Indian Summer is an expression of the Polish Realist movement. This early work by Józef Chełmoński was produced shortly after the artist’s return to Warsaw from the art academy in Munich. At the time, Chełmoński painted his detailed observations of rural life in a studio located in the European Hotel. The studio, which he shared with friends, was dubbed the Realist forge and it provided a creative environment bustling with discussion on all things related to art.
Chełmoński’s intention with Indian Summer was to depict the strength of the countryside and the fortitude of its people. In the centre of the composition is a country girl dressed in a typical Ukrainian costume. She is lying stretched out in the middle of a pasture holding a string of gossamer up to the wind. We immediately notice the black dog sitting nearby and watching over the herd with his back to the viewer. It is the dog’s diligence that allows the girl to get swept away in her thoughts and wallow in her memories of the fleeting summer. The warm sun drenching the dry grass and the cloudless sky evoke the quiet of a September afternoon. The minute human and animal figures on the horizon accent the vastness of the Ukrainian steppe. The artist had been fascinated with Ukraine from childhood, visiting it on numerous occasions in search of nature untarnished by man.
The painting elicited volatile commentary and questions from critics, Why should a peasant girl with dirty feet sprawled out in a field grace the wall of a sitting room or museum? The critical response hastened the artist’s decision to relocate to Paris, where he would live and work for the next twelve years. Chełmoński’s spontaneous rural scenes of the Polish borderlands, painted from memory, found appreciation in Paris – the art capital of the world – and brought the artist great financial success.
It took fourteen years for Indian Summer to finally get the recognition it deserved. Its artistic value was first noticed by Ignacy Korwin-Milewski, who bought the painting for his excellent collection in 1889. Thirty-five years later, the canvas was purchased by the National Museum in Warsaw and immediately became a calling card of the Gallery of Polish Painting. Today, Indian Summer is arguably Chełmoński’s most recognisable painting.