Painters of the January Uprising
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Among the insurgents of the January Uprising – both those who fought on the battlefield and those who conspired behind the scenes – there were also artists. However, their fates differed – and so did the influence the uprising would have on their future work.
It is difficult to measure the influence of the year 1863 on Polish art. The January Uprising was not only an inspiration for several generations of artists but also the definitive event in the lives of many of them. We know for sure that around forty artists (this is how many were able to be identified) took part in the Uprising. Most of them were painters or future painters.
The burdens of life in military camps and their experience of combat influenced their imagination or the nature of their works. On a more mundane note, the uprising also took its toll on their health and determined their future life choices.
The most famous insurgent-painter is Maksymilian Gierymski, the author of the excellent Patrol powstańczy (editor's translation: The Insurgent Patrol, 1873) and Powstaniec 1863 roku (The Insurgent of 1863, painted around 1869). When the uprising commenced, he was studying at the Polytechnic Institute of Farming and Forestry in Puławy. He joined the troops at just 17 years old, which is why this period had a great influence on his youthful psyche. Almost a year of camp life in the forest influenced the future artist’s way of observing nature and his pictorial language. Journalistic style, a perspicacious viewpoint of the landscape and military themes are just a few of the characteristics of Gierymski's paintings. Difficult camp conditions led to a progressing pulmonary disease which led to Gierymski's death at 28.
18-year-old Adam Chmielowski, commonly known as Brother Albert, fought in the same squad as Gierymski. After being interned by the Austrians and imprisoned in Olomouc, he escaped and re-joined the insurgents. Due to the injuries which he suffered during the battle in Miechów, he lost his left leg. After the uprising failed, he studied painting in Paris (initially, he moved there to avoid being arrested), Warsaw, Ghent, and Munich. In Bavaria's capital he re-encountered Gierymski. Their close friendship was built on the basis of their common interest in art and similar war experiences. The image of the January Uprising which appears in Brother Albert's work shares many traits with Gierymski's work. For example, in the painting Biwak powstańców w lesie (Na pikiecie) (editor’s translation: Bivouac of the Insurgents in the Forest [The Picket], 1873-1874), Brother Albert, like Gierymski, presented everyday life instead of exaltation and focused on the landscape. What is more, Chmielowski's views as a prominent art theoretician greatly influenced Gierymski's painting style.
Ludomir Benedyktowicz, like Chmielowski, was seriously injured during one of the fights. He joined the Uprising together with the other students from the Forestry Practice in Feliksowo, near Brok. The 19-year-old Benedyktowicz – a future forester with good knowledge of the terrain and weaponry – joined the fusilier squad. He lost his right hand on the battlefield and had his left hand amputated. The loss of both hands, which ruled out a career as a forester or his ideal job as a painter, left Benedyktowicz heartbroken at first.
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However, he regained hope when he received a self-designed metal hoop which was to be worn on the forearm, equipped in a clip allowing Benedyktowicz to wield a painting brush or a pencil. He became so efficient with the tool that he enrolled in painting studies – first in Warsaw, and later in Munich where he befriended other insurgent-painters, Gierymski and Chmielowski. He depicted the year 1863 in a realistic style, as seen in the 1874 painting Nad mogiłą powstańca (editor’s translation: By the Insurgent’s Tomb).
The case of Elwiro Michał Andriolli, a popular illustrator and the creator of the Świdermajer architectural style, is somewhat different from the aforementioned. In 1863, he was 27 years old and he already graduated from artistic studies in Petersburg and Rome. He fought in Ludwik Narbutt's squad and hid under a false name after the Uprising's failure. After he was arrested and imprisoned in Kaunas, he managed to escape and make it to London. He returned to Poland through Paris, as the Polish Emigration Committee's emissary, but in 1866 he was arrested again and this time he was sent deep inside Russia. After five years, he was pardoned by the Tsar and moved to Warsaw. Even though his most popular works are book illustrations (for Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz, Poland's national epic, among others), he also created art on the topic of the Uprising, for example, Śmierć Ludwika Narbutta w Dubiczach (editor’s translation: Ludwik Narbutt’s Death in Dubicze, 1864-1865).
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The story of Aleksander Sochaczewski (real name Lejb Sonder, a Polish painter of Jewish descent) was also different. He studied painting in Warsaw's School of Fine Arts. He could not take part in the January Uprising because he was already arrested in 1862 (under suspicion of pro-independence activity) and imprisoned in the Citadel in Warsaw. Following the outbreak of the Uprising, he was sentenced to death but, eventually, the sentence was changed for 20 years of forced labour in Siberia. For many years Sochaczewski worked in salt-works near Irkutsk. Later, he received amnesty and was allowed to stop performing forced labour. After his return, he mostly painted scenes of slave work in Siberia, also on the basis of sketches which he brought with him. He completed over 100 works, including the most famous painting titled Pożegnanie Europy (editor's translation: A Farewell to Europe, 1890-1894).
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Besides the aforementioned artists, painters who took part in the Uprising include: Kazimierz Alchimowicz, Ignacy Jasiński, Antoni Kozakiewicz, Władysław Malecki and Ryszard Okniński. There was also a whole generation of artists who were only children in 1863, but were also influenced by history: the Uprising took a toll on their families, they witnessed conspiracy meetings in their houses and so on. These kind of experiences were sometimes so powerful that they depicted these motifs in their later works, often many years after the actual events took place. Some examples are paintings by Antoni Piotrowski (Scena z powstania 1863 [editor’s translation: A Scene from the Uprising of 1863, painted in 1881]) or Stanisław Mysłowski (Aresztowanie powstańca [The Insurgent’s Arrest, 1910]).
Notably, Artur Grottger, whose distinctive art influenced the popular notion of the year 1863, did not take part in the Uprising. Supposedly, he wanted to enrol, but his friends convinced him that he would do more good for the country as an artist. What is more, Grottger created the Warszawa I series of drawings in Vienna, based merely on the news coming from Poland. Perhaps this is why he was able to create the vision of the Uprising that we can see in his paintings – idealised, exalted, heroic, somewhat histrionic. Gierymski or Chmielowski, who have experienced the down-to-earth, not very spectacular camp life and the actual fight which was devoid of exaltation, painted the Uprising in a totally different way – not as rousing as Grottger but more real.
Originally written in Polish by Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka, Dec 2016, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Oct 2018
Polish History in Paintings (Part 1)