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The Henryk Sienkiewicz of Polish painting

Late October will mark the opening of an exhibition of nearly 300 works by Józef Brandt at the National Museum of Poznań, featuring oil paintings, aquarelles, studies, and drawings.

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photo: National Museum in Poznań

Late October will mark the opening of an exhibition of nearly 300 works by Józef Brandt at the National Museum of Poznań, featuring oil paintings, aquarelles, studies, and drawings.

"[He] is unparalleled in portraying the prairies, horses, feral souls of the steppes, and scenes of gore that once unfolded in these perennial battlefields. Such images speak volumes, bringing to mind ancient traditions, age-old songs, and knightly tales-in a word, all that is past and lives on merely in memory, captured by the spell of poetry! Brandt is the quintessential poet of the prairies [...]. With a stroke of a brush, he brings back to life a bygone age, resurrecting, in single scene, a world of knights and Cossacks in the viewer's mind,", said eloquently the prominent writer Henryk Sienkiewicz in his description of Józef Brandt. And just as Sienkiewicz used words to conjure up visions of Polish history, in particular the seventeenth century, Brandt "retold" that history on canvas.

Born in Szczebrzeszyn in 1841, Józef Brandt may have had little choice: if for no other reason than his background, he could not remain indifferent to the fate of Polish gentry and to Polish history. The assimilated intelligentsia family into which he was born had earned a title of nobility and the Przysługa (Favour) coat of arms. True to the family tradition, the artist's father was a doctor. The mother descended from a line of architects and was an artist in her own right, recognised sufficiently to have her paintings featured in Warsaw exhibitions. What is more, Józef Brandt's godfather was Count Andrzej Zamoyski, a political and economic activist, an advocate of "organic labour", and a November Uprising veteran. After the death of the father of the would-be artist, the count became one of the boy's guardians. He made sure, above all, that the boy would receive a thorough education. Brandt's mother's brother, Stanisław Lessl, as well as her brother-in-law, Adam Helbich, also looked after the boy's schooling and family welfare.

Young Józef's education followed the way paved by the mother's side of the family. Upon graduation from the Institute for Nobles in Warsaw, Brandt was sent off to Paris. He was enrolled in the École nationale des ponts et chaussées to become a civil engineer. Yet the family had no objections to the novice student expanding his skills and knowledge in the fields as music, singing, and painting, which turned out to have left an indelible mark on the young man. Józef Brandt began putting art ahead of the practical subjects that an engineer was expected to master. His encounter with an older, well-respected artist Juliusz Kossak put a definite end to his engineering career. Brandt chose instead to take lessons from Henryk Rodakowski and Léon Cogniet.

Upon his return to Warsaw, after he had blazed new trails in the French capital, Brandt travelled to Podolia and Ukraine with Kossak. The Tartar and Cossack folklore had now become a source of inspiration for his painting which began to gain recognition back in his home country.

Early success encouraged Brandt to spend the following few years acquiring systematic artistic training. To that end, in 1862, the artist went to Munich and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under leading figures in the field, all the while contributing to the development of the budding Polish art scene, the so-called Munich School. The time spent in Germany brought him further acclaim, as evidenced by the enthusiastic critical and popular reception of the painting Chodkiewicz at Khotyn and the purchase of Return from Vienna-Convoy for the collection of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. Brandt ended up opening a studio in Munich. Having established his reputation, he took to supporting emerging artists, especially those of Polish origins, both financially and with his guidance. Munich had become his home, even though, following his marriage to Helena Pruszakowa, he set up a studio on his wife's estate in Orońsk, near Radom, where he would spend his summers. Brandt also extensively travelled in Ukraine.

The 1870s and "80s marked an apogee in his development as an artist. It is work from this period that is featured in the exhibition Józef Brandt 1841-1915 at the National Museum of Poznań. Put on display are nearly 300 works by Józef Brandt, including the iconic Capture with a Lariat, which belongs to the Poznań collections. The theme of this painting evokes the vision from Trilogy by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The organisers of the exhibition have also reconstructed the artist's Munich studio, which affords visitors an intimate look at the workshop, where Brandt created his incredible, true-to-life, and timely compositions.

Justyna Żarczyńska

translation: Krzysztof Kotkowski

  • Józef Brandt 1841-1915
  • National Museum of Poznań
  • Poznań curator: dr Maria Gołąb
  • Design: Joanna Lewandowska
  • 28 October 2018 to 6 January 2019 (Mon. closed; 1st of November, 24th, 25th, 26th, 31st of December and 1st of January closed)

© Wydawnictwo Miejskie Posnania 2018