I Saw the Miracle on the Vistula

The exhibit „The Vision of the Polish Military in the Work of the Kossak Family” was on display at the Museum of the Polish Military in Warsaw from the first days of May until the end of September 2008. One of the works on display was an oil painting done by Jerzy Kossak in 1930, titled „Miracle on the Vistula”.

Chronologically, the artistically talented Kossak family consists of Juliusz, the grandfather, his son Wojciech, and his grandson Jerzy. Along with Jan Matejko, Józef Brandt, Michał Bylin, and many others, they are counted among the circle of Polish artists of historical painting. Each of these artists had an artistic vision of the history of Poland; the work of the Kossak family stands out among them as an essential document of the painting of Polish battle scenes.

The theme of the work of three generations of the Kossak family can easily be described in the words of Kazimierz Olszeński: „Juliusz Kossak (1824-1899) specialized in the presentation of war and the history of the nobles’ republic from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Wojciech Kossak (1856-1942) was a master of the nineteenth century fight to free the nation from subjugation, and he created epics of Napoleon, November, and the First World War. (…) But Jerzy Kossak (1886-1955) concentrated on showing events from the most recent history and so became a creator of the art of independence, with epics of Piłsudski’s Legions and the Bolshevik war from the 1920s.”

Whether in the presentation of heroic figures or the details of armaments and uniforms, the Kossaks were exceptionally skilled in both form and color. Juliusz, the eldest, not only created historical genre scenes; he was also a sought after portrait painter. He often painted the ancestors of aristocratic families, together with their favorite horses. Among the heroic images of leaders from the national pantheon are Tadeusz Kościuszko, Prince Józef Poniatowski, Dąbrowski, and Czarniecki. Throughout his life he also illustrated works of Polish literature, by authors such as Adam Mickiewicz, Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Ignacy Kraszewski, and he also painted beautiful miniatures of the stanzas and refrain of the Dąbrowski march, the Polish national anthem. These were watercolors, in which he demonstrated a real mastery. The work of Juliusz Kossak appeared in several reproductions and played an important role in the creation of a national spirit among Poles under the control of the partitioning powers. He was a representative of Polishness, a connoisseur of culture and customs, and, above all, an enthusiast of the native landscape. His son Wojciech was born in Paris. Wojciech Kossak studied at the school of fine arts in Kraków and in Munich. He traveled often, visiting London, Vienna, Paris, and the United States, to which he returned four times.  His very pleasant disposition meant that homes in Poland and abroad were open to him. His own work reflected reality; he did not create symbolic art. If he had a specific topic, he connected it to the issues of the day. The popularity of his works, whether they were small studies or battle scenes or panoramas, never dimmed. His fame continues to this day. At the beginning of the war in 1939 he was forced to flee from Warsaw to Kraków. The September defeat was the  terrific tragedy from which he could not recover. His significant work, gaining the admiration of each generation of Poles, was behind him. His work recalled the proud victories of the Polish army and glorified the Polish military.

Wojciech Kossak was also the father of two talented writers: Maria Jasnorzewska – Pawlikowska (1891 – 1945), a poet whose verse – pensive, reflective, and personal, as light as the web of a spider – one always discovers anew.

The youngest sister of Maria was Magdalena Samozwaniec (Niewiadomska) (1894-1972). Still today readers enjoy her stories, farces, and sketches. In addition to these two daughters, Wojciech Kossak also had a son Jerzy. Jerzy exhibited his work for the first time at the Society of Fine Arts in Kraków in 1910. His artistic talent was the result of the family’s genetic characteristics – he did not study in any school of fine arts. He developed his talent from his earliest years in his father’s workshop. The high point of his work was 1929 to 1939. His best paintings, independently composed from his own ideas, come from this period. The year of 1930 was dedicated to a work titled „Miracle on the Vistula”. He painted three works under this title. The painting I saw was about two meters by three meters and showed the Bolsheviks hurriedly fleeing and the Poles, soldiers and armed volunteers in civilian clothing, bearing down. The figure of Father Ignacy Skorupka with a cross and his hands raised dominates the image. In the background the image of the Mother of Divine Victory is evident in the smoke of the explosions. In the left corner Józef Piłsudski can be seen on a horse. With its title and images, the painting presents the miracle of the victory of the Poles in Warsaw on August 15, 1920. The figures of Father Skorupka, who had died the previous day, and Józef Piłsudski, who had personally led the counteroffensive along the Wieprz River, were part of the author’s vision.

As is clear from the talent and skill in his works, Jerzy continued the tradition of his family.
I viewed this exhibit with great interest, and also a hint of sentiment. My husband Ronald, an American, and I enjoyed this exhibit very much.

Elżbieta Ulanowska
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 11/2009