The portrait of Jan Matejko’s “Copernicus: Conversations with God” recently arrived at the National Gallery in London. It is the first work of a Polish artist to be on show there and only the second time the painting has been exhibited outside its home in Kraków. Most Poles will know Matejko’s paintings from their history rather than art lessons, especially the series of monarchs’ portraits but what inspired him to paint these scenes?
Influenced by events
Born in Kraków in 1838 over 40 years after his country was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria, he could not have failed to be influenced by the strong Polish nationalism which prevailed in Kraków. Although it remained a free city within the Austrian partition, as an eight year old Matejko witnessed the Kraków revolution which sadly led to its annexation and later he saw it bombarded by the Austrians. Matejko was of mixed parentage – his father a Czech music teacher who had spent his adulthood in Poland, his mother, a Lutheran of German/Polish heritage died when Matejko was young leaving 11 children. It is said that his parents were fascinated by Polish culture and Matejko was a devout Catholic like his father, bringing this element to many of his paintings. His elder brothers took part in uprisings against the Russians and Austrians and Matejko himself provided weapons and supported the fight financially.
Matejko read historical books avidly as a child but wanted to be an artist and studied at the Kraków School of Fine Arts from an early age. To understand German and Italian art, he studied further in Munich and Venice. On his return to Kraków, always meticulously referencing historical sources, he started painting scenes depicting Polish historical events. Soon he was exhibiting outside Poland, receiving the Gold Award from the French salon for “Skarga’s sermon” before the age of 30. This was the greatest award in the Western art world at the time. Two years later, his painting of “Rejtan” won the World Exhibition in Paris and the “Union of Lublin” saw him awarded the Cross of the French Légion d’Honneur. The stage had been set to promote the non-existent Poland through art.
His work “Rejtan” depicts the emotions of the parliamentary deputy, baring his chest in a last stance against the decision of the nobility to accept the demands of neighbouring countries to partition Poland. He took to heart the resulting strong criticism of the painting by the aristocracy, later focusing his work on the successes of the Polish nation such as the painting of the Polish Constitution, or aspects of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. All were huge canvases often spanning several metres.
Christopher Riopelle, Curator at the National Gallery, says:
“Matejko saw his role not merely as recording great events from Polish history, but at expressing their deep inner meaning for Poles.”
Through choosing to paint these events, Matejko put the history of a non-existent country on the world map. He carefully chose elements of his composition almost like a theatre set to express the emotions of a scene, engaging the viewer and raising the significance of the past to prove it influenced the present.
Look again at the painting of “Stańczyk” the court jester during the reign of King Zygmunt August, slumped dejectedly in his chair after reading about the fall of Smolensk to the Russians whilst the frivolity of a court ball goes on behind the door. Andrzej Szczerski, Director of the National Museum in Kraków says:
“The power of his painting is the ability to comment on an event to raise its significance.”
A political painter?
“Matejko’s art is political art” says Riopelle, revolutionising the painting of historical scenes from mere historical representations. During the intensification of Germanisation in Polish lands he painted the complex Battle of Grunwald when in 1410 Poles defeated the German Teutonic Knights. On the 400th
anniversary of the birth of Copernicus he painted Conversations with God, underlining Copernicus’s Polish nationality and Catholicism. He was also an early PR expert, actively promoting his paintings, producing leaflets for exhibitions to explain to foreigners who was who. He distributed free prints of the Copernicus painting to pupils accompanied by a write up of the significance of the scientist. Prints were also available to subscribers of a weekly magazine for Poles in all three partitions.
Certainly his political art was seen as a threat. In post-war communist Poland some of his work was used to create a Slavic narrative against the Germans though others were hidden and during World War II the Nazis planned to destroy two works including “The Battle of Grunwald”, considered offensive to their view of history. Thankfully they were successfully hidden by the Polish underground.
Man of charity
Matejko could have been a rich man, but he donated many of his paintings such as Sobieski at Vienna to the Vatican, to remind the Pope of Sobieski’s defence of Vienna and Western Christianity against the MuslimTurks. He also gave his painting Joanne of Arc to France. Some were given to the “Polish nation” or to friends for pennies. He funded exhibitions himself and often gave away the profits to charities. He would freely give money to beggars and left his long suffering wife to deal with his household and children, but people loved him and his funeral in 1893 was a majestic affair.
Do visit the exhibition in London if you can, or view his many paintings in Kraków or Warsaw (also online) to see in his own words how in many of his paintings he “tried to answer the question of who is really responsible for the defeat and fall of our homeland”. He also taught a whole new generation of painters in Kraków such as Wyśpianski and Malczewski as Director of the Art School, influencing their subject matter but not their style becoming known as the Father of the Young Poland movement. See his revolutionary style and consider where our imagination of Polish history would be without his awe-inspiring art.
This article was written on the basis of many resources, amongst them the lecture on “Copernicus: Conversations with God” by the National Gallery Director, Curator of Post-1800 paintings and the Director of the National Museum in Kraków.