Teodor Axentowicz was a painter, illustrator, and graphic artist. He was one of the leading representatives of Young Poland’s art inspired by Polish folklore and a creator of salon portraits. He was born on 13th May 1859 in Brasov, Romania, and died on 26th August 1938 in Kraków.
Malarz, rysownik i grafik, reprezentant młodopolskiej sztuki inspirowanej rodzimym folklorem, twórca salonowych portretów.
Between 1879 and 1882, he studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in the studios of G. Hackel, S. Wagner, and G. Benczur. Between 1882 and 1895 he continued his artistic studies in Paris under E. A. Carolus-Duran. He has also collaborated as an illustrator with the widely read Parisian magazines Le Monde Illustré, L’Illustration and Figaro. He also earned his living making copies of paintings by old masters such as Botticelli, Titian and Hans. In 1891 he was accepted as a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Between 1890 and 1899 he went on a series of artistic trips to London and Rome; in London, he painted portraits of members of the establishment on commission, while simultaneously studying traditional and contemporary English portrait painting, including works by T. Gainsborough, J. McNeill Whistler and the pre-Raphaelites.
He met members of the Polish artistic colony in Józef Chełmoński’s studio, visited Hôtel Lambert and Władysław Mickiewicz’s house (which was an ‘oasis of Polishness’). The images of famous political and cultural personalities, including Wiktor Osławski (1890), Prince Władysław Czartoryski (1892-1893), Cyprian Godebski (1893), Sarah Bernhard and Henrietta Fouquier, which were created at that time, secured his reputation as a salon portraitist. In 1894 he collaborated with Wojciech Kossak and Jan Styka on the creation of Racławice Panorama.
In 1895, he settled permanently in Kraków, where he became a professor at the School of Fine Arts. He held the post until 1934. In 1897, he founded a school of painting for women, where, among others, Wyczółkowski and Stanisławski taught. He was one of the founding members of the Sztuka (Art) Association of Polish Artists, established in 1897 and representing Polish art within the framework of the international exhibition movement. He was closely associated with the Viennese creative community as a member of the Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs-Wiener Secession and a co-worker of Ver Sacrum magazine.
In 1910, he became the first elected Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Individual presentations of Axentowicz’s work took place in Kraków (1924, 1926, 1938 - posthumously), Warsaw (1930), and Łódź (1930).
The artist exhibited his works at almost all national and international exhibitions, including St. Louis (1904), Munich (1905), London (1906), Vienna (1908), Berlin (1913), Venice (1926) and Prague (1927). He also took part in international exhibitions in Berlin (1896), Munich (1935), Rome (1911), Venice (1914), Paris (1921) and Chicago (1927). In 1909, Emperor Franz Joseph awarded him the Order of the Iron Crown of the Third Class; in 1923, he was awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta Third Class, the Commander’s Cross; in 1929, he was awarded the Medal of the Decade of Reborn Poland, and in 1936, the Commander’s Cross with Star. At the National Exhibition in Poznań in 1929, he was awarded the Grand Gold Medal.
Axentowicz’s work developed in two ways: the artist gained recognition as a portraitist and as a painter of genre scenes. His genre art has its origins in the period of his studies in Munich, when Axentowicz painted episodes from rural life in a realistic convention (A Funeral in Russia, 1882; Italian Florist, 1882; Gooseherd, 1883). He also made attempts at historical painting (Würzburg in 1811, 1884), which was conditioned by academic teaching, and illustrated the history of the Slavs of the 4th century (Funeral of the Slavic Chief; March of the Warriors; Old Slavic Rally).
The Painting of Polish Symbolism
He developed folk themes by basing them on the sketches brought from the Hutsul region, improving his realistic painting technique in the Parisian workshop of Carolus-Duran. The most famous and best-known genre paintings by Axentowicz, Holiday of Jordan (1893) and Kolomyjka (1895), were created at that time. The artist would later retrace these themes many times using oils, pastels and watercolours. The dynamics of spontaneous dance and the whirling movement of couples are evocatively reflected in Kolomyjka by a fast, spontaneous brush-like duct that draws out forms with blurred contours, subordinated to the colourful triad of white, brown and red.
After returning to Poland, Axentowicz, fascinated by Polish folklore, co-created peasantry movement of Young Poland, perpetuating the picturesque rituals and strict customs of the Hutsuls. The colourfulness of folk costumes and the elevated mood of religious rituals were manifested in ever-returning and compositionally-modified themes: Holy Ones, Na Gromniczną and Śmigus. Scenes of blessing candles, water and food are characterised by blunt images of peasant figures and faithful recreation of moral realities. Motifs such as Girl with a Gromnica, Girl with a Jug, Girl with a Bowl were also retraced several times. In Axentowicz’s paintings, Hutsul funerals and processions – long, solemn processions decorated with banners and shimmering lights of the candlesticks – run through the snow-covered Carpathian landscape, evoking a melancholic mood.
The reflection on passing is also stimulated by compositions from the mature period of Axentowicz’s work: Old Age and Youth, Old Man and a Girl, Vision – a Memory. Here, the vanitas theme took the form of an allegory personified as an old man with a realistically depicted face and a young peasant with features corresponding to the academic canons of beauty. The memories of youth are also recalled by a visionary, female face-mask. This symbolism is complemented by a gloomy aura of an autumn day; golden leaves accentuate the impermanence of being and, at the same time, introduce a stronger colour accent into the narrow range of extinguished browns, greens and greys.
Symbolic content is also conveyed by the paintings created in 1917: Star of Freedom – Bethlehem, Prayer of a Child, Reconciliation, Dream. In Axentowicz’s art, the hope for Poland to regain independence is connected with a painful feeling of the drama of war and expression of a personal tragedy after the loss of a son (Mother at the Grave of her Son, 1915; Funeral of the Legionary, Mourning, Wounded Legionary, Poland’s Tears).
By referring to contemporary events, Axentowicz returned to his interest in historical painting, which started during his studies. Between 1911 and 1912, he created the composition Polish Deputation at Henryk Walezy’s based on an oil sketch from 1900. The evidence of the fascination with the history and culture of Armenians, which was manifested by the artist’s accession to the Haiasdan Armenian Society, was the painting Baptism of Armenia (1900) and oil sketch Armenians at King Jan Kazimierz’s (1912, 1919) which preceded the 1930 composition Armenians in Poland.
Sea of Mountains: The Mysterious Hutsul Region
19th century polish painters
Axentowicz, however, became famous primarily as the creator of female portraits perfectly made in pastels. He painted images of ladies from aristocratic spheres, artistic circles and bourgeois salons, drawing inspiration from the paintings of J. Whistler, J. Sargent and G. Boldini (Portrait of a Lady in a Black Dress, 1906). By skilfully using the attributes of femininity – ball dresses, elegant hats, expensive jewellery and carnival masks – he saturated his paintings with subtle eroticism. He based his narrow range of colours on sophisticated chords of black, pink, silver white and blue; he idealised the features of subtly modelled faces.
Axentowicz’s portraits of ‘heads’ – sentimental in expression, with time falling into schematism and mannerism – were very popular: Reading Woman, Redhead, Girl with a Rose in her Hair, Dream, Girl with a Blue Jug. Children also posed for Axentowicz’s portraits (Portrait of a Girl: Strzyżów Rose, 1905). They were mostly his own, often drawn in Zakopane, where the artist and his large family lived in their own villa (The Artist’s Family, 1907). Axentowicz’s thematic repertoire also included representative oil portraits, mainly of the Polish aristocracy, including Władysław Czartoryski (1892-1893), Roman and Józef Potockis (1900), Elżbieta and Augustyn Czartoryskis, the Radziwiłłs, and Archduke Karol Stefan Habsburg.
A small part of Axentowicz’s oeuvre consisted of ornamentally over-styled still lifes with flowers and landscapes (Hut in Strążyska Valley, Evening in Zakopane, Theme from Venice). The artist also created illustrative graphics and designed posters for exhibitions of the Sztuka Association of Polish Artists (1898, 1900, 1903, 1912, 1937); he drew vignettes for the Kraków-based literary and artistic magazine Życie (Life). He was also the creator of an unrealised stained-glass project for the Armenian Cathedral in Lviv (1895). The polychrome projects he created in 1912 were made in Art Nouveau style (Golden Angel Playing the Violin, Angel with Big Wings, The Blue Angel Playing the Flute).
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, December 2002.
8 Awe-Inspiring Paintings from the Young Poland Period