At the time of its acquisition by the gallery, this recently rediscovered painting was the only known oil painting by Lusieri. Since then another, earlier work by him in oil on paper has come to light, demonstrating that this was a medium with which he experimented periodically, although watercolour always remained his principal forte.
If his artistic training in Rome has been at all conventional, he would have learned to paint in oils as part of his basic apprenticeship. Several references in Lusieri’s extensive surviving correspondence with Lord Elgin testify to the fact that he occasionally used oils.
In January 1804, and again in 1807 and 1808, he asked Lord Elgin to send him oil paints so that he could could get back into practice. He eventually received some and in a letter from Malta of 4 February 1809, he states explicitly that she was engaged on a copy in oils based asking each of the crater of Mount Etna in eruption done by the son of Sir Alexander Ball, civil commissioner of Malta. Ball was a key figure in the mission to transport the remaining portions of Elgin’s Athenian marbles to Britain, and Lusieri expressed confidence that his employer would approve his decision execute the painting for him, which strictly speaking contravened the terms of their contract.
The present oil painting is identical in scale and in every detail to the watercolour version of this view, except that it excludes the seated figure in the right middle-ground. Since Lusieri’s natural medium was watercolour, and he himself told Lord Elgin that he had completed a coloured drawing of this subject in August 1805, we must assume that the watercolour came first. The outline of the oil was almost certainly generated mechanically using a tracing of the watercolour, and the stylus indentations used in the process of transfer are still just visible on the surface of the painting in raking light. Since not only the outlines but also the colouring in the two versions of this composition are identical, Lusieri must have had the watercolour version in front of him when painting the oil. The most likely dates for the execution of the oil are between August 1805 (when the watercolour was finished) and Lusieri’s flight to Malta in February 1807; or between the autumn of 1809 ( when she returned to Athens) and March 1811 (when he took the watercolour to Malta and placed it in safe storage there).
There is no mention of the oil version anywhere in Lusieri’s correspondence, which may indicate that it was made either on commission or for clandestine sale to a third party and, In contravention of the terms of Lusieri’s contract of employment with Elgin. It is hardly surprising that the artist may have resorted to such expedients given the very precarious State of his finances for long periods during his residence in Athens, and the difficulties of communication, which on several occasions deprived him of any letters from his patron for two years or more.
Perhaps to an even greater degree that the watercolour version, the oil painting brings to mind Edward Daniel Clarke’s observation of Lusieri’s uncanny ability to evoke the material substance and texture of the monuments he was drawing:
“Such was the extraordinary scale and application shown in the designs he was been completing, that every grace and beauty of the sculpture, every fair and exquisite proportion, every trace of the injuries of time had effected upon the building, every vein of marble, where visible in the drawing; and in such perfection, that even the nature and qualities of the stone itself might be recognised in the contour.”
This text was first published in Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape (2012).