Friday, January 9, 2015

Jan Matejko

Introduction of Christianity to Poland
oil on wood
79 × 120 cm
National Museum, Warsaw, Poland

Jan Alojzy Matejko (1838-1893) was a Polish painter known for paintings of notable historical Polish political and military events. His works include large oil on canvas paintings, numerous portraits, a gallery of Polish kings, and murals in St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow. He focused on major themes in Polish history, using historical sources to paint events in minute historical detail. He is counted among the most famous Polish painters.

He was born in the Free City of Krakow, part of the Polish territory annexed by Austria during the Partitions of Poland. His father, a tutor and music teacher, was a Czech who married a half-German, half-Polish woman from a family of a well to do saddler. He was the 9th child from11 that his parents had. His mother died in 1846 when he was 8. He and his siblings were taken care of by his aunt.

From earliest days he showed exceptional artistic talent that let him advance from grade to grade as he had great difficulties with other subjects. He never mastered a foreign language and did not do well even with his native Polish language (he had Czech accent). As a result, the public appearances he was obliged to make all his life must have been difficult for him. He attended a high school which he dropped out of in 1851 because of poor results. Despite that and because of his exceptional talent he studied at the School of Fine Arts in Krakow from 1852 to 1858. During this time, he begun exhibiting historical paintings. After studying under a historical painter and then briefly and less successfully in Vienna, he returned to Krakow, where he lived for the rest of his life and where, beginning in 1873, he was for many years the principal of the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1864 he became a member of Scientific Society in Krakow.

At that time he started to gain international recognition. In 1865, his painting, Skarga's Sermon, won the gold medal at the annual Paris salon. In 1867, the painting, Rejtan, won the gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. French critics included Matejko among the most outstanding representatives of historical painting in Europe. Through his painting, he succeeded in reminding Europe that partitioned Poland still existed despite political realities.

Altogether he authored 320 oil paintings and several thousands drawings and watercolors. His most important paintings were hidden during WWI. After 1945 majority of his works was found and subject to restoration. He was buried in the middle of the Alley of the Meritorious at Cracow's Rakowicki Cemetery.