Tentatively dated from around 1890, the three women in this cabinet portrait have been identified as Efrosini Venardos Chlentzos (1843-1935) and her daughters Kyrani and Maria, from the small village of Christoforianika on the island of Kythera. In 1869 Efrosini married Charalambos Chlentzos, an illiterate farmer and fisherman. Aged 18, he was eight years younger than her, something fairly unusual at the time; the birth of her first daughter, Kirani, shortly after the wedding may suggest an explanation. Charalambos was lost at sea sometime during the late 1870s, leaving Efrosini to bring up four children, two sons and two daughters, in extremely straightened circumstances; three of her children eventually emigrated to the United States, and it is to the descendants of Maria Chlentzos that we owe the survival of this photograph.
The portrait was taken in a professional studio, most likely in Piraeus or Athens, on the occasion of what must have been a very rare, perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime trip for a poor Kytherian family. Efrosini is in the unrelieved black of widow’s mourning which she will wear to the end of her own life, but it is her daughters’ dress which is at first sight puzzling: though both are in traditional costume, they are wearing not Kytherian outfits, but particularly elaborate versions of traditional Attic dress which it is certain they could never have afforded to own (see the print by Moraitis for comparison). The answer is that by the time this photograph was taken, it had become fashionable for middle and upper-class women to wear ‘traditional’ costume when being photographed; as the practice slowly percolated down the social ladder, studios took to keeping a number of outfits on the premises for clients to change into. Since it was obviously impossible to keep examples of the many regional costumes on hand, the Athenian studios at least were limited to the Amalia ensemble, the elegant variant of traditional dress devised under the Bavarian monarchy for the royal ladies-in-waiting, and the richly decorated formal Attic dress.
Though frozen in the immobility requested by the unknown photographer, each of the three women has a different expression. Efrosini’s mouth is set, and her face and hands show the effects of a hard life and unremitting labour; she clutches and twists a handkerchief (which perhaps the photographer has given her) in order to keep her hands occupied. Standing, Kyrani, the eldest child and the only one not to leave Kythera – as the eldest daughter, it would be her duty to stay at home – has her mother’s mouth; while it is not yet set in Efrosini’s bitter lines, she has an expression of resignation, though she was eventually to marry and see at least one her five children follow her brothers and sister to the States. Wide-eyed Maria, the youngest, is the only one of the three looking not at the camera, but past it and into the future.
With thanks to Terry Chlentzos and Vikki Fraioli