One of the largest and most celebrated of the temples on the Acropolis, this was probably the first of Lusieri's surviving Greek watercolours to have been completed – or rather nearly completed as the sky and some marginal areas of the foreground were left blank. The Parthenon was dedicated to Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom, learning, just war and much else, and it was often referred to by Lusieri's contemporaries in its Latinised form as the Temple of Minerva. By the time the activities of Lusieri and his team on the Acropolis effectively came to an end in early 1804, they had removed from the Parthenon about half of its surviving sculptures in Lord Elgin's name.
This drawing may have been begun within a month of Lusieri’s arrival in Athens in April 1801, for the Revd Philip Hunt, Lord Elgin's chaplain, reported to his patron on 22 May that Lusieri had commenced two general views of Athens and 'near views of the Temples of Theseus, Minerva and Pandrosos'. In a letter Hunt wrote in 1805 to Lady Elgin's mother, Mrs Hamilton Nisbet, who had been in Athens at the same time as him in 1801, he noted: 'M. Lusieri's magic pencil will now, I trust, have finished the picturesque views of the Parthenon — which we saw commenced with so happy a choice of points of view'. Indeed, this watercolour is almost certainly to be identified with a drawing Lusieri intended to finish in the summer of 1803. Writing to Lord Elgin on 26 August that year, he listed various important sculptures that were packed or in the warehouse awaiting crating, among them 'the three best preserved metopes which were on the corner of the same Temple [Parthenon] between the south and the east ... Before having the three metopes taken down, I wanted to finish my drawing of them which I started a very long time ago'. By that date he had supervised the removal of the four preceding metopes on that flank of the Parthenon (South 26 to South 29), and the voids they left behind are plain to see in his watercolour.
Various entries in Lusieri's account book document the removal of the last three metopes: on 24 July a 'new hemp rope for lowering the metopes' was purchased, followed on 7 August by 'ropes to secure the scaffolding for lowering the metopes'. The last metope was removed on 13 August, and an entry the following day reads ‘For the 3. Metopes from the Corner of the Parthenon between East and South given to the Disdar of the Acropolis – 1500 [Turkish Piastres]’.
On the list of drawings that Lusieri had done while in Lord Elgin’s service compiled in 1817-19 - included three other of the Parthenon, among them one of its interior — this drawing and the watercolour of the Monument to Philopappos are the only two works described as 'finished on the spot' (terminate d'appresso natura); both were mentioned in similar terms in a letter from Lusieri to William Richard Hamilton in August 1819. It appears to have been in that year that Lusieri may have sold, given or lent the Parthenon view, together with his watercolour of the Greek Double Urn (Scottish National Gallery, D NG 711), to Mary, Lady Ruthven, who was then in Athens. Lusieri complimented her talents as an amateur artist in a letter to Lord Elgin; he may have given her lessons and, to judge from the old inscription on this drawing, lent her watercolours to copy. When she eventually died in 1885, Lady Ruthven bequeathed Lusieri's two watercolours to the National Gallery of Scotland, but as her own work; she was ninety-six when she died, and may be forgiven her confusion.
The Scottish watercolour painter Hugh William 'Grecian' Williams made some interesting comments about this watercolour, which he studied during his stay in Athens in the spring of 1817:
I saw only one coloured drawing by Lusieri, and that consists of a few columns of the Temple of Minerva. It is a meritorious work of art, as far as relates the breadth of effect and truth of light and shade, without mannerism or fallacious touching. The colouring, however, is rather heavy, and seems to be shaded with Indian ink, which loses its clearness where there is any depth of shadow.
...In nature the subject of Signor Lusieri's drawing abounds in clear and fascinating dyes, and I regretted that an eye, which has been so highly cultivated in all that relates to form, should be so defective in perceiving justly the distinctive qualities of delightful colour.
- Hugh William ‘Grecian Williams’, 1817
This text was first published in Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landcape (2011).