Pogrzeb pięciu poległych w Warszawie, 2 marca 1861 na Cmentarzu Powązkowskim (The Funeral of the Five Victims of the Demonstration of 2 March 1861 in Warsaw at the Powazki Cemetery). Aleksander Lesser, 1866. Oil on canvas. (Muzeum Narodowe, Kraków)

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Lesser, Aleksander

(1814–1884), painter, sketch artist, illustrator, art critic, and amateur researcher of antiquities. Lesser holds a place in the chronicles of Polish art as an outstanding representative of his country’s historical school. He was also one of the first artists to paint scenes from the modern history of Polish Jews.

Lesser came from a family of wealthy merchants and bankers in Warsaw who in the mid-nineteenth century belonged to a small, prominent circle of Jewish bourgeoisie and intellectuals advocating integration into Polish society. Known and respected in artistic and scholarly circles, Lesser was a cofounder in 1860 of the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts, still extant today, which aimed to promote art for the mutual benefit of both artists and society at large, and was a member of its executive committee from 1864 to 1883. Beginning in 1878, he also served on the Commission on Art History in the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Kraków.

Lesser began his formal study of painting in the Liceum Warszawskie under Aleksander Kokular and continued at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Royal University of Warsaw (1830–1831) under Antoni Brodowski, the Polish romantic painter. In the wake of the Polish uprising of 1831, when the imperial Russian authorities closed the university, Lesser went on to the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden (1832–1835), where he studied with Moritz Retzsch and Karl Christian Vogel. He ended his student years in Munich (1836–1846) as a student of Peter Cornelius, Heinrich Hess, and Julius Schnorr von Carosfeld, well known representatives of German romanticism who called themselves Nazarenes.

Lesser returned to Warsaw in 1846, where he was widely praised for his treatment of historical and religious (primarily Christian) themes, as well as for his portraits and genre scenes. Many of his paintings, including Obrona Trembowli (The Defense of Trembowla; 1840), were interpreted by both critics and the public as allegories of the Polish struggle for independence. In the 1860s, Jewish themes began to play a significant role in his work as Lesser identified himself as a Pole of the Mosaic persuasion and expressed public commitment to the Jewish people. With the encouragement of Joachim Lelewel, a historian and advocate of Polish independence who was living in exile, Lesser began to sketch and paint scenes from Polish Jewish history, creating preliminary sketches (present whereabouts unknown) for Kazimierz Wielki nadaje przywileje Żydom w Polsce (Casimir the Great Grants Privileges to the Jews in Poland), Kazimierz Wielki i Esterka (Casimir the Great and Esterke), and Berek Joselewicz.

Lesser’s most famous painting, however, is Pogrzeb pięciu poległych w Warszawie, 2 marca 1861 na Cmentarzu Powązkowskim (The Funeral of the Five Victims of the Demonstration of 2 March 1861 in Warsaw at the Powazki Cemetery; 1866), showing Polish society—Catholics, Protestants, and Jews—united against Russian autocracy. Among the clergy depicted in the painting are the archbishop Antoni Melchior Fijałkowski; two rabbis, Dov Berush Meisels and Markus Jastrow; and the Protestant minister Leopold Otto. Members of the public attending the funeral include Jews, members of the nobility, the middle class, and the peasantry. Another version of this painting, currently missing but listed in 1906 in the Warsaw collections of Mathias Bersohn, showed the funeral procession entering the Powazki cemetery.

Lesser continued his work as a painter and pursued his interest in history and history of art. His works are now mostly in the National Museum in Warsaw (more than 436 drawings and sketches), in the National Museum in Kraków, and in collections in Poznań and L’viv.

Suggested Reading

Jerzy Malinowski, Malarstwo i rzeźba Żydów Polskich w XIX i XX wieku (Warsaw, 2000); Jerzy Malinowski, “Aleksander Lesser—malarz historyczny,” in Żydzi w obronie Rzeczypospolitej, ed. Jerzy Tomaszewski (Warsaw, 1996); Jolanta Polanowska, “Lesser Aleksander,” in Słownik Artystów Polskich i w Polsce działających, ed. Janusz Derwojed, vol. 5 (Warsaw, 1993).



Translated from Polish by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov