Dutch master Rembrandt’s painting The Polish Rider, which once belonged to Poland’s last king, has returned to the Warsaw palace where it was last housed around 200 years ago.
It is temporarily on display at the Palace on the Isle in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park. The item has been loaned by its current owner, the Frick Collection, one of New York’s most important cultural institutions.
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The Polish Rider, painted around 1655, is one of Rembrandt’s most recognisable works and one of only two known horse portraits by the Dutch master. It belonged to Stanisław August Poniatowski, Poland’s 18th-century king and the last ruler of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and was kept at his summer residence in Łazienki Park.
The painting was offered to the king, a great admirer of Rembrandt, by a military commander, Michał Kazimierz Ogiński, in 1791 in exchange for valuable orange trees from the royal gardens. However, after Stanisław August’s death, his heirs gradually sold off the royal collection.
In 1910, the last Polish owner of the painting, Zdzisław Tarnowski, sold it to American financier, industrialist, art patron and collector Henry Clay Frick in order to gain funds to buy back Polish land that had belonged to his family.
To this day, we do not know who The Polish Rider, also called Lisowczyk, represents. Art historians theorise that the painting might depict a soldier of the Lisowczyks, an early 17th-century irregular unit of the Polish-Lithuanian light cavalry, an Old Testament or literary hero, or a historical figure.
Xavier Salomon, the chief curator of the Frick Collection, picked out The Polish Rider as one of his favourite paintings in a list of the world’s best Rembrandts published by Art News last year, describing it as “one of those paintings that encapsulate the human experience in a single image”.
“Rembrandt was fascinated by the ‘other’,” Salomon said in the justification. “He was truly interested in the wide world outside of Amsterdam…I look at this canvas every day and I have grown to love it more and more. The way the figure emerges from the shadow. The way he looks at us.”
The painting will be on display from 6 May to 7 August in the Picture Gallery at the Palace on the Isle in Łazienki Park, where it drew queues of visitors on the first weekend. Subsequently it will be presented at Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków.
It is probably the most valuable loaned painting that has been exhibited in Poland in recent years, said the director of the Royal Łazienki Museum, Zbigniew Wawer, speaking to Polskie Radio.
It is the first time that the painting has been loaned out by the Frick Collection, notes the Polish culture ministry, which has financed the exhibition.
Alicja Ptak is senior editor at Notes from Poland and a multimedia journalist. She previously worked for Reuters.