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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jan Matejko

The Battle of Grunwald, 1877, Jan Matejko                      
Sometimes I wish that history painters still existed. Of course, they don't. They've become as obsolete as a black and white TV hooked up to a chimney antenna. They've long since been replaced by moviemakers, digital documentarians, even YouTubers. Their work is no longer a viable means of self-expression, much less in recording historic events. At best, only a few amateurs still try (and fail) to capture such events on canvas. However, during their time (up until maybe the early part of the last century) history painting was the domain of the very best painters in the world. Painting history was the highest calling to which a young artist could aspire. It wasn't always the most lucrative (usually being government supported), was extremely time consuming, and was often little more than government propaganda, but a history painter could always rely on a study income in painting portraits of those making history. Today neither economic factor has much importance. like history painting, portraits are now mostly photographic. As a result, the number of artist today who are even capable of history painting has dwindled to maybe less than a thousand nationwide. Thus, for those of us who yearn for such massive artistic statements, that leaves only the art museums displaying works like those by the Polish painter, Jan Matejko.
The Hanging of the Zygmunt Bell, at the Cathedral Tower in 1521 in Kraków,
1873, Jan Matejko
Jan Matejko Self-portrait, 1891
Take a close look at Matejko's Battle of Grunwald (top) from 1877. Would (could) any artist today paint such a powerful depiction of glorified warfare coupled with the violent ugliness of death and dismemberment? I have my doubts. If so, the fingers of one hand would be sufficient to count them. Or take a look at The Hanging of the Zygmunt Bell at the Cathedral Tower in 1521 in Krakow (above). Even without the chaos of death and destruction which Matejko was able to capture and control in his Grunwald battle scene, the piece above is a masterpiece of narrative art--colorful, exciting, yet clearly conveying it's historic content. The color and composition are perfect in reflecting the artist's aim in capturing this bit of history on a scale so large as to virtually insure it a place on a major museum wall for centuries to come. Even Matejko' self-portrait (right) has a dignified, historic air about it elevating both man and painting to a level of great importance.

Portrait of the Artist's Four Children,1879, Jan Matejko
Portrait of Stanisław Tarnowski,
1890, Jan Matejko
As is usually the case with history painters, their portraits are the best to be had in their era and art market (in this case, Krakow). Matejko's lively, group portrait of his somewhat rambunctious children (above), not only appears to capture each highly individual personality, but adds all the sumptuous detail underlying the family's place in society, wealth, pride, and even the family dog (anyone who can paint a dog from life has my undying respect). In fact, the whole painting is so strong in every area, one must inevitably question whether the artist utilized photos in the drawing stages of his composition. Be that as it may, there is far more to a great history painting and an outstanding family portrait than just good draughtsmanship (from whatever the source). I get the feeling I'd like to know these kids...or perhaps the feeling I already do.

Stańczyk during a Ball at the Court of the Queen, 1861, Jan Matejko
Portrait of Alfred Potocki,
1879, Jan Matejko
That feeling of personal identification with the subject of a painted portrait dominates virtually all of Matejko's many efforts along that line. Whether painting his own children, or the august visage of the Count Stanisław Tarnowski (above, right) a Polish nobleman, historian, literary critic, and publicist, there is a feeling of human warmth emanating from beneath all the heavy robes, ermine collar, and gold adornment that is unmistakably that of a painter of not just history, but history makers. Even those with little prominence or importance such as the court jester, Stanczyk (above) painted in 1861, conveys an empathy with the tiresome trials of constantly trying to make people laugh. Matejko's Portrait of Alfred Potocki (right) dating from 1879, captures the haughty nature of the wealthy Polish aristocrat and author, but also the feeling that what you see is merely a pose, clothing a much more approachable man than his class and station in life would suggest.

Death of Wapowski During the Crowning
of Henry Valoi,1861, Jan Matejko
Jan Alojzy Matejko was born in 1838, the ninth of eleven children of a Krakow music teacher and his German/Polish wife. As a young child of ten, he witnessed the Krakow Revolution and the Siege of Krakow which ended the city's status as a Free City with its fall to Austria. An older brother was killed in the uprising while another was forced to flee Poland. Although not a strong student academically, young Jan showed exceptional talent in art and was thus sent to the Krakow School of Fine Arts between the ages of fourteen and twenty. Upon graduating in 1858, Matejko received a scholarship to study art in Munich and the following year in Vienna, though after a few days quarreling with his instructor, he was quickly sent packing back to Krakow. There he opened a studio in his family's home and took on the role of "starving artist" for the next several years.

Rejtan, the Fall of Poland, 1865, Jan Matejko
Financial success didn't come until the early 1860s with the sale of three major historical paintings, Death of Wapowski during the crowining of Henry Valois (above, left), Jan Kochanowski mourning his daughter Urszulka, and also in 1862, he finished Stańczyk, the painting of a tired, contemplative court jester, which was initially received without much notice, but over time has come to be considered one of Matejko's greatest masterpieces. However Matejko's most important history painting and the most controversial nearly from the day it was finished, was his The Fall of Poland (above, also titled Rejtan) dating from 1867, in which the artist depicted the violent arguments involving Krakow's surrender to Austria the previous year. It was not Matejko painting history but current events, and it landed him in hot water with virtually all his friends and colleagues in the arts. Not surprisingly though, the Austrians loved it, displaying it at the Austrian section of the 1867 Paris World Fair where it won great praise, a gold medal, and was purchased by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria for 50,000 franks. And, inasmuch as the Austrians were now in charge, Matejko was made director of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts in 1872.

The Prussian Tribute, 1881, Jan Matejko
From that point on, despite their size and complexity, Matejko began creating and displaying a long line of major works, The Hanging of the Sigismund Bell, in 1873, in 1878 The Battle of Grunwald (top), Prussian Tribute (above) in 1880-82, Virgin of Orléans, portraying Joan of Arc, a long series of portraits depicting Polish kings, and in 1891, he finished The Constitution of 3 May. Most appropriately, his self-portrait from the same year was his last completed painting. Matejko's Oaths of Jan Kazimierz remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1893 from a peptic ulcer. My personal favorite of all Matejko's works is his Astronomer Copernicus in the Tower at Frombork, Conversation with God (below), dating from relatively early in his career (1871). It's not only history painting at its best, but also portraiture at its best.

The Astronomer, Copernicus, in the Tower at Frombork: Conversation with God,
1871, Jan Matejko.



  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Thanks for your comments. They make all the work worthwhile.