One of more than sixty Polish artists who traveled to the Middle East between the beginning of the 19th century and 1939, Wojciech Kossak achieved considerable success both in his native Poland and throughout Europe, Britain, and America. His father, Juliusz Kossak, was a talented watercolorist, painter, draftsman, and illustrator, and his godfather, Horace Vernet, was the premier military artist of his day. In 1899, Kossak traveled to Spain with his friend and fellow painter Michael Gorstkin Wywiórski, a member of the Munich School, in order to gather material for one of the epic historical panoramas with which they had made their names. In 1900, they were in Egypt. It may have been at this time that Kossak made this oil sketch, a rare and reserved subject in his otherwise highly theatrical oeuvre.
Kossak’s “sketch aesthetic,” demonstrated here, was a hallmark of his style. Different from an unfinished work and with a long history in French art, these animated oil sketches were intended to be exhibited or sold, either as versions of a more highly detailed painting or as independent works of art, as in Battle of the Pyramids, which was painted in union with Wywiórski and today is part of the collections of the National Museum in Warsaw (Fig. 1). An abbreviated signature on this painting, however – subtly placed initials rather than the artist’s typical practice of writing his name prominently and in full - suggests that it might have been meant as a more personal or private picture than one produced via commission or on spec. Kossak’s formal training at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris under the great masters Alexandre Cabanel and Léon Bonnat would have introduced him to both the tight and linear style of the school’s academic program and to the more expressive manner of the portrait sketch seen here. Bonnat’s paintings demonstrate the artist’s desire to combine carefully rendered detail with overall effect. This can be seen most clearly in a series of oil sketches produced during his 1868 expedition to the Middle East, for example in View of Jerusalem (Fig. 2).
Fig. 1, Wojciech von Kossak, Battle of the Pyramids, 1896, oil on canvas, 70 x 105 cm
Kossak’s Orientalism – a fleeting but impactful episode in a long and prolific career – draws from these traditions, and from other experiences as well. Having studied at the Krakow School of Fine Arts, Kossak arrived in Munich in 1874, where he would remain until 1876. He was not alone. More than 300 Polish artists attended the Munich Academy of Arts, private art schools in the city, and the Munich Art Society between 1828 and 1914, created a veritable colony of Polish expatriates whom Kossak came to know. Among Kossak’s close friends in Munich was Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, a fellow battle painter and equestrian artist, with ambitions to travel abroad. In 1877 and 1884, Ajdukiewicz ventured to Constantinople as a guest of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, one of the sixty Polish Orientalists mentioned above. His success may have influenced Kossak, as he contemplated expanding his themes.
Fig. 2, Léon Bonnat, View of Jerusalem, oil on canvas, 21.9 x 28 cm
During his tenure at the Munich Academy, Kossak found support for his ambitions as both a painter of didactic large-scale history paintings and his more immediate, informal style. Several of Kossak’s teachers had rebelled against the “picture machines” of the Academy’s curriculum, turning instead to the Dutch “little masters” and a more intimate approach. The sensitivity of the present work, expressed particularly by the eyes, may be indebted to the lessons of these years. The nature of the application of the paint and the specificity of the ornament and fabric, however, recall the work of another artist as well. The British painter John Frederick Lewis, now at the end of his career, had produced numerous figurative sketches during his years in Egypt between 1841 and 1850. Here Kossack echoes Lewis’ sparsity of line and facility of touch, as can be seen in works such as An Eastern Beauty (Fig. 3). Though it is not known whether Kossak knew of Lewis’s pictures through the prevalent reproductions and lithographic volumes that were made and circulated in Britain and abroad, his later ties to England are abundant and quite clear: he resided in London between 1905 and 1907, where his own works attracted much attention and became widely known.
Fig. 3, John Frederick Lewis, An Eastern Beauty, pencil, chalk
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