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National Museum, Warsaw, Poland - Famous Museums
483    Dibyendu Banerjee    28/08/2023

Located on Aleje Jerozolimskie or Jerusalem Avenue, one of the principal streets of Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, The National Museum in Warsaw is the largest in the city and one of the largest in the country. It houses a huge collection of around 830,000 works of art, consisting of artefacts stretching from the Nubian region up to the most important works from Polish artists of the 19th Century, the artworks from the 20th and 21st centuries and a beautiful collection of iconic Polish design, from furniture and posters to fashion and industry. The massive collection of the museum covers paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs and coins, as well as utilitarian objects and designs from Poland and abroad, even some paintings from Adolf Hitler's private collection.

national museum warsaw poland

The National Museum in Warsaw has a long and turbulent history as the history of Warsaw and over 150 years of its existence, it had to go through several phases of struggle, along with the unavoidable associated changes, which included the changes to its name and governance. It began its journey on 20 May 1862, when the Public Education in the Polish Kingdom, which regulated the state of schools and cultural institutions during the period of Russian occupation, established the Museum of Fine Arts in Warsaw, along with the foundation of the Main School in Warsaw and the Main Library.

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The Museum was allocated floor space in the buildings of the Main School, with its activity completely affiliated with the School of Fine Arts and was opened to the public with the primary aim to procure collections of artworks, which would serve the development of Polish artists. However, as academic art education relied mainly on careful study and reproduction of artworks from previous eras, the Museum started to possess specimens of paintings and drawings from a variety of art schools, along with an assortment of exemplary sculptures and plaster casts, representing the pinnacles of the history of art.

national museum warsaw poland

The Museum of Fine Arts was rechristened as the National Museum of Warsaw in 1916, which soon turned into the National Museum in 1918 and its collections were relocated to a renovated and adapted building, located at 15 Podwale Street. However, much later, after a series of discussions and deliberation, the decision of constructing a new building for the museum, designed by Tadeusz Tołwińsk, on the site of Aleje Jerozolimskie, was finalised on 31 December 1923. Construction of the building complex, consisting of connected rectangular pavilions, of which four perpendicular to the street were linked at the rear by three parallel pavilions to the frontage, began in 1927 and two of the pavilions were completed in 1931.

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Finally, the grand opening of the Museum took place in 1938, with permanent exhibitions arranged in specially designed rooms for the purpose, while the first temporary exhibitions were organised with a monographic display of Aleksander Gierymski, a Polish painter of the late 19th century and the Painters of Still Life exhibition, displaying European works in the Polish collection.

national museum warsaw poland

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was the common trend to create museum buildings with rich, ornamental and sumptuous shapes and classicist details, but the Modernist building of the National Museum in Warsaw, designed by Tadeusz Tołwiński, does not have any unnecessary details or ornaments and is not directly connected to any traditional or historical styles.

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While the outer walls of the building are finished with sandstone from Szydłowiec, the same material, along with marble from Kielce, adorns its elegant but modest entrance hall. However, despite the revolutionary changes in Warsaw’s architecture since 1938, Tołwiński’s austere design remains majestic.

national museum warsaw poland

Unfortunately, the museum was closed to the public just a year later due to the onset of the Great War, when the building was severely damaged by the devastating bombardments in occupied Warsaw in 1939. During that period, the staff members of the museum, including its director, struggled hard to bravely face the situation and made exemplary efforts to protect the private artworks that were relinquished to the Museum by their owners for safekeeping. But although the Museum building survived the war, despite extensive damage, many of its invaluable possessions were destroyed or looted by the Gestapo, led by Nazi art historian Dagobert Frey, who prepared a detailed list of the most valuable artwork on his official visits from Germany in 1937. The Gestapo headquarters gifted the portrait of Maerten Soolmans, painted by the Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt, to Hans Michael Frank, the head of the General Government in Nazi Occupied Poland during the Second World War and packed several others for shipping to Berlin. Nevertheless, after the war, the National Museum in Warsaw became the central museum institution in the country by a decree of 7 May 1945 and began to receive many of the works seized by the Germans in June of that year.

national museum warsaw poland

The permanent galleries of the National Museum underwent revolutionary changes in 2012, when the paintings were rearranged thematically instead of chronologically, as landscapes, cityscapes, still life, genre painting, mythological, biblical and nudes, making it easy to observe and compare similarities and differences of works by Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German and Polish artists. The Gallery of Ancient Art, the Faras Gallery, displaying a unique collection of wall paintings and architectural elements discovered from the Faras Cathedral between 1961 and 1964, the Gallery of Medieval Art, the Gallery of Old Masters, the Gallery of 19th-century Art and the Gallery of 20th and 21st-century, containing the works of Polish painters and sculptors, are displayed in the context of art in other countries, reflecting the richness and diversity of traditions and historical experiences of the individual nations, based on the same foundation of Greco-Roman antiquity and Christianity.

national museum warsaw poland
The Faras Gallery

The Gallery of Ancient Art of the National Museum is the largest of its kind in Poland, where Egyptian art is represented by the exhibits from Polish and French excavations at Edfu and Deir el Medina, which notably include steles from Edfu dating from the 2nd Interim Period. The gallery also houses an invaluable collection of Mesopotamian seals, Eastern Europe's largest collection of Greek vases, which include the famous vases of the Czartoryski family, a sixth-century vase with the oldest image of the poetess Sappho and an amphora, a type of ancient storage jar, decorated by the painter Euthymides. The Gallery of Medieval Art contains Gothic exhibits from all historical regions of Poland, which include, among others, the sculpture of the Beautiful Madonna from Wroclaw, the Altar of Holy Virgins from Nysa and the Renaissance triptych of the Legend of St Stanislaw.  

national museum warsaw poland

The Gallery of Old Masters, located on the second floor, was conceived from the former Gallery of Decorative Art, Gallery of Old European Painting and the Gallery of Old Polish and European Portrait in 2016 and combines paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints with crafts. However, the core of the new exhibition of the Gallery of 19th-century Art, presents the main trends of shaping art in the nineteenth century, as reflected in the work of Polish painters and sculptors, in the context of selected works by representatives of other nationalities. The gallery displays one of the largest canvas paintings, measuring 14 feet by 32.41 inches and titled the Battle of Grunwald, one of the most heroic representations of the history of Poland and Lithuania, by the Polish painter Jan Matejko

national museum warsaw poland

Apart from the permanent galleries, the National Museum in Warsaw also has a comprehensive collection of Chinese porcelain, Japanese woodcuts and decorative arts, Muslim and Hindu manuscripts and textiles from the Near East. The museum is also home to numismatic collections, containing the country’s largest and most representative holdings of Greek coins from the Black Sea coast, Roman coins from the early Republic period, coins during the period of the Piast dynasty, the first historical ruling dynasty of Poland and coins dating from contemporary times.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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