That ease of reception results directly from its theme: one does not need to be a connoisseur to understand what erotic elation is and to grasp that it is the subject of the painting. What makes the painting enjoy unflagging popularity is the original, suggestive way of presenting this, let's face it, rather trivial topic.
Instead of a pair of lovers, the artist portrayed a naked woman on a rearing black horse. She wraps her legs around it, embraces it with her arms, her hair mingling with the horse's mane. It looks a bit like a flame, like the fire that consumes her. The woman is young, radiant, blissful, her lips are slightly parted in a half-smile. Delight and gentleness are painted on her face. Ectasy is the word typically used when describing it. But is it really?
Isn’t tension inherent in ecstasy, moving on the brink of madness? Do we not talk of ectasy when the intensity of pleasure borders on suffering? So why is such wildness and ecstasy attributed to the woman? Well, let's take look at the horse. At the stallion. Yes, this is frenzy. It is wild. The animal seems driven, crazed. Its distended nostrils gasp for breath, its eyes pop out of their sockets. White foam pours from its mouth. It is quite pornographic.
The woman and the horse are surrounded by deep darkness and a bright flash of light. The artist worked at this piece for several years, gradually eliminating details with each subsequent sketch. In the final version of the work, it is not is clear where the scene takes place. There is no landscape, no cliff, no sheet characteristic of painters' studios. Just light and darkness. And the two of them.
The picture is erotic in a completely different sense than all the nineteenth-century nymphs and academic depictions of literary anecdotes. It appeals directly to the viewer's erotic fantasy. This makes it accessible, attractive and popular.
Its creator, Władysław Podkowiński, is known mainly as an artist who played a significant part in the transplanting impressionist concepts to Polish soil. He started his studies in Warsaw, then moved to St. Petersburg, and finally set out for Paris.
The journey to Paris, which would be a dream come true for so many artists, was pure agony for Podkowiński, as it meant separation from his beloved. It was not a happy love. How could it be when his beloved already had a husband (also a painter). Not only a husband, even a child – who was to grow up to become the famous philosopher Tadeusz Kotarbinski. We have no information suggesting that she reciprocated the young artist's affection. But the thought of her poisoned his stay abroad.
When, after returning to the country, he went to visit the estate where his beloved was staying, he painted intensely, but not intensely enough to hide his feelings. This made the atmosphere tense, and he had to leave the house, whose hospitality he could not respect.
He went to Warsaw. He struggled and agonized. Tuberculosis was taking its toll on him, but he kept creating. He worked on Dance of Skeletons (painting not preserved), and developed the symbolic trend in his work.
Finally, in 1894, he produced Ecstasy, the original idea which was conceived in Paris back in 1889. He created a work that is difficult to compare with anything "similar", or „of this kind”.
The unveiling of this large (310cm x 275cm) painting took place in 1894 at the headquarters of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (called in Polish shortly „Zachęta”, or Encouragement, then located in the building of the European Hotel, Krakowskie Przedmieście 13, currently: Warsaw, Malachowski Square 3) . The exhibition enjoyed a high attendance.
The work attracted a lot of critical interest and received positive, or even enthusiastic reviews. The artist was offered a substantial amount of money to sell the painting, but he decided against it. Unexpectedly, the artist came to the Zachęta exhibition, demanded a ladder, climbed it, and struck his work several times with a knife.
The reason for these actions has never been clearly explained. Podkowiński reportedly said: "[the painting] was supposed to be taken down in those days, so instead of rolling it up and putting it away, I preferred to acknowledge the disappointment I felt, which was entirely personal." One can guess that the disappointment he was referring to was of romantinc nature. According to another contemporary testimony, he claimed: "I made a sacrifice of the thing that was dearest to me at the moment (...) I destroyed the painting (...)". In the 1930s, another remark appeared on the sidelines of another exhibition of Podkowiński's paintings, that Ecstasy "suddenly became the object of special interest of exalted half-virgins and harem-bound ladies from Warsaw's high society. Our gifted consumptive trembled with a harsh belly laugh, and destroyed the painting."
The reason could have been either wounded feelings or a social scandal. It cannot be ruled out that Warsaw’s high society recognized the woman on the horse was recognized Podkowiński's beloved – a woman whose husband was, incidentally, a member of the authorities of Zachęta! This is not certain, because the physical resemblance between the depicted woman and Ewa Kotarbińska, if there is any, is rather tenuous – if only because of the difference in hair color. The women's features do not seem similar either. That, however, was not the point. The problem was not who posed for the painting, but about whom the artist was fantasizing in this way. And Warsaw, it seems, knew… Rumor has its own rules and for the reputation of a bourgeois household, the mere fact that someone fantasizes that way about someone else's wife could be quite a shock.
It was precisely this human gossip that may have pushed Podkowiński to tear up his own work. Less than a year later, the artist died before his 29th birthday.