#photography & visual arts
In his depiction of one of the most important Jewish holidays, Aleksander Gierymski portrayed not only the unusual atmosphere of prayer but also the melancholy of Warsaw’s poorest district.
The Feast of Trumpets, painted in 1884, depicts a river port at dusk. In the glow of the setting sun, among the fog and smoke from the bonfire, the painter shows the silhouettes of praying Jews gathered on the shore. The work’s title and the fact that the scene takes place on the river indicate that the artist captured the ritual of Rosh-ha-Shan, popularly known as ‘the feast of trumpets’. It is one of the most important Jewish holidays – the Hebrew New Year. This festive day begins with the sound of simple wind instruments made of lamb horns (which explains its name). Another custom is a trip to the river, into which the participants throw crumbs stashed in their pockets. This gesture is supposed to symbolise cleansing oneself of sins in order to enter the New Year properly.
In his painting, Aleksander Gierymski presented the moment of prayerful meditation during the ritual of ‘shaking off’ the sins. He created a total of three versions of this scene. The first comes from 1884 and is in the collections of the National Museum in Warsaw. The second, painted four years later, disappeared during World War II, and the third – dated 1890 – is kept in the National Museum in Kraków. Both preserved paintings depict a place in Warsaw that is easy to locate. The Feast of Trumpets from 1884 presents a part of the Wisła’s riverfront in Warsaw, near the New Town. This can be determined thanks to the bridge visible in the foreground. It is a railway crossing, which at that time was near the Citadel (in the vicinity of today’s Gdansk Bridge).
The Wisła’s ports and the districts located near the river were well known to the painter. Aleksander Gierymski (b. 1850) and his older brother, also a painter, grew up in Warsaw's Ujazdów – the father of the future artists was an officer in Ujazdowski Hospital. Aleksander’s childhood, spent at the Wisła’s banks, turned out to have a great influence on his work – the river bank was the main theme of his paintings created in the capital. And although he spent most of his life abroad, the years 1879-1888, when he lived in Warsaw, are considered to be the most mature and interesting period of his work.
At the end of the 19th century, the riverside districts of the left-bank Warsaw – Powiśle, Solec and the areas at the base of the Old and New Town – were the city’s poorest regions. Nevertheless, they were bustling, full of life and a unique atmosphere and this is what Aleksander was looking for the most. He was a painter of light and mood. Although his works seem realistic, they do not document authentic events but offer a picturesque vision of them. They translate these events into emotions, impressions, and atmosphere, built with the help of light reflections and colours. This is perfectly visible in The Feast of Trumpets, where luminous effects, colours, and tonal impressions are critical. With their help, Gierymski composed an exceptionally atmospheric scene of religious gravity but also melancholy, characteristic both of the epoch in which he lived and of the poverty he observed. In the shadows of the setting sun, the painter hid not only the prayerful focus but also the stillness that usually accompanies the collapsing twilight. He conveyed the mood of the riverside area and the people living there, perfectly combining the theme with the utilised technique. No element in the painting is accidental – even the seemingly chaotic arrangement of figures, boats and rafts is, in fact, a calculated composition based on oblique lines.
polish painting 19th century
An attentive viewer will notice many intriguing elements in the painting – whether it is a man watching the praying Jews, or the rafter playing the accordion, disrespectful of the ceremony. The background of the painting shows not only a bridge but also a train rushing over it – it seems to be the only element of the composition which is in motion and seems not to fit the rest of the static scene. Aleksander Gierymski, apart from his great sensitivity to mood, was fascinated by the modern achievements of civilisation, such as the steel bridges and trains passing through them. According to researchers, it was precisely for this reason that the painter decided to cut the background of the painting in two by introducing a speeding steam locomotive. The artist’s passion for bridges can also be easily seen in his other works – river crossings can be found in every Warsaw painting by Gierymski. Even the famous old woman from the Orangery painting stands against a background showing the balustrade of Kierbedzia Bridge.
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, translated by P.Grabowski, September 2019