Ferdynand Ruszczyc. A BELARUSIAN HERITAGE

Vladimir Prokoptsov

Article: 
TEACHERS AND STUDENTS
Magazine issue: 
#3 2018 (60)

A student of Arkhip Kuindzhi, Ferdynand Ruszczyc (1870-1936) became a renowned landscape and graphic artist, stage designer and educator, professor and public figure. Along with such prominent realist painters as the brothers Apollinary and Ipalit Goravsky, Stanislav Zhukovsky and Vitold Byalynitsky-Birulya, he laid the foundation for the Belarus school of landscape painting. Through his significant contributions to the evolution of his country’s visual arts and overall spiritual renewal in the 20th century, Ruszczyc earned personal fame as an artist, as well as recognition for his ancient family, which was descended from the Belarus landed gentry’s Clan Lis.

Ferdynand Ruszczyc was born on December 10 1870 at his family estate of Bohdanow in the Ashmyany uyezd (now the Volozhinsky district of the Minsk Region). His Christian upbringing and the beauty of the surrounding landscape could not help but shape the future artist's character. His father Edward Ruszczyc (1830-1910) and Dutch mother Alvina Munch (1837-1918) had four daughters and one son, Ferdynand. In keeping with family tradition, the daughters were baptized and raised in the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, while their son adopted his father's Catholic faith. Notwithstanding this division, the life of the Ruszczyc family was marked by sincere acceptance of their differences and a culture of exalted moral standards.

After the defeat of the 1863 Polish Uprising, the Ruszczyc family had to leave their residence in Bohdanow and rent out the estate and land. Their new home was in Libau, where Edward Ruszczyc obtained a post at the construction department of the Libau-Romny Railway; in the 1870s he became chief of accounting for the railway construction project, and the family moved to Minsk.

Ferdynand attended the Minsk classical preparatory school from 1883 to 1890. A talented student who enjoyed studying, he was especially successful in the sciences; in addition, he enrolled in a private art school, where he also took drawing classes from the school's owner Kozma Yermakov, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts. Ruszczyc would always remember his first art teacher with respect and gratitude.

Edward Ruszczyc wanted his son to follow the career path of his grandfather Ferdynand (1786-1846) and become a lawyer. Ferdynand obeyed his father and after graduating from preparatory school with a gold medal in 1890 he enrolled in the St. Petersburg University Department of Law. During his student years he indulged his great interest in museums and art exhibitions and in 1891 requested permission to take non-matriculated painting classes at the Academy of Arts; in the following year, Ferdynand became a full-time student at the Academy and decided to dedicate himself to art. He studied at the workshop of Ivan Shishkin, and when that artist left the Academy, continued his education under Arkhip Kuindzhi from 1895 to 1897.

Training under Shishkin and Kuindzhi had a profound effect on the budding artist, who was given the chance to learn both in the traditional painting studios and in nature, en plein air. “Shishkin taught us drawing and technique - the basics, arithmetic, so to speak, and now we are moving on to the ‘algebra' part - composition."[1] At Shishkin's suggestion, in 1894-1895 Ruszczyc took working trips to Crimea, where he drew pencil sketches and painted a number of studies, such as “Crimean Motif. Alupka" (1894), “Rocks and Sea" (1894), “Cliffs over the Sea" (1895), “Rocky Shore and Waves" (1895) and “Sea and Cliffs" (1895). These trips to Crimea were followed by a journey abroad, via Szczecin and the island of Rugen, to Southern Sweden and Berlin. From there Ruszczyc brought back picturesque oil studies characterized by an entirely different, colder colour scheme: “Two Sail Boats (1896), “Seashore" (1896), “Burdock on the Seashore" (1896), and others. Though elevating the young artist's mind, travelling nevertheless was also challenging financially for him, and he had to make money by selling his works while he was still a student, something he frequently mentioned in his diary. His teachers were quite impressed with his early work, which encouraged him to go on.

Ruszczyc developed close friendships with Arkady Rylov and other fellow students at the Academy. Followers of the realist painting style, these young artists nevertheless aspired to create new forms of artistic expression enriched by the Impressionist school of painting. Ruszczyc skillfully incorporated the best from the Russian, Polish and French traditions, not to mention the folk art of Belarus. Ilya Repin was highly complimentary of Ruszczyc's use of colour, as well as his painterly technique, and saw him as a remarkably gifted young artist.

Kuindzhi's workshop brought together a number of students, including Arkady Rylov, Nicholas Roerich, Konstantin Bogaevsky, Alexander Borisov, Vilhems PurvTtis from Latvia, and Konstanty Wroblewski from Poland. Over time, each member of this group would earn wide recognition and shape their national schools of landscape painting.

Ruszczyc chose three paintings for the Academy's 1897 graduation exhibition: “Evening Star", “Tritons" and “Spring". He successfully graduated, earning the official privilege to call himself an artist. Pavel Tretyakov acquired “Spring", a landscape depicting Ferdynand's native Bohdanow, for his famous gallery, and in 1898 the collector Savva Morozov bought “Mill in Winter".

This was true recognition. Encouraged by his success, the young artist spent almost three months in Western Europe, where he sketched and painted, with ample inspiration from the works of the French Impressionists.

After his graduation from the Academy, Ruszczyc moved to his parents' home in Bohdanow, where the familiar landscape never failed to stir his creativity. It was here that he painted his most iconic work, “The Land" (1898): a simple genre scene - a peasant working his land - grows into an epic and emotionally commanding work. Eligiusz Niewiadomski, an art critic and student of Ilya Repin, wrote: “Ruszczyc took the act of simple ploughing and turned it into a symbolic drama."[2] Bohdanow was indeed a source of continuing artistic inspiration for Ruszczyc, who painted many of his major works there: “A Mill" (1898), “Kreva" (1898), “Last Snow" (1898-1899), “By the Church" (1899), “Ballad" (1899-1900), “End of Harvest" (1900), “Evening. Vileyka" (1900), “On the Banks of the Viliya" (1900), “Forest Brook" (1900), “Barren Land" (1901), “Into the World" (1901), “Cloud" (1901), “Emigrants" (1902), “The Past" (1902-03), “Old House" (1903) and “Winter Tale" (1904), all of which “seamlessly combined Symbolism and Expressionism with a clearly representational approach."[3] In 1898, Ruszczyc wrote about the impact that the beauty of his native land had on him: “We see the beauty of other countries, and we admire it... but we only love our own, we feel that it belongs to us, and we belong to it."[4]

A masterful painter, Ruszczyc could be romantic, lyrical and exalted (“Ballad", “By the Church", “Old House", “Kreva", “End of Harvest") or dramatic and intense (works like “The Land", “Emigrants", “Into the World"). Ruszczyc was perhaps the first Belarusian artist to not only reveal the beauty of his native land, but also show the everyday life of its people. His style combined a refined palette and precise composition.

Ruszczyc often showed his work, both in Moscow and St. Petersburg; in 1899 and 1911, at the invitation of Sergei Diaghilev and Leon Bakst, he took part in the “World of Art" exhibitions. His art was gaining popularity in his homeland, too: in 1899, he exhibited several works in Vilna (now Vilnius) for the first time, and in December of the same year joined a number of Polish artists - fellow graduates of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts - to show his work in Warsaw. Art critics had high praise for “The Land", “Ballad", “Mill", and “Into the World", and Ruszczyc secured his status among the celebrated Russian and Polish painters of his time. In 1900 he took part in the Krakow Society of Friends of Fine Arts exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the Jagielloni- an University. There Ruszczyc met a number of Poland's outstanding cultural figures, including Stanisfaw Wys- pianski, Jan Stanisfawski, Jozef Mehoffer and others. Soon after that, Ruszczyc joined the Society of Polish Artists “Sztuka"[5] and for a few years, till 1913, showed his work at the Society's exhibitions in Poland, Vilna, Lvov, as well as abroad - in Vienna, Prague, Dusseldorf, London and St. Louis.

In 1902 Ruszczyc received an award from the Krakow Academy of Learning for his painting “Forest Brook", and in 1903 he organized the first exhibition of works by the “Sztuka" artists in Vilna.

In 1903-1904, Ruszczyc lived in Wfochy, outside Warsaw. Together with local artists Karol Tichy, Edward Trojanowski, Konrad Krzyzanowski and Kazimierz Stabrowski he actively participated in the effort to revive the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. During that time he also finished his symbolic painting “Nec Mergitur" (from the Latin, “She Does Not Sink"), depicting a ship sailing to an unknown fate, as well as numerous drawings of interiors and landscapes of Wfochy.

In 1906 the artist left Warsaw to move back to his native Bohdanow. At the time, his family home was a constant theme in his paintings, such as “Fireplace", “Writing Desk", “Grandmother's Room" and “After the Ball".

Ruszczyc also created numerous pencil and coloured chalk drawings and studies of interiors.

In 1907 Ruszczyc was offered the post of chairman of the Landscape Painting Department at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts and elected to lead “Sztuka". While living in Krakow, he created lyrical paintings in harmonious colour schemes; however, this was not a very productive time for Ruszczyc the artist.

Through the 1907-1908 school year, Ruszczyc taught classes at the Krakow Academy and ran a landscape-painting workshop. His students included Leon Dofzycki, Stanisfaw Podgorski, Mieczysfaw Kotarbinski and, at the Warsaw Academy, the celebrated Lithuanian artist Mikalojus Ciurlionis.

Almost a year later, on July 6 1908, Ruszczyc resigned his post at the Krakow Academy - disillusioned by the environment at the Academy and local artistic circle, he went back to Vilna, to live between the hectic city and his quiet family home in Bohdanow. Unlike in earlier periods in his career, Ruszczyc no longer focused on broad philosophical concepts, but began working on ways to create novel compositions and original colour effects. His work became more lyrical, and his use of colour reached the highest point of his career when he painted the interiors of the house in Bohdanow: “In the Rooms", “Pale Sunlight", “The Artist" and “Winter". This was the most productive and important period in the artist's life - as well as being an outstanding painter and draughtsman, he established himself as a stage designer and educator as well.

From 1909 onwards, Ruszczyc obtained a great deal of work in Vilna as a stage designer and book illustrator. Thus, he created sets and costumes for the Nuna Mfodziejowska Theatre production of Juliusz Sfowacki's drama “Lilla Weneda’’ on its Polish Summer Theatre stage; collaborated with the “Ksiqzg Nieugig- ty” Theatre of Vilna (1910); designed Sfowacki's literary almanac “Bociany”; illustrated a playbill for the Vilna Theatre and Jozef Wierzynski's publication “Remembering the Great Days. Grunwald 1410-1910”. At the same time, Ruszczyc continued painting, and on March 12 1911 organized his first solo exhibition in Minsk, where he showed his painting “Nec Mergitur” for the first time. At the end of 1911, in collaboration with Wacfaw Studnicki, the future director of the Vilna State Archive, Ruszczyc published the first issue of the magazine “Tygodnik Wilenski”, which was dedicated to the artistic and cultural life of the region and its ties to Poland. In early 1912, the artist designed costumes and organized a performance titled “The World of Fairy Tales and Merriment”, designed the cover and created numerous illustrations for the “Lithuania and Russia” magazine commemorating the life of Wfadysfaw Syrokomla, and published “Vilna Through the Ages”, an illustrated album with reproductions of works by Franciszek Smuglewicz and his own drawings.

Ruszczyc obtained permission from the city council to establish the local photographic archive, which collected photographs of Vilna's architectural treasures under the guidance of Jan Bufhak, the celebrated photographer who was a friend of Ruszczyc. Ruszczyc dedicated himself to the conservation of historical sites; he also collected folk art. His work in stage design took him beyond Vilna: Arnold Szyfman, director of the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, commissioned him to create stage and costume designs for the production of Juliusz Sfowacki's “Balladyna”. A great success, Ruszczyc's work took its rightful place in the history of Polish stage design.

At the end of summer 1915, the artist once again moved to his estate in Bohdanow and continued living and working there in 1916-1919, through the hard times of military occupation. Ruszczyc moved back to Vilna on April 19 1919 and plunged into artistic work and public life: one of the founders of the Vilna University, he established the Department of Fine Arts and worked there as dean and professor. Everything Ruszczyc did professionally, whether as an artist, educator or scholar, he did for the new university: he designed its ceremonial banners, joined professors and students for performances, and created memorial exhibitions dedicated to outstanding scientists, historical and cultural figures.

Ruszczyc worked in many different fields. He conceived of, and became a founder and first chairman of the Devotees of Vilna Society. As Chairman of the Heritage Conservation Commission, he travelled to the farthest corners of the Vilna Region (together with Napoleon Orda and Jasep Drazdowicz) to draw its once magnificent old castles, other historical buildings and the small streets of Vilna. Ruszczyc illustrated numerous books and magazines and created stage designs for official events and many theatre productions at the Vilna University.

Book illustration was especially important for Ruszczyc. He contributed to every noteworthy publication by designing book jackets, as well as posters, postage and official stamps, medals, seals and emblems. Ruszczyc designed close to a dozen flags for the military, professional guilds, societies and schools. His contributions marked a special period in the history of book printing in Vilna, and even today his approach to book graphics draws the attention of scholars. Journalism also played an important part in Ruszczyc's professional life: he wrote prolifically for periodicals, gave interviews, and worked on his memoirs. From 1894 to 1932 he kept a diary, which later became an important source of information for scholars of his life.

It is hard not to admire Ruszczyc's many talents and active professional contributions, as well as marvel at how much he achieved in very different fields. How could one man have been so good at so many things?

His eminence as an artist alone would have guaranteed him fame!

Such an intense professional schedule and involvement in public life could not but take a toll on the artist's health. In 1932 Ruszczyc suffered a stroke, which left him unable to speak or paint with his right hand. He stopped teaching and cancelled public engagements, settling in Bohdanow where he continued to sketch. Ruszczyc retired in 1935; he was awarded the title of honorary professor at the Stephen Batory University. Long before his illness, in 1900, in his own garden he painted “Old Apple Trees", the twisted trunks and intertwined branches conjuring up the images of tired, old hands that had worked too hard for too long. The viewer is left with the thought: did Ruszczyc foresee his tragic misfortune, the loss of his ability to paint? Life bent him, but never broke him - he went on to paint with his left hand. Another mystical work comes to mind, his painting “Nec Mergitur": how dramatically it expresses a sense of the power of life and the strength of the human spirit. A dramatic wave of unreal hues carries a ship; crimson in the rays of the setting sun, the shining ship rises high, like the mythical Atlantis surrounded by water. Ruszczyc died some 30 years after he painted this piece. The tidal waves of life no longer carried him - he sailed alone into Eternity, into the Universe, to leave a long-lasting memory in his homeland.

Ruszczyc died on October 30 1936. He was buried at the family cemetery in Bohdanow, next to his parents and his wife Regina Rouck, with whom he had six children. Today various places in Poland and Lithuania where Ferdynand Ruszczyc lived and worked bear his name; there are commemorative plaques and streets named in his honour in his native Bohdanow and Minsk. The artist's vast and varied oeuvre, marked by the highest levels of professionalism and public significance, still attracts the attention of scholars.

The name of this remarkable artist of Belarus is gradually returning to public attention, as are his works. The Belarus National Museum of Art used to have only one painting by Ruszczyc, “By the Church". This year, as we celebrate the 145th anniversary of the artist's birth, Belgasprombank has acquired two of Ruszczyc's works for its corporate collection, “Hayloft and Hedge" (1899) and “Landscape. Vileyka". The artist's family estate in Bohdanow is to be restored to make it a place of pilgrimage for artists and admirers of Ruszczyc's work, a fitting way to honour the memory of this remarkable artist and patriot.

 

  1. Ruszczyc, Ferdynand. “Diary. To Vil- na. 1894-1904". Minsk, 2002. P. 8.
  2. Nevedomski, E. ‘An Exceptional Exhibition’ // “Kurier Codzienny". 1900. No. 4.
  3. “Ferdynand Ruszczyc. 1870-1936". Exhibition Catalogue. National Museum, Warsaw, 1966. P. 34.
  4. Ruszczyc, Ferdynand. “Diary. To Vil- na". 1894-1904. P. 11.
  5. The Society of Polish Artists “Sztuka" (“Art" in Polish) was founded in Krakow in 1897. Almost all Polish artists of various progressive artistic movements joined the society.

Illustrations

Old House. 1903
Old House. 1903
Oil on canvas. 93 × 83 cm. National Museum, Warsaw
The Land. 1898. Detail
The Land. 1898
Oil on canvas. National Museum, Warsaw. Detail
Spring. 1897
Spring. 1897
Oil on canvas. 152 × 103 сm. Tretyakov Gallery
Summer on the Western Dvina. 1895 (?)
Summer on the Western Dvina. 1895 (?)
Oil on canvas. Russian Museum
By the Church. 1899
By the Church. 1899
Oil on canvas. 103.7 × 78 cm
The Land. 1898
The Land. 1898
Oil on canvas. 171 × 219 cm. National Museum, Warsaw
Old Apple Trees. 1900
Old Apple Trees. 1900
Oil on canvas. 85 × 165 cm. National Museum, Warsaw
Forest Brook. 1900
Forest Brook. 1900
Oil on canvas. National Museum, Warsaw
Waste Ground. The Old Nest. 1901
Waste Ground. The Old Nest. 1901
Oil on canvas. 89 × 112 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum, Vilnius
Landscape. 1901
Landscape. 1901
Oil on canvas. National Museum, Warsaw
Emigrants. 1902
Emigrants. 1902
Oil on canvas. 88 × 168 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum, Vilnius
Mallows. 1905
Mallows. 1905
Oil on canvas. National Museum, Warsaw
Spring. 1907
Spring. 1907
Oil on panel. 40.5 × 32 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum, Vilnius
Nec Mergitur. 1904–1905
Nec Mergitur. 1904–1905
Oil on canvas. 219 × 203 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum, Vilnius
The Past. 1902–1903
The Past. 1902-1903
Oil on canvas. 134 × 202 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum, Vilnius

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