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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Henryk Siemiradzki

Alexander The Great And Physician Philip of Arcarnania, 1870, Henryk Siemiradzki
One of the most valuable assets an artist can possess is a vivid imagination. The American Scholar, William Arthur Ward, once said, "If you can imagine it, you can achieve it..." He went on to comment as to achievement: "Plan purposefully. Prepare prayerfully. Proceed positively. Pursue persistently.” I always enjoy finding an artist with a vivid imagination. Of course that alone, without a concerted, concrete calling to create that imagined world, is a recipe for frustration, at best, starvation at worst. Without Ward's alliterative four-step pronouncement of practical presentation, we'd have no tall tales told, no paintings produced, no plays presented, no audiences amuse (I can alliterate too). A vivid imagination is like strong drink; without a cup it simply runs off onto the floor, suitable only to be slurped up by a drunken dog. The Polish painter Henryk Siemiradzki had a vivid imagination. I was going to say that Siemiradzki must have taken Ward's words and made the most of them, but in that Siemiradzki died in 1902 and Ward wasn't born until 1921, perhaps the reverse is true--Ward may have been inspired by the Polish painter to so prodigiously pontificate.
Talisman, 1880s, Henryk Siemiradzki
I've always considered myself to have just such a vivid imagination, but despite being an artist, mine has always tended toward the literary rather than the visual. Siemiradzki produced large scale, highly detailed, paintings of Greco-Roman life as well as biblical scenes composed straight from his imagination with little more than a talented hand, a perceptive eye, and exceptional academic training. He did what I could never do, which is pretty much the reason any artist impresses me. Now, having said that, Siemiradzki was a product of the Polish academic world of art, which, while it denotes a strong background in figures, composition, drawing, lighting, color, and painting technique, it also carries with it a penchant for sanitized eroticism, syrupy sweet pastoral idealism, exaggerated heroism, fabricated mythology, and aesthetically adjusted history. Siemiradzki's Talisman, (above) is typical of his Academic sweetness. Despite having all the natural talent an artist could ever wish for, and having absorbed all the practiced teachings of previous art generations, Siemiradzki's paintings are also burdened with most of worst traits of academicism to be found in 19th-century painting, in Poland or anywhere else in the western world.
Christ and the Sinner, 1873, Henryk Siemiradzki
Henryk Siemiradzki Self-portrait, 1877
Henryk Siemiradzki (your guess as to pronunciation is as good as mine) was born in 1843. His father was a military physician. Siemiradzki came from a small village near Kharkov (eastern Ukraine near the Russian border). Although he started painting in high school, young Siemiradzki was guided (or forced) into becoming a science major at the Physics-Mathematics School of Kharkov University. He's said to have studied the natural sciences there with great interest, even as he also continued to paint. After graduation in 1864, having fulfilled his father's wishes, the would-be artist headed for St. Petersburg and the Imperial Academy of Arts where he was to study painting for the next six years. He graduated there, winning a gold medal for his Christ and the Sinner (above), which allowed him to further his studies in Munich and Rome. There, in the Eternal City, he fell under the spell of Roman antiquities and set up his studio. It must have been a big one. Seldom are any of Siemiradzki's paintings less than the size of wall murals or theater curtains, which became his specialty and the work for which he is most remembered.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1886, Henryk Siemiradzki
Prodigal Son, Henryk Siemiradzki
In addition to his Christ and the Sinner, from 1873, Siemiradzki went on to paint at least three other exceptional works based upon biblical passages. His Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (above), dates from 1886 when his work was at the height of its popularity. Siemiradzki's Prodigal Son (left) is of uncertain chronology. However, Siemiradzki's Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (below), is reliably dated as having been painted in 1890.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, 1890, Henryk Siemiradzki
Joan of Arc Kneeling before Angel,
Henryk Siemiradzki
Except for their gigantic size, most of Siemiradzki's biblical theme paintings with their tired, academic nuances could easily be termed "Sunday school" art, or likely inclusions in various high-end Bibles as art illustrations. His Joan of Arc Kneeling before Angel (right) is a notable exception--religious, but not biblical. Some of Siemiradzki's Greco-Roman paintings might well have offended staid, 19th-century, Victorian morality had it not been for longstanding Academic acceptance of female nudity so long as it could be reasonably termed "classical" by some measure. Frina at Poseidon's Festival in Elevsin (below) from 1889, falls into this category. If it was pagan mythology, especially if the title somehow implied that the image reflected the decadence of some long ago pagan civilization, virtually any naked body, (the more the merrier) was considered socially acceptable, up to and including the depiction of male (but never female) genitals.

Frina at Poseidon's Festival in Elevsin, 1889, Henryk Siemiradzki.

Detail from a painting in Chiesa di
San Stanislao in Rome
Siemiradzki's other major strength as an artist fell in the realm of portraiture. Though portrait artists today are considered to be at or near the pinnacle of the painting profession, in Siemiradzki's time they were a notch below history painting and the religious and mythological works associated with that type of work. It's likely that Siemiradzki was good at portraiture because he had to be. Very often portraiture was the "bread and butter" of such artists' existence. Moreover each of the dozens of life-size figures in most of Siemiradzki's paintings was, in essence, a portrait, as seen in the charming young face detail from a painting in Chiesa di san Stanislao Roma (left). Siemiradzki's Siesta Patrician (below) provides both a portrait of an ancient civilization as well as those who created it and lived it in their daily lives. The portrait on a palette (bottom) is one of Siemiradzki's more unusual works, a prime example of the runaway imagination linked to the work ethic traits William Arthur Ward proclaimed so logically.

Siesta Patrician, 1881, Henryk Siemiradzki
Portrait of a Woman on a Pallet, 1887, Henryk Siemiradzki



  1. Great post. Henryk Siemiradzki was a Polish painter, but a citizen of the Russian Empire. His painting "Nero's Torches" was first in the collection at the National Museum in Krakow.

  2. Stanislawa--

    Thanks for your comment. It's always difficult in dealing with eastern European painters and the changing national boundaries of the 20th-century in knowing exactly how to label some artist. As for "Nero's Torches," I looked at that painting and considered using it, but decided it might be a little too graphic for this format. Moreover I had so many other excellent examples his Siemiradzki's work I was forced to pick and choose which to use. Thanks again for following my posts.

  3. Polish culture during World War II was suppressed by the occupying powers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both of whom were hostile to Poland's people and cultural heritage. Policies aimed at cultural genocide resulted in the deaths of thousands of scholars and artists, and the theft and destruction of innumerable cultural artifacts.