The artistic output of Daniel Chodowiecki is quite impressive - he left behind over two thousand engravings, over a hundred paintings and miniatures, and thousands of drawings. He was born on 16 October 1726 in Gdansk to Gotfryd Chodowiecki, a merchant from an old noble family from Wielkopolska, and Maria Henrietta Ayrer, a Huguenot, the daughter of a Leipzig gilder. He spoke French and German fluently, and substantial evidence suggests that he also knew Polish. He spent most of his life in Berlin, where he trained to be a merchant. The most important decision in his life was to quit the trade and to study art in the studios of renowned artists Antoine Pesne and Bernard Rode. This path took him to the top: first he became member and finally director of Berlin's Akademie der Künste.
Initially, Chodowiecki painted miniatures on ivory and small pictures on canvas. He first captured popular attention as the author of the painting Jean Calas Bids Farewell to His Family, successively reproduced in various styles, including his own etching, known as The Great Calas. The latter made him famous and recognizable.
In 1773, after more than 30 years of absence, he travelled from Berlin to his native Gdansk. He documented his trip in a diary he kept in French, accompanied by more than a hundred of his drawings. The unpretentious narrative, which contains mostly ad hoc sketches, is one of the most valuable testimonies showing the state of mind of the society just after the first partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
As an illustrator, Chodowiecki attracted attention in 1769 with twelve etchings for Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm. He was also commissioned to illustrate Johann Bernhard Basedow's Elementarwerk. This publication has achieved enormous success, thanks to the efforts of both, Basedow and Chodowiecki, who supervised the graphic design of the publication. He illustrated the works of Goethe, Lavater, Rousseau, and Shakespeare. Among the uncountable illustrations for fiction, science, almanacs and calendars, he made illustrations for the German edition of, a fellow Pole, Ignacy Krasicki's novel Rejuvenated Old Man.
Daniel Chodowiecki died on 7 February 7 1801 in Berlin. He was proud of his Polish roots. After the last partition of Poland, he called himself "a descendant of a great nation that will soon cease to exist." Soon afterwards, in 1796 and 1797, two calendars were published, illustrated by Chodowiecki and his associates, containing vignettes from Poland's history, the most important moments, according to the artist. One of the illustrations depicts the escape of King Stanislaw Leszczynski from Gdansk during the siege of 1734. The drama of those days was one of Chodowiecki's strongest childhood memories. These calendars are considered by some to be the strongest declaration of the artist's attachment to his native country, which was just made disappear from the maps of Europe.
Chodowiecki was highly appreciated by his contemporaries. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg said about him: "The painter of the soul in the full sense of the word" and Johann Caspar Lavater considered him to be "the best, most soulful illustrator I know." Likewise, Johann Wolfgang Goethe was not sparing in his appreciation: "Chodowiecki's vignettes are of the highest subtlety and give me enormous joy and are among my favourite prints."
The artistic path leading Chodowiecki from Gdansk to the director of the Berlin Academy and the oeuvre left by him inspired Günter Grass, the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, but also a graphic artist and sculptor, who was born in Gdansk, to fund the Chodowiecki Award, which is presented only to Polish graphic designers. Chodowiecki also inspired the legendary film director Stanley Kubrick in the process of making his 1975 film Barry Lyndon.