Henryk Rodakowski was a Polish painter active in Lviv, Kraków and Paris and a representative the movement of Romantic painting based on the Academic technique. He was born in Lviv in 1823, and died in Kraków in 1894.
Polski malarz czynny we Lwowie, Krakowie i Paryżu, reprezentujący nurt romantyzmu opartego na akademickim warsztacie.
Born into the wealthy family of Paweł Rodakowski, a lawyer, his childhood was spent preparing for a generational continuation of the legal tradition. He was educated at the Theresianum elite school in Vienna, where he took up legal studies in 1841 and graduated in 1845. At the same time, Rodakowski developed his early artistic interests by attending Joseph Danhauser’s private studio, beginning in 1843. He also improved his technique under the guidance of Friedrich von Amerling and Franz Eybel. Finally, Rodakowski shaped his creative attitude in Paris, where he moved in 1846 to join the atelier of Léon Cogniet, a painter who enjoyed recognition in the circles of Polish emigres. Upon his arrival in Lviv in 1850, he opened his own painting studio, which was visited by local critics. However, he still maintained an atelier in Paris, where he worked intensively, and where Eugéne Delacroix and Théophile Gautier came to see his paintings.
The artist entered the circle of emigrants gathered around Hôtel Lambert; he met Cyprian Norwid and Teofil Lenartowicz, made friends with Juliusz Kossak and Leon Kapliński, and met Artur Grottger. In 1858 he travelled to Venice, where he was enchanted by the paintings of the Renaissance masters. In 1866 he became a member of the Polish Historical and Literary Society in Paris. In 1867 he finally returned to Lviv and settled with his family on the Pałahicze estate near Tłumacz. While travelling to Paris in 1870, he stopped in Barbegal near Arles as a result of the French-Prussian war and then left for Florence; in 1871 he visited Rome, Naples and Venice. In 1872 he stayed in Paris, Vienna and Brussels. In 1883 he settled in the estate of Bortniki near Khodoriv upon Dniester, which he sold in 1889 to move to Vienna. During his stay in Zakopane in 1892, he established close contacts with Stanisław Witkiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz. In 1893 he moved from Vienna to Kraków. After Jan Matejko’s death in 1894, he was elected director of the Society of Friends of Fine Arts and chairman of the National Museum Committee; just before his sudden death, he was appointed director of the School of Fine Arts.
Rodakowski mainly presented his works at Parisian salons (1852, 1853, 1859, 1861, 1863, 1865, 1866, 1872, 1875). For his Portrait of Dembiński he received a great gold medal in 1852; his Mother’s Portrait, painted in 1853, met with great applause from critics and audiences and delighted both Delacroix and Matejko. At the Paris World Exhibition in 1855, Rodakowski was awarded a gold medal; in 1861 he was awarded the Legion of Honour, and in 1872 – the Order of King Leopold. In 1873 he was honoured with the Bachelor’s Cross of the Order of Franz Joseph. He exhibited his paintings at the Universal Art Exhibition in Vienna (1873), at the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (1875), at the World Exhibition in Paris (1878), at the First General Exhibition of Polish Art in Kraków (1887) and the Universal National Exhibition in Lviv (1894). An individual exhibition of the artist’s work took place in 1873 in Lviv. Posthumous presentations of Rodakowski’s works took place in Warsaw (1898), Kraków (100 Years of Polish Painting, 1929), Poznań (PWK, 1929) and Lviv (100 Years of Lviv Painting, 1937). The retrospective exhibition organised in 1994 at the National Museum in Kraków summarised the artist’s work.
Rodakowski is one of the most eminent Polish painters of the 19th century. Together with artists of such magnitude as Piotr Michałowski and Jan Matejko, he created a foundation for Polish art which rivalled that of the European artistic class. Undoubtedly, he also maintained his priority position in the overall history of Polish art as a Romantic artist who mastered painting techniques of Academic origin. Rodakowski achieved a special mastery in the field of portrait – psychologically deepened and veristically reflecting physiognomic features of models, perfectly composed but modest in means of expression, perfectly drawn and subtly modelled, with tasteful colour tones and glazing texture.
In his early Viennese period, Rodakowski created watercolours in the Biedermeier style – stylistic portraits of people from his surroundings, sentimental in expression (The Dreamer, 1845). While studying in Cogniet’s studio, he adapted the Academic aesthetic canon by painting historical and quasi-historical compositions (In Raphael’s Studio, Henry III’s Entry Through the Barbican in Kraków). The repertoire of themes addressed by the artist was rooted in the tradition of French Academic art (Mother of the Gracchi Pointing at Her Children, The Battle the Cimbri and Romans, Charles V in Front of Coligny’s Remains)
Rodakowski perfected his technique and deepened his knowledge of European painting by studying the works of the old masters in the Louvre’s galleries. His ability to assimilate romantic moods was manifested in his portrait formula, which he managed to perfect – the silhouette of the figure blended into a neutral dark background, strong light unearthing the face and hands of the model, a colour counterpoint. The props and costume details characteristic of the portrayed person play a secondary role to the analysis of physiognomic features and mental expression (Father’s Portrait, 1850). The peak achievement in this respect is the Mother’s Portrait from 1853, in which a light complexion, transparent lace and highlights sliding over the strands of hair, resonate with a strong tone contrasting with the velvety black of the dress and background. In some effigies – usually, the ones painted on commission – the intimacy of the mood gives way to a representative pose. The value of dignity is then elevated by fragments of monumental columns, balustrades, cornices and curtains, stretched over the background in accordance with the Renaissance-Baroque portrait tradition (Marshal, 1859; Portrait of Jan Tarnowski, 1889). This was the convention in which the artist depicted his wife in 1865 – Kamilla Blühdorn, née Salzgeber, married in 1861. We can see her standing in an evening dress on the balcony (Portrait of a Wife, 1865). Rodakowski depicted his sister Wanda, née Rodakowska Müller-Wandau, in a similar manner – as she leaves the church in her wedding dress (Portrait of Sister in Wedding Dress, 1858). The idealisation of facial features is harmonised with the masterful reconstruction of textures of noble items and materials such as lace, satin, velvet, fur and shining jewels. In another painting, Włodzimierz Dzieduszycki, quite literally characterised as a full-blooded Sarmatian, is comfortably seated in an armchair, dressed in a caftan, a delia lined with fur, and a Slutsk belt as he emanates with energy and determination worthy of the offices of a member of the Austrian Chamber of Lords, the Marshal of Galicia and the city councillor of Lviv. In 1880, this portrait was used to decorate the Gallery of the Marshals of the Galician Parliament. Portrait of General Henryk Dembiński, painted by Rodakowski in 1852, was dubbed a masterpiece – an effigy of a hero of the Napoleonic wars, the leader of the November Uprising (1831) and the Hungarian Revolution (1848-1849). The motif of the lone hero – the commander of a defeated army, remembering his defeat in a tent against the background of a battlefield – combines the formula of a romantic portrait with the Baroque convention of historical painting. Portraits of people close to the artist – his parents, brother, stepdaughter and friends – mark a fundamentally different category of works, as they were treated very personally and veristically, giving an unfailing testimony to psychological intimacy (Portrait of Leon Kapliński, 1862). Rodakowski perfectly grasped the natural pose, characteristic of the model, a free gesture, a characteristic look, expression and mood. He was a master at bringing out nuances of white, modulating blacks, suggestively conveying the shine of a model’s complexion and the network of wrinkles on faces and hands (Portrait of Babetta Singer, 1863). Rodakowski’s command of colour manifested in colourful counterpoints, strong contrasts and invigorating chromatic accents, such as the triad of black, white and red in Portrait of Leon Blühdorn (1871). As it was with Rembrandt, his desire to preserve the process of maturation and ageing seems to be one of the reasons for painting self-portraits (1849, 1853, 1858). While creating portraits, the artist abandoned the Academic creative process based on studies and sketches; he painted directly on the canvas, bringing out the form using colour.
Rodakowski’s ambition was to master a different genre of painting – historical composition, ranked highest in the Academic hierarchy. He depicted historical scenes following the rules of the Academic technique; in accordance with the Academic norms, he also prepared himself for them by studying the historical context in the form of documents, literary messages, iconographic patterns, period costumes, weapons and armour. He was fascinated by the figure of Sobieski and the history of his military glory during the Polish-Turkish wars. However, The Battle of Chocim lacked narrative consistency. The source of inspiration and point of reference for Rodakowski was the painting of the High Renaissance. The schematic diagram of the painting, depicting the audience of deputies with King Sobieski, was borrowed from Paolo Veronese’s painting The Supper of St. Gregory the Great. The hero of Rodakowki’s next historical painting, The Chicken War, was King Sigismund the Old, who granted privileges to the rebellious nobility. The scene is theatrical, deprived of the inner drama of the ‘living image’ played out by actors with excellent characteristics in Academic categories. Contemporary events such as the fiasco of the national uprising of 1863 found little reflection in Rodakowski’s work; reminiscences of the lost military uprising appeared only in the allegorical-historiosophical 1880 composition Vision in Prison. Between 1881 and 1888 the artist made a frieze of The Benefits of Culture, which decorated the interior of the meeting room of the Galician Sejm. The work consisted of eleven paintings in the style referring to 16th-century art: allegorical images of agriculture, trade, industry, science and art, as well as personifications of faith and work complemented by figures of Moses, Lycurgus, Solon and Justinian.
Genre painting was treated marginally by Rodakowski – he only recorded small episodes from the life of the Galician countryside in a realistic convention. The sharpened sense of observation and ethnographic interests of the realist painter manifested themselves with full force in the watercolour drawings of the Album Pałahicki, showing different types of Ruthenian peasants. In 1863, the artist created watercolour illustrations for the Iliad and Homer’s Odyssey.
Originally written in Polish by Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, December 2004, translated into English by P. Grabowski, December 2019