Józef Brandt came from Polonized intelligentsia family, who in reward for merits were granted a nobility title and a coat of arms Przysługa [Merit]. He was born on 11th February 1841 in Szczebrzeszyn. As a result of his father’s new position, four years later the whole family moved to Warsaw. In 1846 in the Baby Jesus Hospital a typhoid epidemics broke out and the artist’s father fell its victim. Orphaned at the age of five, together with his mother he found himself in the care of his uncles – mother’s brother Stanislaw Lessel and the husband of mother’s sister – Adam Helbich. His education was also supported by his godfather – Andrzej count Zamoyski.
Thanks to such support, Brandt received excellent education. Private governors were soon replaced by Leszczyński’s boarding school, and then the Nobility Institute in Warsaw. On his completion of secondary school, the family decided to send Brandt to study in Paris. He was supposed to become a civil engineer and study at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées. Simultaneously, he was going to have painting, music and singing lessons. He started his studies in 1859, but his stay in Paris discouraged him from a practical profession by opening up before him the fascinating world of art.
It is the acquaintance with a slightly older Polish painter – Juliusz Kossak, that had a critical role in his final choice of a career. Kossak was the one to introduce our debutant to the issue of painting craft, and having discovered a huge talent, he invited him to lessons with other Polish and French artists. Among them was Henryk Rodakowski, who gave him some private lessons, or Leon Cogniet who ran an atelier of historical painting. After a year spent in Paris, Brandt returned to Warsaw so that he could take part in an expedition to the Ukraine and Podole region in the company of Kossak.
The first test of Brandt’s painting talent was an exhibition in the newly established Society of Fine Arts Lovers Zachęta in 1861. The works inspired by the Cossack and Tatar folklore enjoyed a sympathetic response from viewers and critics, which strengthened the artist’s resolution to start regular art studies. He began them in 1862 at the Royal Fine Arts Academy in Munich where he was a student of many battle painters and historical painters – Franciszek Adam, Teodor Horschelt and Karol von Piloty. He studied for five years, perfecting his drawing, composition and structure of planes. Despite many masters worthy of imitating, he built his individual, recognizable style connecting the daring dynamics of the brush with the extremely bright, vibrant patches of paint, care for detail in the foreground with the delicate, misty, harmonious landscape in the background. With his talent and a winning personality, he gained more and more popularity both with the local bohemia and the aristocratic circles. It resulted in the establishment of his own painting studio.
Brandt began to succeed commercially. His most mature period was towards the end of the 60s and the 70s of the 19th century. It was then that he painted canvasses which won medals at art exhibitions in Munich, Paris, Lvov, Warsaw and Krakow. Such paintings as Chodkiewicz at Chocim (1867), Strojnowski Presenting to Archprince Leopold the Horses Won by Cossack Horsemen from the Rhein Palatine (1869), Czarnecki at Kołdynga (1870) Sobieski in Vienna (1873) or Greeting the Steppe (1878) immediately found buyers and evoked genuine admiration for their author. Brandt proved to be not only an outstanding artist but also a great teacher, a guide for young disciples of art. Around his studio, there soon appeared something like a Polish artistic colony. He visited homeland as a person recognized and desired by all circles. By Orońsko too, where he came at any opportunity. Since he stayed in his uncles’ estates, visits to the Christianis and Pruszaks’ residence belonged to ordinary neighbourly duties. In Pruszak’s sitting room were held music soirees, theatrical performances and other social entertainment. Brandt was impressed by the artistic atmosphere of the manor, and later also by his friend’s wife – Helena. In 1877 Józef Brandt, painter residing permanently in Munich, married Helena Pruszak, nee Woyciechowska.
The marriage changed a lot in Brandt and his wife’s life. They settled in Munich where the artist realized the commissions and conducted a painting school. In summer they would return to Orońsko, for holidays, when they saw to manorial administration and led an eventful social life. Together with Brandt, his friends and students also came to Orońsko. Among them were Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski, Jan Chełmiński, Wojciech Kossak, Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, Jan Rosen, Kazimierz Alchimowicz, Apoloniusz Kędzierski, Władysław Wankie, Józef Ejsmond, Artur Potocki, Józef Kania, Władysław Czachórski, Władysław Szerner. This merry company perfected their painting skills under their master’s tutelage. With time they got themselves an informal name of ‘The Orońsko Free Academy’. The outbreak of the Great War brought sudden changes. German soldiers first commandeered horses, then they plundered the works of art, provisions from the pantries and barns, finally even clothes and objects of everyday use. In the spring Brandt went down with pneumonia. Soon afterwards the family were forced to evacuate. They moved to Radom, Szeroka Street (now Piłsudskiego Street). Suffering from depression and a feeling of injustice, the artist once again had pneumonia from which he never recovered. He died in Radom on 12th June 1915. He was buried next to his mother and her brother, Stanisław Lessel at the municipal cemetery in Limanowski Street in Radom.