Artwork Information

  • Title:

    Capriccio of a Mediterranean Seaport at Sunset

  • Artist:

    Barret the Younger, George

  • Artist Bio:

    British, 1767–1842

  • Date:


  • Medium:

    Watercolor and graphite on paper

  • Dimensions:

    13 7/8 x 20 3/8 inches

  • Credit Line:

    Wichita Art Museum, Museum purchase, Virginia and George Ablah Fund

  • Object Number:


  • Display:

    Not Currently on Display

About the Artwork

The prolific watercolorist George Barret executed this painting titled Capriccio of a Mediterranean Sea Port at Sunset in 1826. This is a most interesting work because, as the word capriccio in the title suggests, it is an imaginative fantasy consisting of views of a variety of architectural types juxtaposed in a single combina­tion.

On the left is a small Doric temple and on the right the ruins of a more massive Roman ionic structure stand­ing on a high podium which bears a sculptural relief frieze depicting a scene of a sacrificial bull. In the far distance and partly dissolved in the rose-colored light of the sunset, are an Egyptian pyramid and a circular domed building recalling the Roman pantheon. Beyond is a low mountain ridge. Scattered across the immediate foreground are heavily sculpted coffer blocks from the ceiling of an antique building. In the extreme left foreground, nearly hidden by thickly overgrown vegeta­tion, is seen a sphinx figure which rests atop a small open rectangular fountain house with flanking Corin­thian pilasters and from which a jet of water gushes for­ward. The combination of forms, the compression of time, and the soft glow of fading light in the distant sky together evoke a mood of serenity, nostalgia, and the lingering presence of the past.

In his day Barret was distinguished as a colorist and a painter of poetic light. Moreover, in this work as in many paintings of the early 19th century, the graceful compositional balance and the idyllic quality imparted as well as the obvious interest in antique architecture reflect the inspiration of such earlier landscapists as Claude Lorrain whose works are known to have in­fluenced Barret. But to the thought of the early 19th century, the sense of time — of desolation through the passage of time — is of particular significance and is much intensified here by the presence of the three Turkish soldiers in the foreground — two resting with their rifles and one standing with his left arm pointing outward, in the direction perhaps of the sphinx.

We cannot know fully what Barret’s intentions were when he composed this fantasy. Yet it is enormously significant that the date of the painting coincides exact­ly with one of the most critical moments during the Greek Wars of Independence when the Greeks ex­perienced near defeat at the combined hands of the Turkish Sultan and the Pasha of Egypt. British sym­pathy for the Greek cause ran high and it was in 1826 that the western powers including England, France and Russia entered the war on the side of the Greeks, help­ing to bring about the Turkish defeat and the ultimate liberation of Greece in 1829. That the painting might therefore be a propagandizing statement, couched in idyllic terms of a popular Claudian formula, seems more than a little possible. And indeed, the three soldiers might well be a symbolic depiction of the Turks presiding over ancient Western Civilization. Moreover, the crescent moon — a symbol of the Ottoman Empire — together with the bird of prey hovering in the sky above and the sacrificial bull in the center of the relief frieze would further strengthen this interpretation.

For nearly 400 years, Western international diplomacy had been colored in varying degrees by the threat of Ottoman advances toward the West. And it was now in the Greek revolt against Turkey that such diplomacy was once again being put to the test. This lit­tle painting therefore presents an interesting example of the use of art in international politics.

George Barret was one of the original members of the Old Watercolour Society. He was born in London in 1767 and the setting for most of his paintings was the area immediately around London for he rarely traveled. He died in London in 1842.