"Water Nymphs" by Jacek Malczewski

Malczewski intended his series of paintings entitled “Water Nymphs” to be a whole and it makes his monologue on youthful chase after happiness. The “Water Nymphs” series is also a celebration of Polish landscapes, constantly featuring in Malczewski’s compositions. The series was commissioned by Zygmunt Pusłowski, a Kraków-based art patron and collector, whose collection constitutes a sizeable part of the works on view at the Jagiellonian University Museum.

Descriptions and tactile graphics

The descriptions of the paintings from the series have been authored by Róża Książek-Czerwińska, an art historian at the Jagiellonian University Museum. The tactile graphics are by Lech Kolasiński, a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. Thanks to the tactile adaptations, Jacek Malczewski’s paintings shown at the Collegium Maius are more accessible to visitors both with and without sight disabilities.

 

"Spellbound"

Oil on canvass, dimensions: 39,5 cm (height) x 109 cm (width); 1887

"(…) There was a boy who grazed pigs. On the pastures he used to see a lady, an ideal (…)."
[J. Malczewski to Wacław Karczewski]

Description

Spellbound by Malczewski

On the photo: "Spellbound" by Jacek Malczewski.

The painting can be divided into two horizontal stripes. The stripe at the bottom of the painting shows a post-harvest field or meadow, the stage for the scene presented by the artist. It is closed off by the line of the horizon where a lightly sketched herd of sheep and scarce vegetation can be seen. The silhouettes of animals and bushes are smaller than the figures in the foreground. This is a matter of perspective, being foreshortened. The further from the beholder a given element of the painting, the smaller the scale used to paint it. The other stripe is a light blue and pinkish sky at sunset. The painting’s tonality is grey and brown.

In the foreground (first stripe), in the lower left corner, the two main protagonists can be seen: a youth and a beautiful girl-nymph, watched by him from behind the bush, and at a distance, to the right from the couple, there is a group of eye witnesses to the scene.

On the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptationBent and stooped, the boy has raised his head slightly and is kneeling on the ground subtly parting with his hands the stalks of common mullein growing in front of him, so that he can watch unseen the beautiful girl who is sitting nearby on the grass from behind them. He is wearing clothes of a shepherd boy: a linen shirt tied with a belt and light-coloured trousers.

On the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptation.

The girl appears to be the focal point of the painting, a fact highlighted even more by strong golden light cast at her. She is wearing a pink skirt, a white blouse and a yellow headscarf tied at the back. Half-kneeling, she is sitting on the ground, stroking the stalks of the mullein with her hands. Her face is inscrutable. She lowers her gaze slightly and smiles mysteriously. It is clear she realises she is being watched and tries to enthral the boy even more. The entire composition has dark tonality with the luminous silhouette of the girl the only light element.

The witnesses to the event are peasant women with children sitting on the ground, their faces revealing apprehension. They are all watching the boy with horror. It seems they can predict the tragic consequences of his youthful fascination. In the distance, over the horizon stretches a pink and light blue sky, against which some indistinct silhouettes can be seen of the animals abandoned by the shepherd boy, clearly busy with something else now...

 

"A Nymph in Mullein"

Oil on canvass, dimensions: 45,5 cm (height) x 96,5 cm (width); 1888

"(…) In autumnal mist he once saw her more clearly, swinging on the stalks of the weeds (…)."
[J. Malczewski to Wacław Karczewski]

Description

A Nymph in Mullein by Malczewski

The painting depicts a country scene set in autumn on a post-harvest field with five persons present.

On the photo: "A Nymph in Mullein" by Jacek Malczewski.

On a dirt road, partly separated from the field with pieces of some old, broken fence, a scene is played out, the main protagonists being four children and a strange-looking girl, as if not from this world, possibly a nymph.

In the background, stretches a field with stacks of hay drying before the winter, submerged to their tops in autumnal mist. The whole is topped off with a distant line of the horizon which separates the field cloaked in the foggy vapours from the sky of whitened yellow, where ragged lilac-coloured clouds float, at places pierced by little spots of brown and dark blue. As they approach the horizon, the hay stacks emerging from the mist are becoming smaller: they are foreshortened: the further from the beholder a given element of the painting, the smaller the scale used to paint it.

On the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptationIn the foreground, in the lower left corner, the two main protagonists can be seen: a young shepherd and a beautiful girl dancing among the dried stalks of mullein. Nearby, to the right from the couple, two peasant children, a girl and a boy, are sitting on the fence watching them with great concern. Another girl, horrified, has stopped closer and is watching the couple stupefied.

On the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptation.

The running shepherd boy has stopped, his silhouette captured in motion. He seems to want to escape, yet some strange power stops him from doing that and captivates him. He is wearing a brown waistcoat, from under which a greyish white linen shirt shows, tied with a belt and light brown trousers rolled up to mid-calf-length. He is barefoot. His both hands are gripping a straw hat. His face shows fear. With his mouth wide open, he is watching the girl whirling in a dance, or is she a nymph?

The girl is the focal point of the painting, a fact highlighted even more by strong golden light cast at her. She is wearing a light-brown skirt, on her back a pink shawl covering her shoulders and fluttering on the wind, and a yellow headscarf tied at the back, which shines as if made of gold. The artist captured her silhouette in motion. She seems to be whirling in the air without touching the ground with her feet. Mullein plants grow around her. Her face is inscrutable. She is looking into the distance smiling mysteriously to herself. 

Three peasant children witness the scene, two of them pitting on a broken fence. Their faces reveal concern. Gaping at the nymph, the girls have put the scarves on their heads as if wishing to seek refuge in the presence of this bizarre apparition. In turn, the boy sitting on the fence, and dressed exactly like the main protagonist in the scene, is eying the couple with some fear, but also with interest. The painting oozes some disconcerting secret, highlighted even more by the hay stacks submerged in the thick mist, whose shape is similar to that of burial mounds ...

 

"He and She"

Oil on canvass, dimensions: 38 cm (height) x 107,5 cm (width); 1888

"(…) While fishing, an adult saw a nymph, and thinking she was the same (that ideal) he was looking for her constantly even more (…)."
[J. Malczewski to Wacław Karczewski]

Description

He and She by Malczewski

On the photo: "He and She" by Jacek Malczewski.

The painting depicts a nightly scene between a young couple. The boy shown in the foreground was fishing in a lake; when he turned around pulling the net out, he saw a nymph running towards him through the water. Agitated with the sight, he took his hat off, as if to greet her, and with his eyes fixed with delight on the apparition who had taken the shape of a health-looking peasant girl. Absent-minded, he put his hat into the net, and the caught fish began to fall into it.

The boy is wearing a slightly tattered white linen shirt tied with a leather belt and trousers of the same kind. There is a clay jug tied to his belt. In his left hand he is holding a stick with a net latched on at its end, the hat in the other. He has turned his face to the right towards the nymph, at whom he is looking with delight, almost delirious. His hair is dark and curly, the face healthy and ruddy, he looks like a nice romantic youth.

On the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptation

The nymph-girl is presented wearing a white dress tightened at the waist which blows around her showing supple tights and shapely knees above the water surface. On her head is a black scarf tied at the back, with a white pattern. With her hands plaited on the nape, she is looking defiantly and diabolically at the fisherman, showing her white teeth in this rapacious smile. Around her white water lilies are blooming. The boy’s legs are invisible as only three quarters of his body is shown,  as imposed by the format of the painting. It is dark around, only the moonshine falls on the young people and it also strongly illuminates the white water lilies. In the background, behind the nymph, one can make out the rushes growing on the lake banks. Seemingly idyllic, the scene oozes dread and anxiety...

 

On the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptation.



"Tickled to Death"

Oil on canvass, dimensions: 38 cm (height) x 109,5 cm (width); 1888

"(…) Once floating wood on the Dunajec River, he saw her on the bank in wicker. At the height of his youth, having returned to his village, he went looking for her in the fields and bogs. Suddenly, spellbound by the nymphs, he was tickled to death (…)."
[J. Malczewski to Wacław Karczewski]

Description

Tickled to Death by Malczewski

The painting shows a scene played out against an autumnal peasant landscape. This time around, human, if mostly otherworldly, figures dominate the composition.

On the photo: "Tickled to Death" by Jacek Malczewski.

On the bank of a lake, in the lower left section of the image, various nymphs have gathered, who might have crawled out of the water to seduce a peasant boy moving around in the area. There are ten of them.One can see them lying against the reeds: some are lifting their shoulders, curious to look at a boy tickled to death and lying nearby with his head turned left, spread arms and slightly parted straight legs. Some are lying on their backs striking very dissolute poses, another two have sat down against the bulrush and are looking at the scene with bizarre smiles. One reclining on the side seems asleep. They are all shown wearing simple snow-white long shirts with short sleeves, and black headscarves tied at the back. As white dominates, the nymph group seems luminous.

On the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptationOn the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptation.

The colour of the youth’s dead body, in turn, despite the light-coloured clothes, merges with the steel-grey surface of the lake. The composition, which takes up the lower section of the painting, horizontal in three quarters, is closed off with a figure of a standing nymph-girl familiar from the other paintings in the series. Self-confident, she is standing with her legs slightly apart, straight, somewhat pulling the pink skirt up, as if not wanting to dip it in the lake. Her white blouse, deeply cut and almost transparent, shows her supple breasts. On the head, like before, she is wearing a yellow scarf. Turned towards the beholder, her face is pinkish, like a face of a woman alive, and the eyes look in an obstreperous and aggressive manner, as if she were looking for another victim.

The lake, the reeds and the autumnal mist hanging over the water make a background that is full of mysteries and creepily oblique. The only actual witnesses to the ghostly scene are white birds flying above the bulrush …

  

"A Drowned Man in a Nymph’s Embrace"

Oil on canvass, dimensions: 40,5 cm (height) x 95,5 cm (width), 1888

"(…) And a tale originated and remained after his death, in his home village, about a young man looking for some womanly ideal and finding that ideal after his death, since in the evening that drowned man appears in a nymph’s embrace, in vapours and mist, and washerwomen, drawing water in the evening see them at times. So he failed to find the ideal, as it was in him, and came from him, and after his death it made him luminous, becoming one with him, as an immortal and elusive target (…)."
[ J. Malczewski to Wacław Karczewski]

Description

A Drowned Man in a Nymph's Embrance by Malczewski

The painting depicts an incredible scene played out on the bank of a lake on a moonlit night. There are five figures: three young peasant washerwomen and a nymph carrying a drowned man in her arms.

The painting’s composition focuses along a diagonal line. On the left, the silhouettes of three young girls are clearly visible in the foreground; they have come to draw some water from the lake into large wooden jugs.

 

On the photo: "A Drowned Man in a Nymph's Embrance" by Jacek Malczewski.

They are wearing peasant clothes: white linen shirts, ample skirts and colourful washed out aprons. One, crouching just at the water, has carelessly thrown a dark shawl on the back, showing light hair arranged in a plait around her head. Taking water into two jugs, she is looking stupefied at the apparitions moving away across the water. The two other washerwomen are standing motionless behind her back, gaping at the incredible sight. One of them is holding an empty yoke on her shoulders. She is visible in profile: although she is young, her back is stooped from carrying heavy jugs. She has tied a red scarf around her waist, so her head is uncovered. She is wearing two plaits. The third girl is waiting her turn with a jug in her hand. As if blinded by the glaze of the moon reflected in the water surface, she is covering the eyes with her left hand. A scarf covers her head tightly, and there is a string of beads around her neck. All the three have parted their lips astounded, looking in the direction of the strange apparition as if spellbound.

On the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptationOn the photo: the tactile graphics - above a copy of the original, below an adjusted adaptation.

In the opposite upper corner, the artist has shown two otherworldly figures who arouse apprehension in the young washerwomen. These are a nymph submerging into the lake and a drowned man she is holding in her arms, his head covered with a scarf through which his dead eye sockets are visible. The nymph’s pale face, as if dead and dreadfully goggle-eyed, turned in the direction of the three girls. She is wearing a white shirt, and a white headscarf tied at the back, from under which two plaits stick out. Her body is pale, but not blue like the drowned man’s arms and legs. He is wearing a linen shirt and linen trousers, a jug tied to his waist. He is hanging inertly in the nymph’s arms, as if pulling her down with his weight.

Overgrown with thick rushes, the lake looks incredible in the moonlight. On the water runs a luminous trail which separates the nymphs and the drowned man from the girls watching them. The whitish mist is trailing over the water. Over the horizon, where the lake ends, a stripe of a dark blue sky is visible. Silvery grey and deep grey-blue dominate in the painting, making its ambience even more uncanny.