Théodore Jacques Ralli 

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Biography of Théodore Jacques Ralli  ( 1852-1909 )

An Italian-born Greek painter, watercolorist and draughtsman, Théodore Ralli was born on May 20, 1852 in Constantinople to a family of wealthy Greek merchants. He studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, under painters Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ. He studied in Gérôme's studio from 1873 to 1880. The master's influence and teaching were decisive. Ralli fully understood that drawing is the grammar of painting, and that shapes are definished by contour and line. But beyond his academic teaching, Gérôme encouraged his students to travel, visit, observe and draw. From his travels in the Orient and Asia Minor, Ralli would bring back numerous sketchbooks of local life.

By visiting Europe, he was able to perfect his technique by observing the great masters in museums. His travels played a dual role: they were a source of boundless inspiration, but also forced him to adapt his technique to his subjects - landscapes, monuments, figures - diametrically different from his Parisian life. Fatherless, he tried to earn a living during his first years of study, coloring photographs or selling his first canvases for a few coins. His mother, who disagreed with his choice of an artistic career, nevertheless sent him a small pension. Inhabited by the idea of becoming a great painter, Ralli was to prove particularly persevering and réfléchi in every decision he made. All the apartments he rented, already a student, were strategically located from an artistic but above all a commercial point of view; rue du Bac, rue Racine, rue de Seine, rue Montparnasse. Early on, he took photographs of his paintings, and collected all mentions of his work in specialized magazines and newspapers to keep in albums. He left nothing to chance and mapped out what we would today call a veritable development strategy for his artistic career. This vision never left him, and he remained an active artist until the last years of his life. In 1873, he exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Refusés, and immediately afterwards, in 1874, he showed works in England (Manchester and Liverpool), once again demonstrating his resignation to seizing every opportunity to make his painting known to as many people as possible. His efforts were rewarded, and he was exhibited for the first time at the Salon des artistes vivants in Paris in 1875 and again in 1876. His paintings were noticed by critics and the Parisian public, but also by Greek newspapers, which saw in him a talented young ambassador.

From then on, Ralli exhibited at the Salon almost every year; more than 45 times throughout his career, with artists exhibiting an average of 20 to 22 times. Fully integrated into the Parisian bourgeoisie, he created an art blending his French culture with his memories of Constantinople, his Greek roots and all the discoveries he made on his many trips to the Orient. The spiritual son of Gérôme, his painting is as much the heir to a great tradition based on solid technique, talent for drawing, harmonious color and attention to composition, as it is to ethnographic reflection.

Painting mostly on small and medium formats, his preferred subjects are divided between scenes of Greek life and the Orient. His work is as much a part of Greek art history as it is of European painting, as he is a French national artist with an established clientele in several neighboring countries. He showed the public at the Salon and at international exhibitions images of contemporary Greek life, but also of peoples of different religions: Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians, illustrating the spirituality and mysticism of the entire Mediterranean basin without losing their narrative, anecdotal and ethnographic character.

His paintings of Greek life generally depict scenes of rural life and island religious customs, and for the East a certain exoticism; harems, baths, street scenes, casbahs, portraits of women, and religious scenes. The notion of exoticism is important for certain paintings, as Ralli, like his contemporaries, perceives and retranscribes this oriental life with European eyes. The subjects of harems and baths are exclusively feminine, and tinged with a sensual atmosphere, he transcribes an imaginary and fantasized universe for these scenes.

His brilliant career in France, England and Greece brought him great honors and enabled him to take part in events of international stature; in 1885 he received an honorable mention from the Société des Artistes Français (of which he was now a member), exhibited his paintings at the Athens Olympic Games in 1896, became a member of the jury for the 1900 Exposition Universelle competition and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur for his entire career. He died in Lausanne on October 2, 1909.

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