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1840-1918. Painting the Soul of a Nation




                                        Honorary patrons

        Emmanuel MACRON                          Andrzej DUDA
President of the French Republic             President of the Republic of Poland

The year 2019 marks the centenary of the signing, on 3 September 1919, of the agreement between France and Poland ‘relating to emigration and immigration’. It led to the arrival of large numbers of Polish workers in France, notably in the mining region in the north of the country. Between 1919 and 1928, 280,000 work contracts were signed following this international agreement. It was made possible by Poland’s return to independence in 1918, after 123 years of partition.
On the occasion of this key event for the region’s identity, the Musée du Louvre-Lens is organising a large retrospective of 19th-century Polish painting, in association with the National Museum in Warsaw and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. It is the first exhibition in France to cover this century that was so critical to Poland’s history.

The exhibition retraces that particular moment in the history of Polish culture, in which despite the country’s division between the Russian empire, Austrian empire and the kingdom of Prussia, artists created a veritable Polish identity, a sense of ‘Polishness’. It reveals the way in which artists, by drawing inspiration from national history, landscapes and rural life, fashioned images of Poland for Poles and also for the rest of the world. Their rich, evocative, striking paintings marked the European art world of the time.



Painting a lost Poland

The exhibition opens with a monumental work by the artist regarded as the greatest Polish history painter, Jan Matejko.
In Reytan (The Fall of Poland) he depicted a major event from the late 18th century: the first partition of the kingdom of Poland, on 21 April 1773 at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
It shows the nobleman Tadeusz Reytan desperately attempting to oppose it through an extremely theatrical gesture. Jan Matejko imbued this painting with a nationalist dimension, castigating those responsible for the decline and partition of the country. When Poland was erased from the map of Europe in 1795, much of the population continued to hope for a
return to independence. Their love for this longed-for Poland was a source of inspiration for painters, poets, composers and novelists, who would play a major role in the creation of a national identity.

Glorifying polish history

Polish history painters celebrated the glorious episodes of the past, reminding the whole of Europe that Poland was a great country. In their works, they brought to life a ‘golden age’ filled with heroes, legendary figures and victorious battles. These often large paintings are characterised by their dense compositions, skilful interplays of light and shade, and rich, complex colours. Artists like Jan Matjeko and Henryk Rodakowski contributed to the development of a powerful collective imagination. King’s baptism, royal delegations and official inaugurations were the favoured subjects for these works that celebrated the richness of the Polish nation and culture. The history of Poland in the 17th century was also marked by important victories over the Ottomans and the Russians. They were central to the work of artists like Józef Brandt, one of the most important representatives of military painting in Poland.

France and Poland : a shared history

In the 19th century, painting in Poland was strongly marked by the country’s close links with France. Napoleon I was a central figure for many artists, such as Piotr Michałowski and Wojciech Kossak. The creation of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 made him a veritable national hero and gave Poles considerable hope that they would return to being an independent
state. Such was their fascination that nearly 100,000 Polish soldiers joined the French army. As a result, battles such as those at Somosierra (1808) and Raszyn (1809) were immortalised by Polish painters.
In the 1830s, contacts were further strengthened: the failure of the insurrection of 1830 led to the arrival in France of much of the Polish elite. Aristocrats, artists and poets sought refuge in Paris, where a ‘little Poland’ was created. The Hôtel Lambert, which belonged to Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, became a political and cultural focal point where leading names from French and Polish society met up. In Ball at the Hôtel Lambert by Teofil Kwiatkowski, it is possible to make out George Sand next to poet Adam Mickiewicz, listening to Frédéric Chopin, who is playing for the guests.

Current tragedies

The Russians’ violent repression of the insurrections of 1863 was a popular subject with artists, in particular Artur Grottger and Jacek Malczewski.
These scenes with their grim atmosphere are imbued with fear and suffering and highlight the unequal combat between the insurgents and the Russian Cossacks. A symbol of oppression, the deportations to Siberia are featured in numerous works and imprinted themselves on the Polish imagination. The presence in these war pictures of female figures – which might seem surprising at first – testifies to their role in their rebellion, as soldiers, go-betweens and
Jacek Malczewski introduced modernity into Polish art. An important representative of Polish Symbolism, he marked a key artistic turning point in how his country was seen and depicted. His style was characterised by monumental figures, complex compositions and often clashing colours, reflecting a more subjective approach to reality. Eloe with Ellenai (right) represents the companion of young Anhelli, hero of a poem of the same title by Juliusz Słowacki, travelling through the Siberian lands of Polish exiles. The painting shows her being borne by an angel after her death.

A mosaic of communities

The inhabitants of this shared Poland, marked by cultural, ethnic, religious and social diversity, became a popular subject in painting in the second half of the 19th century. Artists depicted scenes of rural life around Krakow and in the Tatras.
Some artists, such as Władysław Jarocki, drew inspiration from the Hutsuls, who lived in the western Carpathians. A « peasant mania » also developed, spearheaded by representatives of Young Poland, such as Włodzimierz Tetmajer, who was inspired by the countryside in Bronowice.
The images of everyday life in the different communities – Jews, peasants, workers, the nobility, artists – painted by artists became in a way the soul of a nation that was still alive.
The Virgin’s Thread was one of a group of paintings produced by Józef Chełmoński when he returned to the Ukraine, in 1874. It depicts a peasant woman in a Ukrainian costume reclining and playing with the thread from a spider’s web, in the foreground of a vast meadow. The work represents a transition between the family portrait and the depiction of a traditional peasant scene.

Discovering landscapes

Interest in the Polish landscape had existed since the 18th century, but it was only in the 19th century that it flourished as an expression of the permanent quest for identity and a return to origins. Nature in the former Polish territories became a good subject for the celebration of nationalist sentiment. It also became a vehicle for experimenting with new artistic forms, notably by the Young Poland painters such as Stanisław Witkiewicz, Julian Fałat and Jan Stanisławski, who imbued it with a more melancholic mood.
Forced moves, threats of deportation to Siberia, a ban on speaking Polish, confiscation of capital and land made the family home a symbol of independence and identity.
As a result, the home became a subject in itself in Polish painting at the end of the century: reading by candlelight by Konrad Krzyżanowski, living room flooded with sunlight opening onto a garden with blossoming lilacs with Józef Mehoffer (right), or manor house imbued with autumnal melancholy by Stanisław Kamocki.

Towards modernity

At the turn of the 20th century, a new generation of Polish artists felt a need to develop fresh artistic ideals. Some of them abandoned nationalistic and Romantic themes, while others drew on this tradition while transcending it in contact with new artistic trends from Western Europe. These two tendencies, a skilful mixture of neo-Romanticism and modernism,
came together in a group of artists under the Young Poland banner. The concept of Polishness began to take on a more personal complexion.
Wojciech Weiss was one of the main representatives of Polish Expressionism. Influenced by the work of Edvard Munch, he painted Poppies (above), a work of understated anguish, exemplified in particularly vivid fashion by the brightly coloured youthful figures, set in a landscape of bright, contrasting colours. The work is imbued with mystery
and strangeness, and highlights the distress of a people who, were still seeking national sovereignty after a century of occupation.
Wojciech WEISS, Poppies, 1902–1903 © National Museum of Krakow / laboratory Stock National Museum in Krakow

The exhibition ends with a large polyptych by Leon Wyczólkowski, Knight with Flowers (right). At the beginning of the 20th century, at a time when the revolutionary feeling was intensifying, the artist represented the patriotic optimism that was sweeping across the country in a monumental pastel showing a young knight in the middle of a field of tulips, a symbol of spring heralding renewal. The work took on a prophetic dimension opening on to the coming century: the dream of a Poland rediscovered.


Thanks to prestigious loans from Polish national museums and private collections, the exhibition brings together almost 120 paintings – dating from between 1840 and 1918 – by the leading representatives of Polish painting, including Jan Matejko, Józef Brandt, Jacek Malczewski, Józef Chełmoński and Olga Boznańska.

Exhibition organised with the National Museum in Warsaw and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, as part of POLSKA 100, the international cultural programme accompanying the centenary of Poland regaining independence. Co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland as part of the multi-annual programme NIEPODLEGŁA 2017–2022.

Exhibition organised with the support of the CAISSE D’EPARGNE HAUTS DE FRANCE and the Fondation d’Entreprise
AG2R LA MONDIALE pour la Vitalité Artistique

In partnership with Le Monde, Connaissance des Arts, France Musique, France 3 and La Voix du Nord


Iwona Danielewicz and Agnieszka Rosales, curators at the National Museum in Warsaw, Marie Lavandier,
director of the Louvre-Lens, and Luc Piralla, assistant director of the Louvre-Lens, assisted by Caroline Tureck, head of
research at the Louvre-Lens