Sotheby’s to Auction Polish Paintings from the Estate of Eugene L. Slotkowski

On October 22, 2009, Sotheby’s New York will offer a group of Polish paintings from the Slotkowski Collection in Chicago as a highlight of its sale of 19th Century European Art Including Important British Paintings. The Collection comprises six pictures estimated to bring $585,000-880,000 and will be exhibited at Sotheby’s New York beginning October 17.

Henryk Siemiradzki
Circle of Henryk Siemiradzki, “The Sword Dance,” 1887 (est. $300/500,000). Photo: Sotheby’s

Pride in his Polish ancestry influenced Dr. Eugene L. Slotkowski’s passionate interest in Polish culture, art and history, especially as it intersected with Polish-Jewish relations. The son of Joseph B. Slotkowski, founder of the Slotkowski Sausage Company in Chicago, Dr. Slotkowski was trustee of the Kosciuszko Foundation American Center for Polish Culture of New York, and a dedicated collector of Polish art since the 1950s. Highlights of Property from the Slotkowski Collection demonstrate the extraordinary variety and depth found in the nineteenth-century Polish art genre, and attest to Dr. Slotkowski’s keen connoisseurship and his enduring appreciation of his heritage.

Among the works featured in the Slotkowski collection is Alfred von Wierusz Kowalski’s painting The Race (est. $150/200,000). Though Wierusz-Kowalski spent much of his life in Munich, he painted his native Poland’s customs and rural life and is best remembered for his compositions of horse and rider. Wierusz-Kowalski’s scenes often depict a white and gray snowy winter landscape; however “The Race” is among the rare works depicted in varying shades of green and gold suggesting the verdant fields of spring and summer. Here, a farmer has repurposed his hay cart and horses into a speedy race cart. While a common rural tradition in Poland’s farming communities, the racing scene, like many of the artist’s most successful compositions, had an exotic appeal to his broad base of European collectors. Wierusz-Kowalski also enjoyed a strong following among American collectors, who longed to escape to the romantic country life depicted and whose collections paired Wierusz-Kowalski’s pictures with works by other notable European artists from the time period such as Jules Breton, William Bouguereau and Ludwig Knaus.

At the time of his death in 1902, Henryk Siemiradzki was one of the most important Polish painters in the 19th century. His composition, “The Sword Dance” (est. $300/500,000), features the hallmarks of his very best work: dynamic gestures, gem-like palette, and subtle juxtaposition of warm sun and cool shadows. According to current scholarship, Siemiradzki created several versions of “The Sword Dance.” Artists frequently copied a master version in response to market demand, a practice that was not uncommon during a rapidly expanding economy and demand for art in the 1870s and 1880s. The present work was purchased by Francis O. Matthiessen, a wealthy American proprietor of sugar refineries. While many Americans travelled to Europe in the late 19th century for rest and relaxation, many, such as Matthiessen, also travelled to acquire the best art treasures of the day. Matthiessen acquired a veritable checklist of the greatest painters of the 19th century, and following his death in 1901 his collection was sold at auction. Dr. Slotkowski acquired the work from a private collector in 1968.

The Collection also includes Stanislaus von Chlebowski’s 1880 depiction of “The Circassian Guards” (est. $70/90,000). Born in Poland, Chlebowski trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg before spending six years in the Paris studio of Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. His most notable works depict historical battles, people and history of Turkey and other Orientalist subjects, all inspired by his years as an attaché at the Court of Sultan Abdülaziz. Here, he depicts two Circassian guards, identifiable by their fur-trimmed hats and long coats. Circassia, which designates a people rather than a geographic location, was conquered by the Russians in 1864, after which the remaining members left for the Ottoman Empire, where they were employed in military service.

Other works in the collection include two paintings by Juliusz Kossak – “Rider on Horseback” (est. $15/20,000) and General Poniatowski (est. $20/30,000) – as well as Josef Chelmonski’s painting “Four Horse Wagon on a Rainy Day” (est. $30/40,000).