If you think Ukraine consists largely of steppe and broad rivers, consider the Carpathian Mountains, whose eastern peaks reach into western Ukraine. Like most mountainous regions, they have smaller ethnic groups, in this case the Hutsul people, who became popular subjects for artists during the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when they were ‘discovered’ by several mainly Polish painters. This article shows some of their paintings.
Perhaps the best-known artist to paint Hutsuls is Teodor Axentowicz (1859–1938), who was an Armenian (name Թեոդոր Աքսենտովիչ), born in Braşov, then in Hungary but now in Romania. He trained initially at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, between 1879-82, then moved to Paris to study under Carolus-Duran and others until the early 1890s. His multi-national background and training was by no means unusual among artists in central and eastern Europe.
At the end of his training in Munich, Axentowicz paid his first visit to the Hutsuls, and seems to have returned to the Carpathians on several subsequent occasions.
His oil painting of a Hutsul Funeral from 1882 shows the people in the rigours of winter, the coffin being towed on a sledge behind a cart, and the mourners clutching candles as they make their way through the snow to the stave church in the distance.
The title of this painting of folk dancing is confusing. Although it names this dance as the Oberek, the second most popular Polish folk dance after the polka, the first word makes it clear that this is what’s now known as kolomyika (Ukrainian: кoлoмийкa). That’s the combination of a fast and vigorous folk dance with music and rhymed verse. It originated in the Hutsul town of Kolomyia in Ukraine, but has also become popular in north-eastern Slovenia and parts of Poland. Note how most of the dancers are barefoot.
You’ll see this painting of The Feast of Theophany or Blessing of Water from 1895 under various names, but as far as I can establish this shows a Hutsul celebration of the baptism of Christ early in the New Year.
Axentowicz’s painting of a Ruthenian Girl from about 1895 uses a term which harks back to mediaeval times, when it was applied generally to East Slavic peoples, but later became used more specifically of those from Ukraine, before it was replaced by Ukrainian.
Blessing (c 1899) is also set deep in Hutsul country, with the priest apparently blessing the food brought to him by the women of the village. In the left foreground is a splendid plaited loaf or pie dish, behind which stand the men. In the distance, someone is trudging up carrying a load of kindling.
Axentowicz’s undated Girl with a Candlestick shows a young Hutsul woman holding a candle to be blessed, as she makes her way through the snow on Candlemas Day, which takes place after Theophany and concludes the Christmas season.
Stanislaw Debicki (1866-1929) was another visitor to the Carpathians, where he painted Spinsters (1889), showing two Hutsul women spinning during the summer. Judging by the young child, neither is a spinster in the sense of being unmarried.
Red Shoe, painted in 1890 by Juliusz Zuber (1861-1910), shows an itinerant salesman trying to interest two young Hutsul women in a pair of red shoes.
Juliusz Kossak (1824–1899) painted watercolours to be used as illustrations, including this scene of two Hutsul Travelling (1892) in rugged terrain. The woman is so skilled at spinning that she’s able to work while riding in the mountains.
My final artist is Kazimierz Sichulski (1879–1942), whom I will examine in more detail in a future article. He was born in Lviv, in Ukraine, the son of a railway engineer, and first studied law at the University of Lviv. He went on to the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts in Poland, and while a student there in 1905 he visited the Hutsuls and became fascinated in their culture. These paintings of his were each made in 1909.
Hutsul Wedding shows a wedding party making their way through the snow in their traditional dress.
Sichulski painted some triptychs which appear to contain mosaics, although they only use conventional paint. Above is the left panel from The Hutsul Madonna, and below is its centre panel.
There are currently around twenty-five thousand Hutsuls, of whom over twenty thousand live in Ukraine. The town of Kolomyia in Ukraine has two museums devoted to Hutsul culture and art.