Poland’s Road to Independence in 10 Paintings
In 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by its neighbours and lost its independence. But its people never lost their appetite for liberty and thanks in part to their efforts both countries were, miraculously, reborn in 1918. The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of that important event and on that occasion Culture.pl tells the epic story of Poland’s road to independence through 10 paintings by different Polish artists.
Rejtan: The Fall of Poland by Jan Matejko
The year 1772 saw the first partition of the commonwealth – large portions of territory were taken by Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary. Countless pages have been written explaining how this came to be, but nevertheless one can point to three main reasons. Firstly the extensive damages suffered during the many wars it was involved in the 17th century. Then there was the resulting economic crisis. Thirdly, there was a lack of political vision often attributed to the cultivation of the commonwealth’s culture of Golden Liberty which inclined the ruling nobility to value personal freedom almost to the point of anarchy. Add some neighbours highly interested in your vast Central European territory and you’ve got yourself a problem.
In 1773, a special parliamentary session inspired by the three foreign powers was held in Warsaw to sanction the partition. Arguing that accepting the territorial losses would do less harm than resisting, the Polish-Lithuanian parliament legalised them. Among those protesting was Tadeusz Rejtan. His dramatic blocking of one of parliament’s doors with his own body was an attempt to stop a key procedure and annul the whole legalisation. The scene was described by the writer and philosopher Stanisław Staszic in his 1790 treatise Przestrogi dla Polski (Warning to Poland):
Indeed, only the decent Rejtan is calling again, imploring, shouting at everybody, so they remember, so they don’t abandon the troubled Poland. (…) He dives into the threshold below the feet of his indifferent brothers. There he cries: ‘Trample me, hurt me, when you’re tormenting the country!’
Rejtan didn’t succeed but nevertheless he became a symbol of struggle and as such he’s depicted in the 1866 painting Rejtan: Upadek Polski (Rejtan: The Fall of Poland) by Poland’s eminent historical painter Jan Matejko. Apart from Rejtan on the floor, in the painting you can also see actual members of parliament, most noticeably its marshal Adam Poniński pointing to the Russian soldiers behind the door, a reminder of the foreign threat. The coin at the marshal’s feet probably suggests that Matejko saw the whole affair as a sell out. Two further partitions followed (the last one in 1795) and as a result both Poland and Lithuania lost all their territory and their independence for 123 years.
Prayer Before the Battle: Racławice by Józef Chełmoński
The second partition, in 1793, was a consequence of the first one. Having developed an appetite for Polish soil, Russia and Prussia (without Austria) simply made another step down an already familiar path. Only this time, after the commonwealth's parliament ratified the partition, there was a much more severe struggle than before.
Due to the doings of pro-independence circles, the year 1794 saw what is usually considered the first in a series of national uprisings against the partitioning powers: the Kościuszko Uprising. Led by General Tadeusz Kościuszko, who had earlier famously fought in the American Revolutionary War on the side of the colonists, this new conflict gained momentum after just twelve days when the Polish-Lithuanian forces won a big battle. During the Battle of Racławice in question, on April 4th, one of the best-known episodes of the whole uprising occurred: a unit of peasants armed with straightened scythes (an arms shortage necessitated the use of such weaponry) neutralised the artillery of the Russian side. This sealed a Polish-Lithuanian victory and news of the win caused the uprising to spread to other regions of the country.
Unfortunately, the rebellion was quenched by its opponents’ stronger forces by the end of the year. The third partition followed. Nevertheless, Kościuszko’s fight proved inspirational for those who fostered the cause of independence after him. Modlitwa przed Bitwą: Racławice (Prayer Before the Battle: Racławice) created in 1906 by Józef Chełmoński, one of Poland’s most valued realist painters, shows the scythe-armed peasants at the threshold of their iconic military episode. General Franciszek Paszkowski, Kościuszko’s biographer, graphically describes what happened after the battle begun in his 1872 book Dzieje Tadeusza Kościuszki (The Story of Tadeusz Kościuszko):
Incited by their instincts, the commoners rushed without fear, reached and attacked, and the scythe struck entire ranks like a flaming sword quickly smiting the nearer artillery guards, and delivering hideous death to the horrified ranks causing them to seek relief of their fear in fleeing.
The Polonaise from Sir Thaddeus by Korneli Szlegel
In 1807 during the Napoleonic era, there was a partial, and brief, recreation of Poland. Having gained control over much of Europe, Napoleon carved out a formally independent Polish state called the Duchy of Warsaw from some of the land taken by Prussia and Austria in the partitions.
But the Duchy was, of course, reliant on France and its existence was justified not by sentiment but by Napoleon’s interest – he wanted the Poles to support him. And the Poles did indeed back the French leader, convinced that they might reinstate a fully independent Poland by fighting by his side. At their peak, Napoleon’s Polish forces counted almost 100,000 men.
One of Poland’s best-known literary works, the 1834 narrative poem Sir Thaddeus by the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, shows Polish gentry life in the Duchy of Warsaw and conveys the era’s hopes of independence. The 1849 Polonez z Pana Tadeusza (The Polonaise from Sir Thaddeus) by Korneli Szlegel, a painter with a predilection for historical and literary themes, shows the joyful last scene of the poem where the characters are enjoying the traditional Polish walking dance, the Polonaise. The poem’s eponymous character, a soldier in the Napoleonic army, is most probably in the second row, clad in the characteristic uniform of a Polish cavalier.
Mickiewicz wrote Sir Thaddeus well after Napoleon’s failed Russian campaign and the ensuing 1815 end of the Duchy. Nevertheless, he gave his work a cheerful ending to ‘uplift the hearts’ of his Polish readers waiting for a better day. The significance of the Napoleonic episode to Poland is evidenced, aside from Mickiewicz’s literary portrayal which has the status of an absolute classic, by the Polish national anthem itself, Dąbrowski's Mazurka. The lyrics call on General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, a veteran of the Kościuszko Uprising and one of the most important leaders of Napoleon’s Polish forces.
Emilia Plater Leading a Unit of Scythemen by Jan Rosen
After the Congress of Vienna, the duchy became a part of Russia known as the Kingdom of Poland. But, having brought repressions, Russian rule wasn’t popular with the Poles like the Napoleonic influence had been. For example, the Grand Duke Konstantin, the tsar’s brother in charge of the kingdom’s military (formally Polish, de facto controlled by Russia) became notorious for the ruthless ways in which he treated his Polish and Lithuanian soldiers.
On 29th November 1830, an uprising against Russia broke out when a group of restless military men attacked Belvedere Palace in Warsaw, the duke’s residence. He managed to escape and later fought against the rebellion which – despite help from the Prussian and Austrian partitions – ended with failure in December 1831. The Russian army was simply too strong for the insurgents.
One of the most inspiring leaders of the insurrection, now known as the November Uprising, was Emilia Plater. The Vilnian countess is the central figure in Emilia Plater na Czele Oddziału Kosynierów (Emilia Plater Leading a Unit of Scythemen) by Jan Rosen, a painter valued for his military and historical works. The undated image shows her during the uprising when she and her friend Maria Prószyńska created a unit of a couple hundred soldiers, among whom were cavalrymen and scythemen (like in the times of Kościuszko, need dictated the use of scythes). Emilia Plater took part in numerous fights during the uprising, exhibiting great courage. Sadly, she died of exhaustion on 23rd December 1831. Adam Mickiewicz devoted a poem to her titled Smierć Pułkownika (The Colonel’s Death) which includes the following verses:
(…) This chief, though like a soldier clad
A fair maiden’s face he has?
What a bosom? – Ah, she was a lady,
A Lithuanian, a heroic maiden
The insurgents’ leader – Emilia Plater!
Insurgent Patrol by Maksymilian Gierymski
Although the November Uprising ended with defeat for Poland, it showed that the country hadn’t abandoned its aspirations of liberty. Like the Kościuszko insurgency, it inspired later generations. The noted writer Narcyza Żmichowska wrote about the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the uprising’s outbreak and other pro-independence gatherings in a 1860 letter to one of her friends:
(…) The youth noticed that when they stand together as a group, all the spies and investigative committees can’t touch them. (…) It was only at this celebration that everybody stood together, openly, in daylight, showing their faces and convictions (…).
The oppressive nature of Russian rule over its partitioned territories was also responsible for the spreading of rebellious stances. Less than three years after the described celebrations, another uprising against Russia began on 22nd January 1863. Its initiators’ discourse drew heavily on the November tradition. On a military level, the insurgents believed that with support from France and Britain they could take on a Russia recently weakened in the Crimean War. However, the expected foreign support never came and the tsar’s army proved strong enough to defeat the rebellion. The fight, known as the January Uprising, was over by mid-1864.
A painting said to illustrate the rebellion exceptionally well is the 1873 Patrol Powstańczy (Insurgent Patrol) by the realist painter Maksymilian Gierymski. It shows a group of scouts that have most probably just noticed an enemy force in the desolate area. The masterfully executed scene is the epitome of the January Uprising as most of its insurgents fought in small and highly mobile units, often in skirmishes outside of the cities.
Portrait of Bolesław Prus by Leokadia Mirosławska
New repressions came after the fall of all three aforementioned uprisings. These included the death penalty for the leaders, exiling tens of thousands to Siberia, reparations and reductions of what autonomy the partitions still had. Since none of the uprisings achieved their primary goal – regaining independence – entailing dire consequences instead, they are sometimes described simply as ‘catastrophes’. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that after the failure of the January Uprising an intellectual trend appeared that argued against further rebellions.
Called Warsaw Positivism (after its birthplace) it proposed to patiently develop Poland economically and culturally as much as possible under the existing conditions to thoroughly prepare the ground for independence rather than to try to recapture it in a single all-or-nothing struggle. One of the most important representatives of this movement was the writer Bolesław Prus, a disillusioned veteran of the January Uprising and author of the 1889 masterpiece novel Lalka (Doll) showing the bitter realities of his times. He can be seen in the posthumous 1918 Portrait of Bolesław Prus by Leokadia Mirosławska, herself an art teacher at the Museum of Handicraft and Applied Art founded in 1891 through positivistic effort.
Overall, the role of culture in preserving the idea of a free Poland was immense and the writers – prompters of ideas – served this cause exceptionally well. For example, Maria Konopnicka’s 1908 patriotic poem Rota became an iconic protest against Germanisation in the Prussian partition. ‘Uplifting the hearts’ of the Poles deprived of their country was another contribution of literature, realised for example by the already mentioned Sir Thaddeus and the Nobel Prize in Literature winner Henryk Sienkiewicz’s The Trilogy, a series of historical novels about the 17th-century commonwealth written in the years 1883-1888.
The Departure of the Legions by Julian Fałat
The January Uprising was the last rebellion during the partition period. Tired of the recurring losses, the Poles chose to wait for the right moment before trying to reinstate Poland yet again. Such an occasion occurred during World War I when the partitioning powers confronted each other: Russia was pitted against Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Looking to strengthen their side, the Austro-Hungarians created a Polish force under the command of military man and politician Józef Piłsudski, which came to be known as the Polish Legions. Piłsudski, however, keen on the idea of putting Poland (as well as Lithuania and Ukraine) back on the map, quickly started to fight more for the Polish cause than the Austro-Hungarian one. Thanks to the legion’s stance during the Great War, many Poles started to believe that regaining independence may be within reach.
Interestingly, in some cases the legions were accompanied by painters documenting their exploits. Moreover, many painters like Józef Zamorski, educated at the Kraków Acedemy of Fine Arts, were legionaries themselves. Among the ‘external’ painters was the accomplished Julian Fałat, author of the 1917 painting Wyjście Legionów (The Departure of the Legions) described in the following words in the 1999 book Sztuka Legionów Polskich i Jej Twórcy (The Art of the Polish Legions and its Creators) by Wacława Milewska and Maria Zientara:
The Cadre Company that left for the Russian partition from Kraków on the morning of 6th August 1914 included, as already mentioned, four artists. But the historical moment of the first Polish unit crossing the border since 1863 hadn’t been captured at the time even in a rough sketch. (…) Only three years later, in 1917, Julian Fałat created the symbolic painting The Departure of the Legions (…).
The Resurrection of Poland by Władysław Barwicki
On 11th November 1918, the grand day came when Poland finally regained its independence. It’s no coincidence that this date also marks the end of the Great War – the three partitioning powers were so weakened by it that they couldn’t prevent Poland from reappearing. Since the legions played a crucial role in the country’s reinstating, providing the soldiers to back it, the date is also strongly linked to their leader, Józef Piłsudski. On the 11th, the Regency Council in Warsaw, a temporary governmental body, gave rule over Poland to Piłsudski, who had arrived in town the day before. By the way, Piłsudski had spent the night at the place of his friend, the painter and revolutionist Czesław Świrski whom he had known back from when both of them were in the pro-independence underground. Jędrzej Moraczewski, who was appointed prime minister shortly afterwards, wrote of the 11th:
You can’t describe that elation, the wild joy the Polish people felt at that moment. After 120 years the cordons were gone (…). Liberty! Independence! Unity! A country of our own!
The painting Zmartwychwstanie Polski (The Resurrection of Poland) created by the Lublin-based painter and poet Władysław Barwicki most probably in 1918, gives a sense of how important that moment was to the Poles. In this almost pious scene, you can see the Spirit of Poland rising from the dead, a silhouette of a winged hussar in the sky, hinting at the long-gone glory of Poland’s early-modern period and… Józef Piłsudski standing to the right in the uniform of a Polish Legions brigadier. Somewhat lofty but nevertheless symptomatic of the zeitgeist.
Ignacy Paderewski’s Coming to Poland by Leon Prauziński
It must be said that putting Poland back on the map didn’t happen in an instance. It wasn’t as if Piłsudski had been granted power by the Regency Council and, poof, there was a Poland again. Actually, recreating the country after November 11th was a process that lasted years and involved the gradual reclaiming of Polish territory. It engaged not only the military but also ordinary Poles as shown by the Greater Poland Uprising – one of the few examples of a successful pro-independence rebellion in Polish history.
On 26th December 1918, the acclaimed pianist and pro-independence activist Ignacy Jan Paderewski came to Poznań and gave a speech to locals in front of the Bazar Hotel where he was staying. The speech is said to have ended with the words ‘Long live a united, free and great Poland with a seashore of its own’. A day later, the uprising started.
The insurgency had been prepared beforehand by the pro-independence underground and managed to surprise the Germans who still had formal authority over the Greater Poland region. When it ended on 16th January 1919, almost all of Greater Poland including its capital Poznań lied within the recreated Polish state.
The pianist’s arrival to Poznań can be seen in the 1920s work Przyjazd Ingacego Paderewskiego do Poznania (Ignacy Paderewski’s Coming to Poznań) by Leon Prauziński, a painter and also participant of the uprising. The work was part of a 12-painting series chronicling the insurgency which was later destroyed by the Germans during World War II when they occupied Poland. The painter himself was murdered by the Gestapo because of his involvement in the uprising. Today, we know what the paintings looked like thanks to reproductions from inter-war postcards.
Poland's Wedding to the Sea by Wojciech Kossak
The Treaty of Versailles signed on 28th June 1919 confirmed Poland’s rights to Greater Poland and also sanctioned the return of the seashore region of Gdańsk Pomerania that had been taken by Prussia in the partitions. The operation of reclaiming access to the Baltic coast started in January 1920, led by General Józef Haller, a former brigadier of the Polish Legions. Thanks to his skills and determination, it progressed smoothly – the remaining German forces seldom violated the treaty by resisting.
By 10th February, Gdańsk Pomerania was a region of Poland again. A special ceremony was held to mark that fact, known as Poland’s Wedding to the Sea. On that day, the general, who had earlier received two platinum rings from the citizens of Gdańsk, threw one of them into the Baltic symbolically wedding the sea to Poland. The other ring Haller kept for himself. The 1930 piece Zaślubiny Polski z Morzem (Poland's Wedding to the Sea) by the noted historical painter Wojciech Kossak is a stylised depiction of that ceremony.
Reclaiming Gdańsk Pomerania wasn’t the last accord of reinstating Poland. In the upcoming years, its borders were also shaped, for example, by the Polish-Bolshevik War and the Silesian Uprisings. Eventually however, a Poland was created whose shape strongly resembled that of the country partitioned back in the 18th century.
This amazing development was and still is considered nothing short of a miracle by some. In the 1924 novel The Spring to Come by the noted writer Stefan Żeromski, a character called Szymon Gajowiec, an important official of the newly reborn state, is described as follows:
He believed in miracles. He believed in some mysterious care about this country. In his conversations with Cezary he pointed to a few ‘miracles’. Mr. Gajowiec’s first ‘miracle’ was, naturally, the resurrection of the Polish state.
Cezary Baryka, the young hero of the story who keenly analyses the complex situation of 1920s Poland asks Gajowiec in one of their dialogues:
What vision of Poland do you have in this modern, extraordinarily new world? What vision?
A timeless question.
Author: Marek Kępa, Jan 2018