After a 70-year absence this 19th-century painting has been returned to the National Museum in Warsaw.
The painting, a realistic portrait study of a non-Caucasian female typical for painting at the end of the 19th century was stolen during World War II.
The painting was made by Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz in 1884 when the artist was 27 years old and a student at the Parisian Académie Julian. The painting presents a half-naked, dark-skinned model personifying an exotic cannon of beauty, strength and womanliness. Curators from the National Museum describe the work as a magical, mysterious look of the dark eyes, and lips, which aren’t animated by a smile, express astonishment and estrangement. The unrestrained body of the model is shown on a background of a yellow wall of a studio. This corresponds to the reflections of light from the luxuriant golden jewellery. The sophisticated color scheme, a mastery in portraying the textures of fabrics and an academic finish give this portrait study an exquisite character.
In a commentary published in the Gazeta Wyborcza daily Dorota Jarecka pointed out another area of the painting’s colonial connection, an aspect that had been previously overlooked. Jarecka writes that in the painting she sees:
a woman, maybe even a girl, very young and frightened, above all humiliated, with an uncovered breast, dressed in clothes resembling the attire of ancient slaves.
The painting was made during a difficult personal period for Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz. First, she had to bid farewell to her father, than to her friend Klementyna Krassowska, who helped her financially and finally to her beloved fiancé, Wojciech Grabowski. The untimely death of Bilińska at the age of 36 thwarted the plans of founding an artistic school for women in Warsaw, which would have been organized similarly to Parisian academies.
Until 1933 The Negress was part of the collection of the meritorious Warsaw collector Dominik Witke-Jeżewski. In August 1933 the painting was granted to the National Museum in Warsaw. The museum bought the painting in June 1939. The painting was stolen during pillages carried out in the course of World War II. It was later sold at an auction in an antique shop in Munich and became part of a private collection in the south of Germany. In 2011 it reappeared in the auction house Villa Grisebach in Berlin.
The retrieval of the work was made possible thanks to immediate actions undertaken by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and thanks to the support of the Kronenberg Foundation, which was founded by the Citi Handlowy bank. Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski ordered the Department of National Heritage of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage to urgently prepare a restitution claim, which would include a full documentation certifying the work’s origin. A thorough analysis of the painting carried out by experts from the National Museum in Warsaw confirmed the work’s authenticity. The negotiations, which were conducted through a German law firm, ended in a settlement according to which, the Polish party was to reimburse the owner of the painting. In December 2011 the money was paid and the Kronenberg Foundation covered the expenses.
The return of The Negress is an inaugural act of the long-term Program of Retrieving Works of Art, which is realized by the Foundation in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
The Negress is another work of art lost during World War II, which in the past few months returned to Poland, thanks to the endeavors of the Polish Ministry of Culture.