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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Solving the riddle of a portrait

A painting that united Ukraine, Poland, and Armenia
24 June, 2008 - 00:00

RZESZOW, POLAND — In the section of the Chernivtsi Museum of Art devoted to portraits of the 17th to the early 20th century is a painting of a middle-aged man dressed in the garb of an Armenian clergyman. The image is presented in an exalted manner, with strokes of gold and ocher that harmonize with the deep blue color of his clothing, which featured red details and ecclesiastical decorations in the form of bright red silk ribbons. The showiness of the portrait is emphasized by the masterful and psychologically revealing portrayal of the man’s character. The painter’s style and his attention to light and shadow in shaping volume and building up the traits of the subject leave no doubt that the artist was a true professional versed in European academic techniques of the second half of the 19th century.

Until recently this painting was listed as a portrait of an unknown individual by an anonymous artist. The identity of the subject was determined in the early 1900s, when the museum’s permanent collection was being formed. The painting shows the initials “A. S.” in the upper-right corner of the canvas, along with the date “1882.” Today the painting is entitled A Portrait of Archbishop Mitulski by the Artist A. S. (oil on canvas, 1882.) The lengthy process of identifying the painter was completed only recently, and certain conclusions can now be drawn.

There were several directions in the process of identifying the artist. One of them was aimed at ascertaining details of the biography of the Armenian archbishop of Chernivtsi, during whose tenure the grand Church of Saints Peter and Paul (architect: Josef Hlavka) was built and sanctified. The name of this clergyman was Florian Mitulski (1810-1891). The portrait was painted in 1882, when the head priest of the Armenian parish was 71 years old.

Along with the assumptions about the portrait’s Chernivtsi origins and the artist’s name, attempts were made to track Mitulski’s ties with Lviv, as he was a Polish Armenian from that city, where he had been ordained. It was only natural to assume that the artist was also from Lviv, someone who knew Mitulski well and had visited Chernivtsi. Researchers were able to utilize already accumulated data on artists who had lived and worked in Chernivtsi.

Research on this question began at the Chernivtsi Museum of Art and was expanded by further investigations that were continued in the Polish city of Rzeszow. Art historians in this city have tabulated a cumulative list of names, and information is being circulated about many of the people on this list, particularly Polish artists. One of the listed artists is Antoni Stefanowicz (1858-1929), who came from a Polish-Armenian family in Bukovyna. He attended the classical gymnasium in Chernivtsi, and once he became an artist he lived for some time in Lviv. Thus, the first conclusion was clear: both the artist Antoni Stefanowicz and Archbishop Florian Mitulski were Polish Armenians, and both of them lived in Lviv and Chernivtsi.

It was especially important to trace the nature of Stefanowicz’s creativity and the features of his artistic style. However, archival sources indicate that he was an art teacher, although his name is mentioned among a group of artists who executed the paintings on the ceiling of the Lviv Opera House. There is also one mention that the first art teacher of the famous Ukrainian artist Olena Kulchytska was a certain “Stefanowicz, a secondary school inspector.” This was the sum of all information available about Stefanowicz the painter.

The lack of Ukrainian-language literature about this artist was compensated by data found on the Internet. One Polish Web site lists celebrated Polish Armenians, including Antoni Stefanowicz, along with his biography and proof that he was friendly with the Armenian archbishop of Lviv Jozef Teodorowicz (the latter was a graduate of Chernivtsi University, who at one time had recommended Mitulski as the head of the Chernivtsi parish). The site also mentions the important fact that Stefanowicz’s works are stored in the reserve collection of the Lviv National Art Gallery. A further search led to the Web site of Cracow’s Armenian Cultural Society, with a link to its Bulletin . One of its 2007 issues contains an article by Krzysztof Stefanowicz entitled “The Life and Work of Antoni Stefanowicz.”

The next steps were obvious: I had to familiarize myself with the works at the Lviv Art Gallery and read the issue of the bulletin with the article about Stefanowicz. The head of the Armenian Cultural Society in Poland promised to help and he soon sent me the issue I was looking for. After I wrote to Andrzej Bogosewicz, an expert on the history of Armenians in Poland, I received a phone call from Cracow from the author of the Stefanowicz article.

My acquaintance with Krzysztof Stefanowicz turned out to be interesting and fruitful. He is the great-grandson of the artist Antoni Stefanowicz whose memory he holds sacred. He was kind enough to allow me to explore his private art collection. I also found photographs of his illustrious relative’s artworks that are at the Lviv Art Gallery.

The possibility that Antoni Stefanowicz was the artist behind the Mitulski portrait appeared to hold water because of the presence of the initials “A. S.” Afterwards, the different signatures that the artist made during various periods of his creative life were investigated. One of them is the above version. Stefanowicz pointed out that in the years prior to 1900, his great-grandfather had used his characteristic calligraphic monogram “A. S.” to sign his works — the same initials that appear in the painting at the Chernivtsi Museum of Art. For example, his portrait of a young woman (1883, Lviv National Art Gallery) and that of Mitulski (1882) are signed the same way. Another important feature is that in both of these paintings the artist’s signature appears in the upper right corner, except that the 1883 date is done in white, while the one in the Mitulski portrait is in black against a deep brown backdrop.

In terms of style, the Mitulski portrait is closest to the portrait of his father, which was painted in 1885. Both are united by the spatial- plastic treatment of form, heightened plasticity of the chiaroscuro sculpting of the face, and the characteristic techniques used in the portrayal of the eyes. Both these paintings are excellent examples of a psychological portrait. Thus, in Mitulski’s portrait the artist succeeded in conveying a multifaceted image of a strong personality, an individual of extraordinary willpower, who is simultaneously empathetic and understanding. Precise characteristics mark the portraits created by his son Kajetan, who was a gifted Polish artist in the period of the Lviv Secession. It is worth mentioning some of Stefanowicz’s masterful pastels, including a portrait of Lady P. (in the collection of the Lviv Art Gallery) which won a gold medal at an art exhibit in Poznan (1928) and the artist’s profoundly psychological self-portrait (from his great-grandson’s private collection).

Therefore, the artist’s signature “A. S.” and a comparative analysis of the style and techniques of Stefanowicz’s Mitulski portrait and others are convincing proof of the artist’s identity. An important aspect of the work to identify the Mitulski portrait was Krzysztof Stefanowicz’s conviction that the portrait was indeed painted by his great-grandfather.

Krzysztof Stefanowicz’s article, published in the Bulletin of the Armenian Cultural Society, was extremely informative. In it the author recounts the life of A. Stefanowicz, including several interesting details relating to his childhood, which he spent at his father’s estate in the Bukovynian village of Tovtry, his dedicated work as a teacher, and his talent as an educator. The author relates the family’s accounts of the artist’s unforgettable visits to his ancestral home after graduating from the gymnasium in Chernivtsi and enrolling in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. At his family home he luxuriated in the poetic beauty of the Bukovynian environs and his mother’s countless songs permeated with the traditions of the parental home and the local inhabitants. During his vacations “there were soirees attended by many young people, who discussed art, medicine, law, music, and literature.”

“Antoni Stefanowicz was an extraordinarily talented artist. He was an extremely industrious and energetic individual. He studied landscape painting, but he was most attracted to portraits. He ranks with the most reputable artists in this field,” the article reads.

In January 1930 the Lviv-based Polish newspaper Slowo Polskie wrote: “The merits of his talent manifested themselves in portraiture, which was always marked by precision, the proper approach, an understanding of the model’s individuality, excellent drawing skills, and refined use of color.”

Krzysztof Stefanowicz points out that after his relative graduated from the art academy, he had to choose a profession: “The first path was...to be a freelance painter. The second, a considerably more complicated one, was teaching. He chose the second.” With his inherent dedication Stefanowicz embarked on his long career in education. The author quotes the Rev. Piotrowicz as saying, “He was modest to a fault and knew how to extract from his soul such sparks of enthusiasm and joy as to captivate and inspire the youngest [pupils].”

The collected data allows us to draw up a biographical reference to this artist as follows: the Polish portraitist, landscape artist, and pedagogue Antoni Stefanowicz was born in 1858 into an Armenian- Polish family in Tovtry, a village in what is today Zastavna raion in Chernivtsi oblast. After completing high school, he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (1876-79). Among his professors were the noted Austrian artists Carl Wurzinger, Christian Griepenkerl, and A. Eisenmenger, who specialized in historical paintings.

Stefanowicz created portraits, religious compositions, and landscapes. He was especially interested in Renaissance art and drawings, which he regarded as the basis of pictorial art. He taught in the Realschule (secondary school) in Lviv and worked in Drohobych and Stanislav. Later, he was appointed inspector of Lviv schools and then of schools under Austria’s Ministry of Education. He wrote two textbooks on methods for teaching drawing in secondary and industrial schools, which were published in Lviv in 1894 and 1898. He paid serious attention to discovering children’s artistic talents.

In the 1900s Stefanowicz became a member of the Young Art Society in Lviv and was one of the artists who painted the ceiling of the Lviv Opera and Ballet Theater. In 1925 he took part in the Spring Exhibit of the Society of Fine Arts in Lviv, and in 1928, in an exhibit in Poznan.

The Polish government acknowledged Stefanowicz’s achievements by awarding him the Iron Crown Order, 3rd Class (1911), a medal and the Cross of Honor for civilian functionaries, as well as the military Cross of the Rebirth of Poland.

The artist died in Lviv in 1929 and was buried in Lychakiv Cemetery. In 1932 a large exhibit of his works and those of his son Kajetan was held at the Palace of Art in Lviv.

Today art lovers can view Stefanowicz’s works at exhibits. In 1998 and 1999 they were shown as part of an exhibit entitled “Self- Portraits in Polish Art,” which was organized by the National Museum in Cracow. His Portrait of a Young Woman (1883) was included in the exhibit “Armenian Poles: Isolation and Assimilation,” which was held at the same museum.

By Tetiana DUHAIEVA, special to The Day