Artist Spotlight – Jan Matejko

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Jan Matejko was a Polish painter born in 1838 in the Free City of Cracow. He is considered to be one of the most influential artists in Poland (even – “the Polish national painter”), known for his depictions of important historical Polish events. ‘Stańczyk’, a painting which catapulted Matejko to fame, became iconic and is still widely recognised by many Poles. It was first situated in Warsaw National Museum in 1924 but looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, and then stolen by the Soviets, only to be returned to Poland in the mid-1950s, after Stalin’s death.

Stańczyk was a jester at the court of the last kings of the Kingdom of Poland. This period was from the Jagiellonian dynasty in the first half of the 16th century. However, he was more than just an entertainer. Notable for his intellect, wit, and cutting remarks, he was popular among his contemporaries. Allegedly, the smart jester was only able to openly express his opinion regarding the king’s decisions in the form of intelligent clap-back. Once, while on his way to the castle, he was robbed by a bunch of Cracovian students. When he reported this unpleasant experience to the king, the ruler said that the jester must have been stupid to allow some schoolboys to rob him. Stańczyk did not hesitate with his reply: “You have been robbed even worse: they wrested Smolensk from you, and you remained silent”. This event directly corresponds with the situation in the painting as the actual full title is ‘Stańczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona in the face of the Loss of Smolensk’.

The painting’s compositional dominant is a two-folded juxtaposition. The first one between the anxious jester and the royal family who are most likely lively celebrating the victory in the battle of Orsha in the hall behind Stańczyk. The second one, between the joyful costume of the jester, contrasted with his distressed facial expression and his pose, which signals deep concern. After all, his job was to make people laugh. However, in this situation, he is the only one who truly understands the seriousness of what has happened. We can see documents on the table that only Stańczyk seem to have read and reflected upon. He is worried by his helplessness and by the aristocrats’ nonchalance as well as their inability to forecast the future of the kingdom. It is essential to mention that Matejko wanted to convey that it was not only the upper echelons who were ignorant towards the weighty consequences of losing Smolensk to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. In the painting we can also see a smaller indivdual, a symbol of a person of lower stature, holding a lute – a symbol of glory. Behind the window, we can see Wawel Cathedral where Polish kings used to be coroneted; right next to it, there is a falling comet. Both elements of the painting symbolise the end of the golden age of the Kingdom of Poland.

Matejko painted ‘Stańczyk’ just a year before the January Uprising – insurrection aimed at restoration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the Russian Empire. This dialogue between the 16th century past and the 19th-century reality of the painter’s life is emphasised by the fact that it is, in fact, his face that he gave to the jester. It is difficult for the recipient not to empathise with Stańczyk as well as with Matejko. Even now, in the 21st century, in the face of all sorts of political affairs which often make the negligence of those in power very evident.

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