Polish historical painters – the curious case of Jan Alojzy Matejko (1838-1893) – Part I

Today we will talk about the curious case of Jan Alojzy Matejko, Poland’s oil on canvas historical painter. While recognized as a national artist in Poland, Matejko was subject to lifetime censure by the Russian empire due to his Polish revival themes. He was not just an artist. He was a true Polish patriot and he wasn’t afraid to stand by his convictions. During WW2, his work was banned by Nazi authorities, which had partitioned unfortunate Poland with the USSR, in September 1939.

The Polish emblem


Matejko was born on 24 June 1838, in the Free City of Krakow, Galicia, where he lived most of his life.

During the first eight years of his life, the Free City of Krakow was a neutral condominium held jointly by the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires. During the 1846 Uprising, the city republic of Krakow rebelled, was besieged, and occupied by Austrians.

Matejko was the son of a Czech tutor and music teacher, hailing from the village of Roudnice, Bohemia, then part of the Austrian Empire. Jan was not a meritorious student. Far from it, he had such poor grades, that he dropped from high school. He made up, however, for his dubious academic merits, by showing artistic talent. And while unable to master a foreign language like his peers, Matejko got to study at the distinguished School of Fine Arts in Kraków (1852-1858).

Among his teachers, we find two masters painters of Polish romantic and neo-classicism periods: Wojciech Korneli Stattler and Władysław Łuszczkiewicz. This is where and when, the young Matejko decided to embrace historical painting as his specialization.

After receiving a scholarship from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, in 1859, and another from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, he returned home to Krakow, where he opened a studio inside his family home, on Florianska Street. Here, he underwent an initial period marked by lack of commercial success. At one point, he had to sell a painting for 90 current United States dollars just to make ends meet.

Eventually, recognition came and by the early 1860s, he was living off of his trade. By the time of his death from peptic ulcer, in 1893, Matejko had achieved cult status in Europe. Large crowds attended his funeral, and no less than 30 newspapers mentioned his passing.


A true hybrid, he combined the best that neoclassicism and romanticism had to offer, creating an unparalleled synergy of colour and movement, the likes of which students continue to study in art schools everywhere, but which eludes them for the most part.

His style was colourful and detailed. His imaginative work reproduced Polish historical themes and he has since become the standard illustrator of Polish history manuals. He is the reference. Controversial, his Rejtan canvas (1866) managed to create quite a stir by offending Polish nobility, who took the theme as an affront, a slight directed at their entire social order.

Two of his most notorious canvasses, the Battle of Grunwald and Prussian Homage, were so symbolic for Polish history that Nazi Germany had planned to destroy them. Thankfully, for posterity, the Polish Resistance successfully hid both.

During his prolific career, he authored 320 oil paintings and several thousands drawings and watercolors. One can find his portfolio inside the St. Mary’s Basilica, Kraków, which he painted from 1889 to 1891, as well as inside numerous Polish museums.

Saint Mary’s church polychrome, Krakow.

Patriotic overtones and themes

In his youth, Matejko was not overly political, but after witnessing the Austrian military repression of the Krakow Uprising, in 1846, especially the Revolution, Siege and Repression of Krakow, he became a patriot. Perhaps, if he had been born in a different country, and did not see his brother lose his life in defense of his homeland, Matejko would not have taken sides. As it happened Polish history made him into the mature artist, vocal patriot and nationalist he became.

The young artist did not contend himself with painting the events which engulfed his world, but also took a prominent part in personally assisting the cause of Poland. While too sick to take up arms and fight the invaders like his older brothers before him, Matejko gave financial support, donating all his savings to his country, and personally transported arms to the insurgent’s camp, during the January 1863 uprising.

Rok 1863 Polonia – “1863” (1879)

Later on, in 1879, he would revisit his memories and recreate the scenes, which captured all the angst and incredible despair felt by the Poles crushed by the Russian heel. His intuition told him to depict Poland as a young disheveled woman who had been just ravaged by the Russian brute, represented by the two physically imposing yet stylish officers, who had enlisted the services of a locksmith to shackle Polonia for eternity. The juxtaposition is apt from a historical point, given the imbalance of forces: Poland’s army of insurgents and franc‑tireurs having been bested by the Russian steamroller.

The artists’ mind locks on with a vengeance on the scene of Polish capitulation. Poland surrenders herself to her fate while Russia looks on with apparent detachment yet paradoxically enough not entirely devoid of intensity. Lady Polonia’s black dress is indicative of the country’s mourning after her liberty had been extinguished.

Perhaps Polonia personifies not just the country but also his dead brother, which the lady mourns as well as he was killed in her defense. Matejko’s symbolism is strong. His passion permeates his work.

This was not the only time in her history that Poland had been invaded, conquered and partitioned between the Austrian, Prussian and Russian empires. Perhaps this is exactly why the historian inside Matejko compelled him to take up “arms” again and use his brushes to explore Polish history.

Russian Tsar Vasili IV Shuyski brought by Zólkiewski and compelled to knee before Polish King Sigismund III Vasa at Sejm in Warsaw on 29 October 1611 (1853) & (subject revisited in 1892). Matejko was so poor that he sold his 1853 painting for 5 gulden (€ 52.81 in today’s money).

Russian Tsar Vasili IV Shuyski brought by Zólkiewski and compelled to knee before Polish King Sigismund III Vasa at Sejm in Warsaw on 29 October 1611 (1853) & (subject revisited in 1892). Matejko was so poor that he sold his 1853 painting for 5 gulden (€ 52.81 today)

Austrian gulden (a.k.a. florin or forint) – (1860).
Note: Zlaty in Czech and zloty in Polish are both misnomers since they mean gold coins. The gulden, however, was a silver coin that predated the introduction of the gold standard in the Austro-Hungarian Bicephalic Monarchy in 1867.

His feelings surfaced again in one of his later paintings, depicting Poland’s long lost glory of times past, when Polish King Sigismund III Vasa brought the Russian Tsar to bend the knee, a gesture of supreme importance, one which affected the memories of Russians, and planted the seeds of the epic bad blood to come. In Russia, these times are even now called The Time of Troubles, when the very existence of Mother Russia was in question.

Yet, Matejko cared less for that. Having to endure the Russian yoke all his life, without being able to throw off their pernicious stranglehold on Poland, the artist evokes the times when Poland was great and strong, her king and sejm (parliament) united against the common enemy from the east.

Chronology of his work

Early phase

Portrait of Matejko’s father, Franciszek, and three of his children – (1853).

His more formative work is not spectacular. Some could even call it, dull and lacklustre. And to the uninformed eye, it could be perceived as such. A closer, more educated and discerning look is necessary before a verdict can be cast. It reveals a profound study of the anatomy, not too dynamic and perhaps even lacking a certain depth. However, how many 14‑year olds are able to achieve this level of detail? Not many.

In terms of weaknesses, the colours are a bit dark but this is always the case with oil on canvas paintings, with the passage of time. For all his lack of experience, which at his age, is normal, the young artist put all his efforts into contouring his family’s physiognomy. The newly invented science and art of photography could not have done a better job of catching this glimpse in time and space. This portrait is a fine representation of time travel. For what is any painting or photograph if not the timeless bridge between the past and the future?

Art, my friends, is not miraculous. Art is science. It is the science of a long dead subject illuminated by a stream of photons hundreds or thousands of years before the eyes of the beholder discovered the image revealed by another ray of light.

Art connects us to our past. Without it, we are forever blind.

Later phase

Portrait of the artist’s four children. – (1879)

The jump is brutal. From the mere, cautious steps he took as a teenager, to the majesty and orgy of colours, sentiments, and perspectives that abound in this generational portrait of the artist’s children, there is a gulf of separation. A lifetime of experience separates the learning child-apprentice with a hesitant brush from the accomplished man, who takes bold strokes, and owns his work.

Matejko is not afraid, in the twilight of his years, to show how strong his command of the art had become. He is a consummate artist and he knows it.

Helena Matejko – (cca. 1883).

In passing, one of the subjects of this painting, his daughter Helena, would also become an eminent artist and sculptor. Helena, just like her father in his youth, would help victims during WW1, for which she would later receive the Cross of Independence from President Stanisław Wojciechowski.


Jan Matejko, Self-portrait – (1892).

The artist is at the summit of his art. This is his legacy.


Samuel Zborowski on his way to his execution.

Samuel Zborowski on his way to his execution 

Zamoyski on his way to declare Zborowski’s death sentence.
Blind Veit Stoss with granddaughter – (1865).

Look at the incredible contrast between subjects: from the cynic almost evil look thrown by the semi-hidden character at ease in the shadows to the angelic face of the blind man’s granddaughter holding his ailing and tired grandpapa’s hand in old age.

Matejko is endowed with the power to separate light from darkness, good from evil.

He is truly a photographer. Instead of a camera, his tools are more mundane, and he manipulates light to create emotions. His mind is the camera obscura. He captures light with his eyes and transposes the charged photons onto his inner canvas. His powerful memory serves as the silver distillate, which creates the still image.

Stańczyk (Court jester) – (1862) one of Matejko’s first commercial successes.

The court jester is another symbolic figure. This canvas is full of artist’s irony given that a character normally given to jocularity is sitting in a chair in the background of a party. He is the only figure reflecting on the war, ignored by the joyful crowd. One can see the burden of responsibility resting on his shoulders. While the nobility is abandoning itself to unhealthy thoughts and a dissipated lifestyle, a jester ponders on.

I am particularly attracted by the way the artist works with light. His darker red and overcast, highly saturated deep hues, play well against the background. Societal criticism likes rich colours. The painter is not only a masterful witness of the agony of the character’s reflection. He is a profound psychologist, psycho analyzing his subject and revealing his hidden, underlying depression.

In the center, Queen Jadwiga of PolandEstablishment of the Main School

The richness of detail and the crafted representation of their physiognomy make this one of the profound historical sketches of Polish romanticism.

The Constitution of May 3. Four-Year Sejm. Educational Commission. Partition. A.D. 1795

What attracts the eye to this magnificent glimpse into Poland’s past is the spirit of decadence and opulence of fin de siècle, which marked the end of a glorious era. It captures the joie de vivre, permeating the easy life of the upper classes. The colours are adequately rich. The use of golden hues is prominent throughout the painting. This is what the end of the Złoty Wiek or Golden Age looked like.

Carowie Szujscy przed Zygmuntem III (The Shuysky Princes before King Sigismund III) – (1853).
Kazanie Skargi (Skarga’s Sermon) – 1864.

This canvas earned Matejko a gold medal at the annual Paris salon. In 1865, Count Maurycy Potocki acquired it for 10,000 gulden (€110,000).

This painting moves me with its nuanced dark shades of black, red and even white, which cannot be said to be a color lending itself to nuance. Matejko is at his best. He displays a wide range of emotions animating the high entourage of the king. This canvas is superior to any photography. I am not surprised that it commanded such a price. I would have paid more for this photograph in the Count’s stead.

First off, the canvas was one of the artist’s largest, covering 86 sqf or 8 square meters. Secondly, I find the theme extremely appropriate for a tableau of this envergure. Jesuit priest Piotr Skarga, a foremost Polish Counter Reformation figure, is seen here chastising an apathetic Vasa King, who is somewhat annoyed by this passionate Jesuit’s admonitions.

Rejtan – (1866).

Matejko is directly accusing the Polish nobility for the Partition of Poland. Here, the artist’s brush prefaces Zola’s J’accuse indicting France’s onerous treatment of Dreyfus, some 40 years later.

Matejko uses the allegory of the protest of patriotic figure Tadeusz Rejtan against the First Partition of Poland during the Partition Sejm of 1773, against the callousness of Szlachta Pospolita, Polish privileged nobility. It makes a distinction between the patriotic gentry nobility like Rejtan who are not willing to part with the Motherland, and the treacherous and cosmopolitan upper class, having no allegiance to their country.

Alchemik Sędziwój (Alchemist Sendivogius) – (1867).

There are masters. And then there are Masters. Look at his strokes. Look at the fire’s intricate display of hues. Look at the alchemist’s detached, professional and almost serene stance. Look at the greed playing in the people’s eyes, especially the men’s. And finally, look at the ladies’ costumes. Matejko is the true alchemist here. He looks at his models, and assigns them roles, just like a screenplayer.

He is to art what Shakespeare is to theatre. The only minute difference is that where Donalbain informs Malcolm “That where we are there are Daggers in men’s smiles” (Macbeth, 2.3. 121), Matejko shows various degrees of greed and avarice. These range from the mustachioed man’s keen look, to the semi-blind stare of the old woman sitting nearby, and from the covetous look of the blond lady’s behind the old man, to the coquette lady in a rich dress showing a lot of bosom, waiting by the door to glance at the philosopher’s stone.

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