Found at Naxos. Henry Wallis. Exhibited Royal Academy 1874. Oil on canvas. Source of image: The 1878 Art-Journal. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Art-Journal Commentary

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. [282]

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. Found at Naxos should thus be seen as forming a triptych together with two other Wallis RA submissions of the mid 1870s - A Despatch from Trezibond (1873) and Refugees from Constantinople (1876). The last is known only through a woodcut engraving (Lessons and Lanigan 2019). They all share a common theme - the war between the Turks and the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century and the potential role of the Venetian Republic as the saviour of Western Civilisation.

Left: A Despatch from Trezibond. Right: Detail from Refugees from Constantinople. Click on the images to enlarge them and for more information about them.

In A Despatch from Trezibond, the news the messenger has brought, which disconcerts the Venetian merchants, is almost certainly that the Christian Empire of Trezibond on the Black Sea has fallen to the Turks. This occurred in 1471 a few years after the fall of Constantinople. The setting is clearly St Marks, Venice, since the statue of the three tetrarchs, from the Diocletian period of the Roman Empire, is on the left hand side of the picture. This is also the setting for Refugees from Constantinople in which, too, the statue appears. The Tetrarch's statue, which is a symbol of imperial power, had been removed by the Venetians from Constantinople two centuries earlier. The implication would be that the power to resist the Turks has now been transferred from Byzantium to the Venetian Republic. This is the message of Found at Naxos as well, where, as shown above, the statue presented to the Venetian Senators is clearly of Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory.

Taken together the pictures would have reflected Wallis' own strong republican and anti -monarchical opinions as exemplified by his earlier Raleigh series from the 1860s. Turkish rule would have been associated with despotism and religious fanaticism. This may also have reflected contemporary British politics of the 1870s at a time when "The Eastern Question" was coming to assume prominence. The imperialist Disraeli favoured the Turks in their struggle to suppress their rebellious subjects in Greece and the Balkans while the liberal Gladstone took the opposite side. There can be little doubt that Wallis would have sided with Gladstone.

Related Material

Bibliography

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.

Lessens, Ronald and Dennis Lanigan. Henry Wallis: From Pre-Raphaelite Painter to Collector/Connoisseur. Woodbridge, Suffolk: ACC Art Books, 2019.

“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