Wilhelm Aleksandrovich Kotarbinski

Wilhelm Aleksandrovich Kotarbinski

1849 —1921
  • The title of "The First Roman Painter" of the Academy of St. Luke
  • Silver and Gold medals of the Academy of St. Luke
  • Academician Of The Imperial Academy Of Arts (1905)
Wilhelm (Vasily) Aleksandrovich Kotarbinski is an extraordinary, extremely talented and intelligent painter, whose art is full of mysticism and enigmatic creations of his remarkably powerful imagination. Descending from an old noble Polish family, Kotarbinsky spent many years in Italy and, later, most of his creative life took place in Kiev, the Russian Empire. The artist devoted his works mainly to classical, historical, mythological and religious themes. Intertwining various stories and motifs of these subjects in his unique manner, Kotarbinski was creating works infused with mysteries resulting in a fantasy genre close to symbolism. The artist was born on November 30, 1849, in a very picturesque village of Nieborów, Warsaw province. His father, Alexander, was an impoverished aristocrat, who held the position of a manager at the estate of the Radziwiłł magnates. His mother, Leokadia Wejsflok, was German. Kotarbinski was receiving his first art lessons given by Rafal Hodzevich in the Warsaw school of art during 1867 - 1871 along with his classical education in one of the Warsaw grammar schools.

Kotarbinski entered the University of Warsaw by the will of his parents, who were vehemently against his career as an artist. However, after studying for a short time, Kotarbinski still decided to follow his artistic mission. To raise some money for a daring relocation plan, Kotarbinski sold one of his paintings to his uncle. Thus, at the age of twenty years, Kotarbinski moved to Italy behind his father's back. Kotarbinski was able to obtain a scholarship from the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of Arts to have an opportunity to continue his studies in Rome at the Academy of St. Luke under the leadership of Francesco Podesti. The young artist participated in the competition for the title of the best painter in Rome, which was held annually at the Academy, and was awarded the first prize. The artist's life did not spoil him at that time: poverty and disease overcame him. In his accommodation in Rome, Wilhelm did not even have a bed; a modest interior consisted of a chair, a table, which served as a bed in an inverted form, and a broken dummy. Kotarbinski's artistic fate was not painless. His work has gained considerable popularity during the artist's life; however, this was preceded by the most challenging moments of desperate need. After graduating from the Academy with a gold medal in 1875, with the help of the same Imperial Society for the Promotion of Arts and brothers Svedomsky, Kotarbinsky was able to establish his own art studio in Rome on the street of San Basilio and organise his first solo exhibition. The artist's first commission was to copy the XVI century's manuscript from the Vatican Museum. The commission came from the renowned art critic Vladimir Stasov, and then, in the future, followed by many other wealthy clients, craving to get artwork in the style of salon Art Nouveau. Kotarbinski left Italy in 1888, in order to start working on a massive public project, painting the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev, at the invitation of his friend Pavel Svedomsky. Essentially, the Svedomsky brothers, Pavel and Aleksandr, have played a crucial role in the life of Kotarbinski. The brothers have provided full support to the artist while being in Rome and even started to teach him the Russian language.

Work on wall-paintings of the St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, which began in 1887 and continued until 1895, has firmly established Kotarbinski among the most recognisable artists of the Russian Empire. Kotarbinski collaborated closely with Pavel Svedomsky creating 18 frescoes and 84 figures of saints in the cathedral. Some new and fresh tendencies inspired by the work of Vasnetsov have permeated Kotarbinski's art. The artist's signature style, in which he skilfully combined academism and Ukrainian folklore with Polish symbolism, also adding a generous portion of his bold imagination and mysticism, was immensely in demand among the public and easily recognisable. The artist was working tirelessly and with great enthusiasm. Kotarbinski's profuse efforts have been reflected in the artist's exhibition in 1898, where he presented more than a hundred paintings and studies. After finishing work on the cathedral, Kotarbinski most of the time lived in Kiev while being part of the bohemian circle of Adrian and Emilia Prahov, where the artist was treated almost like a family's member. In 1905 the Academy of Arts of St. Petersburg announced Kotarbinski as an academician, thereby expressing its respect. The artist was also awarded the order of Saint Stanislaus (2nd degree). During the pre-revolutionary period, the artist was given numerous commissions for private houses decorations coming from wealthy and famous people, such as two renowned Ukrainian patrons of art N. A. Tereshchenko and B. I. Khanenko. Such eminent collectors as Pavel Tretyakov and Kozma Soldatenkov wanted to buy Kotarbinsky's works. His work 'the Roman Orgy' was acquired by the Russian Museum of Emperor Alexander II. At the time of the World War I and after the revolution, the artist had some difficulties going through what had happened. The war covered the artist's work with a dark shadow. More often he portrayed the Grief, the Tears, the dead and monsters, the grave, the black angels and bleeding eagles. For many years Kotarbinski was living at the hotel 'Prague' in the centre of Kiev. The two-bedroom apartment accommodated both the artist's bedroom and his studio. After the revolution, the hotel was not a safe place to stay for Kotarbinski. Because of the unstable political situation, the artist was threatened with arrest, and his apartment has been subjected to endless searches. Emilia Prahova came to the rescue and sheltered the artist in her house, where he later died on September 4, 1921. Kotarbinski was buried in Baykovoye cemetery in Kiev. Today the artist's work is exhibited in museums and private collections in Russia, Ukraine and other European countries.


Добриян, Д. (2014). Вильгельм Котарбинский. "Один из соборян" [online] Антиквар. Available at:
Осипчук, И. (2014). "Во время учебы в Риме у Вильгельма Котарбинского даже кровати не было - спал в самодельном гамаке" [online] Факты. Available at:
Удовик, С. (2015) Вильгельм Котарбинский: Альбом. Киев: Ваклер.