Wojciech Kossak was a painter who was a key representative of realist historical and military painting. He was born in 1856 in Paris and died in 1942 in Kraków.
Painter, key representative of Realist history and military painting.
Wojciech Kossak received his first drawing lessons from his father, Juliusz Kossak. He studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and the Academy in Munich, in the workshops of Alexander Strähuber, Alexander von Wagner, and Wilhelm Lindenschmit the Younger. Having completed one year of military service in Kraków’s Uhlan regiment (1876/1877), he moved to Paris, where he practised painting at École des Beaux-Arts, under Léon Bonnat and Alexandre Cabanel. In 1884, he returned to Poland and settled in Kraków, moving into his family mansion known as Kossakówka.
In 1895, he left for Berlin, in order to paint the panorama Napoleon’s Forces Crossing the Berezina, together with Julian Fałat (in collaboration with Antoni Piotrowski, Kazimierz Pułaski, Jan Stanisławski, and Michał Wywiórski); the painting, exhibited in Berlin (1896), Warsaw (1898), Kraków, Kyiv (1900), and Moscow (1901), was extremely successful and popular among the public and critics alike (a fragment of Berezina is stored at the National Museum in Poznań).
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This was one of the ventures that helped Kossak receive patronage from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who provided him with a studio in the Monbijou Palace and with numerous commissions; the artist received recognition from the courtly spheres as an excellent military and portrait painter. Having been put under the pressure of criticism from Polish journalists for profiting from cooperation with the invading kaiser, and discouraged by Wilhelm’s increasing anti-Polish policies, Kossak left Berlin in 1902. His reputation as an accomplished portraitist helped him receive profitable commissions in Vienna (1902/1904) and London (1905).
In 1907-1914, he lived in Kraków, where he was an active participant of the cultural life. In 1908, he became a founding member of the group Zero, which challenged the dominating position of the ‘Sztuka’ Society of Polish Artists; in 1909, he joined the directorate of the Society of Friends of Fine Arts, becoming its president in 1913, and remaining in this position until 1916. When World War One broke out, he was commissioned into the Austrian army, while in 1918, he served in the Polish army as a major in the third Uhlan regiment. In spite of his military duties, in 1915 he was appointed as professor of military painting at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts; he continued to work as a pedagogue until 1919.
After the war, he returned to Kraków, however, he spent a lot of time in Warsaw, where in 1921 he started renting a painting studio at the Bristol hotel, which allowed him to carry out numerous commissions. He made several trips to the United States (1920, 1927, 1928/29, 1930, 1932, 1934), where he was recognised by the elites as an exceptional portraitist. The artist travelled from Florida through New York and Chicago, to Los Angeles and Francisco, painting portraits of prominent politicians, bankers, film stars, farmers, and Poles living across the ocean. Testifying to his success was the establishment of The Kossak Art Society, aimed at promoting Kossak’s oeuvre, by Polish immigrant circles. The organisation was however mainly supported and financed by the Polish aristocracy and landed gentry, whose estates Kossak would visit together with his son, Jerzy. When the Second World War broke out, he stayed in German-occupied Kraków; he returned to his position as the president of the Society of Friends of Fine Arts, hoping to negotiate protection for Polish cultural heritage.
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Kossak was a very active participant in the exhibition movement in Poland and abroad. He received numerous awards and honourable mentions, including the Polish Academy of Learning prize, awarded by Probus Barczewski’s foundation (1914), the Knight’s Cross of the Imperial Austrian Franz Joseph Order (1898), the gold medal at the International Art Exhibition in Berlin (1899), the French Legion of Honour (1901), the gold medal at the International Exhibition in Munich (1906), and the Art Award of the Capital City of Warsaw (1933, 1937). In 1923, he was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta.
Wojciech Kossak cemented his place in the Polish history of art as the leading representative of historical and military painting (Olszynka Grochowska, 1886-1887). The fundamental feature of his creative approach – largely influenced by his father, Juliusz – was patriotism, apparent in the series of paintings dedicated to the November Uprising of 1831 (November Night, 1898, General Sowiński at the Ramparts of Wola, 1922), liberation battles of the Legions during the First World War (Charge of Rokitna, 1916), and the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 (Horse Battery Take Your Positions!, 1938). The artist painted a pantheon of great Polish leaders, from Władysław Łokietek (Łokietek and Florian Szary after the Battle of Płowce, 1909), through Władysław Jagiełło (Grunwald, 1931), Jan Sobieski (Polish Hussars Before Jan III at Vienna, 1924), Tadeusz Kościuszko (Kościuszko’s Oath at the Market Square in Kraków, 1911), and Józef Poniatowski (Józef Poniatowski at the Falenty Levee, 1913), to Józef Piłsudski (In the Stand During a Cavalry Revue in Kraków, 1934); he proclaimed the glory of the Polish military by painting the restored Polish army (Poland’s Wedding to the Sea, 1931) and monumental historiosophical visions (Uhlan Rhapsody, 1935). Just like many other Poles, he glorified Napoleon in his mind (Long Live the Emperor!, 1914), reinforcing his myth by depicting the battles fought by him, suffered defeats, and tragic retreats (Napoleon’s Retreat from Russia, 1904). As a eulogist of Napoleon’s epic, he strived to accentuate its Polish themes (The Imprisonment of Tadeusz Tyszkiewicz During the Retreat from Moscow, 1888).
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Kossak’s art was characterised by his admiration for horses, inherited from his father. As a soldier, he was profoundly acquainted with the realities of war. He was also thoroughly educated at European academies, thus demonstrating excellent painting skills. All of this allowed him not only to be comfortable with the realist painting conventions but also to create masterful and spectacular battlefield depictions.
Kossak co-authored four panoramas: Racławice, Berezina, The Battle of the Pyramids, and Somosierra, which was abandoned in the sketch phase. As a patriot, searching for heroic achievements and glorious moments in the history of his nation, he was fully predisposed to creating monumental historical paintings with dynamic, multi-layered action, embedded in a naturalistically reproduced landscape, and scrupulously representing bygone times, attire details, weapons, and military crafts.
A separate category in his painting output included hunting scenes, derived from the Munich art traditions, which referred to visual conventions employed by Juliusz Kossak and Maksymilian Gierymski (Imperial Hunting in Gödöllö, 1887; Par Force Hunting Chez Józef Potocki in Antoniny, 1909). In his series of genre scenes, mostly showing soldiers flirting with ladies, Kossak shined a light on his gift of observation of everyday events, revealing his dexterity in representing episodic scenes with a touch of humour (Trumpeter and a Blacksmith’s Wife, 1909, Wooing, 1927).
Kossak, criticised for ‘serial production’ of his paintings, i.e. creating increasing amounts of copies and compositional variations towards the end of his life, adopted a radically conservative position on the Polish art scene of the 1920s and 30s, standing in opposition not only to the avant-garde but also to the traditionalists propagating the idea of national art: Władysław Skoczylas and Władysław Teter. He created many of his late works in collaboration with his son Jerzy; he even signed some paintings conceived by Jerzy.
The thematic repertoire of his oeuvre was complemented by numerous self-portraits, idealised pictures of aristocratic and gentry women (Portrait of Zofia Hoesick, 1909), representational portraits of state dignitaries (Marshal Józef Piłsudski on Horseback, 1928), and of members of the financial elite and the intelligentsia.
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national museum in warsaw
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Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, January 2005, translated with edits by AM, February 2016
All work titles are the editor’s translations from Polish.