It is a known fact that in the summer of 1821, provided references from the Vilnius University and funding from his father, he went to study in Paris, visiting Warsaw, Dresden, and Leipzig along the way. Before his departure, he got secretly married to Antanina Červinskytė of Jewish descent. He was a student of prof. Guillaume Lethiere (1760-1832) at the Paris Academy.. When in Paris, he took an interest in the work of Francois Gerard (1770–1837), Pietre Narcisse Guerino (1774–1833), and Anne Louis Girodet-Triosson (1767–1824). He made copies of paintings at the museums of Luxembourg and Louvre, and did several portraits (those of Ignacy Zamoisky, Rustem, Slizanowski) on order. In the fall of 1822, he moved to Rome where he lived until 1831. In 1826, he attended St Lucas School of Art in France, then under the direction of Antoine Jean Gros (1771–1835), on scholarship from the Vilnius University. In return for the scholarship, he undertook to send in two replicas of paintings by famous painters every year. He was also a student of professor and painter Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844) and sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1768–1844) at the Apollinare Academy. In 1823–1824, together with other painters who were studying in Rome (Jonas Trojanauskas, Julius Miševskis, Roman Postemski, Vaitiekus Kornelis Statleris, Jonas Zelinski, and Franciszek Pfanhauzer) made a club of Lithuanian and Polish painters under the umbrella of common creative and patriotic ambitions. Kanutas Ruseckas was the author of the first programme of local romantic art. In 1824, he attended classes of mosaic art of Italian master Tomberli. He painted his own compositions (The Sybil of Cumae, St Sebastian, Paris, Hector’s Farewell to Andromeda), a self-portrait, portraits of his wife, Julius Miševskis, Maria Bongiani, Tomberli. He attended several plain-air studies near Rome, in Tivoli (in 1823 and in 1825), Subiaco (in 1826), Naples (in 1825 and in 1827). He made replicas at the art galleries in Rome, Florence, Naples.
In 1831, he returned to Vilnius. Back in Lithuania, the painter continued the tradition of the Vilnius school of art both as an artist and as an educator. In 1834, he became a drawing teacher with the Vilnius Institute of Nobility. He held the post until his death. The drawing study workshop at the Vilnius Institute of Nobility that he was head of was comparable to a secondary art school. The workshop had many of the prominent Vilnius painters of the 2nd half of the 19th century, such as the brothers Alfredas and Eduardas Romeris, Tadas Goreckis, Albertas Žametas, to name a few, as its students.
Between 1848 and 1852, he rented the Dziekaniškės manor near Vilnius and tried his hand in farming. In 1856, he and Vincentas Dmachausku and Kazimieras Jelskis tried to set up an Art School in Vilnius. In his bid to gather material for paintings, he visited the Baltvydžiai Forest (in 1841), the surroundings of Novogrudok and Mir (in 1844), Petersburg (in 1843 and in 1852). In 1852, his painting St Mary Magdalene was featured at a show at the Imperial Academy of Art. He died on 2 September 1860 and was buried at the Bernardinai Cemetery in Vilnius.
The creative legacy of Kanutas Ruseckas
The creative legacy of Kanutas Ruseckas is highly variegated both in its subjects, and artistic performance. Complete works of art are few; most of his work consists of workshop pieces and creative questing: drafts, sketches and studies, as well as replicas. The artist painted religious and historical paintings, portraits, landscapes, domestic and situational compositions. He was not fond of the extremities of classicism or romanticism, and studied classical heritage. Nature was the font of his aesthetical experiences and creative inspiration.
A lot of studies, sketches of nature and mature landscapes that he painted in Rome have survived to this day. In them, the painter memorialised the architectural landscapes of Rome and their ensembles, the narrow old-town streets, the exotic park vegetation, the provincial landscapes of Rome and Italy. Some of these artworks are purely educational, others, painted with subjective experiences, make you think about the pantheistic greatness of nature (The Blue Apennines Landscape, The Italian Landscape with a Waterfall), let you feel the longing for the blue distant lands (Campania Romana) or the refreshing coolness of city parks (The City Park of Rome). Nature excited the painter in all of its aspects: whether it was the sun-basked walls of the eternal city, or the glorious sight of the mountains, or a tiny plant growing by the road (The Study of a Tobacco Plant, Agave), he sought something unique, one-of-a-kind in every motif. He admired the richness of nature’s forms, studied monuments of the past (The Coliseum Arches, The Coliseum Ruins from Within, The Rotunda Tower on a Hill). Painted with strong, vibrant brushstrokes, the landscapes are amazing in their freshness, the painter’s immediate bond with nature and life. These emotional pieces of work with their youthful temperament most probably approximate romanticism art the most. Later, Kanutas Ruseckas changed his painting style somewhat: the landscapes from his Vilnius period are slightly more modest in their colours, more subdued, lyrical, even though the motifs remained distinctive and accurate from the iconographical point of view. The way art critic Vladas Drėma put it, ‘this is the romanticism of reality’.
In Vilnius, the painter painted more than just the hilly vistas of Lithuanian landscape (The Church of St Peter and Paul in Vilnius, Vilnius View from Paplauja, The Bernardines Garden in Vilnius), the serene secluded corners (The Tyszkiewicz Mill in Paplauja, The Potocki Mill in Paplauja) – some of his paintings were of gloomy Lithuanian woods. He was probably the only one in Lithuanian art to have taken to painting animalistic compositions: inspired by his impressions from the Baltvydžiai forest, he painted the large-frame canvas The Hunt for the Aurochs, and when he was painting his In the Den of Bears, he even bought himself a little bear so that he could watch it and paint from nature.
During that period, Kanutas Ruseckas did some excellent portraits and self-portraits. Some of the canvases were painted hurriedly, offhand, aiming to portray the characteristics and mental stay of the subject as accurately as possible (The Laughing Italian, the portraits of Felix Ruseckas, Zaremba), others are balanced and representative in a classical way (the portraits of Jonas Ruseckas, Protniekytė-Ruseckienė, Krajevskytė-Ivickienė). With his paintings, he continued Jan Rustem’s tradition of psychological portrait, choosing the composition, the lighting, even the painting style based on the model. The plastic form of Kanutas Ruseckas’s portraits is simple yet highly diverse. While he was still living in Rome, Kanutas Ruseckas took a keen interest in the domestic genre. On his outings, he would draw and paint Italian peasants (An Old Italian Shepherd and a Little Shepherd, An Italian Peasant Selling Dairy), in Rome, he painted his first domestic compositions (The Girl with the Pigeon).
In Vilnius, the painter made a name for himself with a cycle of domestic pictures showing the Lithuanian people (The Reaping Girl, The Lithuanian Girl with Easter Palms, The Lithuanian Fisherwoman, The Sacristian). Radiant of liking for the ordinary man and love of the homeland, his paintings were very well received by the public of the period. On orders from various clients, the painter made several versions of them. A lithograph of The Lithuanian Girl with Easter Palms was released at the lithography workshop of Maximilian Fajans in Warsaw in 1848, adding to the painting’s fame still. The holidays and people’s traditions from Vilnius surroundings were also portrayed by Kanutas Ruseckas in compositions that involved multiple figures (The Procession of the Body of God in Vilnius, The Evening Service at the Gate of Dawn, The Pentecost at Vilnius Calvary, St John’s Day in Rasos Suburb, St Peter’s Day Fair in Antakalnis).
What is very interesting is Kanutas Ruseckas’s observations about the situation, patrons, and clients of the painters during his time in Vilnius. He notes that at that time, only the church was some sort of a patron that could provide them with sustenance, and its orders had to be approached as a source of necessary income. The hardship in his life forced Kanutas Ruseckas to ‘accept everything that came his way, and at any price’, because ‘orders [from private persons] were very difficult to come by’, ‘poverty and grief is only growing all the time, affecting us all’, and ‘the world of us, painters, is going under’. This can explain the amount of Ruseckas’s religious paintings and replicas, as well as his work in painting treatment as a source of additional income.
In his review of the work of the Painting Department at the Vilnius University, painter Smakauskas wrote in 1846:
‘The Painting Department that has been working at the Vilnius University for more than 40 years and was later enhanced by prof. Saunders’ lectures on aesthetics and the history of art, was supposed to develop a liking for the free arts. Yet in reality, no such improvement has been observed for but a few painters are able to hold out there today, and they do that by painting portraits only. I don’t know if Ruseckas got a few orders during his fifteen years in Vilnius.’
On orders from Vilnius and suburban churches, he created a number of religious compositions (altar paintings for the Vilnius Cathedral, the churches of St Theresa in Vilnius and the churches of Salos, Giedraičiai, Ukmergė, and so on). In his first ecclesiastical paintings (St John the Christener with a Lamb), the painter was looking for a unique solution to the subject, an original composition; later, with work to be done on orders from the church piling up, he was not averse to taking advantage of the experience of famous painters, interpreting their compositions in his own way to fulfil the specific requirements of the client.
Kanutas Ruseckas was also a celebrated specialist in painting treatment. Of course, this work was just a way of earning extra. It is a known fact that when the work to put the Vilnius Church of St Theresa in order began in 1833, the dean of the church, Maurycy Pczycki, a Carmelite and former schoolmate of Ruseckas from the Vilnius University Department of Painting and Drawing, called on Ruseckas to renovate the frescoes and the paintings. Homolicki wrote about it in 1838 as follows:
‘Under the supervision of Father Maurycy, as an expert and an art aficionado himself, and with the help of the able painter Mr Ruseckas, the old coloured and grey paintings on the walls and the done paintings were cleaned [...]. Oil paintings were carefully cleaned and renovated [...]. Finally, Mr Ruseckas painted (for the Church of St Theresa) three excellent paintings of St John, St Michael, and St Peter for its lateral altars to replace the old ones. Thus this church, once morose and desolate, became bright and trim.’
In 1834, Ruseckas treated the painting of St Virgin Mary at the chapel of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius. In his 1927 description of said painting and account of prior renovations, Jerzy Remer (1888–1979) observed that in renovating the painting in 1834, Ruseckas had failed to repaint the hands. However, the work done by Ruseckas and the above date of treatment of the painting of St Virgin Mary at the Gate of Dawn chapel is contradicted by the Polish art critic Maria Kalamajska-Saeed. In her monograph The Gate of Dawn in Vilnius she wrote that the date of 1834 only relates to the renovation of the frescoes of the St Theresa Church in Vilnius as done by Ruseckas. The chapel of the Gate of Dawn was repaired in 1828, and then, in during the chapel renovation in 1857, the painting of St Virgin Mary was replicated by Karol Rafalowicz (1830–1861), a painter from Vilnius. It is possible that the hands were repainted when the painting was being renovated at that time. Naturally, this leads to the question of whether the setting of the painting were removed during the renovation. Analysis of the pre-treatment descriptions of the painting dated 1927 suggests that only the hands were repainted at the time, while the remaining visual part was untouched. It means that the setting was not removed. Also, knowing how precise Ruseckas was in his painting treatment work, one could seriously doubt the version that it was Ruseckas who treated the painting of St Virgin Mary at the Gate of Dawn chapel. However, there has so far been not enough historical data to support this version.
On 23 July 1837, the chapter of Vilnius invited painters Januševičius, Antanas Jankevičius, Franciszek Andriolli, and architect Karol Podczaszynski (1790–1860) to tend to the Vilnius Cathedral; Ruseckas was invited as well and was tasked with renovating the rather dilapidated frescoes by Michelangelo Palloni at the chapel of St Casimir. Painter Smakauskas wrote so:
‘We can only satisfy ourselves as to the level of the painter’s performance when Ruseckas, who cleaned those two paintings of St Casimir’s chapel, explains whether the brushstrokes and lines that we can see today appeared in the process of cleaning, or they had been there all along.’
The creative legacy of the painter has been preserved by his son, Boleslavas Ruseckas, who bequeathed everything to the Vilnius Association of the Friends of Science in his dying will. A lot of pieces of work by Kanutas Ruseckas have remained abroad, mainly in Italy. The Lithuanian Art Museum has a collection of over 300 paintings, sketches, replicas, studies, landscapes, portraits, domestic compositions done by this artist.
Historical analysis of Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a painting by Kanutas Ruseckas (1800–1860) (?), a Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) replica
The fact that the painting is unsigned makes its attribution more difficult, yet the deciphered inscriptions on the crosstie of the original sub-frame and on the original frame facilitate the historical analysis. The inscriptions refer to the client for this replica.
Based on the long years of his experience with painting conservation as well as research conducted by art critics, the client for this painting can be identified to be Józefowa Huszczowa. As the frame was ordered from a frame master, it is labelled property of Józefowa Huszczowa. Research allows dating this work of art mid-19th century. The dating is based on the structure of the sub-frame, the canvas as the base of the painting, the painting style, the fine cracks in the paint layer, and especially on the original primer used for this painting. The primed seams allow dating this painting mid-19th century as well. It is obvious that the primer was made by the artist himself, and applied on the canvas. Research done by art critics has revealed that, out of frugality, Kanutas Ruseckas would make his own primer and apply it to his canvases himself.
There is not a lot of historical information about the painting’s client, Józefowa Huszczowa. According to the information available, between 1851 and 1859 Józefowa Huszczowa, as a creditor, temporarily took possession of and control over the Naudvaris manor (current Village Naudvaris, Naujamiestis Borough, Panevėžys District, Panevėžys Region), which had previously and later belonged to the Kerbedis family. Her daughter, Zofia Huszczowa, lived in the manor as late as in 1919. These data suggest that it was Józefowa Huszczowa who ordered the replica in around 1852–1859 to spruce up the interior of her home. Notably, the Naudvaris manor was located near the birthplace of Kanutas Ruseckas and the residence of his parents. It might well have been that the parents or Kanutas Ruseckas himself knew Józefowa Huszczowa, who had just come into new money and ordered this replica from the painter.
At the time when this replica was made Kanutas Ruseckas was the only painter from whom the replica could have been ordered. Unfortunately, there is no written historical information to support this fact.
Visual analysis of Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a painting by Kanutas Ruseckas (1800–1860) (?), a Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) replica
The painting is done neatly on a canvas that had been treated with a thin layer of white primer. Bright spots had been painted on first, followed by a thin layer of shadows. The painting and the colours maintain a degree of integrity and verity at the same time. The figures in the background are lightly glazed. After the painting had been varnished by the artist, the surface was re-glazed for a uniform layer of paint. The posture of the main figures in the painting is simple, yet there are a number of details to highlight the outstanding draperies of their attire. The original primer that shines through the layers of glaze adds new nuances of colour to the painting.
Conclusions regarding the attribution of Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a painting by Kanutas Ruseckas (1800–1860) (?), a Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) replica
Based on the non-conclusive facts laid down in this text, this replica of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt can be argued to have been done by the painter Kanutas Ruseckas on order from Józefowa Huszczowa in around 1853–1854. (Juozapas Blažiūnas, top-class painting conservator and doctoral student of the Humanities at the Vilnius Academy of Art majoring in art criticism, Vilnius, 2012).
Exhibitions: exposition "In Art We Trust" at the contemporary art fair "Art Vilnius", 2019.
Photographs: exposition "In Art We Trust" at the contemporary art fair "Art Vilnius", 2019; art album "Art & Us", Lewben Art Foundation, 2019; "Leaderpia" - South Korean media.