Jan Stanisławski was a painter and a leading representative of symbolism in Polish landscape painting. He was born in 1860 in Olszana, Ukraine, and died in 1907 in Kraków.
He studied mathematics at the University of Warsaw and the Institute of Technology in St. Petersburg. He began his artistic education in the Warsaw Drawing Class under Wojciech Gerson; he pursued it further in 1884-1885 at the Kraków School of Fine Arts under Władysław Łuszczkiewicz. He perfected his skills in the 1885-1888 period in the Parisian studio of Carolus-Duran. Staying in Paris until 1895, he developed his painting talent under the influence of contemporary artistic trends, first and foremost assimilating impressionist techniques and attitudes; he also became friends with Józef Chełmoński. During this time he made numerous artistic journeys to Italy. He visited Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and his native Ukraine many times.
In 1895, he went to Berlin to work with Wojciech Kossak on the Napoleon Forces Crossing Berezina panorama. In the field of large-format painting, he also worked for Jan Styka, creating landscape parts in the panorama of Golgotha in Lviv in 1896. In 1897 he settled permanently in Kraków, where he took over the chair of landscape painting at the School of Fine Arts, reactivated by Julian Fałat. In the same year, he was one of the founding members of the Sztuka (Art) Society of Polish Artists, an elite group assembling the most outstanding Polish artists from the three partitions and representing Polish art in the international exhibition movement. He expanded his teaching activity in 1900 by lecturing at the Tola Certowicz School of Painting and Drawing for Women.
In 1901, he joined the Polish Applied Art Society, which propagated innovative principles of typography and design in the field of fabric and furniture making. At that time, he was involved in designing theatre scenography and posters. He also created illustrations for the elite Warsaw literary and artistic magazine Chimera edited by Zenon Przesmycki. Stanisławski is considered to be the founder of the Kraków School of Landscape. As a professor at the academy in Kraków, he radically reformed the way of teaching by taking his students out of the studio in the open air; he conducted classes in the Botanical Garden and Jordan Park, painted views of Tyniec, Tęczynek, Krzemionki and Dębniki together with his students, and went to Zakopane. By teaching a direct attitude towards nature and, at the same time, searching for the metaphysical essence of being in the changing surface of natural phenomena, Stanisławski left an indelible mark on Polish landscape painting. He educated about sixty students, the most outstanding of whom are Stefan Filipkiewicz, Stanisław Kamocki, Stanisław Czajkowski, Henryk Szczygliński, Iwan Trusz, and Henryk Uziembło. Stanisławski’s artistic legacy includes only pure landscapes, devoid of staffage and literary narrative (except for a few genre rural scenes made in the early period of his career).
Looking at Poland's History Through the Prism of Art
His paintings from the 1880s and 1890s show an intensified sensitivity to fleeting atmospheric phenomena; the artist reflects a flickering play of light on close-up plants (Flowering Poppies, 1887, Mullein, 1887, Thistles Under the Sun, before 1895). The painter also analysed the luministic effects on the vast, zoned plans of the landscape stretching towards distant horizons (Proszowice Fields, 1896; Zagony, 1897; Farm-Buildings (Barns in Pustowarnia, 1898). He reproduces the vibration of the heated atmosphere with small brush strokes, subtly differentiating the texture and colliding clean spots of bright colours – warm in the sun and cold in the shade. It was then that the nocturnes were created, which would permanently enter the thematic repertoire of Stanisławski, painted with wide brushstrokes, maintained in a narrow key of browns, blues and violets, evoking a mood of melancholy and sadness (Village Garden at Dusk, 1892; Dusk, 1897). Ukrainian motifs keep returning; light reflections glide over conical hats hidden in beehives and orchards (Hives in Ukraine, 1895), they intensify the gilded, onion-shaped tops of Kyiv churches and monasteries (Saint Sophia Church in Kyiv, 1898; St. Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv, 1898).
The Painting of Polish Symbolism
The year 1900 was a decisive turning point in Stanisławski’s stylistic evolution, opening the symbolic phase of his work. Now the creator’s pantheistic attitude becomes apparent – in a modest fragment of nature, he begins to see a representation of the cosmos, a representation of the laws of the universe, the essence of which is the spiritual element. Listening to the rhythms of nature and striving to bring out its spiritual and material dualism, the artist puts the frame of the painting on top of a limp plant. In this frame, the mood and symbolic meaning of the landscape behind it is concentrated, which serves as an accompaniment to its heroic existence (Mullein after 1890; Hollyhocks – Polish Autumn, 1900; Sunflowers, 1903; Rhododendrons, 1905; Flocks, 1905). The explosion of flowering in spring orchards and parks reflects the biological vitality of nature and the joy of existence at the same time (Landscape with a Blooming Tree, after 1900; Elderflowers, 1901; Blooming Apple Trees, 1903; May – Tyniec, 1904). The silhouettes of trees in the fragmentarily captured and repeated views of Kraków’s Planty (Planty in Kraków in Spring, 1903) acquire a decorative character.
19th century polish painters
Stanisławski’s interests also include the theatre of the sky illuminated by a sunshade, saturated with sunset purple or covered with dramatically bent clouds hanging over fields frozen in silence, an infinite Ukrainian steppe, the wrinkled surface of the river or a monumental massif of the Tatra Mountains (Sky, 1902/1903; Moonlight Night, 1903; Wind, 1903/1904; Spring at Krzemionki in Kraków, 1906; Garda Lake II, 1906). The meandering Dnieper river in Stanisławski’s landscapes has a nostalgic expression, widely spilled, escaping with a wavy brushstroke far into a lowland landscape (Violet Dnieper, 1903; Cloud over the Dnieper River, 1903; Kiev – View of the Dnieper River, 1903; Blue Dnieper, 1904; Sapphire Dnieper, 1904). For Stanisławski, grain fields (Haystacks, 1903; Stacks of Grain, 1903) are as symbolically meaningful a motif as fragments of old architecture (Fortress in Verona, 1902; Belfry of the Saint Sophia Church in Kiev, ca. 1903; Waza Gate in Kiev, 1903; Siena Cathedral, 1903; San Marco Church in Venice, 1904; Helm of the St. Mary’s Tower in Kraków, ca. 1904).
In the mature phase of Stanisławski’s work there is a significant synthesis of forms. The landscape is summarised into several planes with richly textured spots of colour; its elements are defined by a fast, spontaneous brush movement. The small format of paintings created mainly on cardboard and wooden boards is also characteristic of the artist. As Zenon Przesmycki used to say: ‘Stanisławski’s small pictures become big windows on nature’.
The artist also transposes the motifs of his oil paintings into the language of colourful lithography by experimenting with various chromatic arrangements (St. Mark’s Church in Venice). By modulating colourful harmonies, he gives different expression to particular versions of his landscapes, evokes various shades of melancholy, symbolises a spiritual element that constantly rejuvenates and still penetrates nature in a different way. In his lithographs he also adapted patterns inspired by Japanese woodcuts, flattening and additively piling up composition plans, giving them an asymmetrical balance (Tyniec upon Kraków, 1903).
Originally written in Polish by Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences, November 2002, translated into English by P. Grabowski, December 2019
The Peak of Artistry: Painters from Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains