Norwid. Biography

Lyricist, ironist, witness. 200 years of solitude

By Polish History Museum

Echo of the ruins (1861) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/l-echo-des-ruines,MzkxMzMw/0/#info:metadata

Far from brilliant career

Born on 24 September 1821 in Mazovia, Norwid spent most of his life in exile; he died in Paris and was buried in a mass grave. 

We are increasingly discovering his importance not only as a poet, prose writer, playwright, essayist, graphic artist, sculptor, painter and thinker, but also as a witness of the epoch. 

The output of the artist and thinker has not been fully assimilated into Polish culture to this day. Many of his sculptures, paintings and manuscripts have been lost; the critical edition of his Complete Works is still in progress. 

Manor house (1832/1842) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/zabudowania-dworskie-fotografia-rysunku-c-k-norwida,NTg0Mzc4OQ/0/#info:metadata

From a manor house to Warsaw

Cyprian Norwid was born on September 24th, 1821 on the estate of his mother, Ludwika née Zdziebowska, in the village of Laskowo-Głuchy. 

After his mother's death, he was raised for some time by his grand-grandmother, owner of the nearby manor of Dębinki, and was baptized in Strzykówka: all of these villages lie between Wyszków and Radzymin, east of Warsaw. 

 Even before the November Uprising, Cyprian and his older brother Ludwik moved with their father to Warsaw - the capital of the "Polish Kingdom", i.e. part of the Polish lands under heavying Russian rule.  

Boys playing ball (1842/1883) by NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/grupa-osob-bawiacych-sie-pilka,Mzk2NjMz/0/#info:metadata

The first years after the uprising

In September 1831, the brothers Ludwik and Cyprian Norwid enroll into secondary school. They witness the fall of the uprising, and take part in demonstrations  at the place of Arthur Zawisza's execution. In the summer of 1835, their father, Jan Norwid, dies. 

Self-portrait as a young man (1847) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/autoportret-fotografia-rysunku-cypriana-kamila-norwida,NTg0Mzg1OA/0/#info:metadata

"The capital of my youth"

Even during the period of Russian repression following the November Uprising, Warsaw remained one of the most important centers of Polish culture. Norwid took up painting studies in private studios and debuted as a poet. 

He became a member of several ephemeral bohemian artistic groups. Admired by his peers, valued by the salons, he did not, however, have the chance to spread his wings.

Study of a hand, Cyprian Norwid, 1851, Original Source: https://polona.pl/item/studium-dloni,MzkxOTc1/0/#info:metadata
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A page from Norwid's memoirs, Cyprian Norwid, 1841, Original Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Cyprian_Kamil_Norwid_-_Kartka_z_pami%C4%99tnika.jpg
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In 1842 Cyprian - a bit of a "grand tour", curious about the world, but also weary of the lack of opportunities for further study in the Congress Kingdom, perhaps also threatened by police surveillance (the unmasking of anti-czarist conspiracies is in progress) - applies for a passport to travel abroad. 

Cracow volunteer with a scythe (1843) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/kosynier,NTI3ODIz/0/#info:metadata

A dream about Krakow

The fact that one of Norwid's first "foreign" stops was in Kraków is telling (and a good illustration of partition realities). As early as June 1842, however, he set off for Dresden, Marienbad, Prague and Nuremberg. He would settle for a bit longer in Munich. 

A detail of the Florentian fresco (1843/1848) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/z-fresku-florenckiego,Mzk3MDM0/0/#info:metadata

Italiam!

However, the most important and longest stage of his Grand Tour (can we say the happiest?) will be the Italian lands. In spring 1843 he settled for a few months in Venice. He visits Verona and Florence, where he attends classes at the local Academy for over half a year.

Cyprus (1876) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/kiparyssos,Mzk2NjQ3/0/#info:metadata

Betwixt Rome and Naples

In May 1844, he arrives to Rome, which will remain his "base" also for the time of his journeys south, to Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum. These are probably the most intense years of Norwid's life: he studies, writes, romances, and is active in Polish emigration circles.

Caricature with the devil (1842/1882) by NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/glowka-usmiechnietego-dziecka,MzkyMTUw/1/#info:metadata

The temptations in Berlin

In 1845-1846 he headed north, to Prussia. In the summer of 1846, an incident took place in Berlin that demonstrated both Norwid's straightforwardness and principled approach: he was summoned to the Russian embassy, where he was offered cooperation as an intelligence agent.

Norwid refused, and after an employee of the embassy informed on him to the Prussian authorities, he was put in a harsh prison. He spent several weeks there, acquiring a severe ear disease, which resulted in developing deafness.

Angel wings in a cloudy landscape (1880) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/anielskie-skrzydla-na-tle-chmur,Mzk2NTgy/0/#info:metadata

After the "Berlin incident", the poet travels to Belgium in the autumn of 1846, where he tries to cure his illness  and gives lectures on the anniversary of the November Uprising. From there he went once again to the city of his hopes, Rome. 

Michelangelo (1846) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/rysunek-cypriana-norwida-michel-angelo-buonarotti-maestro-carissimo,NTg0MzY4Mg/0/#info:metadata

The rebellion in the Eternal City

This time, he appeared in the Eternal City in February 1847, forming friendships with Stanisław Koźmian and Zygmunt Krasiński, among others. He even opened his own atelier. However, this was already a different Rome: politicised, affected by the Spring of Nations.

On the night of 29-30 April 1848 Norwid took part in what was probably the only armed action of his life, joining an ad hoc group of volunteers ready to defend Pope Pius IX from the revolted people of Rome. 

A letter addressed by Norwid (1870/1871) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/dwa-listy-i-wiersz,NTgyNjM1OQ/0/#info:metadata

Paris

In January 1849, Norwid moved to Paris, which was emerging as the center of European culture and the "forge" of a pan-European revolt. He would become deeply attached to Paris, where he would spend over thirty years of his life  and his most important works would be created.

A portrait of Maria Kalergis (1845) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/maria-kalergis-fotografia-rysunku-cypriana-kamila-norwida,NTg0MzY2Mg/0/#info:metadata

La Force de l'âge

Here, however, he also experienced poverty and the greatest disappointments: his relations with Zygmunt Krasiński, who had been one of his friends and a source of material support for several years, broke down, and he finally broke up with his greatest love, Maria Kalergis.

Far seas (1857) by NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/na-oceanie,MzkxNzQz/0/#info:metadata

The New World

In November 1852, disillusioned, broken-hearted and destitute, Norwid decides to "emigrate from exile", that is, to travel to the United States: via Dunkirk and London, he arrives in New York on 11 February 1853. 

In the ocean: the sailing ship "Marguerita" (1853) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/na-oceanie-okret-margueritta,MzkxNzU0/0/#info:metadata

American disappointment

However, also in the USA he did not manage to achieve any artistic or material success. 

After a few months of stabilization brought him work as a graphic artist and engraver at the Universal Exhibition, he was again unable to find a living. At the end of 1854, exhausted and aging (though only 33 years old!) Norwid returns to Paris.

Europe, some typical faces (1850) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/europa-typy-charakterystyczne-fotografia-rysunku-cypriana-kamila-norwida,NzQ1OTQzOQ/0/#info:metadata

The pavements of Paris

The first decade after his return and the rule of Napoleon III seem to bring relative stability. Norwid takes part in the life of Polish and Parisian salons, and first pinned his hopes for Poland;s independence first on the Crimean War, and then on the January Uprising. 

A manor in winter, Cyprian Norwid, 1873, Original Source: https://polona.pl/item/domek-wiejski-w-zimie,MzkxNTEz/0/#info:metadata
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Norwid on the persecution of the Jews, Cyprian Norwid, Juliusz Feldhorn, 1933, Original Source: https://polona.pl/item/pomnik-strzaskany-motywy-zydowskie-w-tworczosci-cyprjana-norwida,Njc4NTk1Mzc/4/#info:metadata
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In 1862 Norwid managed to have a collection of previously dispersed poems published by the Brockhaus publishing house in Wrocław: this was one of the few compact publications issued during his lifetime. At this time, as an echo of first the anti-Czarist demonstrations in Warsaw, and then - the tsarist repressions against the Polish and Jewish members of the January Uprising, some of the most famous poems of the poet were written: "Żydowie polscy 1861" (The Polish Jewry") and "Chopin's piano"

A scholar (1850) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/uczony-fotografia-rysunku-cypriana-kamila-norwida,NzQ1OTM4NQ/0/#info:metadata

Hard times

The second half of the 1860s was a period of troubles in Norwid's life: his financial situation deteriorated, only slightly saved by a modest monthly pension. In Paris, the poet first experiences the Prussian siege (late 1870-1871), and then the rule of the Paris Commune. 

Portrait of Cyprian Norwid (1882) by Pantaleon SzyndlerOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/cyprian-kamil-norwid-fotografia-obrazu-pantaleona-szyndlera,NTg0MDIzNA/0/#info:metadata

In February 1877, the tormented and ailing poet finally found refuge in a (not  very cozy) shelter run by Polish nuns for veterans of the January Uprising, invalids and orphans, known as the House of St Casimir. 

An old man's head after José de Ribera (1865) by Cyprian NorwidOriginal Source: https://polona.pl/item/studium-starca,Mzk3MDg4/0/#info:metadata

Last years

He would spend six more years there; he never definitively abandoned his plans to travel to Rome, but lacked the strength and resources to make the trip. Living increasingly on the sidelines of Paris, which glittered after the war, he died on the night of May 22-23, 1883. 

Norwid's tomb, anonymous, 1918/1939, Original Source: https://polona.pl/item/grob-cypriana-kamila-norwida-na-cmentarzu-montmorency-we-francji,NTg0MDA3MA/0/#info:metadata
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Project of Norwid's monument, Julia Keilowa, 1930/1939, Original Source: https://polona.pl/item/cyprian-kamil-norwid-fotografia-rzezby-julii-keilowej,NTg0MDMxOQ/0/#info:metadata
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The fate of poverty, loneliness, and marginalization continued to accompany Norwid after his death: his funeral was organized through a public collection. In 1888, due to the expiration of the "cemetery concession," there were plans to move the poet's remains to a "foss commune," or anonymous mass grave. He avoided this fate only in part: thanks to another collection, his remains were transferred to the mass grave of the boarders of the St. Casimir's Home. 

Credits: Story

Concept and text: Wojciech Stanisławski

Resarch support: Helena Sienkiewicz-Więcław

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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