One of the most famous painters, graphic designers, and fresco painters of the Baroque period working in Silesia. He was born in Królewiec on the 26th of September 1630 and died on the 26th of August 1706 in Lubiąż.
Michael Lucas Leopold Willmann was born into an impoverished artistic family of the Calvinist denomination. His father Peter Willmann was a local painter, probably a master craftsman. It was at his workshop that Michael started his artistic education. Circa 1650 he left for Amsterdam to continue his studies. He could not, however, afford to pay for his education in one of the prestigious workshops of renowned masters, such as Rembrandt van Rijn. Thus, he was forced to study the works of the masters on his own, in particular the already mentioned Rembrandt as well as Peter Paul Rubens and Anton van Dyck. He would study their works in the collections available in Amsterdam or in the painting workshops of local artists, who would often use paintings by famous masters as models. He would also copy Italian paintings which he considered as the keystones of his education. Yet, the artist's sketch-like painting style deeply saturated with light was fashioned after Rembrandt.
The artistic journey of Michael Willmann lasted as long as ten years (that is about five times longer than a journey of a "typical" painter of those days). In the second half of the 1650s Willmann arrived at the court in Prague. Although at that time there weren't as many renowned artists as during the reign of Rudolph II, their masterpieces were still kept there.
Finally, on the 21st of October 1660, Willmann came to Lubiąż at the invitation of Arnold Freiberger, abbot of the Cistercian Monastery. Two years later, he married Helena Regina Liška nèe Schultz, a widow of a clerk of the Lubiąż curia. Being under a strong influence of Freiberger as well as the Silesian mystic Angelius Silesius, Willmann converted to Catholicism in 1663. It is assumed, however, that the real spiritual transformation of the artist took place several years later.
Since the beginnings of his career in Lubiąż Willmann ran a workshop dedicated mostly to the Cistercians. He received commissions from the abbots of this monastery: Johannes Reich and Ludwig Bauch. During the first year of his stay in Lubiąż Willmann painted "The Vision of Saint Augustine". Yet, it was the series of paintings entitled "The Martyrdom of the Apostles" started in 1661 and destined for the monastery's church that won him renown (today two paintings of the series, "The Crucifixion of Saint Peter" and "The Beheading of Saint Paul", are kept in the Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church, while the remaining seven in the All Saints Church in Warsaw). Those gigantic works feature scenes painted in a highly expressive style following a specific manner modelled after Rembrandt. The technique was based on a sketch-like outlining of figures, animals and background and adding details depending on the need, that is the painting's destination or its size. Such painting style also provided for a quick creation of a large number of works in a short time. It is noteworthy that at the beginning stage of his career Willmann worked on his own.
With time, the painter's workshop expanded quite considerably, but it always remained a family enterprise. As Willmann was not a member of any guild, he was allowed to have more than two assistants. He employed: his stepson Johann Christoph Liška, his son Michael Leopold the Younger, his daughter Anna Elisabeth, and later also his grandson Georg Wilhelm Neunhertz as well as two undetermined Tyrolese workmen.
Thanks to a considerable number of commissions Willmann grew rich quickly and as early as in 1687 he bought an estate at the Winna Góra Hills in Lubiąż. He could also afford to sponsor his stepson's trip and education in Italy as well as provide for large dowries to his daughters. When Liška returned from Italy, the elements of the Italian style modelled after the compositions by Pietro da Cortona began to appear in Willmann's paintings. It is probable that Liška brought sketches of the paintings of the Italian master.
In the 1670s and 1680s Michael Willmann was already a famous painter recognised for his artistic achievements. At that time, he started to receive commissions from outside Lubiąż. In 1678 he painted a portrait of Bernhard Rosa, the abbot of the Cistercians from Krzeszów, with whom he used to cooperate on numerous occasions. Among his commissioners were: the Protestant City Council of Wrocław; Frederick William I, Elector of Brandenburg; and last but not least the affluent Nostitz family for whom Willmann painted a large number of works for their chapel in the palace in Luboradz. At that time, the first paintings for the Cistercian Abbey in Henryków were created.
Willmann developed as an artist in the late 1680s and 1690s when he tried his hands as a fresco painter. The first commission was for the ornamentation of the vault of the dining room of the abbot in the monastery in Lubiąż featuring "The Triumph of the Hero of the Virtues" and fourteen emblems. The artist's fresco painting style bears resemblance to his easel painting with its sketch-like body modelling, brown tones of gently outlined backgrounds and dynamically presented events exposed at the forefront with the use of light.
Between 1691 and 1693 the artist painted the inside of the copulas of Saint Benedict’s and Saint Bernard's chapels in Lubiąż. However, he showed his real talent as a fresco painter while creating the complex fresco ornamentation of the Saint Joseph Church in Krzeszów. Painted between 1692 and 1696 and commissioned by the Rosa Abbot and the Brotherhood of Saint Joseph that he managed, the frescos cover almost the entire interior of the church and feature scenes related to its patron saint.
From the early 18th century, Willmann's contribution to his workshop became weaker and weaker. The reason for that were the artist's age as well as his progressive blindness. In his late works, the sketching technique becomes dominant, probably due to the disease. Johann Christoph Liška provided a growing support for the workshop. Also, other temporary co-workers contributed such as Johann Jacob Eybelwieser from Vienna (who used to work in Vienna later in his career) and Johann Kretschmer from Głogów.
Michael Willmann died on the 26th of August 1706 at the age of 76. Many works following his painting style were painted after the death of the master by his students. Liška and Neunhertz painted the largest number of them (including paintings on canvas and frescos, also in the territory of Poland). It seems, however, that the artist’s fame was so grand that he was copied by many painters who were not directly associated with his circle but who only had access to a large number of the works by "the Sillesian Apelles".
Today Willmann is considered to be the greatest painter of the Baroque period in Silesia. He was closely associated with the Counter-Reformation movement and the subsequent Mysticism. His works are exhibited in many museums and monasteries, mostly in Poland and Czech Republic, but also in Germany, France, Austria, Romania and Hungary.
Willmann modelled his compositions after the paintings by Rubens, van Dyck and da Cortona, which he was familiar with. Often, he would first copy only specific fragments of these paintings and then make them into his own composition, which was original to a certain extent. The painting style of the Silesian artist was undoubtedly an innovative one as it was based on the workshop of Rembrandt only in terms of general rules. The distinctive features of Willmann’s workshop were his sketching technique and the related adjustment of details depending on the needs. Although slightly modified, this method was also used by his first students: Liška, Anna Elisabeth Willmann and his son Michael. Willmann applied the sketching technique mostly to the background, at which he would feature the contours of a specific object in a few strokes of paintbrush and omit further details. The paintings and frescos of the Silesian painter also show the artist's liking for the depiction of animals, mostly horses, donkeys and camels featured in the paintings from "The Martyrdom of the Apostles" series and in the frescos in Krzeszów.
Author: Jakub Jagiełło, March 2011