Jan Matejko in Krakow

Jan Matejko, known as the grandfather of Polish art, was born in Krakow in 1838 to a Czech father and a half-German, half-Polish mother. He was the ninth of eleven children and both his parents died when he was still a young boy. He was raised by his aunt Anna Zamojska and witnessed both the Krakow Revolution and the siege of Krakow before he was ten – all of which would have a profound influence on his paintings.

Matejko showed advanced artistic qualities from a young age and it was this talent for capturing a moment that saved him from working in a factory or mine. Academically he was not very astute and was forced to drop out of St. Ann´s High School due to bad grades. However, because of his exceptional talent for art in 1852 he was accepted into the School of Fine Arts in Krakow. During this time he exhibited several pieces at the Society of Friends of the Fine Arts.

The early years of his career as an artist were not easy and he epitomized the figure of the “starving artist.” His first commercial success came when he sold his painting Tsars Szujscy for five gulden, and although this was not a great amount he celebrated his success anyway.

Matejko painted constantly and churned out a staggering amount of work, though this was partly to pay for the extravagant spending of his wife, Teodora Giebultowska with whom he had four children. But Matejko was also a generous and patriotic man and offered financial support to rebels during the January Uprising in 1863 so that arms could be transported to insurgent camps.

By the mid-1860´s Matejko was beginning to receive international recognition and his oil painting Skarga´s Sermon received a golden medal at the annual Paris salon. It was bought by Count Maurycy Potocki for 10,000 guldens. Three years later the talented Polish artist was awarded another gold medal for his painting Retjan which was showcased at the World Exhibition in Paris.

With numerous successes under his pallet, Matejko was announced by critics as one of the most important historical painters of his day. He was an avid painter of religious art, but after Poland suffered national defeat he abandoned biblical depictions to concentrate exclusively on historical illustrations which were described as powerful expressions of the artist and his attitude to the world. In essence, they served as a reminder to the world how Polish hearts had been broken with the violent disruptions of a country in turmoil.

Other than short spells in Munich and Vienna, Matejko lived his entire life in Krakow and was something of a celebrity in Poland. Such was his prestige that Emperor Franz Joseph I visited him at his house.  The house which is now a museum dedicated to the painter is where Matejko was born, met his wife and on November 1, 1893, died there. He was buried in the Alley of the Meritorious at the Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow.