#photography & visual arts
Although this is a rather unusual painting in Jan Matejko’s oeuvre, it is at the same time essential for understanding his artistic attitude as it is clearly supposed to represent the artist’s credo.
Supposedly, Stańczyk is a real historical figure. He was probably born in around 1480, died around 1560, and came from one of the villages near Kraków, most probably from a noble family. According to historical records, he was a well-read and intelligent man, and above all – which is obvious in the case of the royal jester’s profession – he was characterised by a sharp sense of humour and courage in expressing opinions. Little is known about Stańczyk other than that he was court jester at the courts of three kings: Alexander Jagiellon, Sigismund the Old, and Sigismund Augustus.
We do not know what Stańczyk looked like, which made it easier for Matejko to give him his own features in the painting – the royal jester portrayed by the artist in 1862 is also an unusual self-portrait of Matejko. The painter depicted himself as a little older than he was at the time – when he painted Stańczyk he was only 24 years old, while the clown is in the prime of his life. Of course, it is not a coincidence that Stańczyk was given the features of an artist. The painting can be interpreted as a specific credo of Jan Matejko, a symbolic expression of his artistic philosophy and also his views on life.
The full title of the painting is Stańczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona in the Face of the Loss of Smoleńsk. It depicts a royal jester sitting in an armchair, immersed in thought. In the corner of the painting, through an open door, one can see that a bustling party is taking place right next door. However, Stańczyk does not take part in it, most likely saddened or overwhelmed by the information he received in the letter visible on the table on his right. Stańczyk sits in a dark chamber, contrasting with the illuminated ballroom. The window painted on the opposite side of the canvas acts as a counterbalance to it. Through it, one can see the tower of Wawel Cathedral and a comet cutting through the night sky – a clear omen of an upcoming catastrophe.
The historical background for this painting was the war between the combined forces of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania against Russia in the years 1512-1522, and above all one of its battles: the siege of Smolensk, as a result of which, in 1514, the Russians gained control of the fortress for nearly a hundred years. Due to its strategic location, this was extremely unfavourable, threatening the security of both Poland and Lithuania and blocking the possibility of expansion to the east.
However, Matejko’s goal was not to tell the story of the struggle for the fortress of Smolensk. By recalling events from the distant past, the painter wanted to show the consequences of bad decisions, manipulation, and scheming; the consequences of poorly thought-out actions and the lack of national unity. Two years after Stańczyk, Matejko painted Sermon of Piotr Skarga, and in 1866 Reytan was created. These three paintings are often interpreted as a triptych, a chronological record of events which, individually, may not have been dramatic, but together they formed a terrible story about a prophecy and the realisation of a great national disaster. The painter, born and raised in partitioned Poland, understood its effects perfectly well.
polish painters of the 19th century
Jan Matejko was not an artist who sought broad means of expression – from the very beginning of his artistic career he had precise views and goals. Raised in patriotic traditions, he wanted to use his painting to serve the Polish state under annexation, maintaining the national spirit and sensitising the people to the consequences of political choices, showing glorious achievements as well as stigmatising decisions that led to defeats. He devoted most of his paintings to this, and with the portrait of Stańczyk, painted at the very beginning of his adult career, he somehow announced the direction of his artistic path. Here, he simply presented himself as a sensitive patriot and a national voice of conscience which reminds us to learn from our mistakes and draw conclusions from our failures, but also to continue striving for independence. He also clearly emphasised his loneliness in these reflections – Stańczyk remains alone with his reflections, while the authorities and elites, those who should be the first to act, indulge in carefree fun.
Originally writen in Polish by Anna Cymer, translated by P.Grabowski, September 2019