Henryk Siemiradzki

Henryk Siemiradzki – herald of the ancient world

Kharkiv region always inspired artists who were born and raised there. The Polander Henryk Siemiradzki, a world-renowned painter, professor of the Saint-Petersburg Academy of Arts, honorary member of the Roman, Berlin, Stockholm Academy of Arts and corresponding member of the Parisian Academy of Arts, was no exception. His name revives in our memory epic canvases, which depict Greece, Rome, biblical scenes, sunlit landscapes, and on their background – masterfully pictured idyllic scenes. The appearing of paintings by Siemiradzki at exhibitions in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Rome and Paris, Warsaw and Krakow, Vienna and Prague, Philadelphia and Melbourne aroused lively interest of public, becoming a dramatic event in cultural life. One of the admirers of the artist’s creative work was the Emperor Alexander III.

The father of the future artist – Pole Hipolit Siemiradzki – was a general of the dragoon regiment accommodated in the town of Novobelgorod (now – the village of Pechenigy of the Kharkiv region). His mother – Mikhailina Prushinska – was also Pole. Henryk Hektor Siemiradzki was born on the 24th of October, 1843. These days there is a school in the village of Pechenigy, named after prominent native, and there is also a monument to the painter.

7 years later the family of Siemiradzki moved to the provincial center, having bought a spacious mansion near Tyurinka. The house of this noble family immediately became an important center of Polish culture and the Catholic community of Kharkiv. After all, Hipolit Siemiradzki was a headman in the city Roman Catholic church, which still stands on the Gogol Street.

Today, about the 20-year-long stay of Henryk Siemiradzki in Kharkiv, the Semigradsky  Street, the Semigradsky  lane and Semigradsky entry road near the Saburova Dacha reminds us – at this particular place there was once the mansion of the painter’s family . Unneeded letter “g” has not been corrected in these names till now.

Henryk was fond of drawing since childhood. In the 2nd Kharkiv high school (N. 49.990085, E. 36.224178), whereto the future artist was sent to the first form, at that time worked as a drawing teacher Dmytro Bezperchy – a student of Karl Bryullov. It was Bezperchy who discovered the talent of the Polish boy and cultivated in him love to the fine arts.

Often, Henryk Siemiradzki is called proud, withdrawn, arrogant, but nobody is left indifferent to his attitude towards his teacher. Being already a member of the most respected academies of art, with numerous honorary titles and European acknowledgment, he continued to write letters to Bezperchy describing news of his life and artistic doings. This respect and outpouring of Siemiradzki’s gratitude to a modest high school teacher overrules prevailing clichés about his character.

In the 2nd high school for boys, located near the Annunciation Cathedral of Kharkiv, the spirit of creativity prevailed. Drawing lessons of Dmitry Bezperchy were accompanied by stories about Antiquity and the Renaissance. Because of all this, Henry kept his love for Hellenism and the Renaissance for the rest of his life. Bezperchy encouraged the boy not to copy the originals, but to draw from nature. A teacher died ten years later than his student, but until the last day of his life, Henryk called him his only teacher and sent him letters to Kharkiv, full of sincere respect and gratitude.

Parents did not stand in the son’s way, who desired to become a painter, but Hipolit Siemiradzki dreamed of a different career for Henryk. That is why the latter entered the natural department of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of the Kharkiv Imperial University (Universytetska Street 16) (N. 49.988724, E. 36.229849). However, young Siemiradzki continued to take lessons from Bezperchy. In those days, the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics gave much wider knowledge than it does today. Therefore, one should not be surprised at the theme of Henryk’s graduation work – “On the instincts of insects”. This work is interesting not so much by its scientific content as by artistic decoration. After all, Siemiradzki generously decorated it with numerous drawings of butterflies and bugs.

Students at Kharkiv University cared much for the natural world, which Henryk began to discover while still a little boy. The teacher of nature study rejoiced, looking at the notebooks of Henryk: “His insects, birds, plants were painted so lively that they could be reproduced in professional books.” The daughter of Siemiradzki Wanda Pshiemska recalled that her father: “As a child, was just in love with butterflies, of which Ukraine is so rich. In Kharkiv, he was collecting a beautiful collection, he had a peer who had captivated him with this hobby, and together they collected the most vivid specimens. This enthusiasm never left my father.”

According to experts, the study of exact sciences in the Kharkiv University contributed to the artist’s emergence of a mathematical view during the construction of compositions, the ability to perceive the world through its details and a sharp, quick eye.

In 1864, Henryk Siemiradzki successfully defended his graduation work and decided to study the fine arts. He went to St. Petersburg and became a non-degree student at the Academy of Arts, because in accordance with general practice only young people under 20 years could study in it. The status of a non-degree student meant a paid education (25 rubles a year) and allowed to take part in the competition for the Small Gold Medal. And the medal gave a right to take a six-year publicly-funded trip to Europe.

Already in 1866 he became a full-fledged student of the Academy. This was possible thanks to masterful sketches and paintings. Being as far back as a non-degree student, Siemiradzki got two silver medals, in particular – for the painting “The Angel of Death smites all the firstborns of Egypt.”

The main theme of Siemiradzki’s works was the history and life of the classical times (8th century BC – 3rd-4th centuries AD). Specifically – Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, which in the 3rd century AD merged into a single cultural entity within a colossal state formation – the Roman Empire. Siemiradzki, like many of his contemporaries, considered the ancient tradition to be the starting point for the foundation of European civilization. Henryk’s choice of antique themes allowed him to be supranational, to feel himself not a Polish or a Russian, but a European in the broad sense of the word.

During his studies, the young artist got six silver and three gold medals. Henryk simply struck his fellow academies with his exceptional erudition: he knew perfectly well the history of the ancient world, the history of the arts and, at the same time, was knowledgeable in the natural sciences. Young Siemiradzki was also a theatre enthusiast. With unfailing regularity, he visited every premiere, giving preference to the opera and ballet. In 1870, Henry Siemiradzki graduated from the Academy, earning the rank of a class artist and the Great Gold Medal for the competitional painting “Alexander the Great puts himself in hands of Doctor Philip”. At the same time, the young artist was awarded a six-year practical study abroad.

Before this trip Henryk Siemiradzki for the last time visits Kharkiv to sell a family estate. After all, his father had already retired in the rank of a general and moved to his motherland to Warsaw. During the last visit to Kharkiv, Siemiradzki gave the director of the art school Maria Raievska-Ivanova his painting “The Coffinmaker Store” as a gift, which today can be seen at the Kharkiv Art Museum (Zhon Myronosyts Street 11 (Myrrhbearers Street)) (N. 49.999125,  E. 36.238588). There is another master’s work in it – “Isauri pirates sell their trophies” (also known as “Corsairs”). This painting found its way into the Kharkiv Art Museum in 1926, its second version resides now in Poland.

Having sold his father’s estate in Novobelgorod, Henryk Siemiradzki went to Munich, which at that time was considered one of the largest centers of European artistic culture. In this German city, the artist in no time painted a multifigured picture (for the first time in his work) “Roman Orgy of Brilliant Caesarism Times”, which in 1872 was sent to an academic exhibition in St. Petersburg. This painting had a great success, as a result of which Alexander Alexandrovich, the heir to the throne (future Alexander III), bought it at a high price.

From Germany Siemiradzki went to long-awaited Rome. The magnificent city satisfied his best expectations – the painter decided to live and work right there. Henryk managed to rent a studio, located on the famous Via Margutta – the street of artists, painters and artist’s models, where he worked until 1883.

In 1873, an important event in the life of the artist took place – Henryk Siemiradzki married his cousin Marina Prushinska. She bore him three sons – Boleslaw (1874), Leon (1875) and Casimir (1876, he died at the age of one), and a daughter Vanda (1878).

In 1876, the artist wrote a gigantic picture of the ancient Christian theme – “Prominent figures of Christianity. Nero’s torches”. This masterpiece was at first exhibited in Rome and then in the capital of the Russian Empire, and even later – at the Paris exhibition.

In 1877, the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts gave Henryk Siemiradzki the title of professor. In the same year, the organizers of the Paris exhibition awarded him a gold medal and the Legion of Honor. The Academy of Fine Arts of Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and Rome admitted Siemiradzki a membership, and the Uffizi Gallery asked him to send his self-portrait to be hanged in the hall of outstanding artists in this famous Florentine museum.

Thanks to his talent, Siemiradzki became a wealthy man. He built a magnificent two-storey marble palace in an antique style, and in Poland he bought a mansion in Stshalkovo, where he spent every summer.

In 1889, there was a personal academic exhibition of the artist, organized in St. Petersburg. The Council of the Academy appointed Siemiradzki its non-staff member. At the same time, at an international exhibition in Melbourne, his picture “Isauri pirates sell their trophies” was awarded the gold medal.

It is also worth mentioning that Siemiradzki painted theatrical stage curtain in Krakow (1894) and Lviv (1900), as well as a decorative panel picture in the Warsaw Philharmonic (1901).

Although the artist’s favorite subject was the Antiquity, however, the motifs from childhood are also reflected on his paintings – a small collection of works by H. Siemiradzki on a Ukrainian topic proclaimed the deep ties with the land where he was born (“Kupala Night”  (1880), “Rural Idyll” (1886) etc.).

The last years of life of Siemiradzki were darkened by a painful and rare illness – cancer of the tongue. He died on the 23rd of August 23, 1902, in his Stshalkovo estate near Novoradomsk near Częstochowa.

At first the artist was buried in Warsaw near his parents, but a year later it was decided to transfer his remains to Crypt of the most distinguished Poles in Skalka, where many prominent city dwellers rest. During the reburial ceremony, Chopin’s music sounded.

There is an art gallery in Kharkov, named after the outstanding master of arts, located in the eastern part of his native Alma mater at Svobody Square 6/2 (N. 50.0066978, E. 36.2306679). And on the 27th of October, 2015, a memorial plaque was opened on the building of the University library (Universytetska Street 23) (N. 49.9891940, E. 36.2304686).

Sources of information:

1. Денисенко, О. Г. Семирадський: від Харкова до Риму // Видатні поляки Харкова : матеріали Міжнар. наук. симп., Харків, 7 груд. 2001 р. – Харків, 2012. – С. 38–51. – (Польський альманах; вип. V).

2. Карнацевич, В.Л. Семирадский Генрих Ипполитович // 100 знаменитых харьковчан. – Харьков, 2005. – С. 375–380.

3. Корсик Ю.Постать і творчість Г. Семирадського в річищі сучасної мистецтвознавчої науки // Художня культура. Актуальні проблеми. Збірник наукових праць. – 2009. – Випуск 9. – С. 410-440.

4. Черкаська Г. Син Польщі та України. [Електронний ресурс]. – Режим доступу: https://uamodna.com/articles/genrik-semygradsjkyy-evropeysjkyy-geniy-rodom-z-ukrayiny/

Prepared by Valeriya Yarova

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