National Maritime Museum has created its collection from scratch, without any support from earlier private or public collections. From the beginning, special attention has been devoted to maritime works by Polish artists. Paintings of high artistic value which present the history of Polish and foreign art and which are related to sea and sailing have been of the highest priority. Therefore, NMM collection includes works by a number of outstanding artists of different periods and styles.
The Polish art collection includes paintings from the beginning of the 19th century to contemporary times. Initially, maritime topics were chosen occasionally by Polish artists who painted sea disasters and seascapes of the Mediterranean sea. In the later period, Realism of the second half of the 19th century made everyday life a subject of artists’ interest. Paintings presenting cleaning and drying of nets, sorting and selling of fish and also setting off and returning home of fishermen, started to be popular. Painters searched for inspiration in seaside areas, especially in Brittany, which became a real Mecca for artists at the end of the 19th century when Paul Gauguin settled in Pont Aven. “Port” by Aleksander Gierymski and “Bretagne Women by the Sea” by Władysław Wankie are great examples of such paintings.
An increase in interest in maritime motifs took place at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th centuries. Artists of that time were more concentrated on presenting seascapes that on illustrating narration. Aspects of light and colour, reflection of movement of sea water, the weather and time of day and year became significant. It cannot be denied that the change was influenced by the experience of impressionists and post-impressionists – artists of the new generation left their studio to paint in the open air more and more often. On the other hand, the Symbolism artists made use of this formal experience, referred to Romanticism in the content dimension and created landscape compositions in which nature had a deeper symbolical meaning. The most eminent Polish painters of that period presented in NMM collection include Ferdynand Ruszczyc and Michał Gorstkin Wywiórski. The Museum has gathered the biggest collection of Wywiórski’s paintings in Poland. It includes seascapes painted by the artist during his stay in Holland and Norway. Undoubtedly, “Portrait of a Lady by the Sea” by Jacek Malczewski, one of his four known portraits, representing a person painted with the sea in the background, is a unique work of art of that period.
The period between the World Wars was a period of rise of numerous artistic individualities. The art collection from that period includes works by a number of significant painters. The regaining of the independence and the access to the Baltic sea made a tremendous influence on the interest of the contemporary painters in maritime topics. Crowds of painters, inspired by the freshly regained independence, travelled to the Polish seaside. That tendency included representatives of all artistic trends and directions. The most eminent painters among them were: Marian Mokwa, Antoni Suchanek, Henryk Szczygliński, Wojciech Weiss and Zofia Stryjeńska.
During the period between the World Wars, maritime topics were a subject of interest not only for the traditional painters known as ‘seascapists’. The regaining of the independence and the access to the sea aroused tremendous interest in seascape among all Polish artistic groups. Włodzimierz Nałęcz established his studio in Lisi Jar where he held seascape workshops. Other painters – such as Stefan Filipkiewicz – were willing to spend summer months by the Baltic sea, creating a whole series of maritime images. Due to its impressively fast development, the port of Gdynia was greatly popular with artists. Michalina Krzyżanowska devoted a whole series of paintings to the port in the 1930’s. Many artists such as Wojciech Weiss joined the Polish Seascapist Group, a part of the Society of Polish Artists which in cooperation with Zachęta National Gallery of Art, organized a series of maritime exhibitions in Warsaw in the 1930’s. Similar exhibitions were organized in other Polish cities and involved the best Polish artists. Moreover, Artistic section was organized as a part of the Maritime League. Maritime art exhibitions of different artists were held regularly in the Maritime Gallery of Marian Mokwa in Gdynia whose name NMM exposition is referring to.
Artistic activities of Poles in the period between the World Wars were not limited to topics related to the regained independence and access to the Baltic sea. Many painters continued to emigrate – mostly to France and Italy – in order to acquire proper education, to learn about the latest artistic directions and also to search for new landscapes. There were some artists who lived abroad permanently and were in contact with Poland via their participation in exhibitions and membership in artistic unions. One of the best example of such artists was Jan Rubczak who came back to the country in 1930’s after almost 20 years spent in France where he created magnificent seascapes of the Mediterranean sea.
The historical port of Gdańsk has been the residence of National Maritime Museum since its foundation. Therefore, works of artists from Gdańsk who painted their home town and the port have always played a special role in the Museum’s collection. One of such artists was Wilhelm Stryowski, an artist and the father of the foundations of Gdańsk museology, an enthusiast, collector and restorer of historical monuments. Stryowski painted scenes from the life of communities which contributed a unique exotic flavour to the life of Gdańsk bourgeoisie – he painted the Gipsies, Jews and Vistula rafters. Paintings of rafters met with great success, they were reproduced by Polish illustrated periodicals.
Stanisław Chlebowski was another outstanding painter from Gdańsk. Referring to the experience of impressionists and post-impressionists, he painted city panoramas, especially in Paris and the home town of Gdańsk, the scenes of work in the port as well as flowers and still lifes.
The collection includes i.a. an interesting collection of Dutch maritime paintings dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Its main attraction is a painting by Wilhelm van de Velde the Younger, “Ships on the Roadstead”. The works of such artists as Ludolf Bakhuysen and the Willaerts family are also included in the collection. A group of maritime paintings by Flemish artists of the same period is another part of the collection. Works created by painters from the Peeters brothers’ group stand out from the other paintings.
Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky, a famous Russian maritime painter of the Romanticism period, is undoubtedly the greatest artist presented among European painters of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Aivazovsky’s seascapes are maintained in warm, light colours, inspired by seascapes of his homeland – the Crimean seaside by the Black sea. Admired highly during his career, Aivazovsky’s works are still extremely popular with visitors of European museums. Paintings by artists from the countries situated by the Baltic sea and the North sea – classical seascapes, port panoramas, impressive paintings of storms at sea and also genre scenes from the life of fishing villages and harbours – form a substantial part of the PMM collection.
National Maritime Museum has also created a unique collection of works which are closely related to the customs of people of the sea – ships’ portraits. These are decorative pictures of ships, often with full sails. The collection of National Maritime Museum is the largest collection in Poland, it contains historical information on a significant period of the history of sailing and sailing related artistic activities. The creation of the collection is a difficult process due to the fact that such paintings are very rare on our antiques market. Paintings included in the collection present ships and vessels from the countries of the Baltic and North sea areas, there are also portraits of ships from the port of Gdańsk.
The specificity of National Maritime Museum makes the iconography of the acquired works highly relevant. The Museum’s collection represents a broad range of traditional maritime images, and also genre scenes related to fishing. A majority of such motifs, which were first implemented in the 17th century, also reappear in maritime paintings of later periods.
There are just a few works of art presenting scenes from the Bible: “Animals Entering the Ark”, “Seascape with Jonah”. Scenes presenting fires in ports, which take place mainly at night, is a separate topic which was considered as a great opportunity for artists to show their excellent skills in presenting ships and building lit only by the flames. Nocturnes were also used as opportunities to present painters’ skills. Night images of ports and lighthouses from NMM collection dazzle viewers with remarkable moonlight reflections on the water surface as well as with sophisticated, often almost monochrome colours.
The 19th century brought continuation of the abovementioned topics. Realistic images of lighthouses, navigation signs are just some of the images from that period. A small painting created in England presenting smugglers sending signals to a ship approaching the shore is one of the collection’s attractions. NMM also presents works dating back to the second half of the 19th century when under the influence of impressionists, bare seascapes devoid of staffage gained popularity. The artist’s attention was focused on preserving the qualities of light and seascape. Seascape painting development continued in the 20th century in the spirit of new artistic styles and trends. Moreover, a new group of artistic motifs was created: scenes related to recreation and leisure by the water presented in the form of images of beaches and yacht harbours.