The history of the National Museum in Warsaw is as complex and turbulent as the history of Warsaw. Over the 150 years of its existence the Museum has gone through many phases. Along with changes to its name and its governance, the Museum struggled to acquire a physical home and a place within the community, while consistently sheltering the legacy of Polish culture even in times of war and political unrest. We do not possess masterpieces like the Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa. Our source of pride is the National Museum in Warsaw itself, with its immense encyclopaedic collections amassed and maintained in spite of adverse circumstances by generations of enthusiasts, aficionados, collectors and professionals.

The National Museum began as the Museum of Fine Arts in Warsaw, established by the act of 20th May 1862 on public education in the Kingdom of Poland which regulated the state of schools and cultural institutions during the period of Russian occupation. Along with defining the organisational framework for the Museum of Fine Arts, the law also gave rise to the foundation of the Main School in Warsaw and the Main Library. The Museum’s initial structure saw it administered by an honorary director, with only his assistant, who was also the conservator, receiving regular remuneration. A fund was set up to expand
the collections, employ two attendants and to cover administrative expenses.
The Museum was allocated floor space in the buildings of the Main School and its activity was firmly affiliated with the School of Fine Arts.

While the Museum was open to the public, its primary objective was to amass collections of art which would serve the development of Polish artists. Since academic art education relied very heavily on careful study and reproduction of art works from previous eras, the Museum was to possess specimens of painting and drawing from a variety of artistic schools along with a didactic assortment of sculptures and plaster casts representing the pinnacles of art history — models to be travestied and copied. A collection of plaster casts amassed by Stanislaus Augustus and donated to the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Warsaw remained in the city after the Congress of Vienna and became property of the Museum along with newly-purchased additions. Though the Museum took possession of a modest collection of prints from the School of Fine Arts, it still lacked a bona fide collection of European painting. Even the entire city of Warsaw still had no public art gallery. The honorary director Justynian Karnicki was sent abroad by the Government Committee for Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment with the task of purchasing works of art. Karnicki attended the much-publicised auction of the J.P. Weyer collection in Cologne, which featured a printed catalogue, where he purchased 36 paintings, including several that are still among the highlights of the Warsaw collection, such as The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist by Pinturicchio, the Lamentation Triptych by Jean Bellegambe and The Holy Family with Saint John, His Parents and Angels by Jacob Jordaens.

Our knowledge about the exceptionally competent and meritorious Justynian Karnicki comes down to a few facts often appearing in all of his biographies: he was the son of Mikołaj Karnicki, a chamberlain of Stanislaus Augustus, a senator in the Russian Empire and a student of the Academy in Połotsk and Vilnius University. He was appointed and served as the honorary director of the Museum of Fine Arts and as the vice-president of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. He made many worthy purchases for the Museum and contributed to the birth of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts’ collection of contemporary Polish art by making its first purchase: Józef Simmler's The Death of Barbara Radziwiłł. Today, the painting is one of the most prized Polish paintings in the Museum and an indispensable element in its historical narrative. The Museum and the Society complemented each other. Founded on the positivist notion on the valour of efforts for the benefit of society and a patient enlargement of freedoms through small advances, these two institutions differed in character, goals and scope of activity. However, after many historical twists and turns, it was their collections and legacies that shaped the National Museum in Warsaw, where eventually the collection of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts was deposited.

Under the leadership of Karnicki, a committee of School professors, artists and one amateur approved the selection of 172 paintings to be exhibited from among the School collection, which by then had grown with the acquisition of Pietro Fiorentini’s large but rather unremarkable collection and the most recent purchases. The opening of the Museum of Fine Arts’ painting gallery located in the Main School took place on 22nd June 1865. The public was granted free admission on Thursdays and Sundays, and a very large multi-part review, likely written by Artur Wiślicki, appeared in Przegląd Tygodniowy [Weekly Review] between December 1865 and January 1866. The critic cautiously signalled that the Polish public was as of yet unprepared to form opinions on art but he expressed a hope that the contact with art made possible by the gallery will enlarge the audience’s sensitivity and knowledge on the subject. In his introduction, the author praised the gallery’s aesthetic presentation and the condition of its paintings, which were carefully prepared by Jacenty Sachowicz, the assistant and conservator at the Museum. He also explained Karnicki’s approach to acquiring works of art, stating that while quality was the foremost consideration, also significant was the need to compile a collection that was thorough and included various schools of painting, even if some were only represented by copies. The Sculpture and Plaster Cast Room was opened to the public several years later, on 13 September 1869, thanks to the efforts of Konstanty Hegel and Leon Molatyński, one of the Museum’s few paid employees. However, that same year brought the end of the Museum’s existence in the School’s buildings. Being granted a larger space in the Pac Palace in 1872, the Museum relocated and remained there for a few years, only to lose this space in 1875. To make matters worse, the lack of a physical home meant that the Museum’s Sculpture Room collection was handed over to the Main School. What remained, i.e. the works from the gallery of paintings, was put in storage and languished unexhibited for many years, while the deaths of the Museum’s custodian and conservator Jacenty Sachowicz in 1875 and its director Justynian Karnicki in 1876 concluded the first chapter in the history of the Museum of Fine Arts.

The next honorary director of the Museum was Cyprian Lachnicki. Not only was he an extremely qualified museologist, but also a painter and a collector who maintained contact with art historians and museologists throughout Europe. Unfortunately, all of the new director’s energies were consumed in the search for a new space for the Museum. With the state authorities’ indifference towards the situation, a decision was made to transfer the Museum’s collection to the city of Warsaw on condition that a new building be erected. After purchases made by Lachnicki, the collections now counted 565 paintings, 139 photographs, drawings and prints, and 12 books. The Museum managed to find a temporary gallery for the exhibition of 244 paintings in the Nepros house, described in a Lachnicki authored printed catalogue issued in several editions. Nonetheless, the matter of a permanent home for the Museum remained unresolved. Cyprian Lachnicki died in 1906, having bequeathed his private collection of paintings, prints, drawings and photographs to the Museum of Fine Arts with the proviso that a decision to construct a new building be made within two years. 

Slowly, awareness of the Museum’s situation permeated into public discussion. The revolutionary events of 1905 changed the social climate and new initiatives were undertaken, such as the establishment of the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. We see discussion in the 1907 press regarding a suggestion to merge the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. The move was lauded as one that would bestow a more national character to the Museum’s holdings, which until that point had been sparse in their representation of Polish art. Articles by Zenon Przesmycki, Czesław Poznański and Władysław Tatarkiewicz, as well as a newly-issued Cicerone guide kept the public abreast of the Museum’s situation. Progress was made in 1911 with the selection of a 23,022 m2 site on Aleje Jerozolimskie, followed by a purchase of the land for the Museum’s use in 1912. These steps were met with an increased sense of generosity on the part of the public and the Museum saw its collections and their scope grow with several major bequests. Among the key acquisitions were Roman Szewczykowski’s collection of locksmithery items, Kazimierz Sobański’s collection of Polish coins and medals, Leopold Méyet’s immense collection spanning various fields, and many other donations. The addition of such a varied assortment of pieces changed the character of the Museum. Subsequent donations included works of handicrafts, manuscripts, iconography collections, books and paintings by contemporary Polish artists.

The following chapter of the Museum’s history is replete with events and decisions stemming from Poland regaining its sovereignty and the resulting explosion of state-building fervour. The establishment of a national museum became a critical element in the new nation’s development, and so, the Museum of Fine Arts was rechristened the National Museum of the Capital City of Warsaw in 1916, and then simply the National Museum in 1918. Its collections were relocated to a renovated and adapted building at 15 Podwale Street and saw further growth when the Museum was given control of collections belonging to various other institutions including the former town hall, the Mianowski Fund, the University of Warsaw and the Society for the Protection of Historical Monuments along with increasingly substantial private donations. The Museum slowly became a national repository and the primary destination for works of historical and cultural significance. This period was also marked by the establishment of the Museum of the Polish Army to function as a division of the National Museum in Warsaw, with the Museum’s director Bronisław Gembarzewski overseeing its activity.

After many considerations as to the building, location and concept for the Museum, a decision was reached on 31st December 1923 to begin construction on the lot on Aleje Jerozolimskie. The process of scheduling the work and selecting a design proved to be exceptionally difficult but it eventually ended with the approval of a design by Tadeusz Tołwiński — a complex of connected rectangular pavilions, four perpendicular to the street linked at the rear by three that were parallel to the frontage. Progress gained momentum: construction of the building began in 1927, two of the pavilions were finished in 1931, Stanisław Lorentz was appointed director of the National Museum in Warsaw in 1936 and the grand opening of the Museum took place in 1938. A professional programme and structure for the organisation of the collections was developed, each of which was placed in the charge of a qualified expert. Deliberate purchases were made to fill in any gaps in the collections, permanent exhibitions were composed in rooms specially designed and arranged for the purpose and the first temporary exhibitions were organised: a monographic Aleksander Gierymski exhibition, and the “Painters of Still Life” exhibition showing European works in the Polish collection. Such choices for the initial exhibitions at the Museum (along with the “Warsaw Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” exhibition which outlined the current policies of the city’s visionary President Stefan Starzyński) is telling of that period in history and its generation of museologists.


The new galleries’ white walls and the linear, sparse arrangement of paintings suggest modern ambitions, as do the choices of subject matter: not old painting but still lifes; not the rhetoric soaked 19th century but the experimental “light poet” Aleksander Gierymski, whose realistic work, devoid of anecdote and focussed on a repertoire of pure painterly technique, was an inspiration to a generation of artists in search of form and rejecting any extraneous content and expression in painting. In the artistic topography of pre-war Warsaw, it was Zachęta — the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts that was a bastion of traditionalism, with its support for traditionalist painters, its gallery of historical works and its Matejko Room housing the epic Battle of Grunwald. Meanwhile, the National Museum in Warsaw, in its erstwhile form established in the final year of the Second Polish Republic, was a seat of modernity. Its director Stanisław Lorentz ended his Historical Outline of the Museum on an optimistic note: “The year 1938 concludes the organisational period of the National Museum, which from this point on will be able to grow and fulfil its function under normal conditions: to serve as a repository for works of art and historical treasures, as an institute of science and learning.”

The Second World War forced the Museum and its director to struggle with circumstances that far exceeded the scope of ordinary duties. It is a story that has been thoroughly documented and repeated many times. The period was an heroic one in the Museum’s existence, with the Museum’s staff having to look after not only the collections of the Museum itself but also those belonging to the Royal Castle, which, as a symbol of the nation, was the target of attacks in the very first weeks of the war. The Museum also made efforts to protect private works of art that were given to the Museum by their owners for safekeeping. The Museum building suffered extensive damage but it survived the war. Unfortunately, many of its possessions were destroyed or looted, especially during the Warsaw Uprising, when the Museum was garrisoned by German soldiers who vandalised it and its treasures mercilessly, as recorded in director Lorentz’s journal.

To assess the Museum’s activity after the war is an immensely difficult task when we take into account the subsequent social and political changes in the country. The destruction of the nation and its people, the annihilation of the Jewish population of Poland, the relocation of borders, the forced exile, and the brutal and often unlawful nationalisation policies all left their mark on the Museum. By a decree of 7th May 1945, the National Museum in Warsaw became the central museum institution in the country and began to receive restitution shipments in June of that year. Director Lorentz resolved to take advantage of his authority and political savvy to secure not only moveable cultural goods but also entire palace complexes. And so, the Museum grew with the addition of real estate and collections belonging to the Branicki family in Wilanów, the Radziwiłł family in Nieborów and Arkadia, and the Royal Łazienki Park and Palace. Also incorporated into the Museum’s holdings were the possessions of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts, the State Art Collections, the National Mint, collections secured in Silesia and Pomerania, the State-appropriated collections of the Potocki family and many smaller collections from various palaces and estates.


Being a great patriot and a loyal Varsovian, director Lorentz devoted the rest of his life to the idea of reversing the damage done to his ravaged city. The primary intention was to rebuild, with particular emphasis on the Royal Castle on account of its symbolic import. Also of priority was to solidify the status of the National Museum in Warsaw, which the director envisaged as the most eminent institution in Poland. A brilliant series of paintings by Bernardo Bellotto, called Canaletto in Poland, from the Prospect Room of the Royal Castle became the crown jewel of the Museum’s Gallery of Polish Art. Visits to the National Museum in Warsaw were always included in the itineraries of visiting heads of state and dignitaries, with the director personally telling the story of Warsaw’s destruction and how the paintings of Bellotto served as templates in the reconstruction of the city’s historic monuments. Professor Lorentz believed that the Museum should encompass all that was most valuable in the many collections in Poland: the vases from the Gołuchów Castle, the painting collection from Wilanów, the Jagiellonian tapestries from Wawel Castle, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, Henryk Rodakowski’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, the paintings from the collection of the Raczyński family, and everything else that was exceptional. Since “the whole nation is building its capital,” as the rebuilding motto went, then it followed that the whole country and all of its institutions should contribute to its splendour. Director Lorentz has often been accused of greed but his zeal also had reciprocal effects: there was not a single museum in all of Poland that did not receive aid from the National Museum in Warsaw in the form of long-term loans of art, consultation from its experts and the regularly needed support of a great champion such as director Lorentz.


Making the most of his unique position, Lorentz organised huge exhibitions and took advantage of international aid programmes to bring French, English and Mexican art to the Museum. Meanwhile, the curator of the Gallery of European Painting, Professor Jan Białostocki put on exhibitions of Venetian painting, European landscapes and art from the circles of Leonardo and Rembrandt, and the curator of the Gallery of Polish Art Professor Stefan Kozakiewicz organised “Varsovian Art from the Middle Ages to the Present” and an international exhibition of works by Bernardo Bellotto. The Museum’s long-tenured deputy director, world famous Mediterranean archaeologist Kazimierz Michałowski, also made tremendous contributions to the growth of the Museum’s collections by bringing in treasures from various archaeological sites, including a series of wall paintings and architectural details from the Faras cathedral in Lower Nubia (modern-day northern Sudan), which is unmatched anywhere in the world.

The Museum’s growth spurt ended with the arrival of the 1980s for reasons both political and natural. Prior to that time, director Lorentz’s dream of a rebuilt Royal Castle in Warsaw was fulfilled, with the Museum transferring hundreds of works to the Castle, including the series of Warsaw cityscapes by Bernardo Bellotto which had been a main attraction for many years. With the imposition of martial law in Poland came the end of director Lorentz's near fifty year tenure at the helm of the Museum on account of his unequivocal support for the Solidarity movement. None of the later directors had either the academic authority or the political standing of Lorentz. Also, the times were not conducive to the arrival of a director who could guide the Museum through this period of intense transformation with its stature as a leading institution intact. The Museum was faced with a new set of challenges resulting from a political revolution that undermined its post-war identity. The disaffiliation of some of the Museum’s key divisions such as Wilanów and Łazienki diminished its collections and deprived the Museum of much storage and administrative space, which had to be compensated for with the use of space ill-suited for the purpose. We must face pending lawsuits from heirs of some of the original owners of collections, works and real estate. Also in limbo is the fate of the Museum’s Królikarnia division, which has seen a revival in recent times thanks to a new programme, as well as the Nieborów and Otwock Wielki divisions. Meanwhile, the likelihood of the Museum of the Polish Army vacating the Museum’s building seems to be growing increasingly distant.

Agnieszka Morawińska

Director of the National Museum in Warsaw (2010–2018)