June 8, 2021

Models from paintings, stars of art history

Konrad Niemira, Tomasz Dziewicki



The auction Old Maters. 19th Century and Modern Art introduces two extraordinary portraits that depict canonical figures for the history of polish art. The rarity of the paintings by Władysław Ślewiński and Tadeusz Pruszkowski is in this case additionally enhanced by the charm emerging from the faces of Ludwik Kościelniak and Zofia Katarzyna Pruszkowska.


The key to understanding the painting are two tiny human figures connected with a string and hung over the lattice of the gazebo. One of them is wearing pants; the second: a skirt. We are undoubtedly dealing with a couple, alike the one formed by the author and the women portrayed in the painting. The former was Tadeusz Pruszkowski, one of the most outstanding Polish painters of the first half of the 20th century; the latter, his wife: Zofia z Katarzyńskich (1887–1957), friends called her Zuza or affectionately "Zabetta".


They met, as befited by the romantic love of Belle Époque, in Paris. Pruszkowski traveled to the city of lights in 1908, after studying with Konrad Krzyżanowski at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. On the Seine, through his Polish friends, he met twenty-one-year-old Zuza, whom at the time had an adimirer in another painter: Bolesław Wieniawa. Zuza picked Pruszkowski, a decision that was a great surprise to all her friends. Pruszkowski had his charm but he was not viewed as an especially attractive man. However, they did not get married until a few years after their return to Warsaw, on January 28, 1914.

Tadeusz Pruszkowski, Melancholia, 1925, National Museum in Warsaw


Zuza, who herself was a promising painter, devoted her career to her husband at the beginning of the relationship. To patch up the home budget, she started running an artistic hat studio in Warsaw. However, she participated in the café life of the capital, the parties held at the Capital Academy, and traveled with her husband and his students to Kazimierz. It seems that she was the ringleader of many trips herself. Zuza was said to be in the habit of saying that she could live in three places in the world: Paris, Venice and Kaźmierz on the Vistula. Her and her husband's wages, however, could only allow for the latter. In Kazimierz she became known as an extremely colorful, even extravagant figure. Her friend Irena Lorentowicz in the memoirs "Enchantment" published in 1975 mentioned that Zuza used to walk around Kazimierz overdressed and wore crinolines even during the week. Together with the writer Maria Kuncewiczowa, she was also supposed to go to the market wearing only a nightgown and a hat, thus imitating the "Greek" fashion of Napoleon's time. As a friend recalled: "She was like an old novel, (...) she seemed to be a smiling portrait of herself", "a painter in a crinoline, tilting her head so gracefully to the side".


In Władysław Ślewiński's "A Boy with a Piece of Bread", the title prop on one side is a compositional addition balancing the left side of the performance. On the other hand, symbolically, it may refer to the hardships of a poor country child. The model portrayed by Ślewiński is Ludwik Kościelniak, son of Magdalena, Ślewiński's servant. According to the memories of witnesses to the life of the Ślewiński family in their second Breton period (in Doëlan), Magdalena and Ludwik grew into the local community:

"They talked with the greatest liveliness and sympathy about the servant Magdusia and her son Ludwik brought by Ślewiński (from Poronin). Madeleine was liked, popular, admired for resourcefulness, helpfulness, and the provision of recipes for strange but excellent Polish dishes. Her son, Lodovic ( who as a little boy was a model for 'Orphan from Poronin') went to the local school, studied very well, and swam even better"

(Władysława Jaworska, Władysław Ślewiński, Warszawa 1991, s. 18-19).


According to Jaworska's Breton interlocutors, Kościelniak, as a great swimmer, saved one of his friends' life, and in his mature life - apparently - he was a swimming master, and either a doorman in a Paris hotel, or an accountant. He reportedly reached Doëlan for the last time in 1932, and then the trail breaks off. His name also does not appear in the French archives (op. Cit.). However, Ludwik Kościelniak has become part of the canon of our art. Apart from Wyspiański's children and the images of Tadeusz Makowski's little models, it was "Sierota z Poronina" that took a temporal place in the collective Polish imaginary. Kościelniak's painting is an image of "orphanhood in general" (Jaworska), and in the eyes of another painter "a masterpiece of art" (Tytus Czyżewski).

Władysław Ślewiński, Sierota z Poronina, circa 1906, National Museum in Warsaw


Created several years after the work of the National Museum in Warsaw, the portrait shows a different phase of Ślewiński's work: after 1910, that is, after returning to Brittany from Poland, Ślewiński "calms down" his compositions, chooses harmonious arrangements, focuses on the cheerful aspects of color. In "Boy with a Piece of Bread" there is an intimate atmosphere and calmness flowing from refined color harmonies. Ślewiński uses delicately flowing blobs of purple, blue, pink and yellow, which combine a smooth contour with a beautiful sapphire shade. The expressive character of Ludwik is mostly seen in his eyes, which, carefully defined by the line, look directly at the viewer. Similarly to the "Orphan of Poronin", the presented image is a symbolic portrait: an expression of childhood innocence, emotional authenticity and daydreaming. "A boy with a piece of bread" finds its pendant in the portrait of Magdalena Kościelniak - the painting from the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw has almost the same dimensions. For decades, the work remained in the collection of Samuel Josefowitz, probably the greatest collector of the graphic artist Paul Gauguin and the works of his school. Created in Doëlan and later stored in Paris, "Boy with a Piece of Bread", thanks to belonging to this prestigious collection, reached many European and American cities, where it was exhibited next to the works by Ślewiński's most distinguished artistic friends.