Travels from the glorious past of interest today

On entering the National Art Museum’s art café, the visitor is plunged into a different era, that of Napoleon Orda

On entering the National Art Museum’s art café, the visitor is plunged into a different era, that of Napoleon Orda. The atmosphere is created by an exhibition of lithographs by this outstanding figure of 19th century Belarusian culture.



An extract from Napoleon Orda’s letter to Ignaty Domeiko reads: ‘On my return, I had the pleasant idea of visiting the region which is so dear to our hearts but little known to our fellow countrymen. While travelling with a pencil in my hand, I have painted the remains of our past civilisation’.

The fate of Napoleon Orda, painter, composer and pianist, was typical of many of his countrymen. This son of a Polish gentleman from the Kobrin Province was expelled from the Imperial University of Vilnya because of his participation in a secret students’ union and was deprived of his estate after the 1831 revolt. He emigrated to France but returned home after the 1856 act of grace. Orda became a significant cultural figure for Belarusians and for those who live in the border countries of Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.

After the 1863 revolt, Orda lost the right to keep his former estate as a leaseholder and approached old age in poverty. He began to travel through his land, making drawings and sketches of towns, ancient castles, churches, country estates, mansions and places linked to the lives of eminent people of the former Rzecz Pospolita (now Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian lands). Orda’s journeys lasted for over a decade and he painted more than 900 drawings and watercolours. Only 260 of them were printed and edited by the painter using his own funds. Eight series were united by the common title — Album Widokόw Historycznych Polski Poświęcony Rodakom Zrysowany z Natury Przez Napoleona Ordę (The Album of Historical Views of Poland Devoted to its Countrymen and Painted by Napoleon Orda from Nature) — were published at the Warsaw Lithography of Maksymilian Fajans. For a decade, lithographer Aloiz Miserovich printed each page in over 1,000 copies of the book.


Even today Napoleon Orda’s old pieces are interesting

Aloiz Miserovich was a lithographer, a graphic artist and a painter. He lived in Warsaw and his works were exhibited at the Fine Arts’ Reward Association. He was connected with the Warsaw lithograph studios of Jozef Herkner, Maksymilian Fajans and Leopold Watson and worked mostly in the portrait and landscape genres. The graphical artist and lithographer authored the albums printed at the lithograph studio of Maksymilian Fajans: Albummalowniczy Gubernii Augustowskie (The Picturesque Album of the Augustów Governorate) and Radomsko Krakowskie Album Malowniczo-Historyczne (Radom and Kraków Picturesque Historical Album).

The art café’s exhibition features 16 lithographs from the first three ‘kresy’ [ the outskirts of the Rzecz Pospolita] series of Napoleon Orda’s albums — entitled Album Widoków Gubernii Grodzieńskiej, Wileńskij, Mińskiej, Kowieńskiej, Wołyńskiej, Podolskiej i Kijówskiej (The Album of Views and Scenes of Grodno, Vilno, Minsk, Koven, Volyn, Podolsk and Kiev Provinces).

By the mid-19th century, a different understanding of architectural monuments in fine art was formed. Pictures did not simply feature impressions seen on journeys but depicted everything through the prism of historical awareness — focused on prominent historical events and related places, architectural monuments and famous people.

For the lands of the former Rzecz Pospolita, the depiction of local landscape and architectural monuments was a common and popular theme to promote patriotic and national ideas, particularly after the revolts of 1830-1831s and 1863. Architectural landscapes of ancient times were linked to the beauties of the former Poland’s magnificence and its rich culture and art.

Landscapes became the country’s painted history relating to the memory of noble families and their estates. Through his album, Orda erected a monument to himself by the renovation and preservation of ancient castles, splendid residences and unpretentious estates of the Polish gentry. The edition shows the process of enlightenment and presence of civilisation even more eloquently than description. When a visitor studies the exhibition carefully, they seem to travel in their minds through the land. Orda zealously tried to draw all the scenes that he thought deserved to be preserved in the memory of future generations. The painter strived to preserve architectural monuments, while making them recognisable for contemporaries, who were often more familiar with the sights of Switzerland and Italy than their native land. It was necessary for him to reveal the beauty of the local land and its history. A simple and popular style of lithography seemed to be the best way for quick and inexpensive replication of ancient monuments, making them better known to a wider audience.

Napoleon Orda’s works display an emotional attitude towards the local land and its history; through the landscape’s documentary details. Recognising one’s connection to centuries of history gives rise to a feeling of patriotism and a sense of the value of one’s own land. 

A desire to unite all architectural monuments in a single album is combined with a wish to preserve the memory of distinguished figures of history and culture. Napoleon Orda depicts places which are somehow close to life; this indicates the significance of a personal involvement of certain figures in the making of history. The Merechevshchina estate, Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s motherland, was not chosen accidentally.

In his album, Napoleon Orda, a patriot of his own country, acts as a representative and a mouthpiece of national ideas. Under the umbrella of a struggle for the preservation of national independence, Orda’s Album of Historical Scenes and Views is among the most popular 19th century albums. This becomes clear when visiting the exhibition of selected works from this album at the National Art Museum.


By Veniamin Mikheev

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