A biography of 19th century painter Eleni Boukoura-Altamura

Eleni Boukoura-Altamura was born in the island of Spetses in 1821. She was daughter of Ioannis Boukouras who had established the first theatre in Athens. The renowned Theatre Place has been honourably named after this development.

Eleni from a relatively young age showed her inclination towards the arts, especially the fine arts. She was portraying her friends who posed in the courtyard of the girl’s school. Her father eventually invited the renowned artist and professor of Athens School of Fine Arts, Mr. Raffaello Ceccoli to introduce her in the world of fine arts.

Eleni’s Pathway to Fine Arts

Eleni eventually decided to pursue her studies in Italy.  She was supported in this initiative by her father and professor. However there was an insurmountable hindrance for women migrating abroad from Greece during this time. Their tuition in Fine Arts Schools was prohibited given the nudity of female models who posed for students. Driven by her decision to study abroad, Eleni decided to mask herself as a man.

Eleni Boukoura-Altamura
Eleni Boukoura-Altamura posing as man
Source: twitter.com/archaiologia_en

Eleni eventually went to Italy as Chrysinis Boukouris and attended for four years into fine arts lessons in Naples and Rome. During her studies, she was enamoured with her professor Francesco Saverio Altamura. She had three children without nonetheless marrying the professor. The children were Ioannis, Sophia and Alexander. Her love and devotion to Altamura led her embrace Catholicism and married the professor in 1857.

The marriage nonetheless was short-lived. Altamura’s betrayal came soon when he got enamoured with another painter and Eleni’s friend, Jane Benham Hay. Eleni’s husband left with Hay and took Alexander with him. Eleni, deeply traumatised from the marriage, returned to Greece with Ioannis and Sophia.

Upon her arrival in Athens, she moved to Plaka. Eleni was by that time a recognised artist and with her studies quickly became part of the elite circles of Athens.  In 1859 and 1870 was elected with Nikiforos Lytras as member of the Olympic Games committee and with Alexander Rangavis, George Margaritis, Ernest Ziller and Gerasimos Mavrogiannis, became members of the committee of Arts Department at the Polytechnic University of Athens. Since 1863, Eleni also delivered art lessons to affluent members of the Athens elite and students of the Arsakeio School. One of her students was also Queen Olga.

Eleni Boukoura-Altamura
Eleni Boukoura-Altamura Self Portrait
Source: twitter.com/GreceHebdo

In 1872 her daughter Sophia fell ill deeply affecting Eleni Altamura. The two women migrated to Spetses so that Sophia would live in better environmental conditions. Meanwhile, Ioannis had already left for Copenhagen where he was studying under the supervision of Professor Karl Frederik Sorensen, at the School of Fine Arts. Sophia died in 1874 at the age of 20. Ioannis will return from Denmark in 1876 living together with his mother until 1878, when he died of the same disease that plagued Sophia.

Eleni Boukoura-Altamura lost her mind. She burned most of her collection in the courtyard of her mansion. Since then, she was isolated from everyone, fuelling local gossiping in the closed society of Spetses. She died on 19 March 1900 and was buried at the Agia Anna cemetery in Spetses. She was one of the most outstanding painters of the 19th century.

Her life became a novel written by Rea Galanaki, entitled ‘Eleni or no one’ published in 1998 at Athens by Agra Publications. A later adaptation also came as a theatrical play directed by Kostas Asimakopoulos entitled ‘Eleni Altamura’ published in 2005 in Athens by Dodoni Publications.

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