With its back to the viewer, a small black dog sits close to the girl and watches the herd looming in the distance. The colours of the painting, limited to dim shades of brown and grey, emphasise the mood of the season, evoking the ambience of the end of summer. The white colour of the girl’s skirt and the yellow shade of her scarf serves as a contrast and brightens the central part of the composition.
In the history of Polish art, Józef Chełmoński has been classified as a realist who gave up costumes and historical stylisation in order to faithfully represent the surrounding reality instead. The picturesque quality characteristic of sentimental and Romantic visions of nature is hard to find in his work. There are no overlapping perspectives, drawing the attention of the viewer’s eye with attractive, diverse motifs.
In Chełmiński’s vision, the Eastern borderlands of Poland are of a peasant nature rather than aristocratic, and the landscape is not very attractive – usually it’s completely flat. The painter depicts vast Ukrainian or Mazovian flatlands. The monotony of the paintings is usually emphasised by the simplicity of the composition, accenting the horizon line. It is an exemplification of the phenomenon of landscape emancipation in Polish painting.
From around the 1870s onwards landscape ceased to simply complement the main theme. It became a motif equally important to the figures. When feeling, mood, and atmosphere become the chief aesthetic categories, it is the landscape that is going to determine the sense of the representation to a large extent. Subsequently, the autonomy of the landscape grows, turning it into an independent painting theme.
In her book about realism in art, Linda Nochlin wrote about the philosophical burden of the term and characteristics of realist painting connected to it. They include a belief in the possibility of representing reality faithfully, stemming from the conviction that there is a clear, unconditional perception. Realists made empirical observation the basis of their work. They postulated that nature should be looked at in a ‘fresh’ manner that was supposed to make abandoning the consolidated conventions of representation possible. This approach was also characterised by defiance against the academy and its norms, resulting in the stance that it is possible to perceive nature authentically and directly, and that the artist should express that perception in his works.
Realists approach towards representing time in painting was also a novelty. History was limited to a single, isolated moment, against the tradition of academic painting which ‘narrated’ the previous action and anticipated subsequent events. This would often be an insignificant bit, like in Chełmoński’s painting: a representation of a girl resting in a field, bereft of any references.
Contemporary themes were explored more eagerly than historic ones, and as a result the metaphysical element of the representation was reduced. Such an attitude was congruent with realists' scientific perspective on the world surrounding them, and the postulate to reduce painting to what can be seen with a bare eye. They would often turn to lower classes and exploit scenes from their everyday life in their work. However, in contrast with French realism, which was highly critical and engaged socially (like in the case of Gustav Courbet), Polish realists didn’t conjoin observing the lower classes with postulates to improve their life. This holds true both for Chełmoński, who was interested mostly in the connection between peasants' life and the rhythms of nature, and for Aleksander Gierymski, depicting Jews living in the Warsaw district of Powiśle chiefly because of his interest in the concept of philosophical determinism and not the positivist ideal of social solidarity.
Two branches of realism developed in Poland: the more academic one, associated with the painters studying in Munich (the so-called ‘Munich school’), and the naturalist one, represented by Stanisław Witkiewicz and critics associated with the periodical Wędrowiec. Chełmoński’s work should be linked with the latter kind. It was characterised by putting the accent on purely aesthetic qualities, especially colour. The painter would employ the convention of realism to represent the mood, the fleeting impression. It is crucial to remember that such categories were one of the most important criteria for evaluating a work at the time – they referred to the problem of the creator’s individualism and temperament, but also the viewer and the ways to impact his or her imagination. A good work would evoke an atmosphere, conjure up a vision, become the equivalent of sight as such.
Chełmoński’s works were highly appreciated by Stanisław Witkiewicz, who considered them exemplary emanations of realism in painting. According to Witkiewicz, they gave an illusion of reality and represented the impression. These qualities were not determined by the theme, because, as the critic wrote, it didn’t matter whether the painting depicted ‘King Batory during the siege of Pskov, or an ordinary peasant girl harvesting turnips’. According to Witkiewicz, only the means employed by the artist to achieve his end mattered – form, composition, colour, and light. These were they only possible criteria, and a work should be evaluated in accordance with them. Witkiewicz did not believe in any non-artistic purposes of a work; the value of a painting is only that which refers to its core directly.
Art understood in this way was to manifest truth. Paradoxically, the aforementioned truth did not stem from nature or depicted reality, but the skills of the painter. The artist was not nature’s slave, obliged to faithfully represent it with artistic means. He was to employ his skills in a way that would make an impression of direct contact with nature. The truth of art was more important than the truth of nature, because in the end ‘the painting should, most importantly, be a good painting’.
- Jerzy Malinowski, Imitacje świata, Kraków 1987
- Barbara Stępień, Artyści polscy w środowisku monachijskim w latach 1828-1855, Wrocław-Warszawa-Kraków 1990
- Linda Nochlin, Realizm, Warszawa 1974
- Stanisław Witkiewicz, Sztuka i krytyka u nas, Warszawa 1949
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, December 2010, translated by Natalia Sajewicz, July 2016
Indian Summer / Babie Lato
oil on canvas
w156 x h119.5 cm
owned by The National Museum in Warsaw