Kraków team give art-lovers a thrill with their live restoration of Józef Chełmoński masterpiece
One of Poland’s most beloved paintings, Józef Chełmoński’s ‘Four-In-Hand’, is undergoing a thorough restoration that will make the optical illusion of life-size galloping horses even more realistic.
Due to its huge proportions, the National Museum in Kraków have taken the unusual step of leaving the painting where it is and carrying out all the work in front of gallery visitors.
The huge canvas, which has been hanging in Kraków’s famous Cloth Hall since 1899, is a masterpiece of Polish realism. Initially forgotten soon after it was finished, it was ‘rediscovered’ by the artist’s friends in his Paris workshop and brought back to Poland.
Hidden from German art thieves during the war, the crowd-pleaser now bestrides an entire wall at the National Museum’s Gallery of 19th-Century Painting.
Now in desperate need of restoration, museum bosses decided that the huge painting is far too big to move.
Therefore, the specialist work is being carried out on-site making it a unique opportunity for art lovers to see and learn about state-of-the-art restoration techniques.
Lead conservator Marzena Sieklucka told TFN: “We normally take paintings away to the workshop, but this one is just too big. Chełmoński painted the horses life-size, so it’s a big job.”
“Visitors can see how we are rediscovering the painting’s original colours and how art preservation looks up close,” she added.
Chełmoński’s oil on canvas, which he finished in 1881, measures and impressive 2.75 m by 6.6 m.
One of the objectives of the restoration is to make the painting even more dynamic. The much-loved naturalist painting has wowed gallery visitors for over one hundred years for the illusory way the four horses seem to be galloping at full speed out of the wall and straight at captivated viewers.
The painting has hung in the Kraków gallery since 1899 and despite several restoration projects over the years, it has become dark and lost some of its vitality.
“There are many different retouches that come from different periods and are in poor condition,” Sieklucka said.
The specialists from the museum’s Laboratory of Analyses and Non-Destructive Research of Historical Objects are now removing the dirt and yellowed varnish so that the work can regain its original colour and power of expression.
It is a Sisyphean task. The three-woman team are having to carrying out all the work using just small cotton buds, gently removing layers of varnish one stroke at a time.
“It is back-breaking work and the chemicals we use are very strong as well,” Sieklucka said perched alongside her colleagues on a scaffold in front of the painting.
The first step last week was to analyse the painting using visible light and ultraviolet. Later, an X-ray machine will be used to reveal the state of the painting and how it was made to see where the painting is damaged and what its layers are comprised of.
This will be followed by removing the existing layer of varnish. Where new colour is needed, a transparent protective layer will be added and the new paint will be applied on that. This means that Chełmoński’s original work will remain untouched and the retouching can be safely removed in the future if better restoration technologies emerge.
These efforts will restore one of Poland’s most important art works painted by an artist who his contemporaries said “had to paint like water has to flow”.
Chełmoński’s ‘Four-In-Hand’ is the peak achievement of naturalism in Polish painting. The canvas shows four horses rushing straight to the viewer, steered by a Ukrainian peasant.
The life-size horses seem to burst out of the surface of the canvas creating an illusion of energy and movement.
Museum art historian Dr Rafał Quirini-Popławski told TFN: “Although the painting is set in Podolia in Ukraine, Chełmoński painted it with huge sentiment for Poland.
“Like Mickiewicz, who wrote in Pan Tadeusz ‘Lithuania, my country, thou art like health’, Chełmoński captures the Polish soul in this painting though the action in this case is in Ukraine,” he said.
Explaining the allure of the painting, he added, “You can see a contrast between the dull monotonous landscape and the vitality and energy of the central characters.”
Sitting next to the driver enthralled by the speed of the horses sits a stoic Ukrainian nobleman smoking a pipe and looking sideways into the distance, creating a sense of surrealism.
Chełmoński worked on the painting during his stay in Paris between 1875 and 1887 where he created paintings exclusively on Polish themes, inspired by impressions from his stays in Podolia in Ukraine.
The idea for painting horses driven straight at the viewer came from his earlier time at the Munich Academy and his mentor Alexander Wagner’s work The Chariot Race.
Chełmoński repeated this motif many times and found a lot of success in Paris selling his work for considerable sums to American buyers, who were enthralled by the sense of realism.
Examples include Four In Snowdrifts, which he painted in 1873, and Return From A Ball from 1879.
When Chełmoński left Paris and returned to Poland in 1887, he left Four-In-Hand in his studio. It was only later when well-known Polish artists Władysław Podkowiński and Józef Pankiewicz entered the studio to look after it that the idea to bring it Poland arose.
Chełmoński’s friend Pia Górska described the discovery: “It was only after two years of knowing Chełmoński that we found out that somewhere in his Paris attic there was some kind of canvas. […] my brother who was in France at the time found the painting and took the first steps to send it to Poland. It is, no more or less, the famous Ukrainian four-in-hand, which bursts out of its frame on the wall of the Cracow Museum, trampling the viewer with its hooves.”
Chełmoński was encouraged to sell the painting to the recently established National Museum in Kraków. He finally sold it for 3,000 guldens, turning down a better offer of 5,000 roubles from a competing bidder.
During the Second World War, the Cloth Hall was completely emptied in a bid to save Poland’s art treasures from being stolen by the Germans.
Four-In-Hand was removed from its frame, rolled up and kept in a hiding place at the Wawel Royal Castle, where it remained safe until the end of the war.
The restoration work at the Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Painting is expected to take several months.