History of the collection
Already Jan III collected works of art and exquisite objects of everyday use. However, only a fraction of his collection – which included 6 paintings by Rembrandt, among others – survived to this day. Of the museum’s current holdings, only a few works can be tied to the sponsorship of the first owner of the palace. With a significant dose of probability, this list would include two marvellous still lifes by Abraham van Mignon, the Madonna with the Child and St. John the Baptist from the Italian School, and a pair of equestrian portraits of Jan III and Marie Casimire. The 17th-century set of ceilikng paintings of the four seasons, adorning the Royal Chambers – the work of Jerzy Szymonowicz-Siemiginowski, the King’s house painter – is without a doubt the most valuable artwork in the palace. It is most closely contested by the exceptionally well-made stucco decorations in the King’s and Queen’s Bedrooms, believed to have been produced by the workshop of Antonio and Pietro Perti.
In the 18th century, the later owners of the palace added new artworks to the collection, their selection determined both by the tastes of the era, and the history of the Wilanów residence. In 1805, the house collection was made accessible to the public thanks to Stanisław Kostka Potocki and Aleksandra Potocka. Their efforts contributed decisively to the formation of the Wilanów art collection. Stanisław Kostka Potocki, politican and education activist, was also known to dabble in architecture, and was a recognized archaeologist and collector. Among his possessions, one may find excellent examples of European and Polish painting, goldsmithery, biscuits, craft, including an imposing collection of objects from the Far East.
Potocki also sought out memorabilia of the first owners of the Palace, the Sobieski family. Due to his enterprise, Wilanów gained the priceless dressing-table, most likely an erstwhile property of Queen Marie Casimire. Potocki acquired it for the considerable sum of 300 Louis d’or at a Parisian antiquary. He also gained possession of two exceptionally attractive equestrian portraits of King Jan III and Queen Marie Casimire, formerly a part of the Sobieski collection at Wilanów, from the inheritors of King Stanisław August Poniatowski.
The rich collection of paintings at the palace included works of Lucas Cranach, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Lievens, Eustache le Sueur, Pompeo Batoni, Angelika Kauffmann, and Anton Graff, among others. The Equestrian Portrait of Stanisław Kostka Potocki, painted in 1781 by the great French Neoclassicist painter, Jacques-Louis David, became – and remains to this day – the jewel of the collection. This painting, the only work by David in Polish collections, was created in the Parisian workshop of the master on the basis of a sketch, prepared, in all likelihood, by another artist. The painting was shown at an exhibition in Paris to flattering reviews, among others, from Denis Diderot. Subsequently, it was moved to Warsaw.
The progeny of Aleksandra Potocka and Stanisław Kostka Potocki continued to extend the Wilanów collection, at the same time adjusting the interiors to address the needs of the museum. The 19th century saw the creation of arrangements for the Paintings Gallery, also known as the Museum, the Etruscan Cabinet, holding a minute section of the palace collection of antique vases, and for the Chinese Rooms, currently holding the collection of Far-Eastern art. A particularly exceptional work in this collection is the nanban table, beautifully adorned with mother-of-pearl. It is one of the very few remaining examples of Far-Eastern art combined with the tradition of European craft.
The Wilanów collection is continuously enlarged; among the most significant post-war acquisitions are the formidable Portrait of Marie Casimire with Children by Jerzy Szymonowicz-Siemiginowski, or portraits of the princes Sobieski – Aleksander and Konstanty – from the workshop of Hyacinthe Rigaud. Since 2012, a selection from works of the Wilanów collections is available for viewing in Google Art Project.