We can only wonder what has happened. A group of children are gathered in a kitchen, their faces weary and sad. The oldest stands at the stove stirring whatever is in the pot, holding the youngest in her arms as she cooks. A little boy leans over the stove; a young girl sits, wrapped up, holding a dish on her lap, waiting. Another child stands barefoot, holding a spoon tightly. They are together, and yet they are alone.
Darkness hovers, surrounding the space where the children stand; we move into the scene from it. The light is dim, the figures and faces shadowed, the room around them dark and cluttered. What light there is rests gently on the faces of the children, drawing our eyes to them. We see their expressions, the way they stand and sit.
The story is obviously a sad one. Nikolaos Gyzis may not have been an orphan, but he certainly could feel and share their struggle and grief, perhaps because he knew something about struggle, as well as about love and support.
Born in Tinos, Greece in 1842, one of six children of a carpenter, he showed an early interest in and talent for art. When he was eight he was admitted into the Athens School of Art as an observer, and the family moved to Athens so that he could go. When he reached the formal age of admission, 12, he became a student.
Later, as a young man, a scholarship allowed him to travel to Munich to study. Even with the support of that scholarship his life there was not easy. He needed money, and so he supported himself by creating and selling paintings. He was struggling at the time, but those paintings helped establish his reputation and career in Munich. After that, though he was deeply attached to and returned to Greece and traveled through Asia Minor, it was Munich that he made his home.
He painted “The Orphans” in 1871, in his late twenties, not so long after those years of struggle. Perhaps it was based on a memory, or a mixture of memory and imagination. Certainly it shows understanding, capturing the figures and faces with skill and compassion.
He saw the sadness and shared it with us. I wonder how much of the sadness was his as well?