A Count called Whimsy

fascinating story of Ignacy Korwin-Milewski

He lived during the era of steam and electricity and from the deck of the yacht he would give instructions to lawyers and brokers via a “wireless telegraph”. But his passions, temperament, and flippancy reminded his relatives of magnates from the borderlands two hundred years earlier – “princes” loyal only to their own desires.

by Wojciech Stanisławski


Ignacy Korwin-Milewski was born into a family of great landowners in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had been existing under the rule of St. Petersburg since the partitions nearly a century earlier. The Czapskis, Jelskis, Orłowskis, Skirmuntts, Milewskis and hundreds of similar families shared a common experience in this region. First – a promotion and political career in the pre-partition structures of the Commonwealth, and then, after the partitions – separation from the lands of the Congress Kingdom of Poland, located between the Vistula and Bug rivers. The latter, albeit under Romanov rule, enjoyed some autonomy, although this was successively limited after each subsequent insurrection for independence.

Ignacy Karol Korwin-Milewski by Leon Wyczółkowski (public domain)

The status of the landowners of the so-called northeastern governorates was slightly different from those of the Congress Kingdom of Poland. Subjected to more severe and ruthless rule, they had been united on the “Polish cause” for two generations, eventually paying a double price for this camaraderie in subsequent uprisings: first in blood and then in the confiscation of their goods. The suppression of the January Uprising in 1863 was followed by a ruthless repression spearheaded by Mikhail Murawiew, the governor of Vilnius who was given the sadly accurate nickname of “Wieszatiel” (“The Hanger”). That is when the insurrectionist spirit gave way to a feeling of resignation and discreet “organic work”.

Due to the conditions in the northeastern governorate, their work goals were the humblest: to survive and maintain both the family and aristocratic rights while protecting their families from repression. Also to preserve the structures of the Catholic Church – the only institution in which it was possible to publicly use the Polish language and uphold (or, during prosperity, create new) institutions for a community life in which the Polish language would be allowed. These efforts focused on military courses for surgeons, minor seminaries, elementary schools, and volunteer fire departments.

Tsarist repression was limited. It did not touch the area of ​​cultural and social interactions, perceived in the 19th century as being outside state interference. Thus, Polish courts functioned according to ancient and strongly patriarchal rules. Numerous conventions shaped the sumptuous lives of the aristocratic families, male descendants would study abroad as well as travel to the spa, go hunting and be adventurous. Marriage could wait a little while, however, concern for business was highly regarded. Also a certain lavishness in one’s approach to everyday life was expected to be tempered by individual inclination or piety – not by any concern for capital. Artistic patronage was also expected, but only to a certain degree. Of course, one could buy a painting or sculpture (in Italy), or even sometimes even hire a librarian or buy a book collection, but only “in a measured way”.

Lycée Condorcet in Paris by Jean-François Janinet, 1808 (public domain)

Ignacy Korwin-Milewski’s youth passed almost completely according to the pattern outlined above. Born on 27 April 1846 on the family estate of Gieranony in the Oszmiana district, he was sent to Paris as a ten-year-old together with his older brother Hipolit to attend the Lycée Bonaparte (from 1883 – the Lycée Condorcet), a high school famous for its teaching level, fees, and mostly academic staff – as well as for its severe rules. After graduating, the next step involved two years of education under private tutors first in Vilnius and later studies in Dorpat, one of the most famous universities of the Russian Empire.

Already in Dorpat, Korwin-Milewski’s inclination to do it his own way was visible. He belonged, as was custom, to the “Polonia” student association which gathered together students of Polish descent, but the association did not benefit much from his membership. Rather, he enjoyed the pleasures of duels, getting drunk and attending seminars with German-speaking barons from Courland and Livonia who also studied in Dorpat.

Afterwards, following two years of managing the land, and a little taste of life on a family estate, he took a decision that was very unusual for the son of a landowner. He decided to study painting at the most famous artistic college of Europe which at that time was in Munich. This is where he would meet most of the Polish artists for whom he would play the role of  a “total patron” for the rest of their lives, not only graciously buying paintings but also ordering them, funding scholarships, and alternating between overpaying and commissioning. There, after his first successes (a portrait of Maria Kwilecka née Mańkowski which was exhibited in the Salon in Paris in 1874), he would lose his inspiration and end his career. This was a significant gesture on his part, as Korwin-Milewski did not accept any compromise in art.

The Dorpat University in 1860, during its ‘Golden Age’ by Louis Höflinger (public domain)

However, his thriving financial career did require some compromises. Having inherited  several estate complexes, the family Gieranony and considerable capital in 1877 after the death of his mother, he went on multiply its value by several times. Lithuanian lands, moderately fertile, would not be enough to make a fortune. Investing in steel works (especially crucial in the era of rapid industrialization of the Russian Empire which involved the construction of numerous railway lines), mining and stock market speculation followed. His successes here allowed him to fulfill almost every whim. A late wedding (at 34 years!) to 20-year-old Janina Ostroróg-Sadowska, a land owner, contributed to the multiplication of his estate, but not the family. Ignacy’s infidelity was legendary, and his romances exceptionally stormy.

As a 30-year-old, he was no longer a whippersnapper who, in the style of “golden youth”, could entertain himself with filling a St. Petersburg alley with sugar for sledging in July. His aim was to be flamboyant – on a larger scale then most and in an absolutely better style. In 1895, he bought a luxury steam yacht from his friend, Archduke Karol Stefan Habsburg, which he called “Lithuania” and from then on sailed on it (usually with Karol) to the Arctic Circle or to the Balearic Islands. When he fancied it, he would describe these journeys in luxuriously published brochures’ “Vingt-trois jours dans l’Océan Glacial et la Mer Blanche. 4-ème Croisière de la Lithuania” (Paris, 1898) was eagerly read at European salons. Even more willingly – three years later he published his memoirs of a trip with Karol to visit Krystyna, the queen of Spain (“Sa Majesté la Reine d’Espagne et son Frère, MA l. Archiduc Charles-Étienne”).

Since he liked an island belonging to Prince Charles – he bought it. Santa Caterina, lying near the Croatian – then Italian – peninsula of Istria. Since 1905, the island had become the site of perhaps the most intensive private investment works in the entire Mediterranean region. It was intended to become a luxury spa and the home of his painting collection. Instead it became the final shelter of an aged, bankrupt, and broken Milewski, who left it only two days before his death when he was taken to the municipal hospital in Pula.

Kajetan Kraszewski in 1880 (photo: Walery Rzewuski; public domain)

Painting – this is what mattered. to him. Painting and collecting paintings. As for the latter, he would also encounter rivals. Creating art collections with a view of offering it to someone, or at least making it available to the general public, was one of the aspects of the “organic work” adopted by the Polish gentry of the north-eastern governorates, as mentioned above. Kajetan Kraszewski, younger brother of the novelist Ignacy Kraszewski, collected modern Polish portraits; Maria of the Castellan, Duchess Radziwiłł – a library. The most famous were the collections of Aleksander Jelski and Count Emeryk Hutten-Czapski. The first collected manuscripts, engravings and Slutsk sahes,  while the latter was one of the best-known numismatists in Europe at that time, although he also collected manuscripts, incunabula, documents and Hussar armor.

Indeed, these three collections were in competition with each other: the collection of Jelski in his ancestral town of Zamość in the Ihumeń district, Hutten-Czapski’s collection in Stańków and the Vilnius gallery of Korwin-Milewski. Jelski and Czapski managed to offer most of their collections pro publico bono. The first to the Jagiellonian University and the Society of Friends of Sciences in Vilnius, and the second – to Krakow. The third one “wandered” between Vilnius, the interior of the Santa Catarina palace and Viennese antiquarian bookshops. It came to Poland (not all of it) via a circuitous route.

With the exception that both Aleksander Jelski and Count Emeryk Czapski were amateur connoisseurs with a great appreciation for culture and considerable personal knowledge, they collected works and artifacts in as broad a range as possible – rather in the mode of saving national treasures than in creating collections with strict boundaries. The case of Ignacy Korwin-Milewski was different. The studies he made in Munich, but also his own deep understanding of what painting was and what it should be, pushed him to write a kind of declaration, which was included as the introduction to the catalog of his collection. He wished to gather only works by Polish artists, only students of the Munich school – and, almost exclusively, portraits.

Count Emeryk Hutten-Czapski in 1876 (public domain)

Aleksander Gierymski, perhaps the most talented painter-realist in his generation, had been given a generous scholarship by Korwin-Milewski since 1888. He also founded a studio for Wincent Wodzinowski. Altogether, seventeen artists, from Władysław Czachórski to Gierymski, were forced at that time to the unprecedented act of painting self-portraits in the same manner, almost in a unified order. [In each self-portrait] they stood elegantly dressed in a three-quarter view in front of the easel. A priceless collection for comparative studies and perhaps also a symbol of his lordliness or even arbitrariness?

If the shape of his collection is no evidence of his temperament – it is certainly to be found in excess in his writing of brochures and catalogue entries.

Ignacy Korwin-Milewski, unlike his brother Hipolit, who was two years younger, did not have any particular political passions. He distanced himself from patriotic manifestations, changed his citizenship (or [as he called it] “serfdom”) like underwear, and not for some higher reasons as much as because of taxes. He began in 1881 changing from Russian to Austrian, then he returned to Russian and finally ended up as a subject of the Savoyard dynasty in Italy. Despite his friendship with Karol, he was not subjected to the Habsburgs, and he did not even care to seek Polish citizenship during his stay in Warsaw in 1920. He looked at the career of Hipolit, who had made a big career in the Russian State Council in 1904 with some disregard.

Residence of Hipolit Korwin-Milewski in Łazduny (public domain)

He was upset only by an important, though forgotten today, complicated dispute over the procedure for selecting delegates for the so-called lands in the northeastern provinces. The matter was important and painful, and one in which national, political, economic and religious interests intersected (and sometimes overlapped). The very institution of the lands, i.e. local government units, was established in Russia after the Crimean War in 1864. For many years, however, no elections were held in Northwestern Governments for fear that the “Polish element” could dominate the lands. When it was no longer possible to postpone the election, St. Petersburg began to play a game to modify the ordinance. It had already been complicated because it depended on wealth, education and social status. Voters were divided according to their nationality and property status. If the government’s efforts were successful, Russians would have a disproportionate number of seats and basically hold all functions in the extensive land management apparatus.

The dispute over the ordination had two stages – the first in 1904-1906, the second in 1909 and the last one in 1913 – and was associated with other large-scale political games, including between supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. There is no room here to reconstruct it in full. For the biographers of Ignacy Korwin-Milewski, it is important that he was apparently irritated by the political upheaval in the governorates, by the echoes of the 1905 revolution, by the flashy activity of deputies of national democracy in subsequent Duma, and perhaps the demonstrative dismissal of his brother on 9 May 1909 from the Council of State – thus he decided to make a speech for the first time on political issues.

As a result he issued several brochures signed with his name that can still amaze the reader. Unlike the Vilnius conservatives, who protested against the changes in the ordinance, defending the idea of ​​decentralization and the reasons of the local nobility, Ignacy Korwin-Milewski in several brochures (“The Nobleman’s Voice on the Election of a Member of the Council of State”, 1910 and 1911, “Nobleman’s Answer”, 1911, “Fighting against Lies”, 1911) wrote basically constantly about the same thing: “in Lithuania, the role of Polish nobility, larger and smaller, should be treated (…) as the traditional role of every aristocracy in every state system – monarchical – which is to stand by the Person of the Monarch or else be punished with death penalty.” He was agitated against the “Sisyphean work of Polonization”, against “shameful and criminal recklessness” – and he constantly stressed that “The ‘North-Western Country’ is Russian, it was and will remain so forever.”

Peasant’s Coffin by Aleksander Gierymski, 1894 (public domain)

Textbooks describe this attitude as ultra-militarist, whereas some passionate chroniclers define Ignacy Korwin-Milewski as an “apostate.” I, however, after reading other notes stating that he would invite young Polish officers aboard the “Lithuania” to practice in the service of the Austro-Hungarian navy, that he would slap Russian officials asking for bribes, that his collection consisted mostly of the canvas of Gierymski, Pruszkowski and Witkiewicz – and not the much higher esteemed Riepin and Surikov – believe that what we are seeing in in these brochures is the same immeasurable lordliness that he exhibited his entire life. A lordliness that sublimated itself into sheer arrogance.

While entertaining himself as a young man in Rome in 1875, Ignacy Korwin-Milewski obtained, thanks to his excellent acquaintances and relations, a hereditary title of count for himself, his father and brother. Both Hippolytus and his father, Oskar Milewski, were not particularly pleased about this, Ignacy Korwin-Milewski, however, boasted about it often, “painting” his family coat of arms of Ślepowron with those of Milan, which accompanied him ever since. He wanted it to be Milan,  so let it be Milan. It seems, however, that the most appropriate title for the gloomy, lonely,  and bossy Ignacy would be “Count Whimsy”.


Author: Wojciech Stanisławski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin