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Stefan Luchian
Romania's First Modern Painter

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An artist who has always intrigued me is the Romanian painter Stefan Luchian. For a long time I have searched for appropriate information about him; a couple of weeks ago I found accidentally an art book in a second-hand bookstore in Copenhagen with an extensive biography and a large amount of colour photographs of some of his best paintings -- sometimes serendipity knocks so fortuitously that it seems scary. 

Stefan Luchian was born 1st February 1868 as the first child to Elena and Dumitru Luchian, the Commander of the 3rd Battalion of Frontier Guards at the Garrison of Stefanesti, near Botosani, Romania. Had he remained an extraordinary character, or merely a representative type of his time, Stefan Luchian could have become a good novel hero. Yet, there is something that carries far more weight: painter Luchian left a work which confers an absolute significance on each of his gestures. An artist tries to put the best of himself into his work and although it is true that we should keep above all to this part of purposely prepared and willingly offered to the public, it is no less true that his very life could be a valuable lesson -- the life of a genuine artist, i.e. the life that goes hand in hand with his work and is unreservedly devoted to it, stretches far beyond any third-rate acting and vain literature. 

Stefan Luchian: Self-Portrait c. 1898. Pensil on paper.

Artistic talent was a family characteristic. One of Luchian's Ancestors on his father's side, boyar Andrei, painted several village churches in Moldavia. 

Religious painting, a very old craft in the Romanian Principalities, was handed down almost hereditarily through personal example and oral tradition within a limited number of families. 

This automatic, hereditary knowledge of drawing showed itself in young Luchian's personality from an early age; with him, drawing was a natural skill, his youth's vocation. 

Years later, when a rather unexpected meeting finally helped him devote himself to painting, his first works would be just the modest and quite unsuccessful church paintings. 

In September 1885 Luchian was admitted to the Fine Arts School in Bucharest, as well as he was admitted to the Conservatory for studying Flute. 

  • Stefan Luchian: Self-Portrait (unsigned), c. 1898. Pencil on paper. National Art Museum, Bucharest. 

Training (1889-1893)
In October 1889 Luchian leaves for Munich in Germany and is admitted to the Akademie der Bildenden Künste together with some of his Romanian fellow students. 1892-1893 he continued his studies in Paris, only interrupted by a short break in Romania to attend his mother's funeral, and sale of the childhood home. Among his teachers in Paris was the acknowledged Romanian artist, Nicolae Ion Grigorescu, in whom Luchian found a fervent attention. For a long period, at the first exhibitions Luchian opened in Paris, Griogorescu's presence (sometimes the sole visitor), his advice and his joy at seeing Luchian's works, were the only reward of the young painter's efforts. From this period stems the below painting "The Last Autumn Race". 

 Stefan Luchian: The Last Autumn Race, c. 1892. Oil on canvas.

Luchian chose therefore a self-training, masterly done, the most decisive and surest training an artist could acquire. Despite the lack of precise information, the stages of his training can be reconstructed after the main acts and moments of his artistic life: the recurrent recollection of the lessons learnt in Paris, the answers to the questions asked there and the constant concern to find appropriate answers after he had come back to Romania as well. From the day he set foot in Paris till the end of his life, Luchian belonged to a higher form of life, to a privileged class. 

The Revolutionist (1893-1901) 
When Luchian left for France, he was merely a teenager hungering for discoveries and eager to learn.  When he came back to Romania, a little less than three years later, he was a self-possessed man. He had not intended to stay in Romania for a certain period of time, he wanted to settle there and work. He was getting ready to play his part in this artistic movement to the substance and spirit of which he had adapted himself by a kind of contact osmosis. Thus, the essential aim of his stay in France was fulfilled, and even if the consequences were not obvious yet, he was only entering the stage of his notable achievements to be recognized later in various parts of the works he painted in Bucharest. 

There is no doubt that Luchian's coming back to Bucharest completely changed the course of his artistic approach. Of course, the techniques he had acquired, the habit of thinking and living in a certain manner, could not be so easily questioned. They always underlay Luchian's talent. 

Yet, the radical change of the frame of life, of atmosphere and preoccupations inevitably required a reasonably long period of adjustment of the painter's fundamental unalterable qualities to his new living conditions. 

In Paris, Luchian could simply march in with a movement that had already opened up its way, merely join the fellow-artists resting on a past that was still alive and unrivalled in its richness. In Bucharest he had to start from scratch, discover his origins and map out his own way.  

One of his paintings from this period "Attacking Soldiers" has appeared on a stamp, shown on the right.

  • Romania 1977. Stefan Luchian: "Attacking Soldiers". Oil on Canvas, c. 1901. 

Romania 1977. Stefan Luchian: "Attacking Solders", c. 1901. Oil on canvas.

Another of his famous paintings from this period is "Safta, the Flower Girl" (1901). At the top of the stamp is written "tablouri impuscate" [Damaged Paintings]. 

Romania 1990. Stefan Luchian: "Safta, The Flower Girl, c. 1901. Oil on canvas. Damaged painting.

In Romania's fight for liberation December 1989, severe street battles took place, and the National Art Museum in Bucharest, including some of the art works displayed, were no exception to be damaged in these battles. Two of the damaged paintings are shown on stamps on this page. 

The damages were so impressive, that Romania issued a rather unusual set of six stamps, showing the paintings with their bullet holes. 

I do not know what the B in the selvedge stands for.   

More damaged paintings from this incident can be seen on the page of Pieter Bruegel the Elder on this site. 

It was in this period the first signs of the terrible disease of the spinal cord that was to devastate him began to show. In the beginning he put it down to his physical exhaustion after having painted the vaults of the Church of Alexandria (Romania), and simply ignored it. Unfortunately, there were far more precise and inexorable causes for the deterioration of his health. He was brought to Pantelimon Hospital and taken care of with admirable devotion by Dr. Marinescu, a great specialist. Seven months later, in 1902, he was temporarily healed on condition to follow a long and meticulous treatment afterwards. The happiness of his new freedom made hi forget about it. Shortly after, a relapse left him incurably crippled, as a result of a paralytic stroke. 

The Creator (1901-1909) 
As if to make up for the life that seemed to shrink away from him, his intelligence and his talent were waxing into an incredible brilliance. In the following ten years, at the cost of straining efforts, the painter wrung a remarkable and decisive work out of his fading life. No more hesitations, no more attempts. Nothing could divert him from his purpose; he put all his remaining energy into his art. The relentless diminution of his self, the over-all presence of death within his body, over which paralysis took a still firmer grip, made him painfully aware of his means, certain of his genius. 

Romania 1987. Stefan Luchian: "The Washer Woman", c. 1906-1907. Oil on canvas.

One of his aims was to describe Romanian country life of his own time. 

One of his most powerful paintings of this sort became "The Washer Woman", which displays extraordinarily intense variations on the plays of light through the grass, the woman's clothing, and in the washing left to dry -- all combined with a meticulous description of traditional life style in rural Romania at the beginning of the 20th century. 

  • Romania 1987. Stefan Luchian: "The Washer Woman" (c. 1906-1907). Oil on canvas. National Art Museum, Bucharest. Click here to see the original painting. The link will open in a new window.  

One of Luchian's most important portraits of this period is undoubtedly "Father Nicolas, the Kobsa [Zitar] Player". He represented the world Luchian had been familiar with and wished to keep memory of in the middle of his present life. Luchian painted Father Nicolas several times, and all the portraits of him, depicted with or without his kobsa are significant. Those grave majestic faces are among Luchian's best drawings, and the famous portrait in the Simu Museum (today in the custody of the National Art Museum in Bucharest), in which the old man holds his head in his hands is one of Luchian's incontestable masterpieces. 

Romania 1967. Stefan Luchian: "Father Nicolas, The Kobza Player", c. 1905-1906. Oil on canvas. Romania 1990. Stefan Luchian: "Father Nicolas, The Kobza Player". ca. 1905-1906. Oil on  canvas. Damaged painting.

Towards 1905 Luchian had started painting dramatic bunches of wild Chrysanthemums in a ich impasto gleaming with tints of purple and old velvet. Later he diversified and enriched his themes, also using oils for his breath-taking bunches of poppies and anemones and his lace-like chrysanthemums. On the other hand, pastels were more apt to render the delicate tones of roses, snapdragons and carnations. Below are shown samples of Luchian's flower paintings, in oil and pastels respectively. 

Romania 1976. Stefan Luchian: "Oranges and Carnatons", c. 1905. Oil on canvas. Romania 1976. Stefan Luchian: "Vase with Roses", c. 1906. Pastels on paper.

While oils are better suited for the violent effects of the midday sun filtered through the leaves, the light glistening on the flowers or sparkling in the water, the pastels lend themselves to the shades of the transition hours between day and night, of the ends of season, of the evenings and of autumn. Luchian is quoted to have said that "when you work outside, light changes from one minute to the other. If you do not make haste, the sun steals your shadows. In a minute everything is changed. But you can work fast with pastels. The silvery smoke drifting above the willows in the sunset light is far more easily rendered with a crayon". 

Romania 1968. Stefan Luchian: "Anemones in a Blue Vase", ca. 1908. Oil on canvas.

During 1907 and 1908 Luchian kept on working at the same pace as always. Portraits, landscapes, flowers, still lifes, either in oil or in pastel came, one after another, with an easiness that revealed his complete mastery of the craft. 

In 1908 he was able to resume his summer trips. Every time he brought back even more remarkable works, although the efforts took a heavy toll on his health. 

In 1968 the Romanian Post Office celebrated Luchian's birth centenary by issuing this souvenir sheet, showing one of Luchian's famous flower paintings, created 1908 during a summer trip to Brebu Monastery on the Carpathians. 

The sheet was issued in 150,000 copies, imperf with full gum, and each numbered on the reverse. The sheet shown here has number 0055669 imprinted in the lower right corner of the back side.  

  • Romania 1968. Stefan Luchian: "Anemones in a Blue Vase" (1908). Oil on canvas. National Gallery, Bucharest. 

The Survivor (1909-1916)
Luchian's self-portrait done at the end of 1908 (below right) plainly shows the devastating effects of illness over his features. The comparison with the previous self-portrait painted in 1906 (below left),  "Un Zugrav" [A Painter], is shocking in point of the change those two years of suffering brought about. The frame of his face is the same, but it is almost fleshless now. Death has hollowed his cheeks. Only his eyes are bright and clear, painfully aware, deeply sunken into their sockets as if seeking a last refuge from death. Luchian was only forty, but his death had already begun. Paralysis progressed inexorably, and slowly seized hold of all his body. 

Stefan Luchian: Self-Portrait, 1906. Stefan Luchian: Self-Portrait 1908.
Stefan Luchian: Self-Portrait 1906 Stefan Luchian: Self-Portrait 1908

With time, the wrist, then the fingers and the phalanges refused to obey his will. He could no longer run the brush so easily among the spots of light. In his last paintings he had to delay till the last possible moment the testimony of his brush on the strictly guided work done by his assistant. 

One of the last portraits Luchian did is "Lica (Girl with an Orange)" (1912). Like the above painting of Father Nicolas, Luchian painted Lica several times. Below right is Lica in profile, painted c. 1911. In this lovely portrait, the delicate features of Lica's face and body melt together with the background, and nearly turns her into an extra-terrestrial being, displaying the vague premonitions the artist might have had about his own fate. 

Romania 1984. Stefan Luchian: "Lica (Girl with an Orange)", 1912.  Oil on canvas.

Stefan Luchian: "Profile of a Girl" (Lica), c. 1911. Oil on canvas.

Luchian's major output ceased somewhere around 1913. Two years later an ignoble incident occurred, probably hastening Luchian's death. A prominent statesman, unacquainted with art, had bought among other things several paintings signed by Luchian. Doubts being expressed as to their authenticity, a complaint was filed in court and a servile clerk summoned Luchian for an inquiry. When he was informed that the painter was bedridden, he went himself to the artist's house and imposed an outrageously insistent interrogatory on the invalid, deliberately ignoring the fact that the painter was almost dying. This shameful incident achieved what the most terrible, but patiently endured sufferings had not done -- Luchian's joy, serenity, confidence and love of life that had helped him survive against all odds vanished before this last gesture of indifference, of mean insulting hostility. 

The moral destruction far more agonizing than any physical pain, whose obstinate aggression Luchian had withstood for years, was accomplished, and Luchian passed away some days later, on 27th June, 1916, fully lucid but tired of fighting. 

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