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Prussian Oath

Jan Matejko, 1882
Wawel Royal Castle, Krakow


Danuta Batorska describes the early exhibition history of Matejko’s Prussian Oath:

“In April 1882 Prussian Homage was exhibited inside the Sukiennice [Cloth Hall], and was praised by both the public and the critics. In June the canvas was shown in Warsaw, in July in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and in November at the Exhibition of Fine Arts in Rome. In October the painting was exhibited in Vienna, where, despite imperial patronage, Matejko was castigated in the press for daring to show a picture derogatory to Germans. That same month Matejko donated it to the Polish nation, to be housed in the Wawel Castle after its restoration. At the 1884 Paris Salon it received belittling reviews. By then it was regarded as somewhat retardataire, as the more modern style of Impressionism was gaining favor. However, at the June 1884 exhibition of the Royal Academy in Berlin, the jury unanimously voted to recommend to the Kaiser the award of the great gold medal to Matejko. This was unprecedented, for as a rule the great gold medal was awarded to an artist only after he had received the small gold medal, which Matejko had yet to acquire. The Kaiser, however, on the advice of Bismarck,* who recognized the painting as anti-German propaganda, declined to follow the jury’s recommendation. The following year, 1885, the picture was shown in Wroclaw, Prague, and Budapest.”

*Otto von Bismarck (1815-98) was a German politician and later Chancellor of Germany.

Danuta Batorska, “The Political Censorship of Jan Matejko,” Art Journal, vol. 51, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 60-1.


The Polish painter and critic Stanisław Witkiewicz (1851-1915) admired this painting, with some reservations: 

"From among the eight great Matejko paintings, Prussian Oath is one of the clearest in its composition and, considering his mastery of understanding, formulating, and painting the figures, is probably the greatest. The whole group of King Zygmunt I and the Prussians kneeling before him gives an impression of being chiseled in bronze, something inviolably perfect, grapsed in a form that, based on its lightness, chearness, prevision, certainty, and awareness, is from a highly skilled painter. If only Matejko was not seized by the particular superficiality of thought that made him include several moral episodes in the foreground, this painting could have become a model of composition. The king, the sturdy figures of Albrecht and his companions, two page boys (so superb in their drawing, so beautiful in their vivid costumes), the magnate in a green robe - all this breathes with a mightiness, the calm of people aware of their power, in an action that seems inevitable. Matejko knows the results of this event and orders Stanczyk to know it, too. The entire upper part of the painting (where the figures are in profile), the entire painting's character, its purity and clarity of form, tacktile expressiveness - all this gives the impression of a colorful sculpture."

Stanisław Witkiewicz, "Jan Matejko," Styuka Polska, Malartwo, F. Jasieski and A. Łada Czbulski, eds. (Lwów, 1903-4, np) (Translation by Wojtek Kordyzon).

About the Artist

Born: Krakow, 24 June 1838
Died: Krakow, 1 November 1893
Nationality: Polish