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May 17, 2022

Not only “The Strange Garden” – decorative painting and stained glass by Józef Mehoffer

Not only “The Strange Garden” – decorative painting and stained glass by Józef Mehoffer

Józef Mehoffer – a disciple of Jan Matejko

The painter was born on 19 March 1869 in the small town of Ropczyce. In 1873 his family moved to Kraków, where Józef received his education – first at a grammar school and then simultaneously at the Faculty of Law at the Jagiellonian University and the School of Fine Arts. His painting mentors included Jan Matejko and Władysław Łuszczkiewicz. He continued his artistic education abroad, in Vienna and Paris. During his studies he travelled a lot, gathering inspiration and knowledge about various fields of art. Stained glass and wall polychromes occupy an important place in his creative practice.

Together with Stanisław Wyspiański, another outstanding student of Matejko’s, they created a polychrome in the chancel of St. Mary’s Church in Kraków designed by their teacher. In a duet they also made a carton of a stained glass window in the choir in the same church. It was in the field of glass paintings that Mehoffer achieved his first international success. In 1895 he won a competition for a design of a stained glass window for St. Nicholas Cathedral in Freiburg. He made as many as eight of them there. After returning to Poland, he developed his academic career at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. In 1905, he received the title of full professor, and less than ten years later he became the rector of the Krakow academy.

It is worth mentioning that the artist was a co-founder of the Society of Polish Artists “Sztuka” (“Art”), which aimed to raise the level of cultural offer in the country. Many outstanding artists were members of the society, including Jacek Malczewski, Józef Chełmoński and Leon Wyczółkowski. Apart from easel painting, Jan Matejko’s pupil was involved in applied graphics, textile design, theatre scenery and art theory.

A painter who loved gardens

Mehoffer’s work is characterized by decorativeness, often also a gentle, relaxed and fairy-tale mood. The artist produced numerous portraits, most often depicting his wife Jadwiga. His beloved was also a frequent heroine of other works. Immortalising his favourite home garden, he placed her among the alleys and flowerbeds.

The most famous painting from this series is “Strange Garden”, depicting a summer walk through an orchard full of apple trees. In the foreground we can see a lit-up figure of a naked boy. It is the painter’s son, Zbigniew. The child is holding long stalks of blooming mallows in his hands. Behind him, an elegantly dressed and smiling Jadwiga emerges from a shady path. Deep in the orchard, we see the boy’s nanny, dressed in traditional folk costume. Flower garlands hang along the trees, and the branches bend under the weight of ripening fruit. The colours are saturated, juicy and full of life. Mehoffer’s wife is looking tenderly at the viewer, and we may assume that she originally offered that warm look to her husband sitting at the easel. The balance of the composition and the idyll of the scene is broken by a surprisingly large dragonfly. It seems to have appeared right before the author’s eyes, which is why it is so disproportionately large. Its golden wings are crossed with dark veins, which makes them look like stained glass – a favourite of the Polish painter. Placing it above the heroes of the painting, the artist may have been guided by the desire to stop and record this charming moment, as the dragonfly is considered a symbol of immortality in many cultures.

Young Poland and Art Nouveau Paris

The decorative style represented by Józef Mehoffer is often associated with Art Nouveau. It is true that during his studies at the Parisian École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs, Académie Colarossi and École Nationale des Beaux-Arts he was surrounded by Art Nouveau, which was then in its heyday. Its influence is clearly visible in the form of rich ornamentation, patterns and organic shapes. However, despite his foreign excursions, the artist was strongly rooted in his native artistic reality. This is why Mehoffer is counted among the artists of Young Poland. In both his easel and monumental paintings he used the symbolism characteristic of the period.

As the years went by, his work took on post-impressionist features – the palette was bright and shimmering in the fleeting light of the scenes depicted. The artist gradually abandoned metaphors and symbols in favour of direct depictions of nature, interiors and portraits.

The end of the career of the artist from Krakow

At the beginning of World War II, he was sent to the camp Aš in Czechoslovakia. Thanks to the intercession of the Italian government and the Vatican, he was released and returned to Krakow in 1940. He died on 8 July 1946 in Wadowice.

The artist left behind many works of art, which can be admired, among others, in the museum devoted to him, which was established in his house at 26 Krupnicza St. Following his monumental polychromies, it is worth visiting the Wawel Treasury, the Armenian Cathedral in Lvov or the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Turek. His stained glass windows can be seen in the Latin Cathedral in Lvov, the Church of Our Lady of Consolation in Żyrardów and in the building of the Municipal Savings Bank in Kraków.

Ida Sielska, art mediator, Goldenmark

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