Until recently, few readers would have been familiar with the painter, cultural ambassador and memoirist Józef Czapski. Born in 1896 into a noble Polish family, Czapski was sucked early in his life into the maelstrom of events that would rock the Slavic world for decades to come. He was in St Petersburg studying law at the outbreak of the First World War; after the October Revolution of 1917, he was recruited into an anti-Bolshevik unit. He soon declared his Tolstoyan pacifism to his commanding officer, assuming he would be court-martialled and shot. Instead, the older man, himself an aristocrat, encouraged Czapski to go off and try to change the world. For a time, he and a small group of friends and relatives lived according to primitive Christian principles, pooling their resources and distributing food to the city’s poor; but when famine struck, he returned home, briefly attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw before donning his uniform again and fighting in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–21. The tale of St Cassian muddying his robe had convinced him of the need to get his own hands dirty.
Czapski resumed his art studies in Kraków in 1921. Stirred, above all, by the colour work of Pierre Bonnard, he led a group of his compatriots on a six-week journey to Paris to observe the city’s art scene first-hand. He ended up staying there for seven years, making