Polish painter, draughtsman, illustrator, pedagogue, and art critic based in Warsaw, the leading representative of Academicism and Realism of the 1880s and 90s. Gerson was born in Warsaw on 1st July, 1831, died on 25th February, 1901 in his hometown.
Gerson was one of the most prominent representatives of Polish 19th century Academic Art; he also significantly contributed to the growth of education and art life in Warsaw. He commenced his art education in 1844 at the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts; in 1845-1850, he studied painting there under J.F. Piwarski, C. Breslauer, and M. Zaleski; he graduated in 1851. In 1849-1853, he was a part of a group of alumni of the School of Fine Arts that surrounded Marcin Olszyński, with whom he travelled the country on foot: through the Kielce region, Augustów Lake District, Lublin region, Masovia; he visited Vilnius and Kowno with the intention of creating a drawn documentation of the residents of cities, towns, and villages from different regions. He featured the studies and sketches collected during that period in the lithographic album Ubiory ludu polskiego (Attire of the Polish People) (1855); he also used them when illustrating Oskar Kolberg’s publication Lud (The People) (published since 1865).
He made his next journey across the Lesser Poland, Podhale, and Tatra Mountains in 1960; Gerson’s ethnographic interests and the objectivist observation of the surrounding reality found expression in his realistic sketches of landscapes. In 1852-1853, the artist created several decorative panneaux in oil on metal which were used in the interiors of the Żegluga Parowa steamboats ‘Płock’ and ‘Włocławek’ (e.g. Warszawa widziana od Pragi/Warsaw as Seen from Praga; Widok Włocławka/The View of Włocławek).
In 1853-1855, he continued studies at the Academy in Petersburg. In 1859, he received the title of neklassnyi khudozhnik in the field of historical and portrait painting, in 1873, he was honoured as an academician, while in 1878, he received a professorship at that school.
In 1856-1858, he perfected his art skills in Paris as he attended the workshop of L. Cogniet and independently studied the works of old masters in museums and galleries. He led discussions on national art with Polish émigré artists, including for instance Cyprian Norwid, Henryk Pillati, Franciszek Tepa, and Teofil Kwiatkowski.
After returning to Warsaw, he opened his own studio in Miodowa St, which was used by numerous painters, e.g. Franciszek Kostrzewski, Józef Simmler, Józef Szermentowski, and Władysław Bakałowicz. Being greatly rooted in the art world, he launched together with A. Schouppé, Krajowa Wystawa Sztuk Pięknych (National Exhibition of Fine Arts), which later became Towarzystwo Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych (Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts, TZSP). In 1877-1878 and 1882-1883, he acted as the deputy director of the TZSP; while being active within that institution, he ran and co-organised many important art, journalistic, and art acquisition initiatives. In 1867, he took the position of drawing instructor at the Institute of the Deaf-Mute, which he held until 1871; in 1872, he taught art theory and history at the Szmit Plant for women.
In 1871, he started teaching at the Warsaw Drawing Class (School), where he educated a whole array of artists, including Józef Chełmoński, Stanisław Lentz, Edward Okuń, Józef Pankiewicz, Władysław Podkowiński, Jan Stanisławski, and Leon Wyczółkowski.
In 1867, he started giving private classes in his own studio, which also welcomed female students and amateurs. He put special emphasis on studies from nature and drawing skills. He implanted in his students the respect for painting tradition, and at the same time a sense of their creative independence; however, he rejected new art currents – both the impressionist sensitivity and the symbolist metaphoricism. He placed historical painting characterised by patriotism and didactic approach at the top of hierarchy.
In 1877-1878, he led lectures for craftspeople at the Museum of Industry. Gerson’s rich illustration activity included drawings for journals and books, such as Życiorysy znakomitych ludzi by W. Wójcicki (1850), Królewscy lutniści by Władysław Syrokomla (1857), Pisma by Adam Mickiewicz (1858), Bajki i przypowieści by Ignacy Krasicki (1868), and Świat Polski w zabytkach sztuki (1884-1885). Gerson’s albums – one co-published with A. Lerue, titled Widoki Warszawy (1852) and the other, Willanów. Album widoków i pamiątek… (1877), which he released in collaboration with H. Skimborowicz, both carried documentary value.
He was also guided by educational goals when translating works on theory and practice of painting, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting (Warsaw, 1876), J. Bochenek’s Normalna postać mężczyzny i kobiety wykreślona nowym sposobem (Warsaw, 1895), J. Del Medico’s The Anatomy for Painters and Sculptors (Warsaw, 1877), and A Manual of Decorative Composition by H. Mayeux (Warsaw, 1898). Gerson’s key works on theory and history of art included Współczesne kierunki malarstwa (Warsaw, 1876) and Znawstwo prawdziwe czy rzekome w malarstwie (Warsaw, 1895).
He was also active as art critic, gave open lectures, and wrote memoirs (e.g. Jednodniówka. Pamięci profesorów i kolegów b. Szkoły Sztuk Pięknych, Warsaw, 1897)
Gerson was the art director of the magazines Przyjaciel dzieci (1861) and Wieniec (1872); in 1900, he founded the biweekly periodical Świat artystyczny. His wide-ranging activity also included work in theatre; he designed wall decorations for theatre buildings (plafond in Grand Theatre) and stage costumes, he composed historical tableaux vivants based on folk legends and literary works (such as Forefathers’ Eve by Mickiewicz, 1877 or An Ancient Tale by Kraszewski, 1885).
The artist participated in many local and international exhibitions; he showed his works at the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (each year between 1860 and 1900), Art Salon (1888-1899), the Salon of A. Krywult (1887, 1889, 1892, 1893, 1896, 1900), and at the Society of Friends of Fine Arts in Kraków (1855-1901); he took part in the First Great Exhibition of Polish Art organised in Kraków in 1887. He submitted his works to international expositions in Paris (1867, 1875, 1876, 1883, 1888, 1889, 1890, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900), Vienna (1873, 1882, 1886, 1888), Petersburg (1873, 1878, 1881, 1882, 1884, 1885), London (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Munich (1897, 1880), Moscow (1882), Berlin (1891), and Los Angeles (1894). He received medals at Vienna’s World’s Fair (1873), Universal Exposition in Paris (1889), World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (1893), and International Art Exposition in San Francisco (1894). The artist also lived to see his own solo exhibition, organised in Lublin in 1884.
The techniques used by Gerson included fresco, oil and watercolour painting, drawing, and lithography. The leading themes in his repertoire are – in accordance with the Academic canon – historical, allegorical, and religious compositions. He created allegorical panneaux for several Warsaw buildings: Victoria hotel (1869-1870), post-Bernardine building used by the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (1870), seat of the Credit Society (the City of Warsaw providing care and hospitality to all forms of social life, 1880), and the Szlenker house (1883). He produced many wall and altar paintings for the interiors of Catholic and Evangelical churches in Poland, Russia, and Austria, such as for instance in Wojciechowice near Opatów (1891). These works were characterised by traditional iconography, as well as compositional and technical proficiency, typical for Academic aesthetic norms.
When it comes to Gerson’s stencil works, historical painting that confirms the artist’s patriotic stance and the historiosophical ideas which he followed, were of high regard; the artist aspired to attain a rank similar to Jan Matejko (Chrzest Litwy (The Baptism of Lithuania), 1889) in that field. Paintings such as Opłakane apostolstwo. Apostolstwo germańskie u Słowian Pomorskich (Lamentable Apostolate: Slavs of Pomerania under Germanic Apostolate) (1866), Krzyżacy w Polsce (Knights of the Teutonic Order in Poland) (1875), and Bez ziemi – Pomorzanie przez Niemców wyparci na wyspy Bałtyku (Landless – Pomeranians Displaced by the Germans to the Islands of Baltic) (1888) represent tragic episodes from the times of medieval conquests of the western Slavic territories executed by Germanic marches and Teutonic Knights.
The theme of the German coloniser invasions on Slavic lands which Gerson presented became a patriotic manifestation, as it carried a metaphorical dimension that made a reference to the ongoing situation in the Pomeranian province, which was subjected to a constant policy of germanisation and removal of the ‘Polish element’.
Noted as an excellent academic and awarded multiple medals, the artist became involved in art touching on national issues (Powrót Kazimierza Odnowiciela (The Return of Casimir the Restorer), 1887). The artfully designed dramaturgy of Gerson’s historical compositions was brought into being by expressive, theatrical gestures of the actors in the picture (Śmierć Przemysława (The Death of Przemysław), 1887); his perfectly mastered painting skills were manifested in balanced composition, perfect drawing, and vivid, relief-like chiaroscuro configuration of forms (Kiejstut i Witold więźniami Jagiełły (Kiejstut and Witold Imprisoned by Jagiełło), 1873; Kopernik wykładający astronomię w Rzymie (Copernicus Teaching Astronomy in Rome), 1876, Sobiesciada, 1889).
Besides conventional paintings with Virgin Mary (Matka Boska Anielska (St. Mary of the Angels), 1881) and Jesus Christ (Chrzest Chrystusa (Baptism of Christ) 1879), Gerson was interested in hagiographical subjects, which he tinted with genre character. The artist sometimes modified the traditionally celebrated patterns of sacral painting, introducing views of local landscape in the background of his works (Pustelnica (Hermitess), 1898); he combined religious motifs with landscape painting, which expressed his direct approach to nature, free of pre-established aesthetic norms.
Gerson’s realistic landscape painting was his biggest contribution to the development of Polish 19th century art. It was rooted in the artist’s ethnographic interests (Góral podczas zimy wędrujący (A Highlander Travelling in Winter), 1857), his fascination with the life of Polish countryside (Pogrzeb wiejski (Rural Funeral), 1855), and his awe with Polish landscape (Krajobraz pochmurny z krowami (A Cloudy Landscape with Cows), 1865).
The artist especially admired the scenery of Tatra Mountains; he painted dark forest terrains, stopped by the heaps of boulders, documented the views of monumental mountain massifs; he suggestively painted dispersed light and the clarity of air typical for high mountain areas (Wyschnięty potok w Tatrach (Dried Out Brook in the Tatras), 1893). The limited range of browns, greys and greens, combined with a free method of painting differ from the academic canon and subscribe to Realist genre of art (Cmentarz w górach (Cemetery in the Mountains), 1894).
Gerson’s mature portrait painting also conformed to the Realist current (Portret własny (Self-Portrait), 1875; Głowa chłopki (Head of a Peasant Woman), 1885); the psychological analysis of a model gained advantage over the conventional posing and meticulous recreation of costume details and surroundings of the portrayed persons, which was characteristic for the artist’s early portraits.
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, December 2004, transl. AM, October 2017.