Józef Simmler was a painter who co-founded the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw. He was born on 14th March 1823 in Warsaw, where he died on 1st March 1868.
He was the son of Jan Jakub Simmler and Anna Katarzyna Barbara. He had two brothers, an older one named Charles and a younger one named Julian. He took his first drawing lessons in Warsaw under Józef Richter, and, after 1837, under Bonawentura Dąbrowski. One of his first portraits from 1841 has survived – it depicted Teresa Kicka, painted in oil on a metal sheet. In the same year, Simmler went to Dresden to study art. He was successful, receiving a silver medal for drawing in the first year of his education. He wanted to study under Eduard Bendemann, a historical and portrait painter who continued the tradition of the Nazarenes, but Bendemann had suspended his pedagogical activity.
Simmler left Dresden and, at the end of 1841, went to Munich to continue his artistic education. The following year, however, his plans were interrupted by disease. After suffering from severe meningitis, the artist went to his family in Switzerland to recover. After returning to Munich, he applied for admission to Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s studio. In 1843 he became a member of the Munich-based Kunsteverein, and in the 1840s he became a foreign member of the society. In 1844 he returned to Dresden to pursue his plan to study under Bendemann. In 1845 he took part in the Public Exhibition of the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where he presented a historical painting titled Joseph and Potiphara (currently missing).
In 1845 Józef Simmler returned to Warsaw because his passport had not been renewed. His works from the second half of the 1840s show links with the German Biedermeier and are intimate in their themes and moods. Most of them are portraits of loved ones: mother, father and brothers. It is believed that in August 1847 Simmler left for Paris. His biographer, Wojciech Gerson, mentions his contacts with Paul Delaroche. The artist was also fascinated by Charles Gleyre’s paintings. He learned a lot while studying at the Louvre and the Luxembourg Gallery. His copy of Delaroche’s painting – The Children of King Edward – has survived from this period. He also made pencil and quill drawings, including sketches for a poem by Maria Antoni Malczewski. From the series of six planned paintings, two were created, of which only one has survived to this day – Wacław’s Farewell to Maria.
Although the dates given by Wojciech Gerson in Simmler’s biography are not always precise, it is certain that during his journeys the artist frequently visited Munich, as evidenced by the signatures on many drawings. This was probably due to his close acquaintance with Julia Hoegensteller, the artist’s future wife, who lived in Munich.
At the beginning of 1849, after his stay in Paris, Simmler returned to Warsaw. His location is evidenced by the fact that he was invited by the School of Fine Arts as an expert to assess the work of students and to grant patents. In the portraits he created at that time, he immortalised his family members and friends. He also painted portraits of married couples, including Ferdynand and Karolina Galle in 1850. In the same year, he married Julia Hoegensteller in Munich. They moved into the artist’s family house in Warsaw, on Mazowiecka Street.
In the 1850s Simmler mainly painted individual and group portraits, for which, despite the growing popularity of daguerreotypes, he had many commissions. He usually depicted the model on a dark, uniform background, with great attention to the details of the outfit and physiognomic similarity. The painter’s style was perfected to imitate details in the most precise manner, to create an illusion of similarity to real textures and objects. Among the canvases created at that time are portraits of townspeople: Portrait of Ksawery Skrzyński (1852), Portrait of Miss Pisarzowska (1852), Portrait of Madame Skwarcow (1855), as well as images of artists: Portrait of Deotyma – Jadwiga Łuszczewska (1855), Portrait of Edward Petzeold (1856). He also portrayed the deceased, probably based on photographs, such as Portrait of Dr Wilhelm Malcz (1853).
Apart from portraits, an important area of Simmler’s work was historical painting. He painted biblical scenes, including The Entombment (1850) and Susanna and the Elders (1853). In 1856 he and his wife made a one-year trip to Italy. They travelled through Switzerland, then stayed for a longer period of time in Florence, Venice and Rome. Simmler visited museums and copied the works of old masters. He also sketched nature. He created two paintings there: Saint John the Baptist and Two Italian Piferari.
In 1860, the Simmlers moved into their own house on Chmielna Street in Warsaw, where the artist’s studio was also located. Numerous orders for portraits allowed the family to live a prosperous life and Simmler’s position guaranteed social prestige. He belonged to the group of artists gathered around Wojciech Gerson, striving to establish an association whose aim would be to organise art exhibitions. As a result of their efforts, the Administrative Council of the Kingdom of Poland approved an act to establish the Fine Arts Society in 1860. Simmler joined its committee, which was also the executive committee of the society, and remained a member until the end of his life.
The 1860s were also a period of incredible flourishing in the artist’s work. At that time, his extensive clientele included not only the Warsaw bourgeoisie but also the aristocracy and the middle class. The representative portraits painted by him were usually in large formats, presenting the models in full form, and showing fragments of interiors in the background. Some paintings from this period are Portrait of the Warsaw Goldsmith Karol Malcz (1860), Portrait of Colonel Konstanty Fiszer (1863) and Portrait of Emilia Włodkowska (1865). The latter presents the owner of a fashion house in Warsaw, clad in a rich gold satin dress intricately decorated with black lace.
He also painted tsarist officials living in Warsaw and their relatives, such as Portrait of Aleksandra Zatler (1862). Simmler’s fame and prestige is also evidenced by the fact that two official portraits of the governor of the Kingdom of Poland, Count Friedrich Wilhelm Rembert von Berg (1866, 1867), were commissioned from him. During this exceptionally intensive creative period, he continued to create family portraits, including the ones of the artist’s daughters, three-year-old Jadwiga (1854) and five-year-old Julia (1864), as well as his sister-in-law Ludwika Simmler (1855).
One of Simmler’s more interesting allegorical works is The Nobleman with a Parrot painted in 1859, for which the artist’s brother Julian Erhard Simmler posed. The canvas depicts a young nobleman in Polish costume, lost in thought, with a colourful parrot on his hand. According to some interpreters, the picture refers to the words of the poem The Tomb of Agamemnon by Juliusz Słowacki:
You were a peacock of the nations, and you were a parrot.
And now you’re someone else’s servant.
Works of allegorical significance also include the painting Sappho on the Top of Leucadia (1863), for which the artist’s wife posed, dressed as a Greek woman. Today, its original meaning is not clear, since after the fall of the January Uprising, the artist re-painted the work, changing the Greek costume to mourning robes and adding a turbulent landscape in the background to create a dramatic mood. Martyrological themes were repeatedly reflected in Simmler’s works from 1863-1865. He painted, among others, Portrait of Aleksander Waszkowski (1864), the last leader of the uprising, and Portrait of Ludwik Mycielski. (1865), who died in the battle of Bojanówka in 1863.
In the late 1850s, Simmler began to paint historical scenes. These include Catherine Jagiellon in Gripsholm Prison (1858), a painting inspired by the poet Włodzimierz Wolski, commissioned by the collector Leopold Burczak-Abramowicz. In 1860 Simmler, also on Abramowicz’s request, created his best-known painting titled The Death of Barbara Radziwillowna. Its success with the critics and the audience was even greater than in the case of the previous painting. After the presentation of the work at the National Exhibition, the Civic Committee was established on the initiative of Aleksander Przeździecki and Edward Rastawiecki. It organised public fundraising to buy the painting from Abramowicz and then offered it to the Zachęta Society. Simler painted two replicas of the painting – one was given to Abramowicz, the other was purchased by Stanisław Lilpop. The success of the work is also evidenced by its numerous reproductions. The first lithography was made by the Zachęta Society in 1861, intended for a raffle for the society’s members, and the next ones were published in various publications and postcards.
During the final period of his career, Józef Simmler was mainly involved in religious painting. In 1861 the painting Death of St. Josaphat Kuntsevych was completed, intended for the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Biała Podlaska. Three years later, Ksawery Pusłowski commissioned the painting The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the chapel of the Królikarnia Palace in connection with the Pope’s announcement of this dogma. In 1865 he completed Three Marys Going to the Tomb of Christ, and on the order of the Warsaw-based pharmacist Maciej Płaczkowski in the years 1866-1867, he painted Martyrdom of St. Matthew, intended for a church in Rząś near Radomsko.
Another famous work by Simmler from this period is the painting titled The Oath of Queen Jadwiga, created for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. He was inspired by Karol Szajnocha’s book Jadwiga i Jagiełło. However, this work did not achieve the expected success. Not only was the painting not awarded, but it was not even placed in the exhibition catalogue. The artist’s failure was deepened by the reactions after the canvas’ presentation at the Zachęta Gallery. The dry, stiff composition evoked negative opinions in critics.
Throughout his life, Simmler actively participated in art shows, mainly at the Kraków Society of Friends of Fine Arts in the 1950s, and in the next decade at the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts.
He died of typhus in Warsaw on 1st March, 1868. Three days later a ceremonial funeral was held and his coffin was transferred to the then-suburban Evangelical-Reformed cemetery.
Originally written in Polish by Magdalena Wróblewska, December 2010, translated into English by P. Grabowski 2019