Rome-based painter. A great representative of European academic art. Born in 1843 near Kharkiv, in an estate called Pieczeniegi, died in 1902 in Strzałków near Częstochowa.
Rome-based painter, great representative of European academic art.
He was born into a noble family that resided in Lithuania since the end of the 17th century. The artist’s father was an officer in the Russian army, who ended his career in 1871 in a general’s rank. An atmosphere of Polish patriotism existed however within the family. Siemiradzki considered himself a Pole throughout his entire life. He remained indifferent to the fact that the Russian press and critics tried to attribute Russian nationality to him, when he was having his greatest artistic successes. His works are still exhibited in the national art sections of some museums in Russia and in the Ukraine.
He spent his childhood in Kharkiv. In the same town he received, already as a gymnasium student, drawing lessons from Dmitry Bezperchy. Siemiradzki reminisced later that thanks to his tutor he felt very well prepared for academic studies. In 1864 he completed the mathematical-physical faculty of the Kharkiv university and he received the title of natural sciences candidate. The same year he was admitted to the Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, at first as a non-enrolled student (he couldn’t be put on the list of students because he was more than 21 years old); only in 1866, after many efforts, did he become a regular student. He learned under the auspices of the well-known battle-painter Bogdan Willewalde and Karl Wenig. As a student of the academy Siemiradzki was awarded a silver medal 5 times and a golden one twice. He was respected and supported by the academy’s rector Fiodor Bruni. The Polish painter spent much of his time in the Hermitage museum. He was fascinated with the works of the masters of the Italian renaissance. He frequented the Petersburg theatres, where he paid close attention to stage sceneries, decorations and light effects. Since the days of his early youth, he was fascinated not only by theatre but by music as well. At the turn of 1864 and 1865 he traveled to the Polish regions – he visited Lublin and Warsaw at that time. In 1871 he completed his studies and was awarded a great golden medal for the painting Alexander the Great and His Doctor Philip, thanks to which he received a six-year scholarship for further studies abroad.
In the autumn of 1871 he journeyed to Munich, on the way he stopped in Kraków for a brief visit. In the former capitol of Poland he encountered for the first time the magnificent monuments and relics of Polish greatness. This cultural experience aroused the young artist’s sense of polishness, from which he was separated for his entire childhood and the time of his Petersburg studies. After Siemiradzki came to Munich, he decided that he will work alone, he didn’t enroll in the local Academy of Fine Arts (some scholars claim that he took advice from one of the academy’s professors, Carl Piloty). The author of Alexander the Great and His Doctor Philip established however a rapport with the Polish colony which was centered around Józef Brandt and Maksymilian Gierymski. At that time Siemiradzki was a close friend to Stanisław Witkiewicz - the two met each other back in Petersburg. With time Witkiewicz became the one of the harshest critics of Siemiradzki’s work. In Munich the artist born in Pieczeniegi created the painting Roman Orgy, which was exhibited at Kunstverein. The work was warmly received by German critics and the Polish artistic colony. In the spring of 1872 Siemiradzki stayed in Dresden for a brief period. There he befriended the great Polish writer Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, for whom he felt respect and sympathy ever since. Later the painter went to Italy. After he saw Venice and Verona he wanted to stop for a longer stay in Florence. He went however to Naples (where he wanted to see the eruption of Vesuvius that took place in April 1872) and changed his plans – Siemiradzki’s daughter reminisced after many years that “… he saw Rome and everything else ceased to exist for him. That was his world, his artistic vocation”. He settled down in the eternal city in May 1872 and he stayed there for the rest of his life. At first he rented out an atelier near the Spanish Square; he was a frequent guest of the famous Caffé Greco. After some time, he started a family and built his own villa in the suburban via Gaeta, from where there were magnificent views of Rome and the Albanian Mountains, which the artist often depicted in his works. Siemiradzki’s house became a lively centre of Polish culture in Rome. Many of the Poles who came to this town met there. The author of Roman Orgy was visited amongst others by the renowned pianist Ignacy Paderewski and by the famous Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who drew inspiration for his great novel Quo vadis? from Siemiradzki’s paintings. In his atelier Siemiradzki was visited by the queen of Italy on a few occasions. In his workspace he also received the Russian Tzar’s brother, the great prince Paul.
The artist remained involved with the Petersburg Academy even after he settled down in Rome. In 1873 he received the title of academician and in 1877 (after the staging of Nero’s Torch) he was appointed professor. Since 1889 he was on the Board of the Academy. Siemiradzki’s growing fame was evidenced by the fact that he became a member of the most prestigious European artistic institutions of the time: The Academy of Art in Berlin, The Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm (1879), The St. Luke Academy in Rome (1880) and Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1889, as the second Pole, after Jan Matejko). He was successful and received many distinctions at international art exhibitions, for instance in Rome, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Petersburg. In 1878, for the painting Vase or Woman, he was awarded a golden medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris. This work also earned him the French Legion of Honour. During an individual exhibition at the St. Luke Academy in Rome in 1876 he received the Order of the Crown of Italy. In 1898 the king of Italy ordained him Commander of the Order of St. Maurice and Lazarus. Siemiradzki lived in Rome but he often visited Poland – mostly when he wanted to present his paintings at exhibitions in Kraków, Warsaw, Lviv but also in Petersburg. In 1879, during Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s jubilee, he presented the Polish nation with his monumental painting Nero’s Torches. With this act the painter initiated the creation of the National Museum in Kraków. The painted curtain made in 1894 for the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków was another wonderful gift from Siemiradzki. In the years following 1884 he often stayed in his estate Strzałkowo (near Częstochowa). That is where the painter spent the last weeks of his life, which were marked by severe illness. In recognition of his outstanding artistic talent and his contribution to the popularization of Poland in the world, Siemiradzki was buried in the crypt of the St. Michael the Archangel church – the honourary necropolis of Polish scientists, writers and artists, who contributed exceptionally much to Polish culture.
Siemiradzki’s work represents the cosmopolitan trend of 19th century academic art, which became enriched with the achievements of plein-air painting and with a realistic strictness of observation. The artist born in Pieczeniegi paid close attention to the construction of forms and to the luminous effects that occur in nature. Siemiradzki, who had been exposed to the neoclassical doctrine of the Petersburg Academy, was fascinated by the ancient world. He usually depicted the life of Romans from the era of the early empire (Anthony and Cleopatra, A Dance among Swords, 1879-80, The Judgment of Paris), he drew inspiration from ancient Greece less often (Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis, 1889). He also made use of biblical motifs – within this sphere of activity he painted mostly narrative scenes from the life of Christ (Christ at Mary’s and Martha’s, 1886, Christ Teaching Children). Siemiradzki also created allegoric works (Apotheosis of Copernicus, 1891, Curtain for the Kraków Theatre, easel painting, 1893-94.). Sporadically he created portraits (Portrait of Ludwik Wodzicki, 1880, Portrait of Aleksander Stankiewicz, before 1892), scenes from the life of the Italian provinces, which often revolved around monastery life and the religious ideals of mercy and consolation (With Solace and Help, 1885, In Monastery Silence, 1885-87, With Viaticum, 1889). Siemiradzki ocassionaly created also small landscapes (Italian Landscape with a Donkey, around 1880, Landscape with a Stream). He had a tendency to theatrically arrange his scenes, to picturesquely depict landscapes and to idealize the figures he painted, and he merged all of this with something characteristic of plein-air painting, namely with a perfect feel of how to recreate air effects, light and the changeability of colours that is influenced by light. Most of his works display a great decorative sense, which may be seen in the carefully composed arrangements of figural scenes, in the subtle harmony of clean, saturated colours, in the fluent melodiousness of the contours and in the expressive play of the shiny patches of sunlight that ooze through the luxuriant Mediterranean vegetation. With the fondness of a refined aesthete he presented the beauty of the architecture of ancient temples and palaces. He enriched the compositions of his paintings with numerous ancient sculptures, decorative objects and luxurious items, which he gave a perfect finish and depicted with an almost archeological accuracy (Vase or Woman, 1878, The Martyrdom of St. Timothy and Maura, 1885).
The first painting which he made after he moved to Rome – Harlot (1872) – made him famous and brought him international success at an exhibition in Petersburg. The narratively captured scene, in which Christ meets Mary Magdalene (similar to the scene in which Christ visits the home of Mary and Martha), is a typical example of a painting interpretation of biblical tales that refers to 19th century scientism. This is evidenced by the fact that the artist strived to retain the accuracy of the historic realities, his depiction of the local scenery showcases his erudition - the landscape, architecture or the details of the depicted figures’ clothes. Harlot was made in accordance with the tendencies of the era of positivism - Siemiradzki’s Christ is above all a Jew with Semitic features, not a God that took on the form of a man. The artist’s fondness of decorative effects – which is evidenced in this case by the richness and colourfulness of such elements as women’s dresses, musical instruments and jewelry but also by the picturesque charm of the architecture and by the idyllic aura of the sunny, spring landscape – seems to overshadow the religious meaning of this scene, which revolves around the sanctifying power of conversion and of penance for sins.
Siemiradzki enjoyed great artistic success with his next monumental painting – Nero’s Torches (1876). In this impressive work, which shows the martyrdom of early Christians, the painter displayed his erudition. This painting went on a triumphant journey through the exhibition halls of amongst others Rome, Vienna, Munich, Prague, Berlin, Paris and London. As a result the Polish painter’s fame and his importance in the eyes of European critics rose. Such masters of academic art as Hans Makart and Lawrence Alma Tadema commented favourably on Nero’s Torches. However among the common admiration, the first voices of disapproval appeared. Siemiradzki was criticized for subordinating the historical and emotional truth of this cruel scene to the superior ideal of aestheticism. At that time Stanisław Witkiewicz, who adopted the stance of a theoretician of realism, accused Siemiradzki of being merely a painter of exterior effects – of human beauty and objects, which he recreates with true fondness and virtuosity of the paintbrush. This critique went farther as it suggested also that the author of Nero’s Torches didn’t try to penetrate the human psyche, and wasn’t capable of capturing the feelings and emotions of the depicted figures and the real dramaticism of the showed events. The same accusations might have been brought up against another of Siemiradzki’s great canvases, the spectacularly arranged scene of the martyrdom of a young Christian from Nero’s times (Christian Dirce, 1897), had the artist’s goal been to show only the dramatic tension and the sense of danger that accompany the death of a defenseless victim of religious persecution. However to Siemiradzki the presentation of the psychological truth of human reactions and emotions wasn’t as important as the monumentalization of the topic – through the gorgeousness of the scenery, the richness of the dresses and objects, the sublime beauty of the female body, he wanted to show the atmosphere of decadent refinement that surrounded Nero and his retinue. The emperor’s court dazzled with splendour and excess but also had a tendency to be cruel, perverse and promiscuous, which caused fright. The monumental body and the luminous carnation of the deceased young Christian are contrasted with the black shape of the bull. The noble beauty of the martyr seems to symbolize the spiritual values of Christianity, the early believers’ ideal of remaining steadfastly faithful.
Considering Siemiradzki’s ouvre, the group of monumental, pompier canvases, which includes such works as Christian Dirce or Nero’s Torches, is rivaled in number only by the array of small-format idyllic scenes which show the life of ancient Romans. These modestly-sized works usually present Mediterranean landscapes in their backgrounds. The idyllic paintings reference a notion popular in the second half of the 19th century that the ancient times were a golden age for humanity. Siemiradzki was captivated by the landscapes of Roman Campania, in his artistic vision he transformed them into the mythical Arcadia, where beautiful, happy people lead carefree lives in a moderate climate, amidst succulent vegetation (Roman Idyll – Fishing; Roman Idyll – Before a Bath, around 1885-89; Next to the Street of Graves, 1894; At the Spring, 1898). The Polish painter idealized the looks of the heroes of these paintings according to the ancient standards of beauty. He depicted the landscape parts with the passion of a realistic painter and a keen observer of nature. On his canvases he recreated the wilderness with almost photographic precision. This characteristic of Siemiradzki’s talent inspired the critics of the times to call him a colourist He was however more of an impressionist, who captured on canvas the elusive changes of light and colour which may be observed in nature (the artist made tens of oil sketches and plein-air studies of fragments of landscapes that interested him). The graceful, almost unintentionally elegant poses and gestures of the figures, the subtle gradations of the pure, saturated colours and above all the picturesqueness of the landscapes filled with air and sunlight, these elements render Siemiradzki’s idyllic scenes charming. The said works, in their times, were popular with audiences. In the era of rapid civilizational development these small-format paintings brought relief from the problems of everyday reality.
Siemiradzki also practiced decorative painting. In this field he often created allegoric works. His most important decorative pieces include: The Fight of Brightness with Darkness – plafond for the Zawisza palace in Warsaw (1882-83), Daybreak – plafond for the Nechayev palace in Moscow (1886), The Curtain for the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków (1894), The Curtain for the Municipal Theatre in Lviv (1900), seven cartons of wall paintings for the Church of the Savior in Moscow (including The Last Supper for the main altar), two historical compositions made in the encaustic technique for the Historic Museum in Moscow and two decorative panels - Secular Music and Church Music – made for the Warsaw Philharmonics.
Author: Ewa Micke-Broniarek, National Museum in Warsaw, December 2004.