#photography & visual arts
In 1875, when Stanisław Witkiewicz painted The Pasture, the 24-year-old artist was at the beginning of his career. In the scene depicting a shepherdess with a lamb, elements of realism, of which Witkiewicz soon became the main spokesman, are combined with genre sentimentalism, which was popular in painting at the time.
As a painter, Stanisław Witkiewicz reached the peak of his capabilities in the 1890s. Tatra Mountains Nocturnes are the most characteristic and mature works in his oeuvre. No wonder – Witkiewicz’s best landscapes were created at the same time as his book On the Mountain Pass, which is after moving from Warsaw to Zakopane.
In 1875, when The Pasture was created, the future great promoter of the Tatra Mountains had come to Warsaw from Munich, where he’d been studying. The image of a young shepherdess resting on a stone field under a heavy, leaden sky, tenderly turning to one of her sheep, was once also known as Friends. Here, he is far from the realism and expressiveness of his later, captivating literary descriptions of pastoral culture from On the Mountain Pass. In the mid-1870s, Witkiewicz looked at the countryside through the canvases of other painters rather than directly outdoors.
He was not the only one. Franciszek Ejsmond, who specialised in rural genre scenes, even brought a rural village into town by arranging his painting studio in the likeness of a peasant room. One could distinguish themselves from other painters in various ways – the motif of child shepherds triumphed especially in the 1870s, appealing to the tastes of both bourgeoisie audiences and art critics. A violin, for example, in the hands of the depicted character, was enough to move every heart.
However, the longer Witkiewicz stayed in the city, the more discouraged he became. In Munich, he noted:
Let’s take a walk in any German city – everything is colourless, worn out, badly copied, careless. Everyone is acting at their own discretion, but not according to their own strong, mentally rich predilection, only according to the laws which are prescribed in advance by hastiness and the general desire for comfort.
When he arrived in Warsaw, he didn’t fare much better. Apart from escaping into idyllic paintings of shepherds, Witkiewicz tried to use every possible opportunity to go cross the River Wisła to at least taste a substitute of rural life. In Witkiewicz’s writing, the intensity of his strolls around Warsaw’s Praga grows almost to the ranks of his future expedition to the Tatra Mountains:
We fled [...] to the Praga marketplace, into the crowd and the hustle and bustle of the country fair. Wading in the mud, struggling with the wind, chopped by the rain, we enjoyed the violence of the boisterous life, all this fabulously typical, original, so very familiar countryside vibe. Here, it mixed with the city and stood against it with its tribal features and cosmopolitan forms of urban life. We escaped beyond Praga, into the swamps and rags overgrown with reed which cut into the sand of Siekierki [...].
Another thing that still resounds in the motif of young shepherds is the 18th-century sentimentalism straight out of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s paintings. However, in the 19th century, it was additionally filtered through social-oriented realism. The theme of young shepherds appears in the works of, among others, Wandalin Strzałecki and Stanisław Masłowski (promoter of the Ukrainian countryside), but it was also applied by the leading painters of the epoch – Witold Pruszkowski and Józef Chełmoński.
The influence of the latter can also be felt in Witkiewicz’s painting, in which conventional tenderness is balanced by elements of realism – the dirty feet of the shepherdess and the austerity of the stone landscape. The future creator of the Zakopane style not only valued Chełmoński as a painter but also had a close and friendly relationship with him. In the year The Pasture was created, the two painters even shared studios – first in Munich and later in Warsaw.
In the same year, in 1875, Stanisław Witkiewicz also made his debut as a critic. Together with Maksymilian Gierymski, in the journal Opiekun Domowy, he defended Chełmoński as he was harshly criticised by Henryk Struve. His first polemical text was ahead of his own painting, but he took the first steps towards becoming the leading theoretician and defender of realism in Polish art.
Author: Piotr Policht