Out of the 320 or so known oil paintings by Matejko, it is Rejtan which still gives rise to strong emotion today. The piece was much talked about already in the times of its creation. Rejtan. The Fall of Poland (1866) was one of the most controversial paintings of its day. It provoked discussions and arguments, was often copied and its composition and message were used also in contemporary times as symbols of important ideals and disputes
The canvas, finished in November 1866 by the then twenty-eight year old painter, was exhibited in the Kraków Science Society in the same month. The work aroused much controversy as the discussion about it took place shortly after the defeat of the January Uprising in an atmosphere of brooding over the reasons of the insurgency’s failure. The artist, who consistently realised his artistic-ideological programme initiated with the painting Skarga’s Sermon into why Poland had lost its independence and wanted to express his opinion on the dispute. Matejko’s secretary Marian Gorzkowski wrote that when the painter was beginning work on Rejtan (the painting’s original title was to be The Fall of Poland) his intention was to change the "the past, low moral standards of our society and the negligence of duties in families and governmental offices". However the artist’s contemporaries didn’t understand this message.
In the painting Matejko presented his own vision of the events and people responsible, in his opinion, for the loss of freedom. This caused a collective attack. Writers and artists were amongst the numerous critics of the painter as was his first teacher from the School of Fine Arts in Kraków Wojciech Korneli Stattler, who wrote ironically that the canvas sported "a lot of shoes, a lot of trousers". Lucjan Siemieński spoke of an "exploitation of a historical scandal" and Cyprian Kamil Norwid made a remark that "everything there is destitute of ideals… Rejtan is a demon with a moustache". The strongest comment was made by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, who declared that "one shouldn’t slap his mother’s corpse". Further criticism was provided by the descendants of the noblemen depicted in the painting.
More accusations followed. Aside from being condemned for treating national history with disdain, the artist was criticised for historical inaccuracy. The commentators argued that Matejko didn’t depict the fall of Poland but its sale and that by using dramatic events from the past he cast a shadow over the entire Polish aristocracy. Some even demanded that the painting be destroyed to put a stop to what they considered to be airing the nation's dirty linen in public.
Despite the adversities Jan Matejko submitted his painting to the Paris exhibition. After being approved of by the committee in Vienna in April 1867 Rejtan was displayed in Paris at the World’s Fair (in the Austrian section). Press reports state that the public was greatly interested in the painting. Viewers at the World’s Fair weren’t acquainted with the disputes surrounding the piece and perceived it simply as a great work of art, where one can find "a dramatic composition, expressive gestures and a distinct characteristic of the portrayed persons". Eventually the World’s Fair’s jury awarded Rejtan with a first class medal.
Thanks to two admirers of the painter’s work - Romuald Karpiński from the National Bank in Vienna and Rudolf Eitelberger, an Austrian art critic - Rejtan was recognised by the Kaiser himself and was purchased for the imperial collection for fifty thousand franks.
After Poland regained independence in 1920, the painting was purchased by the National Collection of Art in Warsaw (today it is part of the collection of the Royal Castle in Warsaw). At that time most of the accusations from the past were already forgotten and the piece became an object of common interest. The attention focused on the painting manifests itself in various forms until today. Rejtan became known to the general public thanks to reproductions, which were eagerly printed in the press and, as an illustration of Polish history, also in textbooks.
Matejko’s painting has been copied a few times. Józef Hakowski’s version is close to the original. It was made in 1894 on a silver sheet and currently is part of the collection of Jan Matejko’s House. Another version similar to the original is an average, oil on canvas copy made by an anonymous author. It is framed in a wooden, art nouveau frame and is owned by a private collector. The best copy, which undoubtedly bears the closest semblance to Matejko’s style, was made in Vienna around 1920, before the original was transported to Poland. This oil on canvas painting measuring 146 x 246 cm was made by an unknown artist, probably a very skilled conservator of works of art. In 1998 the copy was purchased by a Polish collector in the Viennese auction house Dorotheum. Conservational research conducted in Cracow determined that the pigments used to paint the copy correspond to those from Matejko’s palette.
In February 2012 Kraków's National Gallery opened an exhibition titled Unfinished Conversations – about Jan Matejko’s Rejtan , aimed at comparing the historic and contemporary perspectives on this famous work. The exhibition presents examples of the various reactions towards this painting throughout Polish history, such as those expressed by 19th-century artists (Georg Fischhof) as well as contemporary artists Maciej Bieniasz, Waldemar Wojciechowski, Marek Zalejski, Justyna Gryglewicz, Łukasz Trzciński. The interpretation of Jan Matejko’s work by other artists is a distinct issue addressed by the exhibition in Sukiennice. The artists’ actions show, how various were the points of view of the people inspired by the painting.
One might consider the work of the Austrian artist known as Georg Fischhof (1859-1914) a curiosity. In an oil on canvas painting measuring 200 x 600 cm created in 1896 in Vienna, Fischhof quite accurately reproduced Matejko’s work and extended it with his own composition. According to family tradition, the painting was created for a member of the Ważny family, one of the Kaiser’s officials. It was transported to Australia in 1958 were it was part of the family’s collection until the seventies. The current owner, a Pole and Australian national, deposited it in 2009 in the National Museum in Kraków, acting under the conviction that the painting ought to be put on display in Poland.
Even earlier significant exhibitions - Poles’ Self-Portrait (Kraków 1979), Homage to Matejko (Warsaw-Cracow 1993), 44 Artists towards Matejko (Kraków 1994) – pointed out to the renewed relevance of the issues once important to the great painter. The events of the eighties in Poland – the birth of Solidarity (1980) and the introduction of martial law (1981-1983) - were special reasons to bring back conversations about Rejtan.
The associations of the artists of the young generation, who have created works especially for the Sukiennice exhibition in 2012, have a more universal character. In the painting Everyman Rejtan Łukasz Trzciński (born in 1981) addresses the issue of the lonely struggle in the face of conflicts - understood as an individual moral dilemma of every man. On the other hand in the work Equilibrium by Justyna Gryglewicz (born in 1985) the coin placed by Matejko at the feet of the parliament’s marshal Poniński constitutes the main element of the composition. The presented works are accompanied by current commentaries of their authors - this creates a certain dialogue with Jan Matejko, which takes place in 2012.
Unfinished Conversations - On Jan Matejko’s Rejtan opened on the 13th of February, 2012 and runs through the 27th of May, 2012 at the Sukiennice Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art in the Kraków Market Square.
Curators: Małgorzata Buyko, Barbara Cieciora.
Text by Marek Kępa based on information from the National Museum in Kraków, February 2012.
Editor: Agnieszka Le Nart