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Matejko, Polish painter obsessed with history

Jan Matejko is considered to be one of the best and most known Polish painters – especially renowned for his historical and battle-pieces. He was born in 1838 in Krakow as a son of Franciszek Matieyko (music teacher of Czech origin) and Joanna Rossberg (deriving from Polish-German family of saddlers). Although Jan and his 10 siblings were half Czech, they felt Polish patriots and Matejko himself was one of the most esteemed citizens of Krakow of his times.

Matejko was admitted to Krakow School of Arts when he was 13. Although he was not convinced yet to devote to historical paintings, inspired by some other artists, he started already making sketches of Krakow monuments and investigate details before drawing. He even published a book on historical costumes (that included illustrations made by him). He used that knowledge afterwards in his numerous paintings. In 1862 (being only 24), Jan Matejko painted one of his most famous drawings – ‘Stanczyk’ – depicting royal clown in deep thought.

In 1863 his 2 brothers joined ‘January Uprising’. Due to problems with eyesight and no experience with weapon, Jan did not join the uprising but he helped with transport of weapon and he financially supported insurgents. But his historical paintings were treated as a polemic over past and future times of Poland. Matejko, however, not always depicted historical moments according to historical truth. He would paint people, that did not take part in a given event, architecture, that looked differently at the time when the event took place – as for him the most important to give a certain message. He would even exhibit or donate his paintings for free – to educate others on Polish history. Although at the beginning of his artistic career he devoted to painting religious pieces, he turned into historical paintings. History was his obsession – as he was not able to talk or write about it, he simply painted it.

In 1865 Jan got married to Teodora Giebultowska, with whom he had 5 children. His wife was very often depicted in paintings – for example queen Bona (in ‘Prussian Homage’) bears her face.

Matejko, as Krakow citizen, did a lot for his city. He would support the poor, take part in preservation of Krakow monuments and fight for keeping the old architecture. He rejected the post in Prague’s Academy of Arts to prevent Krakow School of Arts from closing – by becoming its principal. As Matejko disagreed with Krakow authorities about some architectural changes in the city, he refused to be buried in Skalka church (what was usually treated as an honour).

Jan Matejko died in 1893. Almost whole Krakow took part in his funeral – during which the Sigismund Bell rang. His grave one can find in Rakowicki cemetery. His most famous works are: Stanczyk, Battle of Grunwald, Prussian Tribute and series of portraits of Polish kings. Many of his paintings one can admire in Krakow National Museum situated in the Sukiennice (cloth hall) building at the Main Market Square.

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