June 1, 2022

Mazovian Realism. Gerson and Chełmoński

Martyna Gąsiorowska

Realism, a naturalistic art movement that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, rose to prominence, dominating the art scene after Romanticism. Artists all over Europe shifted their artistic focus in a completely new direction, concentrating on creating faithful representations of the reality around them. Since then, nature and genre scenes enjoyed the most recognition. As the movement's propagator, Gustav Courbet, put it, the goal of the realists was to "create live art." Realists in Poland were eager to depict the lives of the lowest social groups, which were strongly tied with nature. Cities became a symbol of immorality and corruption for artists, so they turned to the virgin natural world. In Poland, Wojciech Gerson and his most talented student, Józef Chełmoński, were the main figures of realism.

Wojciech Gerson's art fits perfectly into Polish academicism and, above all, realism. The artist primarily worked in Warsaw, where he mentored a whole generation of outstanding painters, including Józef Chełmoński, Józef Pankiewicz, Władysław Podkowiński, Jan Stanisławski, and Leon Wyczółkowski. Gerson himself studied painting under profs. Jan Feliks Piwarski, Christian Breslauer, and Marcin Zaleski at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. Outdoor painting sessions, organized together with Marcin Olszaski, influenced his best works the most. The artist would travel by foot all around the country, visiting the Kielce region, the Augustów Lake District, the Lublin region, Mazovia, Kuyavia, and the Vilnius region. During these trips, he created drawings depicting the country's folklore and ethnic diversity. Next, he traveled to Lesser Poland, Podolia, and the Tatra Mountains. At that time, his interest in the objective study of reality became apparent. The artist continued his education in the studio of Leon Cogniet at the St. Petersburg Academy in Paris. The metropolis provided him with direct access to the works of old masters, who piqued his interest and encouraged him to continue creating. In the following years, Gerson opened his own studio at Miodowa Street in Warsaw, in which he worked with, among others, Józef Simmler, Józef Szermentowski, and Franciszek Kostrzewski. Together with Alfred Schouppé, he initiated the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1858. Gerson sparked an interest in landscape and national art among his pupils and put a strong emphasis on mastering studies of nature and drawing. Thanks to his teaching, young adepts of art learned to respect the painting tradition while also developing their own distinct styles. Józef Chełmoński, one of Gerson's most illustrious students and continuator of his artistic legacy, graduated from the artist's Warsaw Drawing Class.


"In the distance, the painting 'Teatime' pictures a chunk of a village. Closer to the viewer, we see thistle bushes, which had been plowed by the peasant. The scene is set against the background of blue spring clouds swirling in the sky. The exhausted oxen are sleeping, and the plowman is eating a piece of black bread while leaning against the plow. Goldfinches and sparrows are picking the grains and sitting on the thistle."

Józef Chełmoński, Wojciech Gerson, "Biblioteka Warszawska", 1902, vol. 2, p. 510.

Józef Chełmoński, one of Gerson's most talented pupils, was successful both in Poland and abroad. His art is an excellent example of realism. Like his master, the artist was fascinated with the native Polish landscape as well as its inhabitants. Chełmoński was enthralled by the world of nature, and horse motifs became recurring themes in his works. His initial education under Gerson prepared the artist to continue his studies in Munich. In Germany, Chełmoński entered the milieu of Józef Brandt and Maksymilian Gierymski, whose works influenced him greatly. The painter spent the next few years of his life in Paris, where he rose to international prominence. Chełmoński's works were exhibited at many salons, the artist also visited Austria and Italy. In France, he collaborated with a famous art dealer, Adolph Goupil, thanks to whom Chełmoński was offered many contracts and orders for his paintings. The audience in Paris admired the artist's landscape compositions as well as the dynamic horse teams, which were exotic to the French. When Chełmoński returned to Poland, he started creating atmospheric landscapes of the Polish countryside, distinguished by excellent drawing and painting mastery. Gerson's influence could be seen not only in the technical layer but also in the lyrical sphere. Chełmoński's works are filled with a melancholy and nostalgic atmosphere, which is particularly pronounced in the sunset and dusk landscapes included in the auction catalog. The painter leaned towards the synthesis of the landscape in his style, using a pantheistic approach to nature, thus establishing a new direction in Polish painting.

"The master of Polish landscape, Józef Chełmoński, sent us two beautiful fragments presenting his beloved Masovian plains, "River" and "Return from the Fields," featuring a very distinctive figure of a rural girl in the foreground."


- Zofia Skorobohata-Stankiewicz, Salon, "Bluszcz", 1912, XLVIII, No. 5, p. 56.

Our auction “Old Masters. 19th Century and Modern Art," which takes place on 9 June, includes the works by both of these painters. It is, without a doubt, an important event in the world of art and culture, as the presented paintings are of exceptional artistic quality. The offer features the composition "Teatime", also known as "Tiller", by Wojciech Gerson. The work was once owned by Count Włodzimierz Dzieduszycki and kept in Lviv, and later it was included in the collection of the Kunert family in Łódź. This scene perfectly captures the artist's style of painting and is a model example of Polish realism. Józef Chełmoński's paintings complement Gerson's artwork perfectly. The monumental landscape with staffage "Return from the Fields" from 1911 depicts the beauty of the Polish countryside. This theme is continued in three atmospheric landscape studies, all of which are tinged with melancholy and nostalgia. These views from Mazovia engage in an open dialogue with the art of European masters – the Barbizon school of painters – whom Chełmoński praised for their "purity of landscape." The presented works are prime examples of Chełmoński's artistic achievements, with the artist trying to solve the eternal mystery of nature, life, and death.