Nikiforos Lytras (Pyrgos Tinos, 1832 – Athens, 13 June 1904) was one of the greatest Greek painters and teachers of painting in the 19th century. He is considered one of the most important representatives of the Munich School and a pioneer in shaping the teaching of Fine Arts in Greece.
Nikiforos Lytras was the son of a popular marble sculptor, who wandered in all the great cities of the Balkans in search of his fortune and finally ended up in Tinos. His father passed on to his son his great love of art and from an early age Nikiforos Lytras had surprised everyone who happened to meet him with his rich talent.
In 1850, at the age of eighteen, he went to Athens with his father and enrolled at the School of Arts (later the School of Fine Arts). At the School of Arts, he studied painting under the German director of the School, Ludwig Thiersch (Ludwig Thiersch), the Margaritis brothers and the Italian Raffaelo Ceccoli (Raffaelo Ceccoli). In 1860, on a scholarship from King Otto, he went to Munich to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and thus found himself at the heart of European artistic life. His teacher there was Karl von Piloty, the main representative of historical realist painting in Germany.
In 1862, with the expulsion of King Otto, the Greek state discontinued the scholarship he had been granted, but the wealthy baron Simon Sinas, ambassador of Greece in Vienna, took over the expenses of his studies. In the summer of 1865, shortly before leaving for Greece, he met his friend Nikolaos Gyzi, who had just arrived in Munich to study with Piloty. Together with Gyzi they visited exhibitions and museums and spent a few days in the countryside of Munich, in picturesque Bavarian villages.
Upon his return to Athens, Lytras was appointed professor at the School of Fine Arts, in the chair of Painting, which he held for 38 years, teaching with exemplary conscientiousness and zeal. In 1873, together with Gyzis, he made a three-month trip to Smyrna and Asia Minor. The following year he went again to Munich and returned to Athens in April 1875. In [September 1876, with Gyzi again, he left for Munich and Paris. In 1879 he visited Egypt and in the winter of the same year he married Irene Kyriakidis, daughter of a merchant from Smyrna. The following year the first of their six children, Antonios, was born. Four more sons followed – Nikolaos, Othon, Pericles and Lysander – and a daughter, Chrysavgi. His son Nicholas also became a painter with a rich and very important oeuvre.
Lytras worked conscientiously both as a painter and as a teacher at the School of Fine Arts and achieved early recognition and fame. Many painters studied under him, who later followed different paths and excelled, including Georgios Iakovidis, Polychronis Lebesis, Pericles Pantazis, Georgios Roilos and Nikolaos Vokos.
He died at the age of 72 in the summer of 1904, after a brief illness presumed to have been caused by poisoning from the chemicals in the paints. A few months later, his chair at the School of Fine Arts (Polytechnic) was taken over by his old pupil George Iakovidis.
During his period as a student of Piloty in Munich, Lytras was engaged in so-called “historical painting” with subjects taken from Greek mythology and Greek history. His Munich period includes his paintings: The Hanging of Patriarch Gregory V, Penelope dissolving her web, Antigone before the dead Polyneices.
Upon his return to Greece, he began to work with portraits. The accomplished Lytras was one of the most popular figures in the Athenian artistic circles of his time. He participated and was honoured in numerous exhibitions: the Panhellenic exhibitions at the Zappeion, the world exhibitions in Paris (1855, 1867, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900), the world exhibition in Vienna (1873), and the exhibitions regularly organised by the Parnassus Artists” Association. As an official portraitist of Athens” high society, he created full-length monumental portraits of members of the Serpieri and Kautatzoglou families, directors of the National Bank and other prominent Athenians, which are among the most important examples of 19th-century Greek painting.
Lytras”s ethnographies, a genre in which he is considered a pioneer, correspond to the dominant ideology of the bourgeoisie of the time and to the general demand for proof of the historical continuity of the Greeks. His travels to Asia Minor and Egypt enriched his paintings with arapacias, fellahs, hodges and other elements of the mystery East, which was popular in the West. The works of his later years are imbued with the melancholy of old age, religious concerns and messages of death. Towards the end of his life, ascetic and black-robed beings with waxy faces took the place of svelte girls. The accomplished Lytras was one of the most popular figures in Athenian artistic circles of his time. He participated and was honoured in numerous exhibitions: the Panhellenic exhibitions at the Zappeion, the world exhibitions in Paris (1855, 1867, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900), the world exhibition in Vienna (1873), and the exhibitions regularly organised by the Parnassus Artists” Association. As an official portraitist of Athens” high society, he created full-length monumental portraits of members of the Serpieri and Kautatzoglou families, directors of the National Bank and other prominent Athenians, which are among the most important examples of 19th-century Greek painting.
His long tenure as a professor at the School of Fine Arts laid the foundations for the development of modern Greek painting. Although always adhering to the principles of the Munich School”s academicism and unaffected by the Impressionist movement, he nevertheless always urged his students to be open to new trends. As an artist and as a teacher, Lytras marked the course of modern Greek painting. “Love of beauty is the bridge between God and man,” he said.
In 1903 he was decorated with the Golden Cross of the Saviour. In 1909 – after his death – his works were shown in the exhibition “The Piloty School 1885-1886” at the Heinemann Gallery in Munich. In 1933 a major retrospective exhibition was held at the University of Fine Arts with 186 of his works. The Greek post office honoured him with a stamp.