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Piotr Michałowski

To his contemporaries, Piotr Michałowski (1800–1855) stood as a model of a wise citizen, good farmer and state offi cial. His social activity, in particular his philanthropy, were especially admired. Obviously, everyone knew that he painted, and some even were able to appreciate his works, but nobody would treat this activity as anything other than a private passion, an amateur pastime practiced at home. Only in the late 19th century was the phenomenon of his art fi nally discovered, and Michałowski was recognised as the most eminent painter of Polish Romanticism, comparable even to the European artistic celebrities of the era.

The painter came from a wealthy noble family. He had received versatile education, having studied exact and natural science, mathematics, classical and oriental philology as well as law. He travelled frequently, both around Poland and Europe, extending his knowledge and carefully studying the arts in the museums visited. During the November Uprising, he was in charge of the manufacture of munitions for the fi ghting Poles and following the fall of the Uprising he emigrated to Paris. There he turned to painting, the basics of which he had mastered already as an adolescent by taking classes with a number of Krakow-based painters. In Paris, he attended the classes of battle scene painters and maintained contacts with the artists from the circle of Théodore Géricault. He also conducted independent studies, visiting the Louvre and local slaughter houses, to learn the anatomy of horses. Initially, he mainly painted watercolours, presenting horse-drawn carriages. With time he made his fi rst sculpting attempts and also started to use in his painting the oil technique more frequently. After his return to Krakow in 1835, he continued to create the works of art until the end of his life, while simultaneously managing the model land estates of Krzyżtoporzyce and Bolestraszyce, and travelling around Europe. In the last years of his life he held important administrative posts.

It is diffi cult to put the creative output of Piotr Michałowski in chronological order: he did not put dates on his works and re-visited many ideas and themes repeatedly. Also, he would often paint new works over previous studies, whose fragments can sometimes be discerned under layers of paint. Among the scarce thematic plots undertaken by the artist, the Napoleonic period remains the major one, exceeding in number references to the November Uprising and scenes from distant history. Michałowski painted the Battle of Samosierra in a variety of aspects from the 1830s till the end of his life, presenting groups of horsemen both in horizontal and vertical layouts. He created a number of equestrian portraits of Napoleon, with the monumental Napoleon on a Grey Horse crowning the collection. In the years 1845–1848, his greatest physiognomy studies were created – Peasant, Seńko, Cardinal, as well as portraits of Jews and numerous presentations of knights, Lisowczyk soldiers and hetmans (military commanders). Towards the end of his life, despite numerous duties and poor health, Michałowski reached the heights of synthetic form of painting and mastery in the use of colours, an example of which are the equestrian portraits of his children: Blue Boy and Amazon.

Michałowski practically never exhibited his works in public. His art was shaped by the works of great masters, which he remembered in great detail from the museums and later copied from drawings. He owed the most to the inspiration provided by the painting of Velázquez, which was manifested in the dominant role of colour over other means of artistic expression. By giving up on the contour, he constructed the form suggestively with the sole use of patches – a concrete and material form, fi nding its equivalent in nature. The movement of a horse or the dust agitated by a cavalcade of horsemen, the shape of a human silhouette or the look in the eyes of a person being painted refl ect the insight gained by close observation. Light hues, vibrating or muted, applied with bold but infallible brush strokes, allow shapes to emerge from darkness, making them visible as if in a sudden gleam of light. This adds internal dynamics of sorts to even fully static compositions. That is why, in encountering Michałowski’s paintings, one sees something that is eternally vivid and alive, a vision that appears to be created in front of our very own eyes.

Urszula Makowska
Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences