A Map of Poland in Paintings
A simple look at a map can take you to places in your mind’s eye. A look at a painting can also take you places – as seen through the eyes of a painter. Join us on a journey around Poland through the eyes of some of the country’s acclaimed painters: from the majestic Tatra Mountains, through the picturesque town of Sandomierz, to the breath-taking Baltic coast.
Planty at Sunrise
Autumn has just begun so it seems fitting to start off with an autumnal painting. Planty o Świcie (editor’s translation: Planty Park at Sunrise), created in 1894 by the renowned modernist painter and playwright Stanisław Wyspiański, shows Kraków’s Planty park during this very season. This famous green area surrounds the city’s Old Town and also neighbours the historic Wawel Castle, once the seat of Polish monarchs.
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The painting shows the Wawel hill shown from the north, from an avenue in the Planty park that surrounds Kraków’s midtown. In the fog of an early autumn’s morning, through the naked branches of the trees, loom the mighty shapes of the Royal Castle and the cathedral. The break of dawn is thoroughly saturated with damp greyness.
Quote from kultura.malopolska.pl, a digital collection of art from southern Poland
The Wawel Castle is one of the most important and recognisable landmarks in Kraków, a city which lies in the south of Poland and attracts many tourists precisely thanks to its many historical monuments and picturesque views. Today, if you’d stand in the same place from which the was painted, you’d see a very similar view to the one that Wyspiański so skilfully depicted.
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Morskie Oko in the Tatras
A two hour’s drive to the south from Kraków lie the Tatra Mountains, the highest mountain range in Poland, reaching up to 2499 metres above sea level. There you can find the exceptionally picturesque Morskie Oko lake which is shown in the 1837 painting Morskie Oko w Tatrach (Morskie Oko in the Tatra Mountians) by the noted Romantic landscape painter Jan Nepomucen Głowacki.
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The composition is dominated by the dark water surface of the lake surrounded by steep slopes partially covered in snow and illuminated by the rays of the sun. The might of nature is highlighted by an atmosphere of calm and silence. (…) An element that doesn’t match reality is (…) the cross in the forefront, symbolizing the presence of God in nature.
Quote from imnk.pl, the website of the National Museum in Kraków
Apart from adding the cross to the scene the artist also transformed other elements of reality. In his view the mountains are closer to one another than they are in real life, which makes the composition more monumental. Despite these differences, Morskie Oko in the Tatra Mountians is considered one of Głowacki’s finest works and a classic depiction of the Tatra Mountains. The eminent Polish poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid is known to have called it ‘enchanting’ after seeing it at the painter’s atelier.
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A Landscape from Cape Rozewie
Although lake Morskie Oko lies very far away from the nearest coastline, its name translates as ‘Eye of the Sea.’ Some say that this is an echo of a distant legend according to which the lake was connected by an underground waterway to the Adriatic Sea… A quick look at a map shows that Poland is nowhere near the Adriatic coast and that it actually lies in the North, on the Baltic Sea. A splendid view from Poland’s own Baltic coastline is what’s depicted in the painting Pejzaż z Rozewia (Landscape from Cape Rozewie), created in ca. 1934 by the valued portrait and landscape artist Jan Bednarski.
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Cape Rozewie, lying about 50 km to the north of the city of Gdańsk, is one of the northernmost places in Poland. Sightseers value it for its shoreline cliffs and the oldest lighthouse in Poland, which was built there in 1822. Both of these major attractions can be seen in the painting created by Bednarski (the tiny lighthouse is in the painting’s upper left corner). The Polish painter was a great admirer of works by Cézanne and Gaugin and he executed his Landscape from Cape Rozewie in a style evocative of the two French greats.
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A Landscape from Toruń
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‘Landscape from Toruń’ by Julian Fałat, 1920, watercolour on paper, 42 x 78 cm, photo: District Museum in Bielsko-Biała
Pejzaż z Torunia (Landscape from Toruń) was painted by Julian Fałat in 1920 and it shows, as the title indicates, a view of Toruń, a city on the Wisła river in northern-central Poland. The acclaimed realist and impressionist painter lived in that town in the early 1920s, creating landscapes as well as animating local cultural life (he co-created the Confraternity of Artists & Writers, a society promoting Polish art).
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In his Landscape from Toruń, Fałat showed one of Toruń’s major monuments, the Teutonic Castle, which dates back to the 13th century. The castle is shown from the south where, in Fałat’s day, there was a river docking area. Today the docks are gone and Philadelphia Boulevard runs through where they once stood. It was opened in 1973 and its name is a nod to the American city of Philadelphia which is Toruń’s sister city (reciprocally, in Philly there’s a square named Toruń Triangle).
Apart from the castle, Toruń has plenty of other beautiful historical architecture. Its picturesque Old Town is so abundant with mediaeval monuments that it was put on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Fałat expressed his fondness for the city not only through paintings, but also in writing. In a letter to his daughter, Helena, he wrote:
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Toruń really is very beautiful and I’m very happy that I’ve decided to live here.
A View of Warsaw from Praga
Next we have a view of another city on the Vistula, the capital city of Warsaw, which lies in central Poland about 180 km to the south-east from Toruń. Widok Warszawy od Strony Pragi (A View of Warsaw from Praga) was created in 1770 by Bernardo Bellotto a.k.a. Canaletto, an Italian painter, who in Poland is best remembered for his numerous, impressive landscapes of Warsaw. Canaletto came to Poland in 1767 and became royal painter to King Stanisław August Poniatowski. It was in that capacity that he authored this veduta of the Polish capital.
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Here’s how art historian Grażyna Bastek described A View of Warsaw from Praga in a 2010 broadcast of the Polish Radio:
First we see this dark forefront where the painter himself sits beside the king. (…) Farther there’s the river, already illuminated, and a huge panorama of the city (…) from the Sapieha Palace to Ujazdów. (…) The humble outskirts of Praga, these Praga shanties, water mills and by no means glamorous buildings are purposefully shrouded in shade whereas the river and Warsaw are lit up by the sun.
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Today Praga, which used to be a separate city lying on the opposite side of the Wisła river, is an up-and-coming district of the capital. Among the many Warsaw landmarks so elegantly portrayed in the painting especially eye-catching is the white edifice of the Royal Castle standing on a slope in the central part of the view.
On the Warta
While the Vistula plays an important part in Canaletto’s piece another Polish river, the Warta, is the main theme of Nad Wartą (On the Warta), an undated painting by Józef Graczyński. The artist lived between the years 1866 and 1939 and created chiefly portraits and landscapes from his home region of Wielkopolska. Wielkopolska covers western-central Poland and is cut from east to west by the river Warta. The Warta is Poland’s third longest river after the Wisła, which winds through the entire country from south to north, and the Odra, which delineates part of Poland’s border with Germany in the west.
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Nad Wartą shows the titular river in a quaint rural area, possibly near the city of Poznań, which is the capital of Wielkopolska and where Graczyński studied painting and co-founded the local Artists Society. The impressionistic piece emanates an atmosphere of calm and safety. What we see looks like a lazy, summer day at the riverside. The pair relaxing in the middle seem to correspond with the two trees on the other bank, which may bring to mind ideas of unity of mankind and nature.
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Nature is also the main theme of our next painting. The 1922 piece Dęby Białowieskie (Białowieża Oaks) by the famed modernist painter Leon Wyczółkowski shows three oaks growing in Białowieża Forest – the great ancient on Poland’s eastern border with Belarus. In 1921, Wyczółkowski travelled to this forest to portray its majestic nature and as a result, a year later, he created a collection of lithographs entitled Wrażenia z Białowieży (Impressions of Białowieża). Białowieża Oaks is a watercolour the artist made in preparation for one of those lithographs.
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Here’s how Impressions of Białowieża is described on the Leon Wyczółkowski Museum in Bydgoszcz website:
In the forest Wyczółkowski portrayed oaks, birches, spruces, pines, groundcover, stones, in white and black, in colour, in various lighting conditions. He had a gift of hearing music while perceiving colours.
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Here’s what the artist himself wrote about his lithograph based on Białowieża Oaks:
Young oaks – a most interesting experiment, three trees painted directly on stone, the ones to the right look as if they have been darned, a different texture, because I couldn’t finish on the same day. Tones shifting from treble to bass.
Ruins of the Castle in Kazimierz
Meanwhile, the oldest oak in Poland is said to be over 800 years old. Its name is Rus and it grows in the village of Rogalin near Poznań. The tree is so old that it remembers the time when the castle depicted in the painting Rozwaliny Zamku w Kazimierzu (Ruins of the Castle in Kazimierz) was being built. The ruins of this ancient castle date back to the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries and stand in the picturesque city of Kazimierz Dolny in east-central Poland.
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Ruins of the Castle in Kazimierz was created in ca. 1870 by the talented amateur painter and draughtsman Napoleon Orda. He is typically remembered for his numerous paintings of Poland’s cities and architectural monuments, which he made during his extensive travels across the country. In the upper right corner of the painting you can see the oldest part of the castle, the tower which reaches up to twenty metres. In the middle stand the remnants of the main building which, according to the noted chronicler of Polish history Jan Długosz, was raised in the 1340s on request of King Kazimierz Wielki. The view shows the ruins from the south (they look quite similar nowadays) and in the paintings left-hand side you can see the Wisła river.
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A View of Sadomierz
An hour and half’s drive to the south from Kazimierz Dolny lies the, likewise picturesque, town of Sandomierz. Located on the Wisła, it has many historical monuments, some dating back as far as the Middle Ages. A distant panorama of Sandomierz is visible in Widok na Sandomierz (View of Sandomierz, trans. MK), a painting created in ca. 1926 by Stanisław Kamocki.
Artist Irena Kossowska wrote about the painting at hand:
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In the late 1920s he completely abandoned his modernist approach, painting freely on cardboard surfaces and decoratively flattening the space of his paintings, creating characteristically dim surfaces. (…) At that time he narrowed down his palette to blues, greens, citrus yellows and browns juxtaposed with white, and employed vivid texture effects. Also, under the influence of Cézanne, and like other modernist nestors from Poland, he authored synthesised and slightly geometricised landscape forms.
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cyprian kamil norwid
jan nepomucen głowacki
View of Sandomierz shows the town from the west, quite probably from where the Pieprzowe Hills Nature Reserve is located today.
Written by Marek Kępa, Oct 19