Alfred von Wierusz-Kowalski (Suwalki, Poland c. 1848 - Munich 1915)

Cossacks Returning Home on Horseback

signed with the pseudonym ‘J Konarski’ (lower right)
oil on panel
23 x 35.5 cm (9 x 13 5/8 in)

Provenance: Property of a South German noble family.

The present work is a fine example of Alfred von Wierusz-Kowalski’s pictures of horse-drawn carts making their way through wide-open landscapes. A group of Cossacks approach the small settlement in the background, after a day of travelling through what appears to be some inhospitable terrain. The track on which they travel is rocky, uneven and dusty, and the journey across the steppe must have been a difficult and hazardous one. Cossacks Returning Home on Horseback represents neither a romanticised vision of rural life, nor an overly pessimistic one. It is a work which explores the tough conditions of rural life, reflected in the depiction of the landscape, where the paint is applied roughly to create the spiky grass and branches, and the colours of the earth and sky which muted. Kowalski masterfully expresses the heaviness of the land, that remains typically Russian, and the overall impression created is one of stoicism, which is echoed by the powerful and dutiful horses.

The present work is signed ‘J Konarski’, a pseudonym which Kowalski sometimes used to sign his work. The link between Konarski and Kowalski is discussed fully by Hans Peter Buhler in his book on the Polish members of the Munich School, but the use of a pseudonym was by no means uncommon for artists.¹

Cossacks Returning Home on Horseback is comparable to some of Kowalski’s best work, such as Returning Home (Private Collection). Both works are set under an early evening sky, capturing the pink tinged half light of the approaching dusk. The sombre browns and greens, in which the landscapes are rendered, reflect the slightly inhospitable of the terrain. Nevertheless, in both works the figures doggedly drive their carts through the landscape, their resolute stoicism reflective of the qualities embodied by the Cossacks.

Kowalski initially studied at the Warsaw School of Drawing, before continuing in Dresden. By 1871 he had moved to Prague, where he painted genre scenes for a local art dealer. In 1872 he moved to Munich where he soon came into the artistic circle of fellow Pole, Joseph von Brandt (1841-1928). Von Brandt was one of the most significant influences of Kowalski’s career, although the present work is more contemplative in mood than many of the elder artist’s battle scenes.

Kowalski’s work soon found an appreciative audience in Munich and this popularity persuaded him to settle in that city. This success continued as he was nominated as an Honorary Professor at the Akademie in 1890. Despite remaining in Munich for the rest of his life, he still made regular visits to his native Poland, where he owned an estate, and this country remained a consistent source of inspiration throughout his career.

Kowalski’s most popular works were his pictures of wolves attacking people in nocturnal, snowy landscapes, their exoticism making them particularly attractive to both dealers and collectors, particularly American collectors. In order to help him paint these lupine works, Kowalski used photographs and studies of tame wolves bred on his aforementioned estate. However, the present work reflects another major theme for Kowalski’s; the nobility and humility of the Cossack people.

¹ Buhler, Hans-Peter, Jäger, Kosaken und Polnische Reiter: Josef von Brandt, Alfred von Wierusz-Kowalski, Franz Roubaud und der Münchner Polenkreis (G. Olms, Hildesheim, New York, 1993).