Elegant Couple Sketching and Reading by a Lake (1874). Ludwig Thiersch (German, 1825-1909). Oil on canvas.

In 1852, Thiersch traveled with his father to Athens, where he replaced Rafaello Ceccoli at the Athens School of Fine Arts and became interested in Byzantine art. He painted several frescoes in Greek churches, and was at the forefront of a movement to “modernize” Byzantine art by introducing elements from Western art such as naturalistic perspective and anatomy.
The Greek Ideal And The Making Of Modern Germany

In 1833, Munich scholar Friedrich Thiersch was preparing the Germans for the election of a Bavarian king for newly independent Greece. “Through its genius and its character, its values and its institutions, Greece looks like no other part of Europe,” he wrote. “The people, however, need to be reformed. Everything over there is archaic and dilapidated. Regeneration is possible only by introducing the laws and the usages of a civilization that is foreign to their territory.”

This was the German in him speaking. But history and his love of Greece intervened. “Fortunately, there’s another way to proceed, without excluding the Greek originality: studying the country, penetrating its character, determining its real needs,” Thiersch continued. “We will then find a new force within the people, not by imposing foreign customs, but by developing local institutions and the strength of national identity.”

He acknowledged that this issue would be the hardest, that the Germans would have to forget themselves and learn to love the Greeks, but that the result would only lead to better things.

When his book, The Current State of Greece, was published, Thiersch was immersed in the mystical Hellenism that took hold of the German intelligentsia through the study of literary texts. And he transferred onto the Greeks the people’s romantic appeal and its historic continuity that the Germans took on for themselves by aligning with Greek antiquity.

Between Germany and Greece, it’s a long, deep and complicated history.

Kleoniki Gennadi (1856-1859). Ludwig Thiersch (German, 1825-1909). Oil on canvas. National Gallery, Athens.

Thiersch attended the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich to study sculpture, but after a few years turned to painting, in which he became a student of Heinrich Maria von Hess, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and Karl Schorn. After the Academy, he painted a depiction of Sakuntala (1848) and a scene of Camisards, and then traveled to Rome, where he sketched scenes from daily Italian life.