Jewess with Oranges: Aleksander Gierymski

Jewess with Oranges: Aleksander Gierymski

Jewess with Oranges is an 1881 quasi-Impressionist painting by Polish artist Aleksander Gierymski.

Certainly Gierymski’s most memorable accomplishment, it was painted in Warsaw, the Polish capital, it displays the city in a misty background and bears the city’s name below the signature.

An elderly street vendor of oranges, identified as a Jewish woman, looks toward us with a humble expression which avoids our eyes. Her heavy coat and shawl testify to the coldness of the season as she stands beside the road and knits while waiting for passers-by. An almost identical alternative version of this painting is titled Jewess with Lemons.

Jewess with Oranges Analysis

The painting represents Gierymski’s fertile period in Warsaw (1879-1888) when he devoted himself to the human subjects of his homeland. The lack of recognition for his modernist style caused him thereafter to migrate to Germany, from which point onward he mostly painted landscapes and architecture.

The Jewess with Oranges demonstrates his original quasi-Impressionist technique, developed during his Roman period (1875-1879) in total independence from the Impressionist movement.

Light brushstrokes have bestowed upon the canvas a scene of Warsaw street life caught as if in passing during the daily commute. The human subject appears to be raising her head to look at the passer-by whose step she has just heard, hopeful that he might turn out to be that morning’s customer.

She appears sad, melancholic, and possibly weary, with a definite hint of hopelessness on her face (her eyes are black marks between her temples). She may be a once well-off trader who fell on bad times; possibly someone who never expected to be a saleswoman at all.

Against a backdrop of pervasive blues and greys, the Jewess with Oranges stands wrapped in her heavy, unrefined, but somehow resplendent attire. The reddish hues of her cap, shawl, and overcoat establish the upper level of this painting. Her hands coming together at the midriff, with bluish sleeves along the arms, form a horizontal divider. Below them, two elements generate this painting’s peculiar shine: the oranges in the basket on the left and the white towel in the basket on the right.

Use of Color

Colour mutates from hue to hue in a liquid procession spectacularly displayed down the shoulders and the arms of the Jewess, with vermilion becoming orange and then blue without any line of demarcation between one shape and another. It is a truly Impressionist treatment which flashes the eye with an impression of definite colour when seen at an appropriate distance without actually defining any of the shapes at all, as we realise from close up (when her garments appear like a liquefied unity).

In trademark Impressionist fashion, colours reflect on one another: the shawl gives a golden sheen to the sides of the woman’s face, the sleeves throw bluish shadows on her hands while the oranges leave a golden trace on both hands and sleeves.

The Jewess dominates the scene and defines its structure. One half of the background before which she stands is made up of the gloomy Warsaw landscape and the other half shows a roadside railing. She stands at an elevation with respect to the city, as tall as some of the chimneys behind her. The union of her hands in the act of knitting at the very centre of the canvass occurs just above a white band of cloth which appears to be hanging from her midriff. This cruciform juncture of hands and cloth tells our eye where the visual centre of this painting is found. The two baskets on opposite sides reinforce the cross-like order: indeed the crux of the composition.

Towering above this orderly structure is the painting’s most impactful shape: the face of the Jewess with Oranges. In visible opposition to every other shape in the entire composition, the face of the street vendor is moulded with precision. The volumes appear finely delineated through expanses of tallowy colour marked by strong dark shadings which determine wrinkles, eyes, mouth, and shadows. The expressive visage of the Jewess is thus given to us as an object of special meaning in a scene in which everything else is indistinct.

We are most likely to remember the woman’s humble expression as she directs her gaze in our general direction. Yet we might be disturbed by her sadness or ill will — depending on how we perceive the dark marks which construe her eyes and mouth. We are also easily struck by the flamboyance of her attire and her fruits, in a context of cold and gloom. Indeed, the glow of orange and red about her person radiates warmth against the frigid city around her, and even in some opposition to the mildness or negativity of her face. The impression of warmth makes some spectators feel that the oranges are evoking a tropical warmth, in a soothing contrast with the climate of this north-eastern European scene.

Aleksander Gierymski

This painting is by far Aleksander Gierymski’s most recognised and appreciated creation. It represents the artist at his innovating apogee, when he brought his quick brushstroke technique to the city of his origins and applied it to the human reality around him, in what was certainly an act of patriotic love.

Gierymski was just 31 years of age when he painted Jewess with Oranges in 1881 which is considered to be one of his early works and he did not paint in the Impressionist style on many occasions. He was educated at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and spent time creating works in Italy, notably In the Arbour (1882) in the Realist style, which he became renowned for and continued to paint in this style, including other notable works such as Peasant Coffin (1894) and A Boy Carrying a Shaft (1895).

Aleksander Gierymski spent his final years in a mental institution in Rome, Italy and died in March 1901.

History of the painting

Jewess with Oranges is one of the many paintings which had the misfortune of being looted by the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. The painting was removed from the National Museum in Warsaw and taken to Germany. Its postwar whereabouts were unknown until 2010 when it appeared at a sale in northern Germany. A year later the Polish government managed to conclude an agreement for the purchase, and the painting was finally brought back to the National Museum.

Both the painting and its author, disregarded by Polish society at the time of their maturation, are today regarded as parts of the national artistic canon. But while the canvas found its way to repatriation in the end, its author never did.

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