Back after a 200-year absence, a classic Rembrandt has gone on temporary show in its former home…
Unphased by the ominous clouds that have gathered behind him, he sits astride his steed exuding a sense of calm authority. Lavishly clothed, his expression is stoic, almost defiant. Gazing at this figure, one can feel almost inspired. So who, you are entitled to ask, is this enigmatic figure?
Painted by Rembrandt in around 1655, the identity of The Polish Rider is just one of many enduring mysteries that surround this masterpiece. According to some, the work is merely a simply depiction of Marcjan Aleksander Ogiński, a Lithuanian-Polish nobleman who served the Commonwealth with distinction.
Others, however, take a different view, speculating that the subject is more likely to be a representation of a historical, literary or even biblical character. The truth though, is unlikely to ever be known.
According to Dorota Juszczak of the Łazienki Królewskie Museum, this is one of the points that makes the painting so compelling. “To the full extent of our knowledge, Rembrandt never ‘explained’ this painting,” she tells the Insider. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so magic.
There are art historians that claim Rembrandt used his son, Tytus, as a model, and certainly the resemblance is uncanny, but also some that have said it could even have been a female that posed for this painting.”
In a nutshell, it is whatever – whomever – you wish it to be. Wide open to interpretation, it is easy to understand why many viewers have hailed it as a source of hope and inspiration during these troubled times.
Izabela Zychowicz, the exhibition’s co-curator, says: “It’s strictly my view, but I like to think that this painting is about hope; I like to think of the horseman as a freedom fighter battling for good. Given the situation in Ukraine, I think that it has a relevance even in this present day and contains something of an uplifting message.”
The riddles presented by this painting are many, but what we do know is of its first recorded mention. That came in 1791 when the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Michał Kazimierz Ogiński, penned a letter addressed to Poland’s last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski.
Aware that the monarch had a penchant for Rembrandt’s work, he wrote to the royal asking him if he was interested in exchanging from of the orange trees that grew in Łazienki for the painting. The answer, it appears, was yes.
“There is no trace of any financial transaction ever taking place between the two despite the meticulous records that were kept,” says Juszczak, “so we can only presume that Ogiński did really sell a Rembrandt for some fruit.”
An avid art collector, the King amassed some 2,500 works of art, eleven of which were from the hand of Rembrandt (only three are now believed to have actually been genuinely the work of the Dutchman).
Spread across his numerous properties, including the Royal Castle and the Belvedere Palace, his favorites were kept at the Palace on the Isle at Łazienki, including The Polish Rider (which had been sold to him under the title of ‘Cossack On His Horse’.
“Poniatowski had great reformatory visions,” says Juszczak, “so it’s quite possible that he saw a little bit of himself in this painting and considered the rider as his alter ego.”
On his abdication in 1795, the painting remained at Łazienki; when he died, the collection found itself dispersed and sold bit-by-bit, and we know that this fate befell The Polish Rider in 1814. Changing owners numerous times thereafter, it was finally sold to the American industrialist and arts patron Henry Frick in 1910 – crossing the Atlantic, the painting was welcomed into ‘the Frick collection’.
Following his death, his home was transformed into a museum and soon gained a reputation as one of the most valuable cultural institutions in New York.
Captivating streams of visitors, the painting’s affect was such that it even found itself taking a star role in Frank O’Hara’s 1960 poem ‘Having A Coke With You’.
But now, over a century after it left Poland, and over 200-years since it was shown in Łazienki, The Polish Rider has been temporarily returned to its spiritual home after a loan deal was struck with its current guardians at the Frick.
“For many Polish art historians, seeing this painting return to Poland – albeit temporarily – had always felt like an unobtainable dream,” says Juszczak, “so we’re hugely grateful to the cooperation shown by the Frick, and especially the curator of their collection, Dr. Xavier Salomon.”
Hung in a frame specifically reconstructed to mimic those favored by the King (the original is thought to have perished in a fire at Dzików Castle in 1927), and one of only two equestrian portraits ever painted by Rembrandt, its value is extraordinary. “It’s a superb example of Rembrandt’s later style,” says Juszczak, “and I think that even in a room filled with other paintings by him it would still stand out as something utterly exceptional.”
Yet beyond this, it is its monetary value that makes it priceless, but something a lot deeper. “This painting is held dear to the hearts of our country,” says Juszczak. “Seeing it back here can be considered one of our great cultural accomplishments.”
Where: The Palace on the Isle (The Royal Łazienki Museum)
When: Ongoing until August 7th