Portrait of a Woman
Portrait of a Woman
Portrait of a Woman
Portrait of a Woman

Portrait of a Woman

Author: Oleszkiewicz Józef , 1777 - 1830

Created: 1830 m. 

Material / technique: oil on canvas.

Dimensions: 85x68,5 cm.

The portrait is unsigned. The Russian and Polish art critics who have seen this work of art assigned it to the brush of Józef Oleszkiewicz. It was with this attribution (as having been done by Oleszkiewicz) that the portrait was sold at the Villa Nuova Fine Arts auctioned.

Oleszkiewicz was one of those painters who loved to sign their work, although his creative legacy does feature a number of unsigned paintings (such as the portrait of Adam Czartoryski at the National Museum in Cracow, the group portrait of Kazimierz, Alexander, and Emia Tiszinsky at the National Museum in Warsaw, and so on). Sometimes, as was the case with the couple portraits of Mr and Mrs Keller at the National Museum in Warsaw, the painter would only sign one of the pair of paintings (in this case, it was the portrait of Mrs Keller, while the portrait of Joseph Keller was unsigned). The absence of an author’s signature on a painting makes the authorship of the piece dubious to a lesser or greater extent. Yet Oleszkiewicz had quite a unique creative touch and, based on the style and the characteristics of the paintwork, this painting can clearly be attributed to the brush of this painter.

Oleszkiewicz was born in Šiluva parish to a family of a poor nobleman. Between 1798 and 1802, he studied drawing and painting at Vilnius University where he was taught by Franciszek Smuglewicz and January Rustem, and in 1803–1806, sponsored by Aleksander Chodkiewicz, he attended the Academy of Arts in Paris where his teachers were Jacques Louis David and Jean-Simon Berthelemy. Between 1807 and 1810, the artist lived and worked in Vilnius, Pekalovo, other manors of Volhynia. In 1807, he made his first attempt to get the post of the painting professor that had been vacated following the death of Franciszek Smuglewicz. After Ran Rustem was appointed professor of the drawing and painting department, in 1810 Oleszkiewicz travelled to Petersburg where he lived to his dying day. His painting of the Empress Maria Feodorovna providing for the poor won him the title of ‘Academician’ from the Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts in 1812.

Oleszkiewicz represented academic classicism art. The underlying characteristic of his work, from the 1830s in particular, is sentimentalism with a touch of early romanticism. As a true representative of academic art, Oleszkiewicz valued the high genres of art – the historic painting and portrait – the most. The artist had created a dozen or so historic paintings and allegoric compositions, had done over 100 portraits immortalising a lot of members of the Polish and Russian nobility or creative intelligentsia: the poet Adam Mickiewicz, the pianist Maria Szymanowska, the doctor Nikolai Arendt, the curator of Vilnius University Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, the violin player and composer Alexey Lvov, and others. In Petersburg, Oleszkiewicz was known not only as a painter: he also had a name as an original persona – a stonemason, mystic, philanthropist. The painter was vegetarian, lived by the commandment ‘do not kill’ in an almost Brachman-esque fashion, and his love and compassion for all living things would sometimes go into extremity and become the butt of many a friendly joke.

Oleszkiewicz would voice his ideas before live audiences and was a welcome guest at many of Petersburg’s parlours. Thanks to his many acquaintances, he was never short on orders for portraits that became the main source of his income.

Oleszkiewicz painted representational life-sized portraits aiming for a high degree of accuracy whilst idealising the person in the portrait, elevating them above the mundane. His preferred composition was that of ¾ of the figure (down to the knees or hips), and his full- or half-figure (waist-deep) portraits are less common. Several portraits show the subject resting in a dreamy fashion. That was how Oleszkiewicz portrayed the poet Mickiewicz in the 1828 portrait. Oleszkiewicz painted educated, spiritual women resting on numerous occasions.

The picture sold at the Villa Nuova Fine Arts auction shows its subject in a posture nearly similar to that of the unknown woman from an earlier portrait (ca 1824) featured at the National Museum in Warsaw: with the elbow of her right hand that supports her head resting on the back of a chair, and her left hand holding a book that, one could guess, she was just reading, she is looking at the viewer thoughtfully.

Oleszkiewicz’s creative touch is mirrored in the drawing of the portrait in question, the modelling of the shapes, the rich colours, the smooth, polished texture, the method in which the draperies and the details (the jewellery, the curls of hair, the eyes, and so on) are portrayed.

In his portraits of resting women, the painter would accentuate the neck line and the line of naked dropping shoulders in a peculiar way. Just like it was done in the portrait in question. In this portrait, the eyes, the nose, the cheeks of the subject are modelled just like in every other portrait by Oleszkiewicz. In portraits where women are shown wearing pearls, the pearls are painted in a manner identical to that that was used in the portrait in question. Just like the portrait in question, Oleszkiewicz’s work conveys the materiality of fabric, the folds of its draperies.

Oleszkiewicz’s favourite background for his portraits was landscape, a cloudy sky, a column or a drapery (sometimes both), while interior elements are less common. Earlier portraits are richer in detail and often feature a combination of a column fragment at one side of the picture and a landscape covering the rest of the background. In portraits from the 1830s, the column is often replaced by a fragment of a wall with a matching non-descript landscape or cloudy sky showing through a wide opening (the portraits of Mickiewicz, Szymanowska). In the 1830s, Oleszkiewicz did a lot of portraits in which he used a flat, neutral background (the portraits of Aleftina Goscimska, Josef Plater and others). These portraits are more laconic and focus rather on the silhouette and line of the figure.

The portrait in question has a neutral background, yet in the right corner the painter included a brighter vertical line like an echo of his favourite backgrounds with a column or a wall fragment at one side of the portrait that he had often used in his previous portraits.

The portrait in question is considered a late work of art by Oleszkiewicz and can be dated between 1827 and 1830. As far as style is concerned, it is very similar to the 1830 portrait of Josef Plater, which is kept at the Samogitian museum Alka.

Despite the fact that Oleszkiewicz had painted a lot of portraits indeed, only a few of them are located in Lithuania. The portrait in question has value as a work of art of an exceptionally high artistic quality, one that is done by one of the most celebrated pupils of Smuglewicz, an alumnus pf Vilnius University who had pursued his studies at foreign academies of art and was among the first students of this school to have fully invested himself in creative work and to have earned broader recognition. The portrait is a valuable addition to the sparse collection of Oleszkiewicz’s work kept in Lithuania. (Art critic Dalia Tarandaitė).

Published: Reda Griškaitė "Woman and History: the Experiences of Kamilė Narbutaitė", Lithuanian Historical Institute, 2024, P. 610.