Maksymilian Gierymski was a Munich-based painter and draughtsman, the greatest representative of the so-called Munich school and a precursor of realism in Polish painting of the second half of the 19th century. He was born on 9th October 1846, and he died in Bad Reichenhall on 16 September 1874.
Painter and draughtsman, the greatest representative of the so-called Munich school and precursor of realism in Polish painting of the second half of the 19th century.
After the failure of the uprising, Gierymski managed to avoid the Russian authorities’ reprisals and he began to study at the Mathematics and Physics Faculty of the Warsaw Main School. He later attended drawing lessons for a few months, where he most probably learned under Rafał Hadziewicz and Chrystian Breslauer. He was disappointed with the quality of the artistic education offered by the Warsaw professors and, in 1865, he gave up further studies and decided to work on his own. In this period he became an acquaintance of Juliusz Kossak, who was staying in Warsaw. Kossak helped Gierymski in unlocking the secrets of painting techniques.
In 1867, Gierymski received a government scholarship and went to Munich. There, having Juliusz Kossak's recommendation, he quickly befriended a group of Polish artists centred around Józef Brandt. During the Munich period, Gierymski was especially close friends with Adam Chmielowski, a former colleague from the Polytechnical Institute in Puławy who had also participated in the January Uprising. Long discussions with Chmielowski about art influenced the shaping of Gierymski’s aesthetic views. Until the autumn of 1868, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts under Alexander Strähuber and probably also under Herman Anschütz. At the turn of 1867 and 1868 he began to learn at the private workshop of the then-famous battle painter Franz Adam. From May 1868, Maksymilian was accompanied in Munich by his brother Aleksander, who also undertook artistic studies there. Maksymilian became a member of the Munich Kunstverein the same year.
Around 1869, Gierymski, aged just 23, reached artistic maturity and developed his own completely individual painting style. The successes he had at the 1st International Exhibition of Art in Munich and the international exhibition at the Viennese Kunstverein in 1869 (Gierymski’s work was bought for the collection of Emperor Franz Joseph) were noticed by the press and art professionals, and resulted in an increase of collectors’ interest in the creations of the young Pole. In Poland, however, Gierymski’s works (which the artist regularly sent to exhibitions at the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts and the Kraków Society of the Friends of Fine Arts) were most often received with indifference and even criticized by the conservative parts of the artistic community. Because of this, in 1870, Gierymski eventually decided that he would no longer participate in exhibitions organized in partitioned Poland. In Munich, customers hurried to buy his works and at the same time, the number of commissions from people from London, Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg and other European cities was constantly growing. Another sign of his growing fame were the successes he enjoyed at international exhibitions. At the Universal Exposition in Vienna in 1873, Gierymski was awarded a gold medal, and in 1874 he was accepted as a member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin.
In the years 1870-72, the artist spent his summer vacations in partitioned Poland, in 1871, together with his brother, he travelled for the first time to Italy. From 1873, because of a developing lung illness, Maksymilian chiefly stayed in spa towns in Meran and Bad Reichenhall. In the end of that year he left for Rome with his brother, hoping to settle down there. Weakened by his illness and unable to paint any more, Maksymilian began to keep a diary, in which he wrote down his thoughts and reflections on art.
Gierymski’s painting activity, which was put to an end by his tragic, untimely death, was the first such consistent manifestation of realistic tendencies in Polish painting and became a very strong impulse of change in the understanding of the role of art and the criteria of evaluating art. This change broke with the ossified academic doctrine. Gierymski’s creations inspired young painters and critics, above all Stanisław Witkiewicz and Antoni Sygietyński, to undermine the dogma about the patriotic or moral duties of Polish art which assumed that content is more important than artistic form. Wanting to faithfully convey the look of nature and people living in nature, and to suggestively depict atmospheric, colour and light phenomena, he was capable of giving a painting a superior value, determining an aesthetic and not ideological evaluation of the given work.
Among the early works by Gierymski, the two versions of A Camp of Gypsies (1867/68) deserve special attention. These paintings are a foretaste of the kind of landscape genre paintings characteristic of the artist’s later creations, in which the title motifs are completely subordinate to the atmospheric, emotional visions of landscapes. Here we see vast meadows with a low horizon, shrouded in evening fog that blur the contours of forms, creating an aura of mystery and ambiguity. In both versions of A Camp of Gypsies the artist showed his contemplative stance toward the world, and his tendency to inwardly experience sensations received by the senses.
In 1869, Gierymski’s mature painting style took its final shape and the basic themes of his works became fixed. These themes included landscapes, genre scenes, military scenes in landscapes, and from 1870, hunting scenes decorated in the rococo style. At this time the artist definitely broke with anecdotal painting, which he had referenced in the earlier periods of his creative activity (for example Returning without the Lord
/ Powrót bez pana
, 1868; A Ukranian Soiree
/ Wieczornica Ukraińska
; 1869). Landscapes with subtly differentiated colour and light nuances became the true heroes of Gierymski’s paintings. In his works, as if in a mirror, we see nature that hasn’t been stylized in a painterly way or subordinated to some preconceived compositional concept. The nature shown in his paintings is modest and monotonous, but at the same time monumental in its beauty and simplicity.
In Gierymski’s landscapes one may find reflections of views from the Mazowsze region which the painter remembered in his youth. These works usually present vast flat plains with low horizons, scanty vegetation and cloudy skies. In these “clear” landscapes, devoid of human presence and characteristic of the early period of his artistic activity in Munich (1868-70), he tried to capture on canvas the variations of light over the day, which influenced the atmospheres and colour schemes of these paintings. Confirmation that he had such a principle can be found in the authorial titles of his works: Landscape at Sunrise
, Afternoon Landscape
/ Krajobraz popołudniowy
, Landscape at Sunset
/ Pejzaż o zachodzie słońca
. These aren’t, however, the works of a cold-hearted observer objectively recording only the outer layers of real phenomena, but of a painter with a unique sensibility and a highly creative imagination. The sketchy generalizing technique of Gierymski’s landscapes was a new phenomenon in Polish painting, but as a manifestation of “foreign” innovation this technique aroused strong opposition from Polish critics.
Another cornerstone of Gierymski’s artistic development was the painting A Townsman’s Funeral / Pogrzeb mieszczanina (also known as A Funeral in a Small Town / Pogrzeb w małym miasteczku, 1868, missing). The original composition of this painting draws attention – the funeral procession is moving away from the viewer, into the depth of the painting’s space. This compositional device, combined with the artist’s vague characterization of the shown persons and the elimination of superfluous details, testifies that the artist accentuated the painting structure rather than the anecdotal sphere. The almost monochromatic, brown-grey colour scheme of this autumn landscape with a cloudy sky strengthens the movingly sad atmosphere of this scene. With A Townsman’s Funeral, Gierymski started a trend of creating scenes presenting the everyday monotony and dullness of neglected, provincial towns. He inspired dozens of imitators and continuators, mainly among the Polish representatives of the Munich school.
After 1870, the fresh observations and emotions linked to Gierymski’s visits to his native land resulted in other works by the artist with similar themes (In Front of a Cemetery / Przed cmentarzem, a sketch, 1870; Jews Praying on Sabbath, 1871; Winter in a Small Town / Zima w małym miasteczku, 1872; Spring in a Small Town / Wiosna w małym miasteczku, 1872). In these paintings, devoid of anecdotal descriptiveness, the whole genre quality of the topic was subordinated to the creation of a suggestive vision of a simple landscape without natural picturesqueness and of the lives of people which take place within this setting. The artist produced this effect by somehow unifying all the elements of the composition – small scenes involving people, urban buildings, and nature are all equally important here and give the whole an appearance of completely random scenery observed in nature. The leafless trees, the cloudy skies, the dirty walls of houses and the colourless clothes of the characters strengthen the impression of melancholic reverie which these paintings convey. In these paintings, colours receive an autonomous value and seem to be harmonized into one general tone that organizes the whole concept of the canvas.
For many years, Gierymski experimented with turning light, dimness and darkness into painting matter with a sensually detectable musical harmony of tones. This experimenting was crowned with the creation of the painting Night / Noc (1872-73), which shows a village in the dreamy quiet of a summer night. The moon isn’t visible but its light permeates the atmosphere and brings out the shadows of trees which fall diagonally across the edge of the road. The effect of the darkness-shrouded characters slowly moving away from the viewer ideally matches the mysterious, nostalgic atmosphere of this painting. The imprecise outlines of the forms disappearing in the darkness are subordinate to the expression of the painted nocturne, which leaves a lot of room for the viewers’ imagination and their ability to clarify the painting’s motifs and to link the piece to their own reflections and emotions.
Around 1869, Gierymski also devised a unique compositional formula revolving around military insurgent themes. Despite being strongly influenced by Franz Adam, Gierymski never became a battle painter. The Pole, with his sensitive nature, wasn’t interested in the noise of battle, the brutal violence and the heroism of fighting soldiers which other painters of his times depicted so wilfully. He did however show, with great poise and compassion, the dull, everyday reality of soldiers – slow marches, horse patrols, stops at poor country farmsteads and forest camps (Kuban Cossack Scouts / Zwiad kozaków kubańskich, 1868/69; An Insurgent Scene at Night / Scena powstańcza w nocy, around 1869; Night Search / Rewizja nocna, 1871-72). His youthful memories from 1863 were coming back to him. He was capable of transferring them to canvases, with an authenticity that moves with the tragic truth about those days. In an analogic way, he created scenes referring to the times of the November Uprising, in which he accentuated not the historical-documentary values but the tiresome, toilsome character of a soldier’s life (A March of Polish Cavalrymen in 1830 / Pochód Ułanów Polskich w 1830, around 1869; A Staff Adjutant from the Year 1830 / Adiutant sztabowy z 1830 roku, around 1869). Being faithful to his style, he presented Polish insurgents, Russian Cossacks and Austrian hussars similarly. Just as important as the anonymous, nameless figures of soldiers are the landscapes. Most often set in autumn or winter, they constitute not only a background for the depicted events but also the world of the portrayed people which determines the conditions of these people’s fight and their everyday lives.
One of the greatest works by Gierymski is Insurgent Patrol / Patrol powstańczy (1873). The content of this work is very simple – the titular group of scouts has most probably noticed signs of Russian military presence in the distance; one of them has turned around to alert the insurgent unit that is only just visible on the horizon. The tension in the gestures and movements of the anonymous characters of this scene suggests the expected drama – the inevitable skirmish with the enemy. Next to the soldiers there happens to be a peasant – a defenceless, passive participant of the events of the uprising. The monotony of the landscape – the endless space of the sky, the poor sandy land and the road leading into the distance – is emphasized by the colour scheme consisting of toned down ochres, greyish green and blue. The effect produced by the use of these colours and the pale autumn light is completely subordinate to the main idea of the painting, which expresses itself through the atmosphere of sad reverie tinged with the bitter consciousness of defeat and the lost hopes for regaining independence.
The strength of Gierymski’s artistry turned this scene into a symbolic vision of the troubles and dangers of life in an insurgent unit. He gave this ordinary, often-recurring situation the dimension of a painted metaphor, generalizing the youthful experiences of a whole generation of Poles.
A separate part of Gierymski’s creative activity was the making of stylized rococo hunting scenes which were very popular with collectors. The stylization of these scenes was the reason for which the German’s called them zopfs (“Zopf” in German means “wig”, “braid”). The first impulse to create such scenes was given by the painting A Duel Between Tarło and Poniatowski / Pojedynek Tarły z Poniatowskim (1869, missing) which was most probably painted under the influence of Jędrzej Kitowicz’s book Diaries / Pamiętniki. The presentation of this work at the 1st International Exhibition of Art in Munich in 1869 drew the attention of critics and brought the young Gierymski acclaim and fame nearly overnight.
Compared to other painters of those times, the Polish artist also presented hunting themes in a completely unique way. He never painted galloping horses or rushing packs of dogs, and he never tried to convey on canvas the turmoil and dynamics of hunting par force. The topics of his paintings most often are cavalcades of horse riders accompanied by packs of dogs, which are shown on backgrounds of autumn groves and fields (A Horse Cavalcade in Brzezinka / Konna kawalkada w Brzezince, 1870-71; Returning from a Hunt II / Powrót z polowania II, 1872; Leaving for a Hunt / Wyjazd na polowanie, 1871; Resting during a Hunt / Odpoczynek na polowaniu, 1872). For Gierymski, the hunting scenes which he almost always presented from a distance of space and time were only a pretext to create bright visions of landscapes saturated with air. In these vast flat spaces, in the thin birch groves and alder forests, memories of the poor Mazowsze land are hidden, which is a moving sign of the artist’s longing for his homeland. The anonymous figures of people in elaborate rococo clothes constitute only a vivid staffage harmoniously combined with the meticulously executed, bright landscapes. It seems that the artist was only concerned with how these people looked in that one short moment of life and with their movements, fractions of seconds of which were captured on canvas and discreetly brought life to the silence of the autumn landscapes.
Most works by Gierymski give the impression of silence and lyrical or melancholic reverie. The main elements responsible for such an atmosphere are colours and light, which are usually delicate, slightly dimmed and dispersed. The artist avoided painting landscapes set in the heart of the summer which would feature bright sunlight. His favourite times of the year were the pre-spring time of thaw and autumn – grey and misty or warm and clear, as in A Horse Cavalcade in Brzezinka
. In this context the last painting by Gierymski, A Hunt Par Force for a Deer
/ Polowanie par force na jelenia
(1874), stands out. This piece emanates some cheerful, vital force which we sense in the dynamic movements of the riders and in the clear, colourful and bright landscape. This stands in contrast to the artist's situation at the time of the making this painting -- in those days he was weakened by illness.
Maksymilian Gierymski was the first Polish painter capable of finding beauty and poetry in the everyday prose of life, the dull mundane reality of provincial towns, poor and sad autumn landscapes constituting backgrounds for tired soldiers or elegant riders of the rococo era. The world captured on his canvases was most often a warm recollection of his homeland, filtered through the imagination of a realist painter with a masterful technique. Gierymski closely observed his surroundings, he made use of precise sketches and photographs of motifs or posing models, he finished certain details with the precision of a miniaturist, nevertheless his works were never solely imitations of nature but “imitations of the world” born from personal emotions. This representative of the generation of positivists, who had been fascinated with Polish romantic poetry from his childhood days and admired Artur Grottger’s works, was both calmly rational and romantically sensitive and emotional. His artistic stance was characterized by a total lack of ostentation – Gierymski never dramatized, strengthened expression or imposed himself on the viewer; his paintings combine subtlety of form and power of expression, a personal contemplative approach to nature and faithfulness in the reproduction of nature.
Author: Ewa Micke-Broniarek, The National Museum in Warsaw, December 2004.
Translated by: Marek Kępa