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Four of the Chopin portraits displayed in this exhibition – by Luigi Calamatta, Jakob Götzenberger and Pauline Viardot, née García (two) – were purchased at an auction held on 17 October 2012 at Sotheby’s salerooms in Paris. These works come from the largest music collection in Europe, gathered over seventy-five years by the music lover and artists’ patron and friend André Meyer (1884–1974). They were acquired for the Chopin Museum thanks to support from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Also exhibited are other portraits from the Museum’s collection, as well as works from foreign collections, which form an iconographic context. All the likenesses on display were produced during Chopin’s lifetime.

Up to the nineteenth century, few portraits were in private hands, and likenesses of famous creative artists were not generally familiar. The nineteenth century brought a dynamic growth in printing and other reproduction techniques. Consequently, the faces of important figures in public life, together with information about them, became more widely known, and the nascent phenomenon of the worship of artists of genius – still thriving today – was accompanied by that of artists’ visually recognisable public personas. The exhibition shows portraits of Chopin within the context of those changes.

Chopin was painted and drawn by friends, amateurs, people from his inner circle, outstanding artists, and also those with whom he was more closely acquainted. The likenesses produced during the composer’s lifetime form a broad spectrum – from caricatures drawn in private circumstances, through professional works not publicly distributed, to images widely circulated in various media. They differ in character (from neutrality through to attempts at depicting the subject’s personality), technique (from pen drawing to lithograph and sculpture) and the way they function in the visual world (from uniqueness to distribution) – al. these factors influence the degree of realism and idealisation.

In likenesses widely familiar during Chopin’s lifetime, he is portrayed in a neutral way. There are no widely circulated portraits of the composer at the piano. Chopin was not perceived during his lifetime as an artist caught up in a surge of creative inspiration, but as a discreet Romantic and a composer-pianist of the socially aspiring bourgeoisie and aristocracy. Most artists adopted tried and trusted types of portrait, with allegoric and symbolic portrayals produced mostly after Chopin’s death. Biographic elements of an anecdotal character can be found in an unpublished caricature. So is Chopin depicted in portraits, to quote George Sand, as an ‘exceptional physiognomy, seemingly without age or sex’, or as a man of distinct corporeal presence? Does a portrait of Chopin say more to us about the man himself or more about trends in portrait-painting and various interpretations of the composer’s personality?

Maciej Janicki