The painting was made by Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, in 1884 when the artist was twenty-seven years old and a student at the Parisian Académie Julian. The painting presents a half-naked, dark-skinned model personifying an exotic cannon of beauty, strength and womanliness. Curators from the National Museum describe the work as a magical, mysterious look of the dark eyes, and lips, which aren’t animated by a smile, express astonishment and estrangement.
The Negress by Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, 1884, oil on canvas, 64 x 50 cm, photo National Museum in Warsaw
After a seventy-years absence the 19th-century painting has been returned to the National Museum in Warsaw.
The painting, a realistic portrait study of a non-Caucasian female typical for painting at the end of the 19th century was stolen during World War II.
The painting was made by Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz in 1884 when the artist was twenty-seven years old and a student at the Parisian Académie Julian. The painting presents a half-naked, dark-skinned model personifying an exotic cannon of beauty, strength and womanliness. Curators from the National Museum describe the work as a magical, mysterious look of the dark eyes, and lips, which aren’t animated by a smile, express astonishment and estrangement. The unrestrained body of the model is shown on a background of a yellow wall of a studio. This corresponds to the reflections of light from the luxuriant golden jewellery. The sophisticated colour scheme, a mastery in portraying the textures of fabrics and an academic finish give this portrait study an exquisite character.
In a commentary published in the Gazeta Wyborcza daily Dorota Jarecka pointed out to another area of the painting’s colonial connection, an aspect that had been previously overlooked. Jarecka writes that in the painting she sees
a woman, maybe even a girl, very young and frightened, above all humiliated, with an uncovered breast, dressed in clothes resembling the attire of ancient slaves.
The painting was made during a difficult personal period for Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz. She had to bid farewell to her father at first, than to her friend Klementyna Krassowska, who helped her financially and finally to her beloved fiancé, Wojciech Grabowski. The untimely death of Bilińska at the age of thirty-six thwarted the plans of founding an artistic school for women in Warsaw, which would have been organized similarly to Parisian academies.
Until 1933 The Negress was part of the collection of the meritorious Warsaw collector Dominik Witke-Jeżewski. In August 1933 the painting was granted to the National Museum in Warsaw. The museum bought the painting in June 1939. The painting was stolen during pillages carried out in the course of World War II. It was later sold at an auction in an antique shop in Munich and became part of a private collection in the south of Germany. In 2011 it reappeared in the auction house Villa Grisebach in Berlin.
The retrieval of the work was made possible thanks to immediate actions undertaken by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and thanks to the support of the Kronenberg Foundation, which was founded by the Citi Handlowy bank. Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski ordered the Department of National Heritage of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage to urgently prepare a restitution claim, which would include a full documentation certifying the work’s origin. A thorough analysis of the painting carried out by experts from the National Museum in Warsaw confirmed the work’s authenticity. The negotiations, which were conducted through a German law firm, ended in a settlement according to which, the Polish party was to reimburse the owner of the painting. In December 2011 the money was paid and the Kronenberg Foundation covered the expenses.
The return of The Negress is an inaugural act of the long-term Program of Retrieving Works of Art, which is realized by the Foundation in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Krzysztof Kaczmar, director of the Kronenberg Foundation has declared that he hopes for further cooperation in such cases with the Ministry and that
it shall result in retrieving other objects from the ministerial list of lost works of art. The reclaimed works will be handed over to their original owners or to their legal successors.
The Negress isn’t the only gift bequeathed to the National Museum in Warsaw by the Kronenberg Foundation. In 1997 thanks to the support of the Foundation the collection of the National Museum of Warsaw was aggrandized by over one hundred and seventy pieces of silverware created in the 19th century by the finest Warsaw goldsmiths. This collection, which up to now was presented in the Kronenberg Chamber of Silverware, will be once again put on display in the newly arranged area of presentation of artistic handicraft.
The Negress is another work of art lost during World War II, which in the past few months returned to Poland, thanks to the endeavorus of the Polish Ministry of Culture. It’s also another piece, which became part of the collection of National Museum in Warsaw.
In 2009 minister Bogdan Zdrojewski allocated funds to buy Jacek Malczewski’s painting Ellenai’s Death. In July 2011, Aleksander Gierymski’s The Orange Vendor was returned to Poland after many years. Other recouped works, such as Julian Fałat's The Battue Hunt at Nieśwież and Before Going Hunting in Rytwiany were presented in Warsaw at the beginning of October 2011. Also the painting In the Painter’s Studio by Leon Wyczółkowski has also been recently returned to the museum.
As announced by Agnieszka Morawińska, the works which were lately transferred to the collections of various institutions, will be put on display during this year’s Museums at Night event and on occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the National Museum in Warsaw. The museum’s jubilee will start on the 18th of May, lasting three days.
Source: press information, PAP, wyborcza.pl