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Artur Grottger

Painter Artur Grottger was considered an heir and successor to the Polish Romantic Bards (much like another famous painter who made his debut at around the same time, Jan Matejko). He owed this position primarily to several series of drawings, which, circulated in numerous prints, gained more popularity than his oil paintings and watercolours. This was notwithstanding the fact that the young artist had set out to become specifically a painter.

Grottger was born on 11 November 1837 at Ottyniowice, an estate leased by his father, himself a painter, from whom young Artur received his first tutelage. After a period of artistic apprenticeship under two painting masters in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine), Grottger studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow and in Vienna. In Vienna he contributed to several magazines as an illustrator. On returning to Lwów in 1865, he met and soon got engaged to Wanda Monné, not yet sixteen years old. The artist was completely transformed by this affection, which had a great impact on his work. After a year spent in Lwów, Cracow and the surrounding country estates, Grottger moved to Paris. A period of intensive work followed, in spite of mounting symptoms of tuberculosis, which he had suffered from for years. In an attempt to rescue himself, he travelled to the south of France - to Pau, and later to Amélie les Bains, where he died on 13 December 1867. Wanda Monné arranged for his body to be brought to Lwów and buried at the famous Łyczakowski (Lychakiv) Cemetery; she also footed the bill.

Grottger`s early work depicted historical scenes, mostly battle ones, often with horsemen as a central theme. During the Vienna period, the artist mode press illustrations and his work frequently involved theatre or literary themes; he also revisited historical events. During summer holidays, he would often go to the countryside and paint horses. Grottger`s work also comprises symbolic paintings and numerous portraits, including pictures of his fiancée and himself. Many of the paintings created after 1863 refer to the January Uprising of that year and its tragic epilogue of the Siberian exile.

The first in the five series of drawings which today are most widely associated with Grottger was created in Vienna within a matter of days, as an instant response to the events in Warsaw in 1861 [involving patriotic demonstrations suppressed by the Russians - translator's note]. The artist, whose knowledge of the events came from press reports, called the series Warsaw I. Another seven drawings on cardboard were to follow a year later under a collective name Warsaw II. Two subsequent series, Polonia (1863) and Lithuania (1864-1865) were dedicated to the January Uprising, while the last and longest series, entitled War, was completed in Paris in 1867. It is a work of universal significance as it shows the calamities and corruption entailed in any major armed conflict.

The drawings of all the series, made in black crayon with an occasional touch of white to bring out lights, were made with a view to their reproduction. Published both in albums and loose sheets, they were widely circulated and enjoyed great popularity. Grottger's imagery, where a realistic rendition of details met idealised characters, the whole scene being deeply symbolic and emotional, spoke with great power to his contemporaries, who found it exceptionally evocative. Owing to their unique visual idiom, the drawings inspired other artists, including writers such as Maria Konopnicka or Stefan Żeromski.

With time, both the man and his work became the stuff of legend, particularly after the publication of his biography and letters. Having died at a young age, talented and inspired but underestimated, his life marred by constant financial worries and disease - Grottger was a perfect embodiment of the myth of a Romantic artist.

A powerful ingredient of this myth was love - reciprocated, but doomed to remain unfulfilled; a love capable of transfiguring a bohemian and reveller into a responsible and restrained but tender fiancé. Equally, Grottger's work had a great myth-generating potential - through its unequivocal approval of the 1863 uprising, the heroic vision of the nation and, ultimately, its contribution to the "brave Pole" model. And, perhaps more importantly - that of a beautiful and noble Polishwoman. After all, the term "Grottgerian type of beauty" is alive and well to this day...

dr urszula Makowska
Institute of Art Polish Academy of Sciences