The equestrian portrait of Stanisław Kostka Potocki by Jacques-Louis David is one of the most valuable and unusual canvases in Polish collections. Legend has it that the Polish aristocrat is depicted taming a wild steed. Regrettably, there is little truth in this version. The painting is the outcome of a favourable set of coincidences: the patron and the artist appeared simultaneously in one place and at the same time. The 25-years old Potocki, on a fascinating journey across Italy, a Grand Tour supplementing the education of a young magnate, met David – a student of the Parisian academy of painting. This encounter of painter and sitter, both upon the threshold of great careers, produced a splendid canvas, conceived as a veritable breakthrough. The Frenchman portrayed the Pole in the already abandoned form of an equestrian likeness. Soon after, such portraits were to be reinstated thanks to David’s magnificent Napoleon Bonaparte at the Saint-Bernard Pass.
The Potocki portrait does not show a great commander but seems to predict a career for the elegant young man. This prophecy came true, and Stanisław Kostka Potockí was to play an important role in culture and education. He was a collector, a connoisseur, an archaeologist, a man of letters, a politician, and a co-founder of numerous important cultural institutions, including the Warsaw Society of Friends of Science and the University of Warsaw. A passionate collector of antiquities, he amassed them in the palace in Wilanów, including Etruscan vases, objets d’art from the Far East and paintings, with pride of place given to the equestrian portrait. In accordance with the Enlightenment principles, Potocki rendered his collections available to the public, turning his residence into one of the first Polish museums. The opening entry in the Księga do zapisywania Osób zwiedzających Pałac w Wilanówie guestbook comes from 5 August 1805.