The Two Faces of Stańczyk: Surprising Aspects of 19th-Century Polish Painting
#photography & visual arts
full-width, The Two Faces of Stańczyk:
Surprising Aspects of
19th-Century Polish Painting, ‘A Noble Scene – History of the Yagatan’ by Henryk Weyssenhof, 1891, photo: National Museum in Warsaw, center, weysenhoff_scena_szlachecka_1891_mp5357-2.jpg
The September 2019 Louvre-Lens Museum exhibition showcases some of the most famous paintings in the history of Polish art. For a change, however, Culture.pl has decided to present some notable works that are less known than ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Melancholy’.
‘Children of King Edward’ by Józef Simmler (1847)
The title of the above painting is not a mistake – although the scene, depicting the frightened children of King Edward IV listening to the noises of the assassin approaching their chamber, is already familiar to most viewers from the original painting by Paul Delaroche. This French painter was so popular at the peak of his career that young students of painting copied his works as if he were one of the old masters. Among these students was the Polish painter Józef Simmler, who was 24 years old at the time he created this work.
His painting, found in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, is a faithful copy of Delaroche’s original, although it is only half the size. Although Simmler remained devoted to the vision of historical painting promoted by the Frenchman, he soon became independent enough to use this historical-genre, cameral convention, so full of affectation, to create his own iconic and often reproduced works. These include The Death of Barbara Radziwiłłówna.
Pologne (1840-1918): Peindre L’âme d’une Nation at the Louvre-Lens Museum
'Zygmunt August and Barbara at the Radziwiłł Court in Vilnius’ by Jan Matejko
The story of the affair between king Zygmunt August and Barbara Radziwiłłówna served as an inspiration for a large group of Polish painters in the middle of the 19th century. Besides Simmler, it was used by, among others, Jan Matejko – who concentrated not on the tear-jerking sad finale of the story, but on the sensational theme of the night meetings between the beautiful young widow and the last Jagiellonian king. The affair was opposed, of course, by the nobility and Queen Bona, who frown upon the couple from a portrait in the corner of the canvas.
Matejko himself went in an opposite direction than Delaroche – he moved from intimate historical-genre scenes to monumental, multi-character compositions. But Zygmunt August and Barbara at the Radziwiłł Court in Vilnius betrays his still-present fascination with the Frenchman’s art. Here, history happens not on the battlefields, but in the quiet palace bedroom.
Was Matejko A Painter?
‘A Noble Scene – History of the Yagatan’ by Henryk Weyssenhof (1891)
Henryk Weyssenhof attended all the schools in which an ambitious Polish painter of the second half of the 19th century could learn his craft – from Wojciech Gerson’s Drawing School, to academies in St. Petersburg, Munich and Paris. But he valued the former eastern reaches of the Republic of Poland much more than the European centres of artistic life. Weyssenhoff’s work is full of landscapes from Belarus, Lithuania and Samogitia. Although he considered himself a realist, he included sentimental and symbolic elements in his paintings. Sometimes, as in Spleen, his work displayed traces of a Young Poland sensitivity.
In this genre scene, quite atypical for the artist, people serve only as a pretext to present a plethora of historical accessories – it can be described as a still life with Eastern traits. In A Noble Scene, the silhouettes of the noblemen are not as important as their precisely recreated clothes, the beautiful interior and surprising props. The light coming from the window nicely brings out the matte softness of the shining velvet, the details of the inlaid table and the titular yatagan – a Turkish battle knife – held by one of the characters.
8 Awe-Inspiring Paintings from the Young Poland Period
‘On the Pasture’ by Stanisław Witkiewicz (1875)
At a time when the future creator of the Zakopane style published his first polemics, which made him famous as an ardent defender of realism, Witkiewicz was still making some sentimental genre paintings like On the Pasture. In Witkiewicz’s hands, the popular theme turned out to be something stretched between realism and the idealised conventional paintings of Antoni Gramatyka. It is not the realism of Witkiewicz’s mature Tatra nocturns, however, but one clearly inspired by the work of Józef Chełmoński, who was not only the artist’s friend – they actually shared a painting studio at the time.
Witkacy's ‘Madness’: The Lost Manuscript of a Total Artist
'Episode from the 1863 Uprising’ by Józef Chełmoński (1884-1885)
Speaking of Józef Chełmoński, this scene of his from the January Uprising is doubly special. The subject itself is unusual for the artist. Chełmoński returned to uprising themes a few times in the first half of the 1880s, when he lived in Paris, but these were characteristic paintings, full of horse carriages and countryside landscapes. Episode from the 1863 Uprising shares with them the realistic take, but in this case, it is a realism underpinned by sadness following the failure of this national revolt. Its depiction of sleeping insurgents lying on the muddied ground does not resemble the heroic and romanticised visions of the insurrection popular in the art of that period – it is a documentary snapshot of an uprising repressed by the partitioning power.
The realism of this image lies also in an element that is atypical in uprising paintings. Chełmoński is one of the few artists who highlighted the role of women in the insurrection. What’s more, he depicts them not as nurses dressing the wounds of wounded men, worried girls bidding farewells to their loved ones or grieving mothers like Artur Grottger did in his work: Chełmoński’s women insurgents are soldiers.
Painters of the January Uprising
'At a Leg of the Journey (The Arrested)’ by Jacek Malczewski (1883)
'At a Leg of the Journey (The Arrested)’ by Jacek Malczewski, 1883, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
During that same period, the scenes from the January Uprising were also depicted by Jacek Malczewski, who was then at the early stages of his career, professing himself a proponent of realism and a fan of Courbet. Similarly to Chełmoński, Malczewski was too young to take part in the uprising – at the time of its outbreak, he was a nine-year-old boy. And he, too, tried to demythologise the uprising iconography. At a Leg of the Journey takes place not during the fights, but after the fall of the insurrection, when its participants are going into exile.
Malczewski portrays only men here, but he has diversified their social background – amongst the patriots, there are those born in the upper classes, but also representatives of the poor, clothed in dirty and ragged clothes, sometimes even barefoot. This realistic depiction of the uprising offers a symbolic declaration on the part of an artist who was too young to take part in the insurrection, but who took it on himself to bear witness to it.
Malczewski hid his own self-portrait among the insurgents in this painting, although it is not as obvious as in his later symbolic paintings, where the artist openly gave his own face to Christ or St Francis. The painter’s monographer, Dorota Kudelska, noticed the self-portrait theme in the character of the grieving young man. Leaning towards him is an old man with the face of Julian Malczewski, the artist’s father.
Works of Jacek Malczewski [gallery]
‘Hiring Workers’ by Kazimierz Alchimowicz (1893)
Another painter, Kazimierz Alchimowicz, was actually a participant in the uprising, and his later life was largely shaped by this experience. Similarly to Malczewski, Alchimowicz also created paintings of captured insurgents marching towards Siberia, but contrary to the lead Polish symbolist, he painted them on the basis of his own experience. It is in Siberia where Alchimowicz made his first artistic attempts by creating amateur religious scenes. By the time he regained his freedom, he was almost 30, but he quickly improved his craft, first in Gerson’s Drawing School and later through his studies in Munich. Alchimowicz turned out to be a versatile artist – he also created sculptures and decorated porcelain, while his paintings were full of historical, genre and landscape themes. Scenes from the uprising have an important place in his legacy.
Hiring Workers was created 30 years after the outbreak of the uprising and serves as an interesting counterpoint to both the heroic, as well as the bitter and realistic depictions of the insurrection. This genre scene, created by a mature Alchimowicz, captured the unquestionable success of the uprising – the enfranchisement of peasants in the Kingdom of Poland, and under conditions more favourable than in the Russian Empire! The decree of Alexander II, which started the modernisation of the Polish countryside, even contains paragraphs taken straight from the uprising orders.
When Poland Was Nowhere: Foreigners Reflect on the Partitions & a Stateless Nation
'Stańczyk’ by Leon Wyczółkowski (1898)
Leon Wyczółkowski painted his version of Stańczyk more than three decades after Matejko. Starting his career as a student of the cult painter, he took over from his master as a professor at Kraków’s School of Fine Arts at the end of 1890s. By that time, he had already outgrown the influence of his teacher, just as Matejko did the influence of Delaroche. By the end of the century, Wyczółkowski saw Matejko as representing a style of painting from a previous era, one that should not be continued in the new reality. His Stańczyk is a kind of settling of accounts and a polemic with Matejko’s legacy. The narrow, fragmentary composition, the strong, bright colours and the freedom of artistic gesture belong to the new Young Poland period.
Wyczółkowski’s Stańczyk contrasts with Matejko’s in its meaning as well. Contrary to his master, Wyczółkowski did not agree with the community of conservative Kraków intellectuals called ‘Stańczycy’ or Stańczyks, who came from land-owning, aristocratic circles. They opposed not only social reforms, but also any traces of modernity in art. In this painting, they become marionettes dressed in national dress – puppets in the hands of the partitioning power.
As a teacher at the Kraków academy, the painter was in a constant state of war against Stańczyks. They criticised Wyczółkowski for sympathising with the people and even denounced him to the police for creating a scandal after he introduced classes in painting female nudes. The conservatives were also offended by the brutal realism and symbolic ambiguity of his paintings. The artist gladly used that while deriding them in Stańczyk, drawing upon the themes and techniques they hated the most.
Originally written in Polish by Piotr Policht, translated by MW, Sep 2019
Polish History in Paintings (Part 1)