Art-Journal. [Click on image to enlarge it.]. Henry Wallis. Exhibited Royal Academy 1874. Oil on canvas. Source of image: The 1878
This picture was exhibited at the London Royal Academy in 1874. Why Mr. Wallis intimated that the little bronze figure which gives the work its title was "found at Naxos" we do not quite see. There were three places of this name known to the ancients, but neither of them appears to have been celebrated for artistic productions. The most famous of the three was an island, one of the large Cyclades in the Ægean Sea, about half-way between the coast of Greece and Asia Minor. It was taken by the Athenians in the time of Pisistratus, about five hundred years before the Christian era, and subsequently fell under the dominion of the Venetians, who built the castle of Naxia, the chief town of the island, and made it the residence of their dukes. The principal deity of Naxos was Bacchus, in whose honour a temple was erected there, it being, as stated by some ancient writers, the place where he was educated, and held in much honour. The artist has associated his picture with Venetian history. A sailor of that country presents a small bronze, which is assumed to have been "found at Naxos"— the title Mr. Wallis gave to the composition—to the Venetian noblemen, who are examining the "antique" with wonder and admiration. Whomever the figure may represent, it is clearly not Bacchus, nor can we definitely identify it with any one of the numerous personages in the long catalogue of classic deities. As was said of the picture when it hung on the walls of the Academy, "Mr. Wallis has not striven to present a picture of deeply significant meaning: he has only embodied certain types of national character in a graceful composition. There is just enough in the idea to create a certain fascination, imitative in some sort of that exercised over the two men attracted by the beauty of the small bronze. The composition is true and unforced. In the attitudes of the two figures there is no exaggeration, and the scheme of colour is a delicate harmony of warm tints carefully distributed over the space of the picture." It is a picture of simple yet inviting composition. 
Commentary by Mike Hickox
The Art Journal’s comment reflects a typical view of Wallis’s art post-The Stonebreaker which is still held today. He is seen as an antiquarian and much-travelled rich dilettante who painted pleasant, if rather bland, historical scenes but ‘without deeply significant meaning’. However a correct identification of the bronze statuette being presented to the Venetian noblemen suggests the picture may indeed have a significant meaning linked both to Wallis’s reverence for artistic genius and to his radical politics (Hickox, Pressly). It is almost certainly a representation of Nike, the Greek winged goddess of Victory shown carrying a banner pole. Given that she is one of the deities most frequently portrayed in ancient Greek art it is curious that the Art Journal’s writer failed to make the identification. Wallis may well have been influenced by the discovery of the statue of Nike at Samothrace (Louvre) in 1863 which caused a sensation, since it was widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces of antiquity. Thus the reverence shown to the statuette, which holds the centre of the picture, repeats that shown towards Shakespeare’s marble bust, occupying a similar position in Wallis’s earlier A Sculptor’s Workshop. A respect for individual creative genius is a theme which runs through all his work and reflects the influence of Carlyle.
The picture can also be read at a political level. The two Venetian noblemen, most likely members of the Venetian senate, are dressed in Renaissance garb. So the picture may relate to the Venetian Republic’s series of maritime wars with the Ottoman Empire during that period, which centred on Cyprus and the Aegean islands. As a pro-Republican and ant-imperialist Wallis would undoubtedly have sympathised with the former Thus the seaman is urging the senators to victory over a tyrannical foe threatening to control the Mediterranean and, in particular, the Aegean islands like Naxos where the statuette has been unearthed.
Finally one might also see the picture in terms of the Greek Wars of Independence against Ottoman control of the early nineteenth century. This had been a cause close to the heart of the radical poets like Byron and Shelley whom Wallis admired.
Hickox, Michael, “The Political Background to the Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis,“ Victorian Web.
Johnson, Diane. The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and other Lesser Lives. London, Heinemann, 1973.
“Our Steel Engravings: ’Found at Naxos.’” Art-Journal. (1878): 282.
Pressly, William. The Artist as Original Genius: Shakespeare’s ‘Fine Frenzy’ in Late Eighteenth Century British Art .Delaware, University of Delaware Press, 2007.
Last modified 10 August 2014