#photography & visual arts
The painting 'Sigismund Augustus with Barbara at the Radziwill Court in Vilnius' holds a special place in Jan Matejko’s work. The inconspicuous canvas, rarely mentioned together with the painter’s most important works, combines elements of the artist’s youthful fascination and an individual, mature style.
Between 1862 and 1869, Matejko was a critical painter, pointing out the historical guilt of the magnate class which in his eyes led to the partitions of Poland. This stage, which Kazimierz Wyka described as patriotic-bourgeoisie, was commenced by the painter with Stańczyk and finished with Union of Lublin. Before the artist changed his approach and began to depict great moments in the history of Poland, treated as an effect of the above-class agreement, he was a harsh critic. He conquered many opponents, especially after the fiasco of the January Uprising. Józef Ignacy Kraszewski even wrote about Reytan that ‘it may be a beautiful painting but is also a bad deed. It is not right to slap a mother’s corpse’.
Sigismund Augustus with Barbara at the Radziwiłł Court in Vilnius does not evoke such emotions – the subject raised controversy, but of a moral nature a few centuries earlier. The relationship of the last of the Jagiellons with his second wife enraged the nobility of the 16th century. In the 19th century, it stimulated the imagination of lovers of historical melodrama. It contains everything the genre is known for – secret meetings, obstacles to overcome, mysterious death, a short-lived happy ending, a sad epilogue, and even a supernatural sub-plot.
The relationship between Sigismund and Barbara began as a hidden romance while the king’s first wife was still alive. After her death, the couple of young widowers had a secret wedding, against the will of not only the king’s family but above all the nobility, not too delighted with the vision of a powerful dynasty on the horizon: the joined forces of the Jagiellons and the Radziwiłłs. At the time, both were perceived as the prevailing Lithuanian nouveau riche. Sigismund Augustus, however, did his best to lead to the recognition of Barbara’s wedding and coronation. The queen did not sit on the throne for long – she died shortly afterwards, most probably from cancer, although there was no shortage of suspicion of poisoning, supposedly on the orders of Queen Bona.
In a simple, intimate painting, Matejko told this 16th-century soap opera not only through the gestures of the characters themselves but also through their surroundings. He portrayed his lovers in the chamber of the Radziwiłł Palace, to which the king was said to have a secret passage from a nearby castle built to make it easier for them to meet. From the partially visible portrait in the corner of the chamber, Sigismund’s mother, Queen Bona, stares at them with a stern look – the alleged future poisoner of Barbara was one of the most fervent opponents of her son’s new relationship. There is no shortage of traditional symbols of love, such as the lute, but some of them gain a double meaning. The swan visible in the pond outside the window refers to the story of the swans which the king was supposed to have offered to Barbara as one of many gifts. The idyll is broken up by an omen of a gloomy future – a falling star.
In the royal melodrama, one can also see the painter’s personal inclusions. Barbara was based on his wife Teodora whereas Sigismund Augustus is the only monarch with whom the painter identified himself to some extent. As Mieczysław Porębski noted:
In his large canvases, Matejko never identified himself with the monarch, which is understandable, but rather set himself a place among the royal court. [...] In the artist’s more private dreams, identification, and not just any other kind of identification, took place, penetrating even into one of the great canvases, namely the Union. For there is no question that Matejko personally identified himself with the most ‘secular’ of our monarchs.
In the 19th century, the story of Sigismund and Barbara was reproduced in dramas and novels, and three approaches to this subject gained popularity in visual arts. The first, chosen by Matejko, used the sensational motif of Sigismund and Barbara’s night encounters in a lover’s embrace. This motif was also painted by Artur Grottger and Matejko’s teacher, Władysław Łuszczkiewicz. The metaphysical motif also gained some popularity – the story of the sorcerer Twardowski summoning the spirit of the deceased Barbara, which grew out of the romantic tradition. Matejko also tried his hand at this subject – an oil sketch from 1884 of the scene has survived.
However, while many of the key events and figures from Polish history are still seen through the prism of Matejko’s paintings, in the case of Sigismund and Barbara’s romance, the Kraków painter lost the battle for popularity. Neither the painting of the night meeting nor the later sketch depicting the calling of the queen’s spirit gained even a fraction of the popularity of the earlier painting by Józef Simmler, Death of Barbara Radziwiłłówna. The image of the tormented king over the body of the deceased Barbara spoke most strongly to the mass imagination.
Both Simmler’s and Matejko’s paintings originate from the same school of historical painting, influenced by Paul Delaroche’s paintings, which were extremely popular around the middle of the 19th century. In Matejko’s painting, the shaky, nervous brush movement has a purely Matejko character, but both the narrow range of colours, devoid of sharp clashes characteristic of later works, and the composition itself reveal the young Matejko fascination of. Although Wojciech Kossak wrote in his memoirs about the Kraków painter that ‘he condemned French art, which was at its prime at the time, without mercy’, Matejko was not so intransigent in his assessment of French painting until the end of the 1860s. On the contrary – while studying in Munich, he dreamt of Paris, and Delaroche remained an unrivalled ideal for him. In his letters from that period, he wrote about France fervently, but not with the heat of merciless condemnation. It was almost a confession of love:
If I could, I would go to France today. All I see there is a goal that I would like to pursue. Delaroche, who I have come to know better from engravings and photographs here, is what my soul desires, what I strive for with all my strength.
19th century polish painters
A few years later, in 1867, the same year in which Sigismund Augustus with Barbara at the Radziwill Court in Vilnius was created, Matejko visited the grave of his idol in Montmartre during his stay in Paris.
Delaroche left his mark on an entire generation of historical painters. Théophile Gautier even wrote that ‘he enjoyed a fame that was not merely European but could be called, without exaggeration, universal’. Delaroche’s historical painting is the fruit of a new school that flourished in France in the 1820s. It focused not on great events but on the history of ideas, emotions, and customs. On the wave of such an approach, a new style of painting emerged. It softened academic historicism and combined it with genre-historical painting, serving as an intermediary between the two. This style put facts and anecdotes above the greater idea and the Middle Ages and modernity above ancient history. According to the historian François Guizot: ‘society, in order to believe in itself, needs to be aware that it did not arise yesterday’.
Matejko, with his early fascination with Delaroche, drew his own conclusions from this sentence. Throughout his life, he remained faithful to detail, building his ‘treasure vault’ with sketches of historical costumes, militaria, and objects, but quickly abandoned his smooth, refined style in favour of a more ‘baroque’ texture. He followed a path opposite to that of Delaroche – from intimate historical and genre scenes towards huge, complex, multiform compositions. He returned to an ideal which was completely different from the neoclassical vision.
Originally written in Polish, translated by P. Grabowski, September 2019