„AND I STILL SEE THEIR FACES".
ON JAN MATEJKO'S PHYSIOGNOMIES
Stanisław Tarnowski wrote in his description of Matejko's creative process, beginning with
concepts long growing in peace, and ending with finished paintings: only at the end was
it a matter of finishing the heads barely sketchcd with a brush. Matejko did so — so he said —
out of caution, for fear that secondary things should outshine the heads were these finished
first. Leaving them until the end, he reckoned, enabled him to invest the heads with the most
powerful tone they deserved, being the most important in a painting. Once he could see the
overall tone of the given painting, he knew how to proceed to arrive at the effect desired as
far as the heads were concerned. His reasoning went that if he had started with the heads, he
would have to paint them again to adjust them to the overall tone so that we would have to
do the same job twice"1.
This practice, reversing the procedurę generally employed at that time (indicated by nume-
rous unfinished canvases by various painters where the finished faces are suspended in the
void or mist of the first coating) does not suggest Matejko's being economical of effort — in fact
he never spared the effort — but ,,the heads being the most important in a painting". However
important, little has been written about them; strikingly little considering how much has
been written on Matejko at large.
Stanisław Witkiewicz was the most sensitive to Matejko's physiognomies: „The whole Ma-
tejko amounts to some score, say, several score figures, heads, facial expressions, which are
as genuine masterpieces as other details of his paintings are excellent____These faces, of Skarga
(Fig. 1), Sigismund III, Zamoyski (Fig. 2), the Jesuit and the envoys in the Bathory; Szczęsny
Potocki (Fig. 3) in the Rejtan, are the consummate masterpieces of expression, and will re-
main such for ever, and they alone may save Matejko from the infamy to which his monstrous
errors have brought him", Witkiewicz wrote in Matejko's 'Biggest' Painting. Witkiewicz was
the only one to see the evolution of Matejko's faces as, with his growing routine, "the subtle
shades of expression have disappeared to leave room to the common, unchanging type with
so strongly accentuated features that Matejko's current input of expression cannot add feeling
to the swollen faces ossified in mannerism.... The subtle, nervous faces are on the decline or
rather we have the same faces grown fatter, commoner, with double chins and swollen cheeks"2.
What Witkiewicz writes about Matejko's faces is as ambivalent as his generał attitude towards
the painter, in which fascination with Matejko's powerful vision is moderated by an aware-
ness of the rules of art, the Iaws „of perspective, the harmony of the colour scheme and the lo-
gie of chiaroscuro", in turn neglected and broken by Matejko.
1. S. Tarnowski, Matejko, Kruków, 1897, p. 462.
2. S. Witkiewicz, '"Największy1 obraz Matejki1' (Matejko'* 'Biggest' Painting), in: Sztuka i krytyka u nas (Our Art and Art
Criticism), Warszawa, 1949, pp. 54 and f., 56 and f.