Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, "Self-portrait with a Palette" (1887), oil on canvas, National Museum in Kraków
Cathy Locke and Georgia Modi
Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz (1854-1893) was a remarkable Polish painter who broke the boundaries of traditional art in the late 19th century. She was a member of the groundbreaking first generation of female Polish artists who enjoyed significant success in international competitions.
Bilińska’s impact on the art world during her lifetime cannot be overstated. She was among the first women to receive the prestigious Medal of the Legion of Honor in France. Her work was also exhibited in Poland, where she became an influential figure for younger generations of artists. Yet her life and plans to establish an art school for women in Warsaw were cut short by her premature death at 39.
Bilińska’s journey began in Zlatopol, Ukraine, where she was born to Jan Bilińska, a Polish doctor, and Waleria Gorzkowska. In 1875, the family moved to Warsaw, where Bilińska began studying with the renowned painter Wojciech Gerson. Gerson was one of the few teachers who taught art to women in those days. He taught students to work with a tonal technique based on values with a bit of color.
During this time, Bilińska began exhibiting her work at Warsaw’s Zacheta Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts and contributed to her family’s home budget. Although Anna’s parents were not artists, they recognized her talent and encouraged her to pursue her passion for painting. In addition, they provided her with enough resources and materials to help develop her skill, including hiring private tutors.
F E A T U R E D B O O K
In 1877, Bilińska signed up for classes at the Drawing Class in Warsaw, which later evolved into the Academy of Fine Arts. This school, led by Wojciech Gerson, was one of the few places that admitted women for an art education. However, female students had certain restrictions, such as not being allowed to participate in classes involving anatomical sketching , either from a live model or a sculpture. In addition, the mere sight of a naked male body was thought inappropriate and even morally harmful for young unmarried women. Women artists were, therefore, consigned to landscapes, still lives, portraits and related genres.
In Gerson’s studio, Bilińska formed many vital friendships, including her strongest one with Klementyna Krassowska. In 1882, Krassowska’s mother invited Bilińska to join them on tour via Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna to northern Italy. Here Bilińska could see the works of old and contemporary masters at prestigious museums and galleries. On this trip, she also met the love of her life, the painter Wojciech Grabowski. Their acquaintance soon turned into a covert engagement. Although the couple was separated by distance, their relationship grew through the exchange of letters.
Bilińska was remarkably ambitious and determined. Despite the lack of financial support from her impoverished family, she left for Paris in November of 1882. She rented a tiny room measuring just five square meters, doubling her living quarters and studio. She made a living through drawing and music lessons and sometimes selling her works.
Bilińska wrote in her journal that 1882 was the happiest year of her life. That’s when she and her friend Klementyna Krassowska traveled across Europe before settling in Paris. Her sketchbooks from this trip show that she was fascinated with landscapes and architecture.
She met her future husband, Wojciech Grabowski, in Lviv, Ukraine. Simultaneously, she decided to move to Paris with painter Zofia Stankiewicz to further her education in art, enrolling in the only school that would teach women, the Académie Julian.
Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz,“Portrait of a Lady with Opera Glasses” (1884), oil on canvas, National Museum of Warsaw
At the school, not only was she taught by the acclaimed French painters Rodolphe Julian and Tony Robert-Fleury, she also painted alongside famous students Marie Bashkirtseff and Emmeline Deane. With the guidance of her instructors Bilińska developed her skills and produced her first successful work at the school, the “Portrait of a Lady with Opera Glasses.”
This education differed from what she experienced in Poland. Classes for female students in Paris employed live models, including male ones, who wore red briefs to cover their genitals to avoid shocking the young ladies.
Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz,"A Female Study (The Negress)" (1884)
A critical stage of Bilińska’s education involved making oil studies of distinct types, for which black female models posing in exotic costumes were often employed. One such study was “A Female Study” (historical title: The Negress) from 1887, a mature work by the 27-year-old painter.
Bilińska’s career almost ended from traumatic experiences. First, her father’s death in the summer of 1884 left her without a livelihood. Then, in autumn, her closest friend, Klementyna Krassowska, died, followed just over half a year later by her fiancé, Wojciech Grabowski. The artist struggled severely with grief and depression. If not for a generous bequest from Krassowska and the help of Rodolphe Julian, who exempted Bilińska from fees and entrusted her with managing a studio, many of her most important works would never have been painted.
Bilińska’s breakthrough came with her self-portrait, painted in 1887 in Paris, the same year she lost her father, her best friend , and her fiancé. In this self-portrait, she depicted herself as a self-confident woman and a professional artist. She was awarded a medal at the Paris Salon for its realism and expressiveness. Following the success, the painter received many more portrait commissions, which she then exhibited in Paris, Kraków, Lviv, Warsaw, London, and Berlin, winning even more awards.
Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz,"At the Seaside" (1886), National Museum of Warsaw
Her most important works from that time include the “Portrait of Éleonore Martin” (1887) and the “Portrait of Countess Angéle de Vauréal” (1889), which presented the images of mature women, emphasizing their social standing, wealth, and elegance of outfits and surroundings. The most prestigious commissions came from the American millionaire and patron of the arts Alfred Corning Clark, and the collector Count Ignacy Korwin-Milewski. For the former, in 1890, she painted portraits of the artists he supported: sculptor George Grey Barnard and pianist Józef Hofmann.
In 1890, Bilińska was commissioned by Count Ignacy Korwin-Milewski to paint her self-portrait for his gallery of prominent Polish artists. However, the portrait was never completed due to her illness, which led to her death in 1893 at the age of 39.
Despite her untimely death, Bilińska achieved significant international success during her lifetime. Her self-portrait was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, where she was awarded a silver medal and granted the right to exhibit her works out of competition. Her work was also exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in London the same year. In 1891, she received a gold medal at the annual international exhibition in Berlin.
After marrying the doctor Antoni Bohdanowicz, an ardent Polish patriot she had met in Paris, Bilińska had hoped to set up a school for female students in Poland. However, her many plans to return to Warsaw never came to pass. Like many of her contemporary female painters, her works were forgotten in later decades.
Gratefully, that’s changing today. A recent exhibition of Bilińska’s work at the National Museum in Warsaw honored this groundbreaking painter to a permanent place in the pantheon of Polish art.