Known for his paintings depicting scenes of Polish patriotism and battle, Polish artist Wojciech Adalbert Kossak is unique in his loyalty to the same nationally beloved subjects throughout his career, even as his contemporaries embraced fluctuations of styles between Western Europe and traditional Polish art. Kossak was born in Paris in 1857 to famous Polish artist Juliusz Kossak. Wjciech Kossak first studied drawing under his father before entering Krakow’s School of Fine Arts in 1871, he then moved to the Munich Academy of Fine Arts four years later. Kossak returned to Krakow in 1876 to serve in the Krakow Cavalry Regiment for a short period of time before focusing on his art career
Kossak’s father, Juliusz, greatly influenced his career and popularity as a painter of historic themes and battle, especially cavalry. Juliusz worked mostly in watercolor, painting the lifestyles of members of the gentry and nobility to whose estates he was invited to visit and observe. In addition to some portraiture, Juliusz was particularly passionate about horses and painted many riding, racing, and hunting scenes. Wjciech Kossak immediately embraced his father’s style and favorite subject matters, beginning with his return to Krakow in 1876.
In addition to his father’s influence on his work, Kossak was inspired even further by his time in the Cavalry Regiment and would flourish in the coming decade after he returned to Paris in 1887 to study at the École des Beaux Arts under Alexandre Cabanel and Leon Bonnat. In 1884, Kossak moved back to Krakow and began to work on large scale oil and watercolor paintings of historic themes, including the Napoleonic Wars and famous Polish battles and uprisings against foreign invaders. Kossak also did some portraiture, painting family members, nobility, military figures, and occasionally himself.
At the end of the 19th century, Polish artists began to merge these popular themes with Impressionism. At the arrival of WWI, artists moved back to historic themes, but after the war they embraced cubism, abstractionism, and expressionism. Perhaps as can be expected, as the horrors of WWII played out in Poland, Polish artists once again focused on patriotic scenes. Despite the constant changing of artistic styles in Poland, Kossak continued to paint only the popular battle and historic themes he was known for. Patrons of Kossak were especially fond of his depictions of horses in cavalry scenes and occasional hunting scenes. Kossak painted some works of contemporary events such as WWI and the 1920 military campaign, but he mostly stuck with events like the Polish uprising against Russia.
The majority of Kossak’s well known paintings depict famous Polish battles. Inspired by revered Polish artists Jan Matejko and Wojciech Gerson, Kossak and a few other choice painters of his time painted a massive circular oil panorama in honor of the 100th anniversary of the victorious Battle of Raclawice, celebrating Poland’s bravery in defense of Polish independence. Kossak also painted panoramas of the Battle of Berezyna and the Battle of the Pyramids.
After a long career devoted to celebrating Polish patriotism and defense against international oppression, Kossak died in Krakow in 1942. His work hangs in many private collections in addition to the National Museum in Warsaw. He will continue to be known for his loyalty to traditional Polish styles and themes within his art, despite the often-changing directions of his contemporaries.
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