The Image of the Romantic Poet in the Making: Adam Mickiewicz and Walenty Wankowicz

Anna Frajlich-Zajac, Columbia University

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), Poland’s national poet, to this very day remains the greatest name in Polish literature. He was viewed by his contemporaries as a great Romantic poet, inspired bard, and, finally, a prophet. He had a tremendous following in Russia, made a great impression on Goethe, and was widely admired in France, where among others, the American writer Margaret Fuller was mesmerized by him. Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1980, considered Mickiewicz the single most important influence in his literary development.

Walenty Wankowicz (14.II.1800 [or 1799]-12.V.1842 ), a bit younger than Mickiewicz, was an art student at Wilno University, where he could observe Mickiewicz’s growing popularity, and while still in Wilno he made several portraits of the young poet using different media. Following these first encounters, the fates of these two continued to intermingle. Their meeting in St. Petersburg, where Mickiewicz resided as a deportee by the Tsarist government and Wankowicz was a medal-winning art student, resulted in the most famous portrait of Mickiewicz which was to become the canonical image of the poet. Later in his life, Wankowicz joined Mickiewicz in Paris, France, where he executed some more portraits before his death in Mickiewicz’s home in 1842.

The portrait of the poet constitutes a separate genre, about which there is a growing literature. In my presentation I will examine how this unique relationship resulted in creating a lasting image of the poet. I will examine to what extent self-imaging and the politics of the genre affected each portrait.

I will discuss the circumstances under which these portraits were executed, their reception, and their quite dramatic fate. This presentation will draw on my recent findings in the Paris Museum of Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish National Museum in Warsaw and the Adam Mickiewicz Museum in Warsaw.