Women Artists

Olga Boznanska: An Uneasy Story of a Polish Painter

Magda Michalska 18 August 2020 min Read

Olga Boznanska is one of the most famous female Polish Post-Impressionists. Her multiple portraits of fragile women and children are permeated with notes of melancholy which Olga carried with her from early childhood. Was it because of something that had happened to her in the past?

She wants to paint

Olga Boznanska, Florists
Olga Boznanska, Florists, 1889, National Museum in Krakow, Cracow, Poland.

From early childhood Olga intrigued others with her pale face and calm seriousness. Her younger sister Iza (Isabel) was a talented pianist whilst Olga leaned towards poetry and drawing. Although, their mother suffered from tuberculosis this didn't stop this relatively well-off family from travelling across Europe. It was on one such journey that Olga discovered the courtly world of Diego Velázquez and decided to become a painter. Her parents paid for private teachers (Karl Kricheldorf and Wilhelm Dürraand) in Munich, since women were not allowed into the Academy of Fine Arts.

She looks like a corpse

Olga Boznanska in her Parisian workshop
Olga Boznanska in her Parisian workshop, c.1910. Polish Library in Paris, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons.

From 1898, Olga lived in Paris. She painted prolifically, but lived poorly. She was very generous with her money and would give it away without a second thought. Her father, who supported both his daughters financially, wrote in a letter to Iza:

"(…) she's infinitely obstinate, she doesn't want to eat and looks like a dead corpse, and I'm wondering how it will end. The answer is simple and very sad. Her forces will end. (...) She kills herself with tea, cigarettes and lack of food. Please, write to her about my pain and impatience as I find no other solutions."

- in: Angelika Kuzniak, Boznańska. Non finito, Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Olga Boznanska (second from the left) with her family and friends
Olga Boznanska (second from the left) with her family and friends, Polish Library in Paris, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Iza moved to Paris to keep an eye on her sister, but she had her own problems. She had become addicted to alcohol and drugs and was diagnosed as suffering from hysteria.

She hated being touched

Olga Boznanska, Chrysanthème
Olga Boznanska, Chrysanthème, 1894, National Museum in Krakow, Cracow, Poland.

According to biographers, Olga hated being touched and all of her relationships were platonic. It is said that she didn't want to be treated like a real woman by her lovers, but rather like a woman-child who required delicate treatment and care. Jozef Czajkowski, a fellow painter, to whom she was engaged, eventually broke off their engagement after Olga decided to remain in Paris. Olga's friends and acquaintances believed that she had issues with body-perception, and noted that the women and girls she painted were always covered by layers of cloth and paint. Was Olga ashamed of her femininity?

Olga Boznanska, Great Friday (known also as Nun; Nun praying; Oaths of Tola Certowiczowna),
Olga Boznanska, Great Friday (known also as Nun; Nun praying; Oaths of Tola Certowiczowna), 1890, St. Mary's Basilica, Cracow, Poland.

Helena Baum, who knew Olga personally, and art historian Joanna Sosnowska claim it must have been a traumatic event in their past that somehow affected Olga and her sister Iza. There is a suggestion that they may have been abused by their father. In particular, Olga, who was completely dependent upon him. And it was Olga who took care of him when he fell ill, after he lost all of his possessions due to a flood in Krakow. He died in 1906 and the sisters remained alone in Paris.

Maeterlinck's girl

Olga Boznanska, Self-Portrait with a Japanese Parasol
Olga Boznanska, Self-Portrait with a Japanese Parasol, 1892, National Museum of Wroclaw, Poland.

Olga Boznanska's oeuvre definitely demonstrates an interest in the psychology of adolescent girls and young women. She often portrayed them with flowers, which were seen as symbolic of a girl's physical and mental blooming. An art critic William Ritter made a note of it in the "Gazette des Beaux- Artes" in 1896:

"Miss Olga Boznanska is not only a portraitist of peculiar psychology like Carrière [Eugène Carrière was a fin-de-siècle French painter]: she gives a form to the contemporary ideal of a character invented by Maeterlinck, giving her an image of a fair haired pale girl with uncanny eyes which like two drops of ink seem to spill over the transparent face."

- William Ritter, Gazette des Beaux-Artes, 1896, quote source: Culture.pl.
Olga Boznanska, In Orangerie,
Olga Boznanska, In Orangerie, 1890, National Museum in Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland.

In fact, in 1889, Maurice Maeterlinck, the famous Belgian Symbolist, published a collection of poems called Orangeries (Serres chaudes). Since Olga loved poetry, it's likely that she would have been inspired by the moods and ephemeral women described by the poet.

She doesn't recognize her sister

Olga Boznanska, Grandma's Birthday,
Olga Boznanska, Grandma's Birthday, before 1900, National Museum of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland.

Iza was 66 when she was found dead in her apartment. Her body was taken to the city morgue on the banks of the Seine. When Olga, aged 69, arrived and saw her sister, she is believed to have shouted: she is all black. She must have poisoned herself. Since Iza had graduated in chemistry, and she would have known how to make poisons.

Olga Boznanska, Japanese Girl
Olga Boznanska, Japanese Girl, 1889, National Museum in Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland.

Although Olga inherited everything after her sister died, she had to pay inheritance taxes which left her on the brink of poverty. Yet, she didn't return to Poland but spent her final days alone in her Paris studio. Olga lived until 1940. She once explained the power of her work:

"My paintings look great because they are the truth, they are fair, there is no narrow-mindness, no mannerism and no bluff."

- Olga Boznańska, quote source: National Museum in Cracow.

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