Volume 22, Issue 2 | Autumn 2023

Henryk Siemiradzki: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings by Jerzy Malinowski, ed. and Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski, trans.

Reviewed by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu

Jerzy Malinowski, ed. and Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski, trans.,
Henryk Siemiradzki: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings,
2 volumes.
Warsaw-Toruń: Polish Institute of World Art Studies & Tako Publishing House, 2021.
472 pp. (vol. 1) and 632 pp. (vol. 2); hundreds of color and b&w illus.; artist biography; chronological list of works; index.
$75 (hardback, 2 volumes)
ISBN: 978–83–956575–7–3 (vol. 1)
ISBN: 978–83–956575–8–0 (vol. 2)

On August 26, 1902, a brief notice in the New York Times announced the death of Henryk Hektor Siemiradzki (1836–1912), “the celebrated Polish historical painter, whose picture, ‘The Living Torches of Nero,’ was one of the sensations of Rome in 1876.”‍[1] Though it appeared on the front page of the Times, the announcement’s brevity (thirty-four words) was an indication that the reputation of Siemiradzki, who a generation earlier had enjoyed international fame, had seriously waned, especially outside of Poland.

The rapid decline of Siemiradzki’s renown in the early twentieth century was similar to that of his Western European counterparts Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1902) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), who like him had booked popular successes with large, spectacular canvases depicting scenes from Roman antiquity, before falling from grace immediately after, or even before, their deaths. Though their art had a transmedial afterlife in such mid-twentieth-century blockbuster movies as Quo Vadis (1951), Ben Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and Cleopatra (1963),‍[2] for most of the twentieth century (roughly between the onset of World War I and the 1980s), their reputations ebbed low, only to surge again around 1980, roughly coinciding with the rise of postmodernism. This resurgence has manifested itself not only in sharply rising, even skyrocketing, auction prices,‍[3] but also in increased numbers of exhibitions and publications, and, in the case of Siemiradzki, to a monumental research project that has led, among other results, to the hefty two-volume catalogue raisonné, published in English as well as in Polish, that is the object of this review.

In 2015, the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education awarded a grant to the Polish Institute of World Art Studies in Warsaw to embark on a comprehensive five-year research project focused on the life and work of Siemiradzki. The National Museums in Kraków and Warsaw were to function as “co-researchers” for the project, which also relied on several “cooperating” institutions including the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and several other Russian museums, and the Pontificio Istituto di Studi Ecclesiastici in Rome. In addition to the catalogue raisonné, the project produced a documentary volume, Głosy o twórczosci Henryka Siemiradzkiego (Voices on the Work of Henryk Siemiradzki), and a volume devoted to technical aspects of the artist’s work, Warsztat malarski Henryka Siemiradzkiego (The Painting Method of Henryk Siemiradzki). The latter were published only in Polish. The project also entailed three conferences (one in 2017, held in Warsaw, and two in 2018, in Kraków and Rome), the proceedings of which were published as well.‍[4]

Henryk Hektor Siemiradzki was born in Pechenihy, in the oblast of Kharkiv, in northern Ukraine, where his father, a military officer, commanded a regiment of dragoons. The Siemiradzkis belonged to the Polish nobility; the family originated from the village of Siemiradz, some sixty miles south of Warsaw. While he had strong ties with Ukraine, where he was born and raised; with Russia, where he studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg; and with Italy, where he lived for much of his life, Henryk Siemiradzki self-identified as Polish.

Siemiradzki started drawing at a young age: his earliest known drawing was made when he was twelve (cat. rais. 1, A). His drawing teacher at the Second Kharkiv gymnasium was Dmitry Besperchy (1825–1913), a student of the Russian painter Karl Bryullov (1799–1852), famous for his The Last Day of Pompeii (1830–33; The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg), which inspired Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s (1803–1873) nearly eponymous novel (1834). Siemiradzki continued to study with Besperchy even as he went to the University of Kharkiv, where he majored in physics and mathematics.

Upon graduation, in 1864, Siemiradzki moved to Saint Petersburg to enroll at the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1870, his art studies culminated in a large gold medal, awarded on the merit of his painting Alexander of Macedon and his Physician Philip, and a six-year travel grant. He initially traveled to Munich, where he completed his first major painting, A Roman Orgy (1871; exhibited in Munich in 1872, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg); then, in 1872, he went to Rome, where he maintained a residence until his death.‍[5]

In December 1873, Siemiradzki started work on his most famous painting, Nero’s Torches or Candlesticks of Christianity, which was a sensation during its first exhibition in Rome in 1876. The painting shows a nighttime feast in the garden of Nero’s Domus Aurea, illuminated by tall torches fueled by Christian prisoners wrapped in straw and tar. The painting was shown across Europe—from London to Moscow, and from Stockholm to Vienna. At the Exposition universelle in Paris, it earned Siemiradzki a gold medal and induction into the Légion d’honneur. In 1879, the artist donated the painting to the Polish nation with the stipulation that it was to go to the city of Kraków. This gesture resulted in the establishment of the Kraków National Museum. Nero’s Torches was the most important in a group of paintings that contrasted the decadence of the late Roman Empire with the new age brought by Christianity, or, as Siemiradzki put it in a letter explaining the painting to the secretary of the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, “slaves prepare to light the torches, the light from which will illuminate the most hideous of orgies; but these same torches dispersed the darkness of the pagan world and, burning in terrible suffering, spread the light of Christ’s new teaching” (1, 256).

The success of this large scene of Christian martyrdom during the reign of Nero prompted Siemiradzki’s second most famous painting, Christian Dirce (National Museum, Warsaw), first conceived in 1876 but not completed until 1897. Likewise set in Nero’s time, it shows the emperor in his circus, inspecting the dead body of a young Christian woman, tortured and killed after being tied to the horns of a raging bull, in imitation of the punishment of Dirce, the mythological Queen of Thebes, by the sons of Antiope.‍[6] First officially exhibited at the Second Venice Biennale in 1897, the reception of Christian Dirce was not unanimously positive. Tastes had changed in the quarter century since Nero’s Torches had first been exhibited and forward-looking critics had become increasingly hostile to the academism that Siemiradzki’s painting represented. But the work was enthusiastically received by the public, which came out in droves to see the painting in exhibitions in Russia and Poland.

Neither Nero’s Torches nor Christian Dirce were sold; both their subject matter and their size, no doubt, made them unattractive to private buyers. As mentioned, Siemiradzki donated the first to Kraków, and bequeathed the second to the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Warsaw. His more salable works comprised religious scenes, many of which were commissioned, as well as historical genre pictures, allegorical compositions, portraits, landscapes, and a category of paintings referred to as idylls. The latter, which depict one or more, mostly female, figures in classicizing garments set in sun-drenched Mediterranean landscapes, found a particularly ready market among private collectors.

During the final years of his life, Siemiradzki produced two large painted curtains for the municipal theatres of Kraków (1894) and Lviv (1900).‍[7] Still (or rather, again) in situ, both curtains depict allegorical groups, appropriate for a theatre. Painterly feats because of their size alone (the Kraków curtain measures nine by ten meters, without its border; the Lviv curtain six by nine), both works were widely admired in their time. Queen Margherita of Savoy (1851–1926), who saw the Kraków curtain in Rome where it was briefly exhibited before being shipped to Poland, told the President of the Accademia di San Luca that she thought that it alone was sufficient to ensure immortality for Siemiradzki (2, 559).

The catalogue raisonné of Siemiradzki’s paintings describes and reproduces all approximately 450 finished paintings by the artist that have been preserved or are known in reproduction, and for each work it also describes and reproduces all preliminary oil studies and drawings, as well as reduced copies painted by the artist, reproductive prints and photographs, and studio photographs of models used in the preparation of the paintings. The entry for Nero’s Torches, alone, is fifty-six pages long, including a technical discussion illustrated with a radiograph and a reflectograph, a lengthy bibliography, and a complete list of exhibitions.

This thoroughness and attention to detail throughout the catalogue was made possible by the close collaboration of a large working team, coordinated by Jerzy Malinowski and comprised of several “sub-teams” responsible for different aspects of the publication such as research, editing and publishing, documentation, etc. Remarkable, in view of the size of the team, is the consistency achieved despite the number of collaborators.

The catalogue is organized by subject matter but has been arranged in such a way that many of the early works are in the first volume and the late ones in the second. The first volume is devoted to “works on ancient history and early Christianity, and religious works;” the second to “genre, portraits, and other works.” Volume 1 contains a detailed biography of the artist, as well as a list of Siemiradzki’s thirty-two sketchbooks, preserved in the museums of Kraków and Warsaw. The volume’s final pages contain a chronological list of Siemiradzki’s paintings, each one accompanied by a slightly-larger-than-a-postage-stamp reproduction. Volume 2 ends with an index of personal names.

The wealth of information contained in this catalogue raisonné makes it a book whose interest goes well beyond a reference work. It evokes a world in which an Eastern European artist like Siemiradzki could move freely around Europe and exhibit his works in the major capitals of Europe as well as cities in the United States. While his physical movement was made possible by a new network of trains and steamers, which made travel easier than ever before, the movement of his paintings was closely bound up with the universality, at least in the Western world, of their subject matter. By the end of the nineteenth century, the classical scenes shown in his paintings—and in those of colleagues like Gérôme and Alma-Tadema—were readily accessible, both aesthetically and financially, to a large, well-heeled pan-European and North American bourgeoisie, intimately familiar through their secondary education with the Latin and Greek literary sources upon which the artist drew. While many of his paintings need explanation today, in Siemiradzki’s time their content was internationally accessible, not least because it was reinforced by contemporary historic novels and plays that likewise drew on classical sources. The Siemiradzki catalogue raisonné provides great insights into this final and expansive flareup of classicism before modernism emerged in full force in the early twentieth century and World War I drastically ended the Belle Époque in which Siemiradzki’s career had been allowed to flourish.


[1] New York Times, August 26, 1902. Though Nero’s Torches was never shown in the US, Siemiradzki’s Amulet Seller (lost) received a gold medal at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia; his Phryne at the Festival of Poseidon in Eleusis (1889) and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1886), both in the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, were exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

[2] The subject of the impact of nineteenth-century academic paintings, especially historical scenes, on film has, of late, led to a substantial literature, including most recently Gillian McIver, Art and the Historical Film: Realism and the Sublime (New York: Bloomsbury, 2023). See also, among others, Ivo Blom, “Quo vadis? From Painting to Cinema and Everything in Between,” in La decima musa. Il cinema e le altre arti (The Tenth Muse: Cinema and Other Arts), eds. Leonardo Quaresima and Laura Vichi (Udine: Forum, 2001), 281–96. The case of Quo Vadis is particularly interesting as the movie was based on an eponymous novel (1895–96) by Siemiradzki’s compatriot and contemporary Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916), who was inspired by the painting.

[3] Alma Tadema’s painting The Finding of Moses (1904), practically worthless in the 1950s and 1960s, sold at Sotheby’s New York, November 4, 2010, for a whopping $35,922,500 USD.

[4] The papers presented at the Warsaw conference were published in Jerzy Malinowski and Irina Gavrash, eds., Co znajduje się w obrazach Henryka Siemiradzkiego? (What is in the Paintings of Henryk Siemiradzki?) (Warsaw and Toruń: Polish Institute of World Art Studies and Tako Publishing House, 2017); the papers of the Kraków conference in Agnieszka Kluczewska-Wójcik and Dominika Sarkowicz, eds., The Henryk Siemiradzki That We Do Not Know (Warsaw: Polish Institute of World Art Studies, 2018); and the papers of the Rome conference in Maria Nitka and Agnieszka Kluczewska-Wójcik eds., Henryk Siemiradzki and the International Milieu in Rome (Rome: Accademia Polacca, 2020).

[5] In 1884, he and his wife also acquired a manor house in Strzałków, near Siemiradz, where the family would henceforth spend parts of the summer. It is here that he died on August 28, 1902.

[6] As the authors of the catalogue explain in the entries for the two paintings, Nero’s Torches and Christian Dirce were loosely based on classical and/or early Christian literary sources, the first on Tacitus’s The Annals 15:44, the second on St. Clement of Rome’s “First Epistle to the Corinthians,” 1 Clem 6:1–2.

[7] Currently in Ukraine, the city was known as Lwów when Poland ruled it in Siemiradzki’s time. During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was called Lemberg.