the Bavarian capital and the East contributed to the shaping of a personal style of painting, with the introduction of genre painting as an expression of the national identity. Lytras succeeded in penetrating to the essence of Greek life and in interpreting it, retaining an idealistic character with embellishment and idealisation within the context of the function of genre painting, but also seeking, by means of simplicity, the truth of the specific moment of everyday life.
The Burning of the Turkish Flagship by Kanaris is one of the most important works by Lytras, and of Greek nineteenth-century painting, since it not only marks the evolution of the artist's career, but also the transition in the rendering of the historical subject from the Romantic tendency which dominated the School of Piloty to a more naturalistic approach in which the genre painting element occupies the leading role. In Lytras's anthropocentric painting, as that evolved after his return from Munich to Athens in 1865, it is not the historical event in itself which is the centre of interest, but the projection of the heroic deed performed by brave men, worthy of imitation. The burning flagship is pushed to the back of the picture, serving as the setting for a human act, which is brought forward on to the foreground, near the beholder. Thus, in contrast with the indistinct handling of the background, in which the flagship is half-hidden in smoke, the realistic rendering of the men of Psara, with Constantinos Kanaris in the boat, lends immediacy to the event, as what interests the artist is the truth. Relying on the narrations of Kanaris himself, who often visited him in his studio while he was painting the work, Lytras attempted to depict the superhuman efforts of the freedom-fighters - an example for future generations - as those were preserved in the memory of the fireship captain. In this way he served the educational character of genre painting. The tension of the muscles in the arms of the oarsmen, the typical costumes with the breeches, the cummerbunds, the kerchiefs are all depicted in every detail. Thus, the narrative factor is constantly gaining ground, and with a simple, almost monochrome, colour range in warm earthy colours, the work acquires a calm and familiar character, without losing its epic grandeur. It must have been produced in 1873 or a little earlier, since in that year it was exhibited in the International Exhibition in Vienna.