#photography & visual arts
The last of Józef Brandt’s paintings dealing with the theme of the royal procession from Wilanów is also one of Brandt's last great compositions, in which all the accumulated strengths and weaknesses of his skills are displayed.
Brandt began work on Departure from Wilanów of John III Sobieski and Marysienka in 1894 and finished it three years later in May, 1897. He probably had a slight delay in his original plans, which assumed that the painting would be completed in 1896 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of John III Sobieski. In any case, the completion of the work was celebrated with a banquet arranged by the painter's Munich friends.
Brandt had already began to make extensive preparations for the theme during his work on the first version of Departure from Wilanów. In 1882-1883 he painted a relatively small version of this scene, and a moment later the first monumental canvas emerged. It may have been planned to be made on time for an anniversary – this time the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Vienna – but even then it turned out to be a year late. In 1884, Brandt probably abandoned his work on the painting – some parts were never finished, the painter did not sign it and never exhibited it during his lifetime. In a photograph documenting the unfinished image, an oil sketch was created which fundamentally changed several elements of the composition, probably in preparation for the next approach to the theme.
The last version, made a decade later, differs significantly in terms of composition and mood from the earlier attempts at the same motif. Wilanów Palace is visible in the depths of the painting in a frontal view. The scene, illuminated by the glow of a torch, is set at dusk, accompanied by an even more crowded procession.
Polish History in Paintings (Part 1)
Many years of preparations and notes let the painter avoid historical mistakes. The front view of Wilanów Palace was reconstructed by Brandt based on a photograph taken by Konrad Brandl. The problem was that it depicted the building in its 19th-century form, extended since the times of Sobieski’s reign. On the other hand, the sledge in which the royal couple sits is a fully conscious anachronism. Although they were painted in a historical style, they are in fact sledges from Brandt’s time – and not just any sledges, because they belong to Ludwig II of Bavaria. The painter used a photograph to reconstruct them – it was shot especially for him at the royal stables in Munich, which were accessible to visitors.
This anachronistic contemporary element sheds light on the potential sources of the historical composition. It is possible that the painter residing in Munich may have been inspired by the famous night sleigh rides of the Bavarian ruler who went down in history as Ludwig the Madman and the Fairy Tale King. His processions were presented by contemporary German painters without a historical costume while Brandt seems to have decided to Polonise the motif for patriotic purposes.
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With Departure from Wilanów of John III Sobieski and Marysienka, the artist who was accused of superficial ‘open air’ attempts at depicting atmospheric effects, decided on a formal experiment never seen before in his paintings. He achieved the pink glow enveloping the scene by covering the prepared canvas with powdered copper. X-ray examination of the image also revealed some changes in the composition introduced in the last stage of the works, the most noticeable of which was the addition of two black-skinned henchmen at the head of the procession, dynamising the composition.
Although Brandt, as the leader of the Polish ‘Munich painters’, enjoyed considerable authority throughout his life, his fame peaked in the 1870s and 1880s when he was one of the leading European painters of battles. In 1897, the star of the greatest living historical painter was already dying out. In earlier years, Stanisław Witkiewicz and Antoni Sygietyński, authors promoting realism, with which Brandt was sometimes wrongly associated, made critical comments on Brandt's painting. In the 1890s even more critical voices surfaced. When Brandt spent three years working on Departure…, the subsequent stages of his work were reported in the press, including the widely read Tygodnik Ilustrowany, in which Kazimierz Tetmajer was delighted with the unfinished picture. He wrote that it was characterized by ‘strength and firmness of colour and a delicious formation’ and claimed it was ‘a great composition indeed’. However, when the finished painting was exhibited at Zachęta in 1897, much colder reactions could be heard. Michał Mutermilch accused it of ‘no harmony of arrangement’, while Marian Wawrzycki stated it ‘lacked movement, verve and life’.
The critics’ lack of enthusiasm went hand in hand with unsuccessful negotiations on the sale of the painting. Although several Polish collectors were interested in it, the canvas was eventually handed over to Brandt's daughter as a wedding gift. The gift was so monumental that there was no place for it in the palace of the newly-weds. They donated it to the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. Stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War, it was recovered in 1956. One year later it was added to the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.
Originally written in Polish by Piotr Policht
Polish History in Paintings (Part 2)