Description & Technical information

‘Always on horseback, always ready to fight, always on the alert.’
- Alexander Pushkin wrote of the Cossacks

The Cossacks were free warrior-peasants of chiefly East Slavonic descent, living in communities in the southern steppe regions of Eastern Europe and Asia. The word ‘Cossack’ is of Turkish origin ‘quzzaq’, meaning ‘adventurer’ or ‘freeman.’ This word may well come from the Khazakh people of Central Asia, who themselves were at least partly descended from the truly terrifying Scythian horsemen feared by Herodotus. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, two Cossack hosts had emerged and by the sixteenth century militant Cossack states had been formed. The Turks started using the word to describe the people who had settled in the river valleys of what is now the Ukraine, yet the Cossacks never lost their love of freedom and fierce sense of independence.

Noted as cavalrymen, the Cossacks were subjected to the authority of the Russian government from the sixteenth century. As subjects of the Tsar, all Cossack males of 18 to 50 years of age became liable to military service for a period of up to 20 years. The Cossacks of the Russian frontier had to live in constant fighting trim, guarding national borders as well as internal ethnic borders. By the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire managed to fully annex all control over the Cossack hosts and rewarded them with privileges such as land for their service. At this time the Cossacks were actively participating in many Russian wars, such as the Caucasian War (1817-64), also known as the Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. Although Cossack tactics in open battles were generally seen as inferior to those of regular soldiers such as the Dragoons, Cossacks were excellent for scouting and reconnaissance duties, as well as undertaking ambushes.

This pair of paintings of mounted Cossacks by Ludwig Gedlek shows two contrasting scenes. In the first one, the group of travelling Cossacks appears to have stopped for a rest. Our eye is led into the painting by the muddy road upon which the Cossacks have been riding. Some of the group have dismounted to stretch their legs during what is probably a long and arduous journey. The central focal point of the work is a man who, having dismounted his horse, is lighting a long pipe. The man standing to the left of the composition appears to be acting as a lookout, as is the mounted Cossack in the left foreground. These men both have rifles slung visibly over their shoulders and the standing man also carries a shashka. To the right of the composition is a thatched building, possibly the reason for this break in the journey, although there is no sign of life from within. This work depicts a moment of respite in the lives of warriors as they move on away from us, possibly towards battle.

The second painting stands in sharp contrast to the first, both in terms of the actions of the Cossacks and choice of palette. The scene is set in winter and the troop is now facing us and moves towards the viewer. The horses and men are exhausted, weak from battle and the sky has darkened, reflecting the melancholic tone. The softened colours and gentle tones in both works and the great attention to detailing in the costumes are typical of Gedlek's work.

Gedlek initially studied in Krakow, the city where he first exhibited. In 1873, on a scholarship, he moved to Vienna, where he continued his studies, and eventually settled permanently. His work ususally has a equestrian theme, and the daily lives of Cossacks were a frequent source of inspiration.

Period:  1850-1900, 19th century
Origin:  Poland, Austria
Medium: Oil on panel
Signature: Each signed and inscribed ‘L. Gedlek/Wien’ (lower right).

Dimensions: 20.5 x 31.5 cm (8¹/₈ x 12³/₈ inches)
Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints