Polish-born artist Rembski finds a career and roots in Baltimore Honored for portraits of prominent figures

October 21, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Baltimore was awash in Polish immigrants at the turn of the century, peasants and workers who poured into its waterfront neighborhoods by the thousands to work as stevedores, saloon keepers, oyster shuckers, tugboat men, butchers, nuns, priests and laborers.

The neighborhoods of Locust Point and Curtis Bay and Canton and Highlandtown were transformed by their contributions, and it is that legacy Baltimore will celebrate Sunday as part of national Polish American Heritage month.

But the Pole who will receive a special award during the celebration at Essex Community College did not come to the New World to slaughter ducks for czarnina, a Polish soup, or handle hawser lines on the docks.

Stanislaw Rembski arrived in Baltimore from Warsaw via New York 53 years ago to establish himself as a portrait artist in genteel society far removed from the narrow streets and gin mills of South Baltimore and East Baltimore, where so many of his countrymen began new lives.

"He lived in a completely different world, the world of art and so forth," said Stanley Ciesielski, the president of the Polish Heritage Association of Maryland. "He lived in a world from which the average guy from Polonia had no access or appreciation."

Explained Mr. Rembski, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday: "I didn't come to Baltimore as a Pole. I came as an artist seeking personal freedom. I was never conscious of [the city's Polish immigrant community]."

And thus he did not record in oil the lives of the Poles who helped build Baltimore as an industrial power through the middle of the century.

What he did paint over the past five decades -- portraits of Maryland governors and Baltimore mayors, bankers, doctors, clergy, businessmen, academics and the social elite -- is being given special honor by the heritage association.

The group's artistic achievement award will be presented in ceremonies that will feature a Polish choir and soloist. Kazimierz Dziewanowski, the Polish ambassador to the United States, is expected to attend.

"Most people came to America because they couldn't get along in the old country, but I came here to find out what made America tick," Mr. Rembski said recently in the studio of his Park Avenue home in Bolton Hill.

In a newspaper article from the 1950s, he explained why, after visiting several American cities, he chose to settle in Baltimore. "Here was a place to take root and grow. I felt that it would be a far greater accomplishment to come to Baltimore unnoticed and let Baltimore discover me. I do not think Baltimore is the sort of place that would accept anyone because . . . he was a big shot in New York or Paris. [Baltimore] would rather wait and find out for itself what you are. This is one of the things I love about it."

What Baltimore discovered was that Stanislav Rembski could turn out quality likenesses of any person almost as quickly as they could line up to be painted.

During Mr. Rembski's search for America in the board rooms and drawing rooms, he painted a thousand or more portraits of powerful men and their sometimes beautiful wives, promoted himself as a genius and received payments of up to $6,000 for each work.

Why the big shots and not the common man? "I have to make a living, too, you see, as simple as that," he said.

Mr. Rembski's commissioned subjects, from live sittings and photographs, include five first ladies of Maryland; the official state portrait of Gov. Millard Tawes; Mormon leader Brigham Young; Count Casimir Pulaski; Albert Operti, the official artist of the Peary expedition to the North Pole; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Baltimore Mayor J. Harold Grady, and a series of self-portraits.

"Spiritually speaking, the individual is the largest quantity of humanity," he said. "Only the individual can name the truth and bring it into focus. The eye reveals the relationship between man and God, not just between man and man. I paint portraits because the individual, as revealed by Jesus of Nazareth, is the true measure of humanity."

While Mr. Rembski is not shy in speaking about his ability to capture the beauty and truth of human beings in oil, his opinion is far from representing a consensus.

"A lot of people who are knowledgeable about art do not think he is as great as he thinks he is," said a local art historian who asked not to be named. "He is adequate, the portraits look like the person, but they are stiff. A good portrait needs to be more than a physical likeness of the person."

Clarinda Harriss Raymond, the daughter of the late newspaperman R. P. Harriss who was a close friend of the artist, was painted by Mr. Rembski several times while growing up.

"I can always tell Rembski's paintings by looking at the hands. I think he does hands that show the person's personality. They're not laboriously drawn down to each vein and mole -- with a few quick strokes, he captures people's hands."

Educated as an engineer in Warsaw, Mr. Rembski studied art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts there and the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, where he began to dedicate himself to portraits. He arrived in New York in 1923 and 15 years later came to Baltimore .

He had a one-man show at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1947, and the Maryland Institute College of Art exhibited 53 of his canvases in 1950.

Discussing his most recent honor by the Polish American Heritage Association, Mr. Rembski spoke about the homeland that helped shape his outlook on life in America, a homeland he left almost 70 years ago.

"Poland is the only country practicing forgiveness," he said. "She has to, for no country has suffered like Poland."

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