Painting self portraits of grief. The desparately short life of Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, the first internationally known female artist from Poland.

A Negress (Murzynka), 1884, National Museum in Warsaw.
‘Portrait of Anna Bilińska’ by Wojciech Piechowski, 1882, photo: National Museum in Kraków.
‘Self-Portrait’ by Anna Bilińska, in ‘Memorial’, 1920, photo: Jagiellońska Biblioteka Cyfrowa.

Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz was the first internationally known female artist from Poland. She established herself as a portrait artist in Paris, her work hung at the most prestigious European exhibitions, she won a silver medal at the World Expo in Paris and was planning an art school for women in Warsaw.

Her premature death cut her promising career short.

Both musically and artistically talented, it was unclear for some time whether Anna would pursue a career as a pianist or a painter. As a youngster, she took piano as well as drawing classes from Michał Elwiro Andriolli a well-known illustrator.

Although artistic education was quite common for girls from ‘good families’, it was expected that women would abandon their passions once they became wives and mothers. Thus, not many women were able to have an artistic career in the 19th century. Back then, women painters were still quite uncommon – they were often the wives of painters, or painting was deemed as a suitable hobby for an upper-class lady.

The Biliński family was quite admirable, as a good education was a priority for all the children regardless of their gender. In 1875, Bilińska moved to Warsaw with her brothers and mother. There, all of the children were enrolled in the conservatoire. It;s thought that Anna was an excellent pianist.

Anna Bilińska’s true passion however, was painting. Whilst at the music school, and against her parents’ wishes, she rented her own studio at 2 Nowy Świat Street and paid the rent herself. Her private studio was a liberating step. She could now paint freely and work on artistic technique. In 1877, she decided to ditch piano and started attending private classes at Wojciech Gerson’s studio where she became a close friend of the painter Klementyna Krassowska and started selling her work.

Female painters’ education differed from that of their male counterparts. Women at large weren’t allowed to participate in the study of the nude. In some private art academies in Poland, this rule held up until the end of the 19th century. There weren’t classes that taught how to portray movement and draw models and animals in action. The opportunities to travel also were quite restricted. Due to this, women focused on portraits. In the 19th century, there were no Polish women artists who painted historical, religious or mythological scenes. In this context, Anna Bilińska’s artistic career and popularity are unique.

The year 1882 was truly revolutionary for Bilińska. Klementyna Krassowska and her mother offered to take Anna on a journey that was meant to help with Klementya’s frail health. They visited Munich, Vienna and Italy. There, the artist started to keep a diary with sketches and notes from her journeys. In her diary, Bilińska mentions that she often wandered the cities alone, looking for inspiration. During these journeys, Bilińska met her future fiancée, Wojciech Grabowski, who was also a painter (although quite a mediocre one). When they returned to Poland, Bilińska dreamt about Paris. In 1882, she finally decided to move there, ditching her studies under the tutelage of the famous  Jan Matejko.

Bouguereau’s Atelier at Académie Julian, Paris,
by Jefferson David Chalfant.

In Paris, Bilińska enrolled in the Académie Julian – a private art school for painting and sculpture. She would become the first Polish woman artist to graduate from the school. The students’ education was based on Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s canon and the study of the nude. Unlike in Poland, women attending this art school could participate in academic competitions and could exhibit at the Paris Salon.

Bilińska was not only attending the art school full-time, but she also went for extracurricular evening classes. After six months, she tried to move to the men’s studio, due to the better quality of teaching there. She also studied at Olivier Merson’s studio. The artist worked insanely hard. After two months in France, she’d barely seen Paris.

The Académie Julian defined Bilińska’s artistic taste. She was not fond of impressionism, going so far as to label it as infantile. Even though impressionism wasn’t to her taste, she was very much interested in light and colour, which is perfectly depicted in her paintings of Bretagne women (i.e. On the Seashore, above).

The first years in Paris were quite tough for Bilińska. She wasn’t able to earn much, and her family, plagued by financial difficulties, was not able to support her. Nonetheless, from the beginning, it was vital for Bilińska to leave alone. It wasn’t a conventional choice. Young painters usually lived together, but Bilińska wanted freedom and space on her own to practice.

Portrait of a Lady with Opera Glasses, 1884.
Portrait of an Elegant Woman, unknown date.
Anna Bilinska, Self-Portrait with Apron and Brushes, 1887, National Museum Cracow.

Anna Bilińska’s artistic debut in 1884, when she showed a sketch during the Paris Salon, coincided with personal tragedy. First, her father passed away, followed by her close friend Klementyna Krassowska and then Wojciech Grabowski. These tragic events changed Bilińska’s outlook on art. She grieved in Normandy and after some time came back to the Académie Julian to work there. She painted less too.

Anna Bilińska’s artistic debut in 1884, when she showed a sketch during the Paris Salon, coincided with personal tragedy. First, her father passed away, then her close friend Klementyna Krassowska and then Wojciech Grabowski. These tragic events changed Bilińska’s outlook on art. She grieved in Normandy and after some time came back to the Académie Julian to work there. She painted less too.

Bilińska’s Self-Portrait from 1887 was an artistic depiction of these events and her loss. The artist decided to paint herself in mourning garb and her work tunic with messy hair. At that time, her unkempt hair was considered poor taste – this was still the period where women didn’t leave the house without a hat. It was hard to remain neutral when it came to that portrait.

Although the self-portrait was labelled as scandalous, it earned her a gold medal at the Paris Salon and a silver medal during the World Expo in 1889. The press really took notice of Bilińska. Even though critics accused her of propagating nihilism, a bohemian lifestyle and feminism, they also praised her technique. Scandals, controversies and prizes led her artistic career to take off. She was successful even outside France and Poland – her artworks were celebrated in Great Britain and the US as well as Germany.

Success gave Bilińska new energy to work. She became a well-known portrait artist in Paris. Between 1878 and 1892, she sold 102 artworks. The artist managed her career with quite modern thoughtfulness and precision. She collected articles about her artworks as well as critics’ opinions. Bilińska even commissioned a company to gather press mentions about her art.

An inheritance from Klementyna Klossowska enabled Bilińska to rent a studio at 27 rue de Fleurus (where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas also lived). The artist invited Poles residing in France for Wednesdays at her place. During one of these events, she met her future husband – Doctor Antoni Bohdanowicz. They married in 1892.

Portrait of Anna Bilinska (1857-1893) by Deane, Emmeline, (1858-1944). c. 1884.

Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowicz by Emmeline Deane (picture, left). Artist and sitter probably met in Paris in 1884, where Bilinska was studying at a women’s art course. Anna is shown wearing typical mourning dress, with what may be a black feather fan resting on her lap. In 1884, Anna’s father had died leaving her impoverished. A year later her fiancé too died.

Self-portrait, 1892.

Also in 1982, Anna Bilińska recieved a commission from a well-known art collector count Korwin-Milewski. It was another self-portrait. He wanted to have her portrait in his gallery dedicated to the most talented Polish painters. She was invited for this collaboration together with Jacek Malczewski and Aleksander Gierymski.

Bilińska painted this self-portrait according to guidelines from the benefactor. Every portrait was painted with certain restrictions in mind – painters were meant to portray themselves in a casual pose, from the knees up and with painting instruments in hand. Bilińska stopped working on this self-portrait 1892 due to her own health worsening. She was suffering from underlying health conditions and rheumatism – caused by the unsafe working conditions of her Paris studio. Her husband and other doctors were unable to help her.

Breton Woman Standing on a Doorstep, 1889. National Museum in Wroclaw.

Anna remained in France until 1892, when she married Antoni Bohdanowicz, a doctor of medicine, and took his name. After their marriage, the pair returned to Warsaw, where she intended to open a Parisian-style art school for women.

Anna fell ill with a heart condition and died a year later on 18 April 1893. Her husband came to label Bilińska’s last self-portrait as cursed. They moved to Warsaw, but Bilińska’s health continued to worsen. Her art school, and what would surely have been a stellar career, never came to be.

Due to poor health, Bilińska’s quest to establish herself in different painting repertoire was never finished. She aspired to paint myths, historical events and other traditional academic themes. The critics of Paris agreed that she definitely should take up historical painting. It was even expected of her. Sadly, neither her academic paintings nor art school ever saw the light of day – but Bilińska lives on in memory as the first internationally known Polish woman artist.

Boy, 1885.
Peonies, 1886.
Batorówka near Pskov, date unknown.
Standing semi-nude male, 1884.
Kępa, 1887.
Portrait of Antoniego Bohdanowicza, unknown date.
Portrait of a literary woman 1892.
Unter den Linden Street in Berlin, 1890, National Museum in Warsaw.
Portrait of a boy, 1889.
Woman with a Japanese Parasol, 1888.
Portrait of a young woman holding a rose, 1892.

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