22.07.2020 Blogs, Visual arts

Glimmering Shadows

Olga Boznańska’s quiet grandeur.

Gazing directly towards the viewer, the woman stands still. Dressed in a white blouse, the figure is bathed in sunlight, the golden rays glimmering on her face and her hands.

What seems to be the focus of the painting, is her face and her eyes. The rest of the figure, as if painted in a hurry, is depicted with hastily made brushstrokes.

The woman’s skirt lacks in materiality, as the greenish greyness of the background permeates the impalpable clothing. Over the arm of the figure, one can notice a subtle glimmer of a golden frame, clearly distinct from the muted colours of the background. Holding her hands folded under her chin, the figure looks ahead with a certain affection, as if she was admiring her new painting.

This self-portrait of Olga Boznańska (1865-1940) was made in 1906 in her studio in Parisian Montparnasse. It is one of almost thirty self-portraits she created throughout her career, some destined for the collectors, some solely for her private view.

The quiet, intimate setting of the painting is characteristic of her work that linked the traditional realistic features of the 19th-century art and the modernistic, impressionistic manner of depiction. Her self-portraits, by constructing her artistic identity, documented also her steady mastery of the genre of portraiture. Popular among the Parisian elite, her clientele included artists, critics as well as aristocrats and French politicians, all of them admiring the internal focus of her portraits.

For the hastily painted brushstrokes and hazy backgrounds, by obscuring the external, revealed the internal. Muted and limited, but at the same time vibrant, colours resonated with the inner qualities of the sitters, depicting them with the subtle grandeur and depth.

As a woman, her artistic path was not devoid of difficulties and prejudices. However, partly due to the financial help from her family and her own perseverance, she was one of the female pioneer artists of this time.

While many women studied art, not many of them actually pursued it as a career, most of them hidden by history in the shadows of their husbands. Boznańska was serious about her art-making and her paintings quickly gained recognition both at home and abroad. Her personal and artistic independence began with her departure for studies to Munich where she had an opportunity to face the modern trends in art and develop her own artistic idiom.

However, the 1906 self-portrait comes from the later period of her career centred in Paris, where she spent the last four decades of her life. This painting reveals her inspirations of European artists but also captures her own artistic traits developed at this stage of her life. The muted, limited but almost glimmering colours, that are so masterly nuanced in their quietude bring to mind the work of James McNeil Whistler, whose refined portraiture studied the subtleties of colours.

In her self-portrait, Boznańska favours colour over the form, impressionistically blurring the boundaries between the subject and the background which leads to almost hazy appearance of the matter. This is typical of her other paintings and inherent to her way of work.

Surrounded by the mist of the cigarette smoke in her studio, she used curtains and props to manoeuvre with the sunlight, employing the depth and iridescence of shadows in constructing the scenery for her sitters.

Her paintings, however, never crossed the boundaries of the figurative depictions and despite the ephemerality of her work, it is strictly centred around the subject. The 1906 self-portrait is focused on herself, documenting her visual and spiritual image, highlighting artmaking as an inherent part of her identity. An expressive pose, her chin slightly raised and the soft details of her facial features depict recognizably Boznańska, as we know her otherwise from photographs, where she poses in a similar manner, constructing carefully her artistic presence.

Behind her, in the quiet golden shimmer emerging from shadows, the frame bluntly hints on her profession, presenting herself as she wanted to be seen – as an artist.

Her artistic singularity was appreciated and acknowledged during her lifetime, successfully placing Boznańska in the international canon of art.


Article above is a part of our Intern’s Blog series, written by

Jagoda Pawlak, a graduate of History of Art at UCL (University College London) and a prospective student at Warburg Institute, who took part in our Internship Programme in 2019/2020.

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