The Digging potatoes, also known as The Women by the fire, is a painting by one of the most distinguished symbolist painters of the Young Poland movement. The topic inspired by his journey to Brittany between 1893-1894 depicts two women working in the field. The somber and nostalgic landscape, possibly at the sunset or early in the morning, was created with several tones of brown and gray.
Barefoot woman in Breton costume is adding wood to the fire or baking potatoes. Her companion in yellow jacket is waiting at the back. Her pensive pose, possibly a reflection on hard work, is also adding to the ambiance of the painting.
Painted with photographic exactness, his genre scenes from Brittany are described as close to the series of American painter John Singer Sargent (Les nouveaux cahiers franco-polonais: publication du centre de civilisation polonaise de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne (Paris-IV)., Volume 6, p. 104). They are moving and pleasing to the eye. Foggy texture is typical for Wankie’s style, which is described as uneven and placed on margin to the Symbolist movement (Agnieszka Morawińska, Symbolism in Polish painting, 1890-1914, p. 126). The evaluation of artist’s oeuvre was hampered by the fact that much of his work was destroyed or dispersed during or after World War II.
Similar painting, now in private collection, depicts six women harvesting potatoes among endless landscape (oil on canvas, not dated, 67.7 × 101.5 cm (26.7 × 40 in), Agra Art auction 30/05/1999). Both of them can be treated as a direct reference to the Jean-François Millet’s works which drew international acclaim at the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Similarity of topic, as well as technique of thickly applied pigments present in the Millet’s The Potato Harvest (oil on canvas, 1855, 54 × 65.2 cm (21.3 × 25.7 in), Walters Art Museum) place the Warsaw’s painting in the same representation of man's harmonious union with nature and peasants' struggle for survival. The canvas was signed by the artist at the bottom right.
The painting was transferred to the National Museum in Warsaw from the collection of the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Warsaw after 1940.
oil on canvas, after 1900, 93 × 72 cm (36.6 × 28.3 in), inventory number MP 4355, currently not on permanent display, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie (MNW)
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