11 Unmissable Paintings in the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw
full-width, A view of the permanent exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Adrian Grycuk / Wikipedia, muzeum_narodowe_w_warszawie-flesz.jpg
The National Museum in Warsaw houses one of the most impressive art collections in Poland. Here Culture.pl takes a closer look at some of the key pieces on permanent display, eleven works that should leave even the most hungered art appetites satisfied.
View of Warsaw from the Terrace of the Royal Castle by Bernardo Bellotto called Canaletto
View of Warsaw from the Terrace of the Royal Castle by Bernardo Bellotto called Canaletto, 1773, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
In front of the entrance to the Gallery of Polish Art in the first floor of the National Museum in Warsaw hangs a large canvas by the famous Canaletto. We asked Wojciech Głowacki, one of the Museum’s art experts, to tell us a bit about this intriguing piece:
Breathtaking 18th-Century Panorama of Warsaw on Google Cultural Institute
The year 1773, a view of the menage behind the Royal Castle, to the left there’s the Copper-Roof Palace and in the distance, in perspective, there’s the city, to the right you can see the buildings lining the Krakowskie Przedmieście Street.
Why is this painting exhibited in such a prominent spot? This painting by Canaletto was placed here for many reasons. One of them being that we’re in Warsaw and the painting shows the city before its World War II destruction. Canaletto’s paintings served as sources for the reconstruction of Warsaw, the architects modelled the re-creation of old buildings, amongst others, on this painting.
Also, this is a veduta with a very rich genre staffage. In the foreground you can see the life of the court, to which Canaletto as the royal painter belonged, so these are historical figures, ones that can be identified. It’s believed, for instance, that in the window to the right King Stanisław August is depicted in the company of his courtiers. Also interesting is another scene toward the right, showing sculptors carving a stone sculpture, an antique-styled one. The painting catches the eye with how masterfully it’s executed, its fine details, the wonderful conveying of perspective and depictions of architecture, and with its light which seems to have been brought by Canaletto from Venice. It’s such an interesting piece that lately the Arte channel devoted a whole documentary to it.
View of Warsaw from the Terrace of the Royal Castle by Canaletto - Image Gallery
The Battle of Grunwald [Tannenberg] by Jan Matejko
Here’s another painting that carries a lot of historical context, but this time the depicted scene couldn’t have been witnessed by the author. Jan Matejko, widely accepted as Poland’s most important historical painter, lived in the 19th century whereas the Battle of Grunwald shown on the canvas took place in 1410. In this battle, one of the biggest in Mediaeval Europe, the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth defeated the Teutonic Order. The victory holds a significant spot in Polish history.
When Jan Matejko was painting The Battle of Grunwald he treated Jan Długosz’s The Annales, the most important historical source describing the fight on the fields of Grunwald, like the Bible (…). In his day, very few artists could’ve matched his great historical knowledge. Still, among Matejko’s many pieces The Battle of Grunwald stands out for its exceptional faithfulness to historical realities. Basing on Długosz’s The Annales and also to a certain degree on Marcin Bielski’s account, Matejko precisely conveyed the last phase of the battle – the death of the Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen.
Ewa Micke-Broniarek, curator at the National Musem in Warsaw, in a conversation with Polish Radio.
Apart from letting you see an episode of Polish history that’s as formative to the Polish identity as the Battle of Hastings is to the identity of the British, the 1878 painting is also worth looking at simply because of its scale. Almost ten metres wide and five metres tall, it is simply enormous – the sheer size is awe-inspiring. Also, the talented Matejko executed this layered scene with great skill, making it a pleasure to explore its many, many details.
The Battle of Grunwald Explained
Coffin Portrait of Marianna Pstrokońska nee Działyńska by an unknown painter
Another Polish-to-the-bone exhibit at the National Museum in Warsaw is the Coffin Portrait of Marianna Pstrokońska née Działyńska created by an unknown painter toward the end of the 17th century. Here’s what Culture.pl’s Polish article on coffin portraits has to say about this unusual genre of painting:
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, in the times of the Nobility’s Republic, thrived the uniquely Polish phenomenon of coffin portraits. (…) It was then that a special way of exposing coffins at funeral masses became widespread. The coffin, surrounded by shields with coats of arms and laudatory shields, was placed on a so-called castrum doloris (bed of pain), shaped after a bier. A painted portrait was attached to the shorter side of the coffin at the deceased’s head. Such a portrait had to be very clear, sometimes presenting simplified yet characteristic facial features, so that it would be noticeable during the funeral ceremonies from a dozen or so metres. Visible in the candlelight and through the intense incense smoke, the portrait symbolised the spiritual presence of the deceased, the link between the earthly and the spiritual realms.
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After the ceremonies were through, the portraits would often be hung in churches. At the National Museum, the coffin portrait of Marianna Pstrokońska is exhibited alongside a few other such paintings, allowing one to get a good sense of the genre.
The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Angel by Sandro Botticelli
Nearby the coffin portraits, in the second floor, there’s a painting by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, author of the famous The Birth of Venus. The National Museum holds in its collection his The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Angel, created at the turn of the 16th century. At the museum, we overheard one of the guides speaking about this outstanding piece to a group of nuns:
The rose, which is devoid of thorns, may be seen as a symbol of St. Mary, of perfect love. St. John is clad in camel skin, a symbol of his hermitism. His traditional attribute, the Cross, may be seen above the Child’s head, a placement suggestive of the harsh fate awaiting the Saviour. This in turn explains the sadness on the face of the Virgin, who (possibly) senses what lies ahead.
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Apart from its symbolism, the painting also intrigues with its flawless execution and lesser-used format – it has the shape of a circle. The nuns, although restrained, seemed to appreciate Botticelli’s piece quite a lot.
Caritas (Madonna with Child) by Stanisław Wyspiański
Back on the first floor, there’s a different, more modern take on the subject of Madonna and Child. Here’s what Wojciech Głowacki has to say about this beautiful artwork, made in the year 1904:
One could say this is a painting, but as usually is the case with Wyspiański, this is pastel on paper. The artist created only a handful of oil paintings. This is one of the many stained glass window designs he authored. Wyspiański took part in many competitions for church decorations (e.g. the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Kraków) and ‘Caritas’ is a design – by the way an unrealised one – for a Lviv cathedral. The lively pastel colours are of exceptional appeal. As is Wyspiański’s boldness in creating ringing juxtapositions: light yellow next to light green, topped off with blue.
The subject of Caritas has been around forever. It is one of the favourite subjects in European art.
We ask him if the floral motifs in the upper section are of an art-nouveau character:
Her head is down, she seems rather worried, her attention consumed by the Child. She’s not making eye contact with us. She looks like a common-folk girl. A very interesting depiction.
Still Life by Leon Wyczółkowski
Another modernist painting with an exceptionally interesting colour scheme on display at the museum is Still Life by the highly valued Leon Wyczółkowski. Throughout his lengthy career, this Polish artist created works in a number of styles: Young Poland, symbolism, realism… The painting in question, known also as ‘Still Life With Vase’ or ‘Still Life With Vase And Chinese Screen’, displays the artist’s interest in the aesthetics of the Far East:
Feliks Jasieński [prominent art collector - ed.] prompted Wyczółkowski to take a liking for Japanese art with its subtle forms and colours. At first, the new aesthetic manifested itself through a fondness for Japanese and Chinese details like kimonos, screens, tapestries, porcelain. The paintings Japonka [Japanese Woman], 1897, and Martwa Natura z Wazą [Still Life With A Vase], 1905, enchant with their delicate, luminous tones.
Quote from the artist’s bio at the website of the Leon Wyczółkowski Museum in Bydgoszcz
Indeed the colours in this work are simply remarkable. There’s just something about them that makes you want to stop in front of the painting and take a longer look at it. Then you might also notice the coarse texture which, together with the unobvious composition, add to the painting’s overall refinement. A piece that lets one quickly realise why Wyczółkowski is among Poland’s most important visual artists.
Partridges by Józef Chełmoński
The 1891 painting Partridges is among the best-known exhibits at the museum. We asked Wojciech Głowacki to say a few words about it:
This is one of the most famous pieces by Józef Chełmoński, an eminent Polish academic painter educated in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. It’s a typical work of his as it shows Polish nature. Chełmoński created his landscapes chiefly in the countryside of the Mazovia region.
In the foreground of this winter scene you can see the partridges, the first ones are painted very precisely, all the details are very clear, every feather, every beak. The line of the horizon is barely portrayed, barely noticeable. Everything here is whitish, beige, the colour white has a whole spectrum of different tones. Additionally, the painting is in a white frame embellished with gold which sort of makes it bigger
I believe this piece is mentioned so often in the various selections of our gallery’s most interesting paintings because it has an exceptional capacity to impact the viewer. When you come up close you can almost feel the weather. You can almost feel the icy cold in your bones. What’s also appealing is the touching subject of this painting, the boundlessness and the masterful observation of nature.
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Verkai Near Vilnius by Konrad Krzyżanowski
Another beautiful landscape in the museum’s collection is Verkai Near Vilnus, created in 1907 by Poland’s noted expressionist painter Konrad Krzyżanowski. It shows a view of the picturesque Verkai neighbourhood in Vilnius, Lithuania. The piece was made during a field trip Krzyżanowski took with his students – apart from being a valued artist he was also a devoted art teacher, a professor at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts from 1904 to 1909.
Krzyżanowski created landscapes reminiscent of Jan Stanisławski’s works [Polish landscape painter – ed.], whom he met whilst studying in Kiev (…). He created many landscapes during field trips with his students: from the village of Istebna, a few versions, 1906, Studium Chmur [Study Of Clouds], 1906, Obłoki [Clouds], 1906, Werki pod Wilnem [Verkai Near Vilnus], 1907, Motyw z Finlandii [Motif From Finland], 1908 (…). Krzyżanowski’s landscapes are characteristic for their expressive chiaroscuro and their dark, juicy colour schemes.
Quote by Róża Jodłowska from Polski Słownik Biograficzny or Polish Biographical Dictionary.
Much like Wyczółkowski’s Still Life, the colour scheme of Verkai Near Vilnus just catches the eye, making you want to spend time looking at the image. The allusive broad strokes of the paintbrush create an almost oneiric ambience, strengthened by the dynamic composition seemingly putting the water and thus the whole scene in motion.
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July – August by Zofia Stryjeńska
In the museum’s Gallery of Modern Art you can find, among other things, the striking July – August by Zofia Stryjeńska. Considered one of the most important artists of the inter-war period, she was intensely fascinated with Polish folklore, as evidenced by the piece at hand. Created in 1925, it was part of a series showing the seasons titled Pory Roku (The Year’s Seasons), which won four Grand Prix awards at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925.
January and February seem to have feathers on their heads – but no! These are flowers made of window-pane frost and their hats appear to be giant crystals! August – he’s a gorgeous, angelic figure taken out of a legend, a poet, lover, artist, demigod. The figures are surrounded with scenes taken out of folk life, customs, and songs.
Angelika Kuźniak about The Year’s Seasons in her book Stryjeńska: Diabli Nadali (Stryjeńska: The Devil’s Work).
Also, as Magdalena Łanuszka explains in her article at the educational website Historia: Poszukaj (Search History), the scene is deeply rooted in European tradition:
The tradition of showing months as personifications and of presenting activities linked to certain months (both in the context of work and of leisure and holidays) goes back to Mediaeval art – such series were popular in sculpture, stained glass windows or manuscript embellishments. So Stryjeńska on one hand calls on the roots of European culture, and on the other places all the months in a Slavic, folk context.
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Taking this into consideration, the cereal ears surely echo the harvest that takes place toward the end of the summer. And the pair’s dance is reminiscent of the cheerful folk festivities that traditionally accompany the time of reaping.
A Vehicle Against A Winter Landscape by Rafał Malczewski
Nearby the summery July – August hangs the snow-filled canvas of Rafał Malczewski’s A Vehicle Against A Winter Landscape from ca. 1930. Wojciech Głowacki was kind enough to give a little insight into this amazing artwork:
Here you can see a fascination with fast machines, these are – late – futuristic influences, this the brave future ahead of us. After all, nobody new about World War II in the 1930s, this is that developing country.
This painting is mostly about the beautiful colour scheme. One could say that depictions of snow are well-known thanks to, for instance, Julian Fałat, a painter of snow. But his works are completely different, his landscapes are realistic, even if filled with emotions. Here the landscape is shown synthetically, the snow is more of a background on which the car is racing.
We ask him if this is a Polish road in the painting:
Without a doubt it is. These cottages look exactly like the ones you find in the Polish mountains. Besides, I wouldn’t say this is a real landscape, it looks more like an imagined one. Please notice how the line of the horizon flows into the clouds. The car is just a turquoise patch on the background of snow. And this snow displays all the tones of a rainbow. There’s so much rose, blue, azure in it. There’s very little white in this snow, a very interesting way of painting.
Also, this piece has an Art Deco ambience to it. Rafał Malczewski, son of Jacek Malczewski [leading Polish symbolist painter – ed.] inherited from his father an easy stroke, an easy gesture, he’s one of those artists who expressed that era brilliantly.
E 10 & E 19 by Wojciech Fangor
Wojciech Fangor is sometimes called ‘one of the last great 20th-century masters’ or ‘a classic of Polish 20th-century art’. During his long career, which started shortly after World War II, he created diverse works associated with movements such as socialist-realism, minimal art and critical art. Among the works he’s best remembered for are his op-art paintings (according to Encyclopaedia Britannica ‘op art, also called ‘optical art’ is a ‘branch of mid-20th-century geometric abstract art that deals with optical illusion’). Two such pieces of his, both from the year 1966, are on display at the museum: E 10 and E 19 hang next to each other. They’re very similar in shape, presenting large rings on plain backgrounds, but the different colour schemes give them plenty of individuality.
The specific gradation of the paint makes these pieces move before your eyes. It’s a truly remarkable sensation. The paintings seem to breath, becoming in turn smaller and bigger. It’s as if one was staring at a huge pair of living eyes.
In the 1960s and the early 1970s, Fangor made paintings that are an original contribution to minimal and op-art. The primary goal of these works was to present colour and light – its spectrum and the chromatic effects of dispersion. He created paintings composed of coloured rings, ellipses and waves with pulsating, vibrating contours. These works give the illusion of depth and create optical effects, attracting the viewers with their hypnotic movement. They’re kind of a game the artists plays with the space in the painting and outside of it, a game of real and illusionary space. The artist himself considered the division between abstract and realistic paintings a fake one: ‘Every painting is reality, even if it doesn’t remind you of an eye, ear or a human foot. It’s pure reality, sometimes linked to geometrical figures which exist also outside of the painting’.
Quote from an article by Inga Kopciewicz at the website of the Leon Wyczółkowski Museum in Bydgoszcz.
Abstraction.PL: Abstraction in Polish Art 1945-2017 – Image Gallery
national museum in warsaw
To wrap this selection up, let’s just remember that all the paintings on this list exist offline, in reality, not on the screen. Even the best photo or reproduction isn’t half as good as standing in front of the original and seeing it with your own eyes. Just for that, or maybe precisely because of that, it’s hugely worth taking a trip to Warsaw’s National Museum.
Written by Marek Kępa, May 2018