Record-breaking sale of Polish artist’s painting

A private collector has paid PLN 7 million (EUR 1.60 mln) for the “Portrait of Professor Doctor Karol Gilewski” painted by Poland’s iconic historical painter Jan Matejko, making it the most expensive painting in the history of Poland's auction market.

“The power of the cultural value of this masterpiece is inestimable and that is why we hope that it will find its place in a museum depository,” the head of Polswiss Art Auction House Iwona Buchner-Grzesiak told the Polish Press Agency.

Ms Buchner-Grzesiak also stressed that the purchase “came in very precarious times, something that proves the strength of the alternative investments market.”

The Tuesday auction began with PLN 2 mln (EUR 460,000) bid and reached PLN 5.9 mln (EUR 1.35 mln). Together with auction fees which accounted for 18 percent of the price, the total transaction amounted to PLN 6.96 mln (EUR 1.59 mln).

The “Portrait of Professor Doctor Karol Gilewski” was painted in 1872 and is a shining example of the best of Matejko, considered the most outstanding Polish artist of the 19th century.

The canvas itself is shrouded in mystery. Following a Polish art exhibition in Vienna, 1915, the painting was off the radar for 100 years, only to be tracked down abroad in 2015.

The subject of the painting, Karol Gilewski (1831-1871), was a brilliant physician and a precursor of many novel life-saving treatments, a social activist and the grand painter’s friend.

Gilewski received his medical education in Vienna under the tutelage of successful Vienna surgeon Franz Schuch. He received a master’s diploma in obstetrics, a PhD in surgery and a rank of surgery operator. His achievements in the fields of laryngology and gynaecology gave him fame and recognition in the medical milieu.

He was the first in Poland and third in Europe to carry out laryngotomy, which is a surgical operation involving the cutting open a patient’s larynx in order to enable breathing. At the age of 30, Gilewski returned to Kraków to take the lead of forensic medicine. Four years later he took charge of the Kraków Internal Diseases Clinic. A year later, and that is a year before his death, he became the head of the Medical Department and the head of the Jagiellonian University Clinical Facilities.

Having contracted a disease from his patient, he died prematurely at the age of 39. It was his widowed wife who commissioned the portrait to be painted.

What makes the portrait unusual is the fact that Matejko captured Karol Gilewski in three-quarter view (French: en trois quarts), which is a rare technique also used by Johannes Vermeer in his famous painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. This is a way of eternalising the person and shows nearly all of the subject’s facial features.

Painted on the backdrop of library bookshelves, the physician is dressed in a black tailcoat and dons a Jagiellonian University chain. An open medical book and a stethoscope testify his profession and a tribute to Gilewski’s work and achievements.