“Peasant Identity and Class Relations in the Art of Stanisław Wyspiański,” by Weronika Malek-Lubawski*




Stanisław Wyspiański (1869–1907) was a painter, playwright, and leader of the Young Poland movement of artists who merged the national tradition of history painting with Symbolist visions and elements of Art Nouveau.1 He frequently tackled the theme of Polish class relations in his works, and he was so appreciated during his lifetime that the funeral after his premature death from syphilis turned into a national memorial parade.2 Wyspiański’s reputation persists into the twenty-first century in Poland, where high school students read his famous drama Wesele [The Wedding] (1901) as part of their general education curriculum, but he is not widely known outside his home country.3 This essay examines The Wedding and Wyspiański’s pastel, Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife (1904), in relation to nineteenth-century Polish sociohistorical discourse on class identity and Wyspiański’s own interclass marriage (Fig. 1). Inspired by the real-life nuptials of Wyspiański’s acquaintance, The Wedding narrates the union of an upper-class poet and a peasant woman in a ceremony that later becomes the stage for supernatural events and patriotic ambitions. Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife depicts Wyspiański, an upper-class member of the intelligentsia, and his spouse, a peasant and former domestic servant, wearing costumes that deliberately confuse their class identities. One of Wyspiański’s best-known works, it is also his only double portrait in which the artist himself appears. Both the play and the pastel reflect Wyspiański’s efforts to navigate the class divisions of Poland’s changing social landscape.



Fig. 1. Stanisław Wyspiański, Autoportret z żoną [Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife], 1904, pastel on cardboard, 18 3/4 x 24 1/2 in. (47.7 x 62.2 cm), Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie [National Museum in Kraków], Poland, MNK III-r.a.-10895. Image courtesy of the Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie.

Unlike some of his peers, who sought artistic inspiration in the countryside, Wyspiański remained in the city for most of his life, but he married a peasant woman and commented on peasant-gentry relations in Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife and The Wedding.4 Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife reveals both the artist’s investment in and ambivalence towards Polish national identity and peasant-mania. Whereas other artists portrayed peasants as representative members of their class, Wyspiański presented his wife, Teodora Teofila Wyspiańska (née Pytko, 1868–1957), as an individual, emphasizing their marital relationship over her peasant origins.5

The line between representation and role-play is blurred in Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife. Wyspiański masquerades as a peasant, and Teodora wears a krakowska [Cracovienne] folk dress that entangles peasant tradition, city fashion, and national symbolism.6 By dissembling their true class identities, Wyspiański commented on the fraught relationship between Polish nobles and peasants during the late nineteenth century. In The Wedding, Wyspiański complicated the national myth of an upcoming independence uprising. The text points to the unresolved tensions between Polish social classes and alludes to both kosynierzy (scythe-wielding peasants who fought for Polish independence in 1794) and the Galician Slaughter of 1846, in which peasants rose against Polish landowners, in order to articulate the stakes of these relations.

Most of the scholarship on Wyspiański considers his artistic and literary activities separately, with the exception of certain biographies.7 The recent long-running retrospective Wyspiański at the National Museum in Kraków (November 28, 2017–May 5, 2019) attempted to integrate Wyspiański’s writings with his visual art by including quotes from his plays in the didactics, but the emphasis was still on his visual art. The challenge in juxtaposing Wyspiański’s visual and literary bodies of work lies in their formal and thematic differences. His plays have complicated plots and are full of insightful social commentary, while his non-commissioned paintings usually depict genre scenes from everyday life. What unites his works, however, is the complex social and historical context in which they were made. I argue that by using different formal means, Wyspiański addressed the same issues of class identity, nationalism, and patriotism in both Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife and The Wedding.



Peasant-Mania and Nationalism in Partitioned Poland


At the turn of the twentieth century, Polish artists developed an increased fascination with the countryside and peasant folklore in a phenomenon known as chłopomania [peasant-mania]. The term “mania” hints at the intense interest that artists evinced towards peasants. For example, some upper-class Polish artists married peasant women, which had been socially unacceptable in previous generations, and moved to the countryside to create art and participate in peasant culture there. Polish peasant-mania was connected with a broader interest in peasants among European and Russian artists. Germanic, Scandinavian, and Slavic painters linked peasant imagery with nationalist movements.8 Monica Juneja sees the French interest in depicting peasants as a manifestation of certain existential and political crises, and the idyllic views of peasants in Polish painting respond to similar upheavals.9 Peasant-mania, however, did not merely manifest a fin-de-siècle nostalgia for a simpler and more natural way of living.10

In the context of partitioned Poland, which had been occupied by the Russian Empire, Prussia, and Habsburg Austria from 1795 until 1918, peasant-mania also reflected the political stakes of Polish independence aspirations. Proponents of peasant-mania considered peasants to be embodiments of patriotic values, but still aspired to shape and refine the peasants’ national identity. Russia, Prussia, and Austria had taken over Polish land gradually, beginning with the territories closest to their borders in 1772, annexing more land in 1793, and ultimately occupying the whole of Poland in 1795.11 Each of the three partitions had different ramifications for local residents, who dealt with varied political restrictions, industrial initiatives, and land reform proposals. The Austrian partition where Wyspiański lived, known as Galicia, was the most densely populated and economically disadvantaged.12 The peasant community there comprised over six million people.13

Although the Republic of Poland did not even exist on maps throughout the nineteenth century, a sense of Polish national identity remained strong among the Polish nobility and intelligentsia, who often spoke of Poland’s 800-year history of statehood.14 The occupiers, particularly in the Prussian and Russian partitions, attempted to assimilate Polish subjects into their own nations and were met with resistance.15 Polish language, culture, and Catholicism, which became entangled with Polish national identity during the time of the partitions, were central to that resistance. Poles had also attempted to win back their homeland militarily. The Polish nobility attempted to reclaim their political sovereignty in several national uprisings, the most consequential of which were the November Uprising of 1830 and the January Uprising of 1863.16 The failure of the January Uprising, which resulted in harsh reprisals for the participants and their families—including confiscation of property and forcible exile to Siberia—made the independence fighters realize that future efforts would only have a chance to succeed if peasants joined the cause more enthusiastically.17

The class divisions between the aristocracy, impoverished nobility, gentry, intelligentsia, and bourgeoisie became increasingly fluid throughout the nineteenth century. In this essay, I refer to wealthy landowners as “nobles” or “the upper classes.” Wyspiański, his fellow artists, and members of the intelligentsia generally hailed from noble families or had social ties to nobility. Peasants remained a distinct social class, however, due to their habitation in the countryside, poverty, and local culture.18 Prior to the partitions, peasants were serfs who tilled noble farmland, but thanks to gradual land reform during the nineteenth century, they began cultivating their own fields under the partitions.19 This increased freedom complicated their relationship with both the occupiers and the nobility, and also impacted their sense of Polish national identity.20

To help mobilize peasants to join the fight for an independent Poland, artists began depicting peasants as morally pure and physically healthy, emphasizing the military potential of peasant men and the wifely virtues and mothering instincts of peasant women.21 In so doing, however, they fetishized and idealized peasant life, leaving little room for individuality or deeper dialogue between peasants and nobles. Wyspiański and his peers also realized that peasants were more attached to their land than to the idea of an independent Poland. As a result, they attempted to make Polish-speaking peasants feel more included in the national culture and to reinforce positive stereotypes about them among the nobility and intelligentsia.22 For example, they encouraged peasants to see theatrical performances during Sunday trips to Kraków.23

Polish culture was key to preserving Polish national identity for future generations, who would have no memory of an independent Poland. During the second half of the nineteenth century, artists and intellectuals created works ku pokrzepieniu serc [to invigorate the hearts] of their compatriots and aimed to sustain Polish national identity through painting, poetry, and literature. These works celebrated the eight centuries of Polish sovereignty, presented from the perspective of the nobility.24 By the turn of the century, however, artists had shifted their attention to other social classes. Novellas about the misery of factory workers appeared alongside paintings of rural landscapes, and the writer Władysław Reymont (1867–1925) won a Nobel Prize for Chłopi [The Peasants] (1909), a novel narrated exclusively from a peasant perspective.25

Wyspiański belonged to a generation which did not remember an independent Poland or independence uprisings and would learn about them through culture and oral histories. His family had personal ties with the fight for Polish independence. After the death of his mother in 1876, Wyspiański spent the remainder of his childhood under the care of his aunt Jadwiga Stankiewiczowa. Her husband, Kazimierz Stankiewicz, had fought in the January Uprising and maintained friendships with other veterans and the cultural elite of Kraków.26 Wyspiański also attended the prestigious Gimnazjum Św. Anny [St. Anne’s Junior High School], whose curriculum emphasized Polish history and literature.27 Thanks to his aunt and uncle’s social connections, Wyspiańki became acquainted with the painter Jan Matejko (1838–1893), who trained him in history painting and helped jumpstart his artistic career.28 Matejko was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and a patriot whose art aimed to show glorious scenes from the Polish past. After finishing his education, Wyspiański departed from Matejko’s style of history painting, but national discourse remained important in his art.



Transcending Class in an Interclass Marriage: Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife


Wyspianski’s marriage to Teodora four years before painting Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife was considered a misalliance by his peers.29 The upper-class social circles in Kraków, Wyspiański’s hometown and the cultural center of Galicia, were not shocked because he had married a peasant woman. On the contrary, the marriages of artists and writers to peasant women had become almost fashionable during peasant-mania. Two of Wyspiański’s friends, the painter Włodzimierz Tetmajer (1861–1923) and the poet Lucjan Rydel (1870–1918), married into peasant families and moved to the countryside.30 Wyspiański, however, did not meet his wife in the countryside or move to a village. Instead, Teodora came to the city to work as a domestic servant and gave birth to an illegitimate son, the identity of whose father is unknown.31 She later found a job in the household of Wyspiański’s aunt, where she probably started a relationship with the artist. Before marrying Teodora, Wyspiański had already fathered two children with her, but formalizing their union still shocked Wyspiański’s family.32 After their marriage, the artist also legally adopted his wife’s firstborn son.33 Therefore, it seems that society condemned Teodora not for her peasant origins, but rather for her reputed promiscuity and for the circumstances under which she met Wyspiański.34

Building on this prejudice, Wyspiański’s family and friends also sneered at Teodora’s supposed lack of manners and education—something for which Rydel’s and Tetmajer’s peasant brides were not criticized.35 They also doubted whether Teodora could adequately care for Wyspiański, who had already been diagnosed with syphilis before meeting her, and whose health deteriorated throughout their marriage.36 While marrying young, presumably chaste peasant women tallied with the romanticized notion of the morally pure countryside, Teodora—a year older than Wyspiański and the mother of three illegitimate children—did not satisfy this ideal. Her nonconformity resulted in social ostracization. For example, Rydel, whose nuptials inspired Wyspiański’s drama The Wedding, refused to invite Teodora to his ceremony in person, as the custom required, until Wyspiański intervened by threatening not to serve as a witness to Rydel’s marriage unless his own wife was invited properly.37 Additionally, when Teodora remarried after Wyspiański’s death, her alleged character flaws were leveraged against her during legal proceedings over the custody of her children, who were ultimately placed under the guardianship of Wyspiański’s friend Adam Chmiel.38

Wyspiański’s acquaintances recounted that he “could not stand” questions about his private life and declined to answer them.39 However, when it was hinted to a theater director that Wyspiański would not be good at his job because of his wife, the artist expressed his visible annoyance and disappointment with the Kraków social circles in a letter to that director:


It is all a “social” comedy, because they cannot comprehend that my wife is not of the “city folk,” from the

so-called intelligentsia, and they would wager half of their life for some scandal which they are craving…40


As a sharp observer of social life, Wyspiański was painfully aware that society would invent and disseminate negative gossip about his marital situation. To counter this malicious gossip, Wyspiański created a marriage portrait in which he celebrates his wife’s peasant ancestry and their conjugal union.

Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife is a pastel which emphasizes unity and partnership between two individuals with different class backgrounds. Wyspiański created it in his studio, where he would likely have shown it to his patrons.41 Feliks Jasieński, a prominent art collector, purchased the pastel in 1906 and hung it in his living room, where he displayed the most valuable objects from his art collection, and later donated it the National Museum in Kraków in 1920.42

The relationship between Wyspiański and his wife in the pastel is forged through the overlap of their bodies, their relative placement in the composition, the interplay of light and shadow on their faces, and the iconographic significance of their clothing. Wyspiański and Teodora stand side by side, with barely any space separating them, and gaze directly at the viewer with serious expressions on their faces, looking self-assured and almost confrontational. Wyspiański, dressed in an olive vest, is positioned in front of his wife and depicted in three-quarter profile, with much of his face in shadow. Teodora, wearing a floral dress, chaplet necklace, and coral headscarf, is much more brightly lit. She looks healthier than her husband, whose skin is tinted blue, purple, and sickly green, perhaps an allusion to his venereal disease. Stationed close to the picture plane in a shallow, undefined space, the couple dominates the composition.

Teodora was one of Wyspiański’s most frequent models, and she posed for other multi-figure compositions such as Motherhood (1904) (Fig. 2).43 In each of these works, the pastel technique allowed Wyspiański to experiment with loose lines and detailed ornamentation, as he did for the pattern on Teodora’s dress. At the same time, Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife is executed with more care and precision than Motherhood, as though for an oil painting, and the layering of colors emulates the effect of glazing.44 Carefully rendered lighting is evenly distributed on Teodora’s face and neck, but creates dramatic shadows on Wyspiański’s visage, encouraging the viewer’s gaze to travel back and forth between them. The contrast between Teodora’s festive dress and her husband’s duller apparel emphasizes her role as a richly-attired muse posing for an artist.


Fig. 2.  Stanisław Wyspiański, Macierzyństwo [Motherhood], 1904, pastel on cardboard, 24 7/16 x 18 11/16 in. (62 x 47.4 cm), private collection. Image courtesy of the Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie [National Museum in Kraków], Poland, ND-12402.

The relationship between Wyspiański and his wife is further nuanced by their costumes, which deliberately muddle their class identities. Teodora’s ensemble has nationalistic and religious connotations. Her traditional krakowska dress was originally worn by folk dancers in villages around Kraków at the turn of the eighteenth century, before being appropriated by the upper classes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.45 It eventually gained the status of a national costume, and it is still worn today during national and religious celebrations in Kraków and beyond, including by Poles abroad.46 Teodora’s chaplet necklace, whose beads are carefully rendered to indicate its importance, also emphasizes her ties to Polish folk culture and Catholicism.47 From the lowest string of beads hangs a medallion of the Virgin Mary. Wyspiański used strokes of ultramarine, the conventional color of Mary’s mantle in Western painting, to indicate the Blessed Mother. Yet Teodora’s jewelry is an unstable class marker. Made of real coral, the necklace was an expensive gift from Wyspiański, something a peasant could not have afforded.48 In effect, Teodora poses as an upper-class woman impersonating a peasant, a highly meta role.

Wyspiański’s attire is equally ambiguous. His olive vest, with its distinctive black fur collar, evokes similar garments worn by peasants. However, many Polish intellectuals also donned such vests as visible manifestations of their (supposedly) egalitarian views or as a means of currying favor with peasants.49 In contrast to Teodora’s vibrant dress and accessories, Wyspiański’s clothing is much duller and more weathered in appearance, suggesting that he belongs to a lower strata of society—even though the opposite was actually the case. His collar seems to take on a life of its own, reaching towards Teodora’s necklace and asserting spatial dominance within the picture space. Like Teodora, Wyspiański participates in a social masquerade, and both of their ensembles demonstrate class fluidity and mobility in turn-of-the-century Poland. Although it was easier for artists and intellectuals to settle in the countryside and associate with peasants than for the lower classes to move to urban centers and rise beyond their circumstances, the latter was not unheard of.50 Teodora herself succeeded in making this upward transition—from a peasant, to a domestic servant, and ultimately to the wife of an esteemed artist.51 

Neither Teodora nor Wyspiański would have worn these outfits in everyday life. Teodora likely donned her krakowska dress for special occasions, such as weddings or patriotic festivals, but Wyspiański would not have been seen in Kraków sporting a peasant vest.52 Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife should thus be understood not simply as a faithful depiction of Wyspiański’s and Teodora’s appearances, as attested by period photographs, but also as an allegory of an interclass marriage (Fig. 3).


Fig. 3. Józef Eder, Stanisław Wyspiański and Teodora Teofila Wyspiańska, ca. 1901, albumen silver print, Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa [Historical Museum of the City of Kraków], Poland, MHK Fs4001-IX. Image courtesy of the Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa.

Rather than striving for a kind of ethnographic realism, Wyspiański sought to capture the unique social dynamics of peasant-noble relationships, including his own. Scholars who have analyzed this portrait through the lens of Wyspiański’s biography note that the artist stands almost protectively in front of Teodora, as if he wanted to shield her from criticism about their union.53 Their confrontational gazes were likely intended for people who questioned the propriety of their marriage or circulated rumors about Teodora, because most of Wyspiański’s family and friends considered Teodora an inappropriate partner for him.54 Through the double portrait, Wyspiański made a bold statement about his alleged misalliance and challenged Kraków’s high society to accept his peasant wife. Teodora certainly appreciated Wyspiański’s efforts to protect her from public censure and secure her social respect. Despite some social backlash and Wyspiański’s terminal illness, Teodora later described their marriage as the happiest time of her life.55



Galician Slaughter, National Trauma, Peasant Activism, and Kosynierzy in The Wedding


If Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife proffers interclass marriage as one possible solution to class conflict in Poland, The Wedding contextualizes that conflict within ongoing struggles for independence from Austria, Prussia, and Russia. One of the drama’s underlying threads is the shared trauma of the Galician Slaughter. On the eve of a planned uprising of Galician nobles against the Austrian occupying forces in 1846, Galician peasants violently rose against those very nobles.56 Over the course of a few days, they murdered the inhabitants of over 470 mansions.57 Their revolt only ceased when the Austrian army decided to restore order. The Polish nobility believed that the Austrians had incited this peasant riot, and the national myth of Austrians having manipulated the peasants in order to prevent an upper-class uprising was born.

This anti-Austrian narrative was strengthened by stories about peasants receiving salt from Austrian officials as payment for murdering nobles. Jan Lewicki’s painting The Galician Slaughter 1846 visualizes this version of events (Fig. 4). Uniformed, cleanly shaven Austrian soldiers are depicted doling out money to impoverished civilians, who carry decapitated heads as evidence of their horrific deeds. A military scribe is seen meticulously itemizing the silverware looted from the victims’ mansions. He is seated under a signpost bearing the Austrian coat of arms, indicating that he and his colleagues are acting on official orders. Bloodied corpses lie in the shadows in the foreground, while a mob of people wielding pikes, one of which displays a severed head, occupies the background. Interestingly, even though Lewicki’s painting blames the Austrian occupying forces for the peasants’ aggression, it also features an Austrian soldier giving money to a father of five children. This compassionate act humanizes the Austrians and their role in the Slaughter. However, Lewicki’s painting acknowledges neither the history of tensions between Galician landowners and peasants nor the fact that peasant rights slightly improved under Austrian rule.58 The Galician Slaughter was the product of a feudal system that benefitted nobles to the detriment of peasants. In Polish collective memory and visual culture, however, the Galician Slaughter became a national trauma and a failed instance of peasant military involvement in the struggle for independence.


Fig. 4. Jan Nepomucen Lewicki, Rzeź Galicyjska 1846 [The Galician Slaughter 1846], 1846–1871, oil on canvas, 18 5/16 x 21 7/8 in. (46.5 x 55.5 cm), Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie [Polish Army Museum in Warsaw], Poland, MWP 30305. Image courtesy of the Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie.

For artists and intellectuals in Wyspiański’s generation, the memory of the Slaughter complicated their idyllic view of peasants. For example, the very first act of The Wedding features a dialogue between a Grandfather and a Father whose peasant daughter is about to marry a nobleman. Their conversation offers insight not only into Wyspiański’s thoughts on the Slaughter, but also generational differences in peasant attitudes towards interclass marriages. The Grandfather, who remembers the Galician Slaughter, asks his son’s opinion about the bride and groom belonging to different social classes. The Father, representing a new, more optimistic generation of peasants, responds:


Why should we care for each other’s class?

Ah, the nobleman liked her.

All people are the same.

Ah, the nobles are bored alone,

So they have beautiful fun with us.59


The Father does not care that his future son-in-law hails from a different social class than his daughter, claiming that all men are equal. The Grandfather is more skeptical about their marital prospects, because he witnessed “the blood, the slaughter” firsthand and doubts that the nobles will ever truly forgive the peasants.60 He finds it remarkable that his great-grandson will become a nobleman.61 At the theatrical premiere of The Wedding in 1901, Leon Stępowski, the theater director and Wyspiański’s friend, played the part of the Grandfather and allegedly acted out the word “nobleman” with visible hatred and pain.62 Later in the play, the Grandfather has a supernatural encounter with Jakub Szela, the peasant leader of the Galician Slaughter and a personification of his own lingering guilt. Bleeding and wearing ragged clothes, the phantom of Szela greets the horrified Grandfather, who attempts to chase him away from the wedding. The ghost, however, wants to wash the blood off himself and take part in the celebrations. Their encounter was depicted in a postcard produced to promote The Wedding during its premiere in Kraków in 1901 (Fig. 5).


Fig. 5. Postcard of Bolesław Puchalski as the Phantom and Leon Stępowski as the Grandfather in The Wedding, 1901, photomechanical print, 5 5/8 x 3 9/16 in (14.1 x 9.1 cm), Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa [Historical Museum of Kraków], Poland, MHK-Fs1065/VI. Image courtesy of the Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa.

Upper-class activists for Polish independence in the late nineteenth century were disturbed by the memory of the Galician Slaughter, but they also rediscovered a positive historical model for peasant military involvement. In 1794, General Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746–1817) started an uprising to defend the remaining Polish territories from the third and final partition of Poland.63 He convinced a large number of peasants to join his cause.64 Since there was a shortage of weapons, some peasants armed themselves with scythes and therefore became known as the kosynierzy [scythe fighters].65 The kosynierzy were decisive to the Polish victory against the Russian forces in the Battle of Racławice on April 4, 1794, and they became a cultural symbol that was often contrasted with that of the Galician Slaughterer. One of the most monumental Polish cycloramic historical paintings, The Racławice Panorama, completed in 1894 by a group of ten painters (Wyspiański’s friend Tetmajer among them), commemorates their contributions to this battle (Fig. 6). In the fragment illustrated here, two kosynierzy heroically seize a Russian canon, while another peasant named Wojciech Bartosz covers the canon’s fuse with his own hat to prevent it from firing.66 Dressed in white, the kosynierzy literally and conceptually dominate the Russian soldiers in this painting.


Fig. 6. Jan Styka, Wojciech Kossak, and assistants, detail of Panorama Racławicka [The Racławice Panorama], 1893–1894, oil on canvas, 590 9/16 x 4488 3/16 in. (1500 x 11400 cm), Panorama Racławicka branch of the Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu [National Museum in Wrocław], Poland. Image courtesy of the Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu.

The Wedding alludes to the 1794 uprising in several ways. In the finale, the entire cast of nobles, artists, peasants, children, and a priest hold scythes aloft and wait for a signal to begin an insurrection of their own. When this play was performed in Kraków in 1918, seventeen years after its debut, the set design for its closing scene included a framed portrait of Kościuszko on the far left wall, making the historical reference even more conspicuous (Fig. 7).67 During the finale, when the characters were listening for the call to action, they faced the Kościuszko portrait, cupped their hands to their ears, and held scythes in their hands. In this photograph from the 1918 production, two portraits of the Virgin Mary are visible, one from Częstochowa, Poland, and the other from Vilnius, Lithuania. Together, they symbolize the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and emphasize the ties between Polish national identity and Roman Catholicism.68 


Fig. 7. Wacław Szymborski, Scena zbiorowa ze sztuki “Wesele” Stanisława Wyspiańskiego [A Group Scene from Stanisław Wyspiański’s “The Wedding”], 1918, gelatin silver print, 4 5/16 x 9 7/16 in. (10.9 x 23.9 cm), Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa [Historical Museum of Kraków], Poland, MHK-Fs1071-VI. Image courtesy of the Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa.

However, the hoped-for uprising never comes to fruition in The Wedding due to a dramatic plot twist. Earlier in the play, a prophet called Wernyhora entrusted a magical horn to the wedding host, a nobleman who had embraced a peasant lifestyle. This nobleman, in turn, passed the artifact to an irresponsible peasant named Jasiek, who ultimately misplaced it, thereby ruining any chance of a national uprising. Instead of hearing the long-awaited signal to begin revolting, the characters hear the song of a mischievous supernatural being called Chochoł. They then fall into a stupor, discard their scythes, and begin dancing—a surprising, bitter, and somewhat comic conclusion to the play.

The Wedding was received with enthusiasm upon its premiere in Kraków in 1901 and permanently entered the canon of national Polish literature. One of the reasons for its lasting success is its deft oscillation between the real world and the realm of fantasy.69 The original viewers could see clear parallels between the play and the real-life wedding of Rydel, and they reacted favorably to Wyspiański’s satirical indictment of Polish society. Through a series of philosophical dialogues between humans and supernatural beings—the Grandfather and the ghost of Jakub Szela, the Groom and an aristocratic traitor of the Polish state, the Poet and a medieval Knight—Wyspiański linked Poland’s failure to reclaim sovereignty with class conflict. Although interclass marriages helped make amends between nobles and peasants, The Wedding suggested that they were not enough to rally these social groups to fight for independence together, as the finale made clear. The proponents of peasant-mania sought to eradicate the memory of the Galician Slaughter and promote the 1794 uprising as a model of military cooperation between peasants and nobles, but Wyspiański emphasized the complexity of such collaboration in The Wedding.

Whereas the male characters dominate the political arena in The Wedding, the women assert agency in the domestic sphere. The Bride, the play’s leading peasant female character, offers an example of the ideal Polish wife. Under partitioned Poland, the Matka Polka [Polish Mother] emerged as the paradigmatic self-sacrificing woman who thrived in her roles as parent, spouse, and Pole. When upper-class men were fighting in national uprisings, killed in battle, or exiled due to their revolutionary activities, their wives became responsible for providing for the family and raising their children to be “Polish.”70 Although the Matka Polka instituted near-impossible standards for women, it also granted noblewomen some agency by creating opportunities for them to demonstrate resilience.71 Even peasant women were considered capable of instilling their children with certain innate values associated with peasant life, such as health, strength, and morality.

These stereotypical gender roles are encapsulated by one particular dialogue between the Bride and Poet, which offers one of the most touching commentaries about Poland in the play. The Bride recounts a dream in which she was taken in a carriage to Poland.72 She does not know, however, where Poland is located. The Poet asks her to put a hand on her heart and explains that Poland is there. The Bride’s ignorance was personally offensive to Rydel’s wife, who inspired the character, but was meant to symbolize a lack of schooling and national identity amongst Polish peasants.73 Her concept of Poland is intuitive (manifested in dreams) and connected with nature (her beating heart). By contrast, the Poet understands Poland’s place in history and is prepared, along with other educated men, to pass this knowledge onto the next generation. Yet, in my view, Wyspiański did not mean to diminish the role of the Bride in the drama or in Polish society. The Wedding grants women a distinct role in nation-building, if not necessarily in Polish cultural life: they are charged with raising and nurturing the next generation of Poles. Without her fiancé, the Bride might not understand her Polish heritage, but without his wife-to-be, the Groom would not be able to start a family and enlist his children’s help in securing independence for Poland. They complement each other, offering a model for how nobles and peasants can coexist and benefit from one another. This codependence is reflected in the Bride and Groom’s similar costumes. Picture postcards and other period ephemera related to The Wedding depict the couple wearing folk outfits in the krakowski style (just like Teodora in the Self-Portrait), a sign of their successful partnership. (Fig. 8). In this postcard from the 1901 production, the couple’s complementary headdresses and physical closeness emphasize their codependence. 


Fig. 8. Postcard of Bolesław Zawierski as the Groom and Maria Przybyłko-Potocka as the Bride in The Wedding, 1901, photomechanical print, 5 3/8 x 3 7/16 in (13.7 x 8.8 cm), Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa [Historical Museum of Kraków], Poland, MHK-Fs1276-VI. Image courtesy of the Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa.

Teodora herself also played an important role in the play’s conception. Before attending the nuptials of Rydel and a seventeen-year-old peasant named Jadwiga Mikołajczykowa on November 20, 1901, Wyspiański allegedly told his wife to observe the guests carefully and exchange stories with him afterwards, so it is quite likely that her insights entered into this famous Polish drama.74 In addition, according to the memoirs of Wyspiański’s friend Michał Siedlecki, Wyspiański was inspired by Teodora’s folk stories:


Mrs. Wyspiańska knew many folk songs and stories and was quite good at telling them. Wyspiański often 

listened […] to her voice. I am sure that he was able to feel the character of our folk in its strongest qualities, 

to a significant extent thanks to his wife.75


Teodora seems to have been a great admirer of the play and she reportedly recited verses from it on her deathbed.76 Even if Teodora’s impact on The Wedding was indirect, she was certainly responsible for Wyspiański’s fascination with the countryside and interclass relationships. Perhaps Wyspiański would have tackled these topics in The Wedding even if he had not known Teodora, but, as Siedlecki insisted, he understood Polish peasantry better thanks to her.





Both Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife and The Wedding problematize issues of peasant identity and class relations, but in different ways. In the pastel, Wyspiański and his wife engage in role-playing to transcend their class backgrounds. Teodora’s costly chaplet-necklace and traditional krakowska dress cast her as a stylish, aristocratic woman mimicking a peasant, while Wyspiański’s muted vest transforms him from an upper-class artist to a peasant. Their overlapping clothing, confident expressions, and unflinching gazes attest to the strength of their partnership, despite it being an interclass marriage.

The Wedding comments more directly on Poland’s social and political problems under the partitions. For some wedding guests, such as the Grandfather, the trauma of the Galician Slaughter looms large in their imagination and reconciliation between peasants and nobles seems dubious. Others, including the Bride’s Father, are more optimistic about interclass marriage and the possibility of collaborative military action in the struggle for Polish independence, looking to the 1794 uprising as a model. Men and women are assigned different roles in nation-building, with the Matka Polka ideal serving a paradigm for the female characters to emulate. Both works reflect a loosening of boundaries between Polish classes, Wyspiański’s participation in the phenomenon of peasant-mania, and the complex relationship between class identity and national identity in turn-of-the-century Poland. They also suggest that Wyspiański was a modern artist who was involved in, but not entirely beholden to, a discourse of national identity.





*I am grateful to Andrei Pop, Professor of Art History, University of Chicago, for advising my Master’s thesis, from which this paper derived. I would also like to thank Robert Bird, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago, and Savannah Esquivel, PhD Candidate, University of Chicago, for offering feedback on earlier drafts.

1. Irena Kossowska and Łukasz Kossowski, Malarstwo Polskie: Symbolizm i Młoda Polska [Polish Painting: Symbolism and Young Poland] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Arkady, 2011), 13-19.

2. Roughly 40,000 people were in attendance. See “Pogrzeb Wyspiańskiego [Wyspiański’s Funeral],” Głos Narodu [The Voice of the Nation], no. 549 (December 3, 1907): 1-2. Cited by Monika Śliwińska, Wyspiański: Dopóki starczy życia [Wyspiański: As Long as Life Lasts] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Iskry, 2017), 9.

3. For the most recent mandatory book list for Polish high school students, see “Podstawa Programowa Kształcenia Ogólnego z Komentarzem” [General Education Core Curriculum with Commentary], 25-27, https://www.ore.edu.pl/wp-content/plugins/download-attachments/includes/download.php?id=23135.

4.  Wyspiański’s homes, activities, and relationships are traced in his most recent biography. See Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 234-45, 443-54.

5. Jan Cavanaugh, Out Looking In: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890-1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 146. Cavanaugh’s book is the first comprehensive, English-language study of Polish fin-de-siècle art. It seeks to broaden the definition of European modernism to include the Polish modernist movement. Teodora is called “Wyspiańska,” because Polish surnames have different feminine and plural forms. Stanisław Wyspiański’s wife would be Mrs. Wyspiańska, and the couple together would be Mr. and Mrs. Wyspiańscy.

6. For more on the krakowska dress, see Anna Kowalska-Lewicka, “Ludowy strój krakowski—strojem narodowym [The peasant ‘krakowski’ costume—as a national costume],” Polska Sztuka Ludowa—Konteksty [Polish Folk Art—Contexts] 30, no. 2 (1976): 67-74.

7. A rare exception is Śliwińska, Wyspiański.

8. Cavanaugh, Out Looking In, 140.

9. Monica Juneja, “The Peasant in French Painting: Millet to Van Gogh,” Museum International 36, no. 3 (September 1984): 168-72, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0033.1984.tb00133.x.

10. For attitudes towards peasants in Russia, see Rosalind P. Blakesley, The Russian Canvas: Painting in Imperial Russia, 1757-1881 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 193.

11. See maps in Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, rev. ed., vol. 2, 1795 to the Present (1981; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 83, 113, 140.

12. Jacek Łukasiewicz, “Okres 1795-1918 [The Period 1795-1918],” in Historia Polski w Liczbach [History of Poland in Numbers], ed. Franciszek Kubiczek (Warsaw: Zakład Wydawnictw Statystycznych, 1994), 66-80.

13. Ibid.

14. Jan Ostrowski, “Art in the Service of an Oppressed Nation: Introduction to the History of Polish Painting in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Naked Soul: Polish Fin-de-siècle Paintings from the National Museum, Poznań, exh. cat., ed. Agnieszka Ławniczakowa (Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 1993), 2.

15. Stefan Kieniewicz, “Poland in Malczewski’s Time,” in Malczewski: The Vision of Poland, ed. Agnieszka Ławniczakowa (London: Barbican Art Gallery, 1990), 29.

16. During the January Uprising, the Polish nobility promised the peasants free land in exchange for their military support, but had no political means of fulfilling that pledge. At the same time, Russian authorities implemented gradual land reform in the Russian Empire in 1861 and in the Russian partition between 1861 and 1864. Some peasants considered the Polish proposal more beneficial and supported the uprising (around eighty peasants in the Russian partition were sentenced to death for their support), but others were distrustful of the Polish promises and embraced the Russian reform. For further information, see Henryk Samsonowicz et al., Historia Polski [The History of Poland] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2007), 480-85, 514-28; and Stefan Inglot, ed., Historia Chłopów Polskich [History of Polish Peasants] (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 1995), 141-47.

17. Unlike forcibly relocated nobles, many Polish peasants moved to Siberia willingly for economic reasons. Peasants constituted 61% of the Polish diaspora to Siberia in 1897. See Sergiusz Leończyk, “Dzieje Polaków na Syberii [The History of Poles in Siberia],” Rodacy na Syberii [Countrymen in Siberia], http://www.rodacynasyberii.pl/teksty/3/artykuly/2/3/, accessed September 28, 2019.

18. Members of the upper classes who identified as Polish were usually united by the Polish language, their education about Polish history, and Roman Catholicism. Members of the lower classes in the cities, such as factory workers, were not a common subject in the visual arts and are not discussed in this article, but Polish writers began to include them in their novels and short stories at the end of the nineteenth century. For more on peasant identity versus Polish identity, see Keely Stauter Halsted, Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 1-11.

19. Peasants gained ownership of their land in 1848 in the Austrian partition and between 1808 and 1872 in the Prussian partition. Samsonowicz et al., Historia Polski, 480-85, 515-28.

20. Ibid., and Inglot, ed., Historia Chłopów Polskich, 141-47.

21. Cavanaugh, Out Looking In, 141.

22. The upper classes considered Polish-speaking, Catholic peasants to be Polish, regardless of their views on national identity (or lack thereof). Peasants were a diverse social class, and while some took active part in local or national politics, some felt more attached to their land and agricultural way of life than to Polish identity. On peasant national identity in Galicia, see Stauter Halsted, Nation in the Village, 1-11.

23. Jan Nowakowski, “Wstęp [Introduction],” in Stanisław Wyspiański, Wesele [The Wedding] (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1984), XLIX. Nowakowski notes that lower-class patrons attended Sunday matinee performances. The large number of Sunday matinees for The Wedding suggests that the play was popular with this audience.

24. However, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s epic novel Potop [The Deluge] (1886) episodically features a group of heroic peasants who prevent a Swedish assassination attempt on a Polish king. Even though Sienkiewicz’s novel is presented from the perspective of the nobility, the peasants play a key role in saving the king and cooperating with the nobles against their common, foreign enemy. 

25. Reymont, a descendent of impoverished nobles, was the son of a village organist and lived in various villages throughout his life. Cavanaugh, Out Looking In, 146.

26. Luba Ristujczina, Wielcy Malarze: Wyspiański [Great Painters: Wyspiański] (Warsaw: Edipresse Polska S.A., 2017), 8-9.

27. Today this high school is known as I Liceum Ogólnokształcące im. Bartłomieja Nowodworskiego [Bartłomiej Nowodworski High School]. Admission remains very competitive.

28. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 40-41, 59-68.

29. For period commentary on Wyspiański’s marriage, see Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 236-46.

30. Nowakowski, “Wstęp,” LI, LXI; and Lesław Eustachiewicz, “Wesele” Stanisława Wyspiańskiego [“The Wedding” by Stanisław Wyspiański], 2nd ed. (1975; Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne, 1991), 46.

31. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 145.

32. Ibid., 195, 236-37, 480-82.

33. Teodora’s firstborn son was apparently unaware that Wyspiański was not his biological father until after Wyspiański’s death. He tried to become an artist, but suffered from a mental illness and died in an asylum. His true parentage must have been kept secret, because Wyspiański’s cousin Witold Wyspiański wrote in his diary that the son tried to be “great like his father” [chciał być wielkim, jak ojciec], and some doctors suspected that his mental health problems were the result of inherited syphilis. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 480-82.

34. Wanda Matejkówna, a friend of Wyspiański’s family, recalled that the artist’s aunt Jadwiga Stankiewiczowa was worried that reading Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1899) had driven Wyspiański to marry Teodora. Tolstoy’s protagonist is convinced that he needs to marry his former maid to pay for his mistakes. See Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 236-37.

35. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 236-45.

36. Wyspiański’s worsening illness functions as a leitmotif in Śliwińska’s biography of him. Śliwińska speculates that Wyspiański contracted syphilis either during his studies in France or during his youthful years in Kraków. By the time Wyspiański met Teodora, his disease was probably no longer contagious, but his own health progressively deteriorated until his death in 1908. See Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 156-61.

37. See Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 246-47, 276-77 for other criticisms of Teodora by Wyspiański’s friends.

38. Ibid., 473-84.

39. (…) podobnych pytań, dotyczących jego spraw osobistych, nie znosił…”Adam Chmiel, cited in Łukasz Gaweł, Stanisław Wyspiański: na chęciach mi nie braknie… [Stanisław Wyspiański: I will not lack in will…] (Kraków: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie, 2017), 223. All translations by Weronika Malek-Lubawski, unless otherwise noted.

40. “Wszystko zaś jest komedia «społeczna», gdyż nie mogą przenieść na sobie tego, że moja żona nie jest z «miastowych», z tak zwanej inteligencji i daliby połowę życia za jaki skandal, którego się doczekać nie mogą zrozpaczeni, za jaką udaną intrygę lub wszelkiego rodzaju podłość.” Listy Stanisława Wyspianskiego różne: do wielu adresatów [Letters from Stanisław Wyspiański: To Many Recipients] (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1998), 145-46. Cited in Danuta Godyń and Magdalena Laskowska, eds., Wyspiański: Catalogue of the Exhibition of Works from the Collection of the National Museum in Kraków, exh. cat. (Kraków: National Museum in Kraków, 2017), 37.

41. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 338. Wyspiański’s friend Chmiel recalled seeing the artist’s double portrait with his wife there, along with other portraits. See Danuta Godyń and Magdalena Laskowska, eds., Rysunki, akwarele i pastele z kolekcji Feliksa Jasieńskiego w zbiorach Muzeum Narodowego w Krakowie [Drawings, Watercolors, and Pastels from the Collection of Feliks Jasieński in the National Museum of Kraków] (Kraków: National Museum in Kraków, 2015), 40-50.

42. Jasieński would often buy Wyspiański’s works in the same year that they were created, so the two-year gap between Wyspiański’s creation of Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife and Jasieński’s purchase of it was likely the artist’s decision. In 1906, Wyspiański sold a few pastels depicting his family in order to take out a loan and purchase property. Jasieński bought Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Wife at this time. Period photographs from 1914 show it hanging on a wall in Jasieński’s house. See Godyń and Laskowska, Rysunki, akwarele i pastele, 46-48, 286.

43. Sketch for “Motherhood” (1904) was sold to a private collector on December 14, 2017 for 4,366,000 PLN (about 1,206,000 USD), a record price for a Polish artwork. See “Macierzyństwo Wyspiańskiego najdroższym obrazem na polskim rynku [Wyspiański’s Motherhood as the Most Expensive Painting on the Polish Market],” http://rynekisztuka.pl/2017/12/15/rekord-stanislaw-wyspianski-najdrozsze-dzielo-polski-rynek-sztuki/, published December 12, 2017, accessed May 16, 2018.

44. One of the reasons for Wyspiański’s use of pastel was his allergy to oil paint. Wyspiański painted his last oil painting in 1894 and specialized in pastel thereafter. Godyń and Laskowska, Wyspiański, 21.

45. Kowalska-Lewicka, “Ludowy strój krakowski—strojem narodowym,” 67-71.

46. Ibid.

47. For a discussion of Roman Catholicism during the partitions, see Marian Kukiel, Dzieje Polski Porozbiorowe 1795-1921 [A History of Partitioned Poland 1795-1921] (London: B. Świderski, 1961), 49-50; and Davies, God’s Playground, 207-25.

48. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 339.

49. Kowalska-Lewicka, “Ludowy strój krakowski—strojem narodowym,” 70.

50. Kossowska and Kossowski, Malarstwo Polskie, 334; Franciszek Ziejka, Wesele w kręgu mitów polskich [“The Wedding” in the Context of Polish Myths] (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1997), 16-18; and Cavanaugh, Out Looking In, 143.

51. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 145.

52. Kowalska-Lewicka, “Ludowy strój krakowski—strojem narodowym,” 68-70.

53. Ristujczina, Wielcy Malarze: Wyspiański, 70; and Gaweł, Stanisław Wyspiański, 260.

54. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 246-47, 276-77.

55. She did so during a conversation with her daughter-in-law, who mentioned this remark in a radio audition for Radio Kraków in 1981. Cited in Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 484. 

56. Nowakowski, “Wstęp,” XLVIII; and Norman Davies, God’s Playground, 147-48.

57. There were more than 1000 casualties in total. See Samsonowicz et al., Historia Polski, 502.

58. Kai Struve, Bauern und Nation in Galizien: Über Zugehörigkeit und soziale Emanzipation im 19. Jahrhundert [Peasantry and Nation in Galicia: Belonging and Social Emancipation in the 19th Century] (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2005), 83-84.

59. “Co tam po kim szukać stanu. / Ot, spodobała się panu./ Jednakowo wszyscy ludzie. / Ot, pany się nudzą sami / to się pięknie bawiom z nami.” Stanisław Wyspiański, Wesele, Act I, Scene 26 (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1984), 65.

60. Ibid., 66-67.

61. Ibid., 67.

62. Adam Grzymała-Siedlecki, Niepospolici ludzie w dniu swoim powszednim [The Everyday Life of Extraordinary People] (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1962), 184.

63. Inglot, Historia Chłopów Polskich, 93.

64. On May 7, 1794, Kościuszko issued a document that granted peasants some benefits, such as allowing them to fight for their rights in disputes with landowners. See Marcin Dobrowolski, “Jak Kościuszko nieśmiale wyzwalał chłopów [How Kościuszko was Coy in Liberating the Peasants],” https://www.pb.pl/jak-kosciuszko-niesmiale-wyzwalal-chlopow-825806, published March 24, 2016, accessed September 28, 2019. However, even contemporary historians emphasize the peasants’ patriotic, rather than practical, motivations for joining Kościuszko’s army. See Inglot, Historia Chłopów Polskich, 93; and Jacek Staszewski, “1696-1795,” in Historia Polski, 427.

65. Nowakowski, “Wstęp,” XLIX.

66. General Tadeusz Kościuszko promoted Bartosz to officer for his heroism and gave him a noble surname: Wojciech Bartosz Głowacki. Głowacki perished in the Battle of Szczekociny under Kościuszko’s command, which solidified his future position as a national peasant hero. Staszewski, “1696-1795,” 427. The entirety of the Panorama of the Battle of Racławice can be seen on the official website of the National Museum in Wrocław, with the cannon and kosynierzy in the center. See https://mnwr.pl/en/category/branches/panorama-of-the-battle-of-raclawice/, accessed September 27, 2019.

67. Alicja Okońska, Scenografia Wyspiańskiego [The Scenography of Wyspiański] (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1961), 120.

68. Ibid.

69. Ziejka, Wesele w kręgu mitów polskich, 31-35.

70. Izabela Kowalczyk, “Visualizing the Mythical Polish Mother,” in Bojana Pejić, ed., Gender Check, a Reader: Art and Theory in Eastern Europe (Cologne: W. König, 2010), 213-19.

71. Ibid.

72. Wyspiański, Wesele, Act III, Scene 16, 213-15.

73. For apologetic correspondence between the couple and Wanda Siemaszkowa, the actress who played the bride, see Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 268-70.

74. Jan Lubicz-Przybylski, “Wprowadzenie [Introduction],” in Ristujczina, Wielcy Malarze: Wyspiański, 5.

75. “Pani Wyspiańska umiała bardzo dużo pieśni ludowych i opowieści ludowych i zupełnie dobrze je opowiadała. Wyspiański nieraz słuchał jej całkiem nieładnego i nieuczonego, ale bardzo charakterystycznego głosu. Jestem pewien, że zdołał odczuć charakter naszego ludu w jego najmocniejszych cechach w znacznej mierze dzięki swojej żonie.” Michał Siedlecki, “Wspomnienia o Wyspiańskim i Reymoncie” [Memories of Wyspiański and Reymont], in Wyspiański w oczach współczesnych [Wyspiański through Contemporary Eyes], vol. 2 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1971), 198, cited in Godyń and Laskowska, Wyspiański, 35.

76. According to her daughter-in-law, Teodora was very moved during the premiere, especially when her husband nodded and smiled at her while standing onstage during the ovation. Śliwińska, Wyspiański, 484.