Wladyslaw Slewinski and the painters at Pont Aven.        

I will talk tonight about three painters who lived in France around the turn of the last century. I'll focus in particular on the life of Wladyslaw Slewinski for he is the least known, and I will attempt to find similarities which made all three into artistic émigrés and brought them together as painters at Pont Aven. I will also explore the connection and our corresponding judgements of the painter as an artist and as a man.

I have based my research for this lecture on Wladyslawa Jaworska's biography of Slewinski (Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, Warsaw, 1991) kindly lent to me on a very long loan by Patrick Pye. Other significant sources were Jonathan Benington's book on Roderick O'Connor (Irish Academic Press, 1992) and Ingo Walther's study of Paul Gauguin's life (Evergreen, 1996).

Alliance Francaise, Dublin, 2003.


Paul Gaugin

Roderic O'Connor



There are perhaps as many philosophies of Art as there are philosophies of life where they have their origin and inspiration. An inclination towards one or another lifestyle, would often predispose us toward particular art forms. Although not as a fast rule, these correlations between aesthetic response and our more general world view are worth bearing in mind as we make our way through the painters' lives and work. Granting that the aim of Art is not only to give plastic manifestation to the way we live but that at the same time we expect Art to reveal as yet unrealised forms of experience, the mirror of Art as philosophy reflects both the known and the unexpected.

Granting also that Art fulfils a need in the human psyche, as Herbert Read put it "a will to form", to which each artefact is a concrete response, we may say that through manipulation of substance an object becomes a metaphorical space into which we project ourselves emotionally. It is this capacity of Art as receptacle for the emotional and the spiritual that separates fact from artefact.

Finally, if we accept that great art offers expressions to significant ways of being human and that this process opens up to us more complex and more encompassing forms of experience, then I feel that we have found a way of looking at our painters with new eyes.


Wladyslaw Slewinski 1856-1916


Wladyslaw Slewinski was born 1st June, 1856, in Bialynin (south west of Warsaw) into a land owning family. Since his mother died in childbirth Wladyslaw was brought up by his grandmother. He completed his secondary education in Radom, and went on to study agriculture to continue the family farming tradition. At 30 he takes over Pilaszkowice, his mother's estate yet fails, leaving for Paris two years later owing unpaid taxes to the Inland Revenue.

photo: his mother's estate in Pilaszkowice.

Amost nothing is known about Slewinski's life between his college years and the hasty departure for Paris in 1888, roughly between his 20th and 32nd birthday. Since these are formative years in any adult life, it is not easy to speak with confidence about Slewinski the man. Equally, little is known about his creative life before Paris. Yet I suspect that he was no stranger to Art. Although only one work is known to survive from this period of his life, a water-colour "Mlyn Wodny”, I think that we can safely assume that he devoted enough time to this pursuit to produce later such works as do survive. It is worth noting that he was in the habit of destroying works which were not completely finished; almost no studies survive, nor preparatory drawings for his completed works. Whether he wasted his farming legacy or failed through ineptitude, we can only guess; what is however certain of his artistic life is that results mattered above all.



In Paris he lodges initially with a friend, a fellow artist Zygmunt Andrychiewicz, and enrols at Academe Colarossi. This is 1888. Since he has no private income, it is fair to assume that he works at something to pay his way.

It is at Academe Colarossi that he meets and becomes involved with a fellow painter, a Russian Jelizaweta Kruglikowa. During their long relationship (close on 10 years, for we know they were still exhibiting together in 1898) she brings him close to Russian artistic émigré circles in Paris.

photo: Jelizaweta Kruglikowa autoportrait, 1910.



Their friendship comes to an end however when he decides to marry Jelizaweta's flatmate, Eugenia Szewcowa, another Russian but a wealthy one, whom he marries before his 44th birthday. I have found no record of the actual date or place of marriage (?) but this photograph suggests to me that by 1900 he was already married.

Although their marriage was childless, Slewinski is known to have had a son by another woman back in Poland. Although this was an open secret, nothing is known about the contacts, if any, between the father and son. Equally, little is known of the son's life; his Christian name was also Wladyslaw, he studied at the Fine Art Academy in Krakow, and died of TB soon after World War I. This information comes from the memoirs of Zygmunt Kaminski who was Slewinski’s art student in Warsaw.

photo: Eugenia and Wladyslaw Slewinscy, 1900.





Slewinski's claim that he was a down to earth painter contrasts surprisingly with unusual readiness to relegate the subject to an almost token existence within an ostere aesthetic scheme. Perhaps the "Woman combing her hair", a painting widely regarded as his most enigmatic masterpiece, may be a key to Slewinski's relationship to his subject matter. I agree that the face reflected in the mirror is that of a man, very likely the painter himself. Yet the image suggests to me not a man (or a boy) simply looking at the long hair and outstretched arm of the young woman but one who desires; a voyeur, not an observer of life. Let me add that I am not suggesting here the specific sexual meaning of voyeurism but a more general experience of emotional gratification, which obtains mainly through a contemplation of the image rather than of the object itself. The voyeur does not experience gratification through a relationship with the object, rather he is gratified by a substitute, that is the image itself.

Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Woman combing her hair".

I think that in order to understand why Slewinski painted what he did, and how he saw the significance of the object and the aim of representation in painting, this wider concept of voyeurism is quite useful. Indeed, in this sense voyeurism is an element in all Art. We are gratified more or less differently by the image than by the thing represented yet "realistic" or "naturalistic" representation indicates some sort of direct connection between the gratification and the thing. In other words, a correspondence between the feeling and the object represented. Voyeurism would then imply a distance, a longing for intimacy, a sense of isolation. Who is "The woman combing her hair"? Is it Jelizaweta Kruglikowa





Wladyslaw Slewinski "Woman combing her hair", detail.





Slewinski's subject matter falls neatly into 3 categories; landscapes, portraits and still life. By universal account he was a realist-cum-naturalist in that he took his subjects from the material world around him; furniture, fruit, flowers, rocks, boats and the sea, also people he knew. What informed his choices however in selecting from the surrounding multitude?

Let me speak for a moment about the personal relationship of the artist to his times. Of the three artists, it was prominently Paul Gaugin who set out to concretise his vision of the world. Whether wholly convincing or not, a vision of the world and society permeates his art. And the world and society were going through some "interesting” times. Broadly speaking, all three were contemporaries born into a post revolutionary Europe coming to terms with the failure of Romantic Idealism. The era of industrial progress and scientific realism triumphs. In politics the rise of nationalism and the birth of nation states lead to the unification of Italy in 1871 and victorious Germany, under Bismarck, becomes an Empire. The transfer of wealth and power on a massive scale from landowners to the burgeoning capitalist class increases rural poverty and swells the ranks of the now politicised proletariat. Karl Marx "Das Kapital" is published in 1867, eight years after Darwin's "On the Origin of the Species" came out in London, and only a year earlier the first transatlantic cable was laid between Europe and America.

Amid prosperity and optimism there was yet a growing crisis of conscience. The rift between scientific materialism and religion for many became irreconcilable, while others sought a resolution in mysticism. Bergson, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Rimbaud, Rilke, and Strindberg all contributed to the thought of the times. The mutiny on battleship Potiomkin in 1905 signaled a change of mood in European affairs yet the same year saw also the publication of Einstein's "Theory of Relativity", and it was already in 1900 that Freud published "The Interpretation of Dreams".

The outbreak of the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 soon define modern history. Hardly half a century had passed since the carnage of 1848 uprisings and Europe again descends into unimaginable misery.

And what of our painters? Slewinski's life was never far from political upheaval. His father was arrested and exiled to Siberia by the Russian authorities in Poland after the "January Uprising" of 1863, when Wladyslaw was 7. We must recall that Poland was still under partition, and like Ireland was not a self governing nation state.





Slewinski's abrupt return to Poland in 1905 may have been prompted by events in Russia as well as in Poland, where marshal Law was declared in October that year. After all, his wife's unearned income from St. Petersburg seems to have been their main source of livelihood in France. It is not clear how much he was earning from art sales, but the rental of a flat and studio in Paris, and the purchase of two properties - a large house in Doelan and a fisherman's cottage in Pouldu must have been financed by Emilia's purse.

Something which struck me about Emila is that although they had no children she apparently gave up her own painting soon after becoming Slewinski wife. Since they have always relied on a housekeeper, I am a little curious as to what this talented and independent woman was up to during their long marriage.

photo: Slewinskis' home in Doelan.



They stayed in Poland for 5 years until 1910, moving residence about once a year between Warsaw, Krakow, Domaniewice (his father's estate) and Poronin, a place popular with artists and intellectuals in the Tatra mountains in the south of Poland. His inability to settle down professionally among his peers back in Poland makes one feel that his return after 17 years abroad (at 49) might have meant also for Slewinski a triumphant return home of the "prodigal son". Although during his long absence he maintained close links with Poland, regularly sending in paintings to exhibitions and hosting numerous visitors at his homes in France, it is clear that his ambition was to bring back to his native land a new way of seeing; through his own work to re-invigorate polish painting, no less.

Those 5 years in Poland were perhaps far more significant in Wladyslaw Slewinski’s life than what they may at first appear. He came back lock, stock and barrel, a journey of some magnitude at the time. There is no reason to suspect that it was not a journey for good. Yet, his unshakeable belief (some did say arrogance) in being the avant-garde and, arguably, a certain lack of intellectual dimension to his work, both made it difficult for him to establish the desired position in Polish artistic circles.

Whether or not Poles in general indeed reflect deeply upon the metaphysics of life or simply indulge the rational, in Polish artistic circles the expectations placed upon any artist, especially one so desirous of recognition, would have been quite demanding yet consistent with the prevailing mind cast. It is here that Wladyslaw Slewinski failed to impress.





Slewinski went to Poland to find "the primitive" and it is possible that he regarded his piers with an similar air of patrimony. His opinion of Stanislaw Wyspianski (highly regarded imaginative artist and playwright) may perhaps be a clue; "I prefer his stained glass. He is a great talent but the man is ill". This was apparently a reference to "exaltacja”, a term applied liberally by Slewinski to describe artists as diverse as the painter Gaustave Moreau and the polish writer Stefan Zeromski. It seems that Slewinski is referring here partly to romantic idealism, and partly to a tendency in these artists to extrapolate from the fact to the idea, as when intangibles become functionally real. The ghosts which emerge from under Moreau's paintbrush are no less realistic than the trees and ruins among which they appear.

Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Goralka z jablkiem".

The polish term "exaltacja” implies a certain pretentiousness, which would seem to suggest that for Slewinski all symbolism and the use of metaphor are mere "literariness” or worse, decadence(!) Its opposite for him is "prostota”, "simplicity” meaning "straightforwardness”, and it is this which informs his critical eye. In his own words, a subject represented as is "means more than it means”. What exactly Slewinski had in mind is difficult to say as every representation is bound to some symbolic order. It is simply in the nature of the world that it becomes less "straightforward”, the more we think about it and the longer we live in it.

In a letter to a friend Antoni Potocki, Slewinski suggests that Paul Gaugin may not have had enough "prostota” for it is "apparent” how (much) Gaugin strove to achieve it. Yet, when asked to write about Paul Gaugin, a kind of artistic obituary by a fellow artist and a friend, Slewinski comes across strangely. He describes Paul Gaugin as "the greatest decorator of his time” yet claims that because he was "too much of an artist” one cannot analyse him. One must accept him whole or not at all(?) Slewinski says he accepts Paul Gaugin for he represents for Slewinski his ideas of Art and Beauty. By Beauty he means God given laws (in nature) and by Art an artist's ability to express his experience of Beauty through outward signs. These are arbitrary and can only be understood by a handful of mortals. The Artist's role is to enable others (less fortunate than himself) to see Beauty. I think this shows how far he was at odds with Paul Gaugin's whole take on Art.

In an essay introduction to an exhibition of Slewinski's paintings in Paris in 1898 (this is a year after he painted "Woman combing her hair" and around the time of his break-up with Jelizawieta), Zenon Przesmycki, a well known literary & art critic, addressing himself directly to the artist, said in conclusion,

"your (emotional) sensitivity to formal meanings is consummate. Your ability to capture the spirit of the thing, its fundamental idea, and be inspired by it, together with your ability to marry form to content, is here for all to see. Yet you must develop these further. As an artist you are forearmed from head to toe. Forward to battle.

I can wish for you nothing better than virgin white palace walls or a church to enrich and enliven with your art. Time on your hands and the necessary comforts so that you can give yourself fully to authentic work, more complex, thought-out work, more creative work.”



Was Slewinski himself then "the greatest decorator of his time”? and was his failure to become the leading avant-garde figure in polish painting due mainly to his lack of engagement with his socio-political milieu? With the intention to encounter the "authentic" such as drove Gaugin and others to paint Breton folk, Slewinski set out to paint the Polish peasant.

Whether a true or an objective or a significant representation of the peasant (significant beyond the social cliché) would ever be possible for a member of the land owning class, who so far as I know never questioned the moral or philosophical basis of the prevailing status quo, is a moot point. Even if imagination transcends all, how far did Wladyslaw Slewinski transcend his own background?

Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Sierota z Poronina".






Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Young Breton Woman”.





Slewinski was fond of saying that "in life a Polish gentleman could do either of two things; be a farmer or an artist, as in neither (activity) can one cheat.” "Oszukac" (the Polish for "cheat" in this translation) suggests also "deceit". Taken at face value, this would indicate a poor reason why he chose to practice Art. However, what he may be telling us here is that cheating or deceit were vital issues in his life. We hear about his near obsession with the sea and the wave, to paint the crest of the wave "as it really is, not as cotton wool"

Since he was brought up in the countryside, it is understandable that the sea would have naturally held a certain fascination for him but why to such an extent? What was the sea for him, considering that his Polish mountain landscapes are judged inferior to anything he ever did of the Brittany coast?

Wladyslaw Slewinski





Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Samotna skala na morzu”.



Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Mountain landscape with clouds”.


Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Morskie oko”.


This question of how to paint an object as it really is and not as something like it, the question in other words of how to offer a true representation and not a substitute (which would be cheating) makes me rather think of his mother and of her substitute; first in the person of his grandmother and later on in the woman who was his father's second wife.

I think that were it not for his ambition (attested to by a number of commentators), his influence and contribution to the development of polish painting would have been immensly nourishing and even had the immediate effects that he so fervently desired. The dream of a triumphant return home is a powerful dream; we go, we conquer and come back with the spoils. Hence ours is the sceptre. This is the anatomy of ambition. What counts is our will, determination and achievement, what doesn’t is precisely everything else.

To guess what prompted Slewinski to leave at the age of 32 for Paris we must first consider his grand return. It now seems less likely to me that he had left to pursue a dream, an adventure in Art, but more that he left because of a failure of engagement with the land and the people, and even with his father’s patriotic legacy.

I accept that Slewinski had an "epidermic” relationship to his subject. This is not to imply superficiality but a profoundly sensual response which, in Jungian terminology, would denote a "sensation” personality type. The sensation personality type is opposed to the intuitive type who relies mainly on the myth making, symbolising functions of the psyche. This way of looking at the man would explain his distrust of all "symbolism” and equally unravel his fascination with substance, which he saw as crystallisation of the essential idea of the object. Each thing was for him fundamentally material (palpable) reality and all relational properties appeared as unwarranted extrapolations of the mind.




This mixture of realism and idealism can I think be taken as the philosophical background to his art. He painted as if a tree or a human being had an indubitable essence (the object being an echo of its platonic prototype) which it was possible and given to Art to capture in representation by close attention to the actual appearance of the thing. The fact that such an approach involved the coping of a copy, something which William Blake or Paul Gaugin for that matter avoided by a disregard of realistic representation, this fact does not seem to have bothered him unduly. He painted what he saw and believed what he saw to be as solid as can be.

Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Still Life”.



Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Self Portrait”.



Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Self Portrait”.



Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Self Portrait”.



Wladyslaw Slewinski
"Self Portrait”.



After his return to Brittany in 1910, Slewinski continues painting, mainly landscapes and still lives. He also spends time in his Paris studio. Although it is said that he fell on hard times (there was a problem with Eugenia's money from St. Petersburg), he maintained contacts with Poland, and in 1916 had an exhibition at the Fine Arts Society in Cracov. While there he falls ill and is brought back to Paris where he dies on 26th March, 1916.

photo: Eugenia i Wladyslaw Slewinscy, 1915.




dublin contact: marek bogacki phone: (+3531) 872 3016 address: 6, Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1 email: colourperfect@eircom.net