Religious motifs in the artwork of Zofia Stryjeńska, “the princess of Polish painting”

Lechosław Lameński

The Catholic University of Lublin


Zofia Stryjeńska (1891–1976) is one of the most popular and at the same time most scandalous Polish artists of the interwar period. She is commonly known as an outstanding illustrator, although she successfully expressed herself among others in easel and monumental painting. The artist’s compositions impressed viewers with their ever-present movement and dynamics, vivid colours and well-defined figures of people and animals that were clearly related thematically to Polish folklore, its traditions and rites and also to the Piast past.

            But in this apparently completely secular creation, religious compositions occupied an important place. Between 1917 and 1918 the artist painted in gouache and water-colour five paintings forming the cycle Passover, frequently exhibited both in Poland and abroad. In 1922 the artist completed another cycle, The Sacraments, this time consisting of seven compositions in gouache.

            Passover and The Sacraments cycles were undoubtedly something extraordinary in the rich and diverse artistic output of Zofia Stryjeńska since 1939. The artist reserved religious motifs only for important and exceptional compositions. After 1946, when the artist chose to emigrate and her financial situation became very bad, she began to paint for sale pictures depicting St Mary, Christ, saints and scenes from the Old and New Testament. Unfortunately they did not have the same expression as the compositions from Passover and The Sacraments cycles.

Keywords: Zofia Stryjeńska, illustrator, scandalmonger, religious motifs, cycles, Passover, the Sacraments


It seems that the term “princess of Polish painting” was first used by the journalist whose interview with Zofia Stryjeńska was published by “Wiadomości Literackie” in 1924[1]. During the next decade – at least until 1935 – the artist was written about by Polish newspapers, literary and art magazines both eagerly and frequently. Almost overnight, this painter, born in Cracow (on the 13th May 1891 in a family of craftsmen) as Zofia Lubańska,[2] became the epitome of what was best in Polish art in a country which had regained freedom after 123 years of partition.

In the only, rather poor, substitute for a monograph on the artist, published in 1929, its author, Jerzy Warchałowski, who had carefully followed Stryjeńska’s artistic development since her debut exhibition at the Friends of the Fine Arts Society in Cracow in 1912, wrote among other things: “Zofia Stryjeńska is above all a Polish painter of Polish things. The term outstanding illustrator does not reflect her role in art. If there weren’t any folk tales and rites, no poetry of Kochanowski, Szymonowicz, Krasicki, Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Tetmajer, the artist would have been compelled to make up such tales, legends and poetry in order to be able to tell them with her characters. So much does her talent compel her to express herself by means of characters and events. This is a distinctive feature of folk art, primitive art, child art. The artist had nurtured this feature of hers until it grew into great art – we further read – she does not need to search for models abroad, she does not ‘study’ the countryside, folk types, characters from the galley. She only takes a glance and they come to her in great numbers, they become part of her life, fill up her room. These are her artistic trademarks, her host with whom she goes to the battle field, her colour fields, her ornaments.”[3]

Mieczysław Wallis, who frequently commented on the abundant and versatile output of the artist, so analysed her illustrating endeavours for “Fine Arts”: “Stubborn, unruly, insuppressible individuality of Zofia Stryjeńska, her short temper, her uncontrollable imagination cause that she turns every vivid colour into a bright colour, every sound into a thud, each movement into a rush. With such Stryjeńska’s tendencies and dispositions loyalty to literary works she illustrates is out of question.”[4]

However, the freedom, even nonchalance, with which the artist treated the literary prototype in her illustrations, was not criticised by the reviewers. Just the opposite, most of them appreciated in her compositions Zofia Styjeńska’s conspicuous Polish features “with this peculiar appearance, showing clearly that the progeny of this exceptional artist is our artistic, historical and national past, skillfully transformed to gain its own strong and original form.”[5]

In general the tone was positive, not to say enthusiastic. Reviewers were enchanted by the ease of the artist’s expression, ever-present movement and dynamics, vivid and well-defined colours, figures of people and animals reduced to basic – geometrical – forms in compositions that were clearly related thematically to Polish folklore, its traditions and rites and also to the Piast past. The freedom of Stryjeńska’s expression both in monumental and big format painting, the genuine decorative style and clear syncretism as well as numerous easel paintings and engravings, suggestive poster designs, book illustrations, visual costume and set designs for theatre productions and finally small works of artistic craftsmanship – all in the same style – evoked genuine admiration and esteem. The artist’s popularity reached its peak during the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry in Paris in 1925, where she was awarded four Grand Prix for exhibited painting compositions, posters, fabrics and book illustrations, and the honourable distinction Diplome d’Honneur in the toy section. She was also awarded a Knight Order of the Legion of Honour. In this way she became the most frequently honoured member of the exhibition, significantly contributing to the success of the Polish section on an international scale.[6]

Translated by Ewa Kucelman

[1] Zofia Stryjeńska w Warszawie. U księżniczki malarstwa polskiego. Wywiad specjalny „Wiadomości Literackich”, “Wiadomości Literackie”, 1924, no. 7, p. 1.

[2] All facts and dates connected with the life and artistic creation of Zofia Stryjeńska, unless indicated otherwise, are quoted after: Kalendarium, in: Zofia Stryjeńska 1891–1976. Wystawa w Muzeum Narodowym w Krakowie, październik 2008 – styczeń 2009, exhibition catalogue, ed. Ś. Lenartowicz, Kraków 2008, pp. 418–431.

[3] J. Warchałowski, Zofia Stryjeńska, [Artstic monographs, ed. M. Treter], Warszawa [1929], p. 13.

[4] M. Wallis, Zofia Stryjeńska jako ilustratorka, “Sztuki Piękne” 4, 1927–1928, p. 178. See also the reprint in: idem, Sztuka polska dwudziestolecia. Wybór pism z lat 1921–1957, Warszawa 1959, p. 191.

[5] A. Schroeder, Zofia Stryjeńska (Z okazji wystawy w krakowskim Pałacu Sztuki), “Sztuki Piękne” 4, 1927–1928, pp. 161–162.

[6] Cf. A.M. Drexlerowa, A.K. Olszewski, Polska i Polacy na Powszechnych Wystawach Światowych 1851–2000, Warszawa 2005, pp. 204–207; Wystawa paryska 1925. Materiały z sesji naukowej Instytutu Sztuki PAN Warszawa, 16–17 listopada 2005 roku, ed. J. Sosnowska, Warszawa 2007.

[7] H. Ostrowska-Grabska, Bric à brac 1848–1939, [Warszawa 1978], p. 392.

[8] The masquerade organised by Zofia Stryjeńska (at that time still Lubańska) in order to study in the academy in Munich is described by Joanna Sosnowska in her book: Poza kanonem. Sztuka polskich artystek 1880–1939, Warszawa 2003, pp. 158–160. Referring to the unpublished diary of the artist’s father (see p. 176 fn. 33), the Warsaw scientist demythologizes the event, firmly stating that Zofia posed as a man mainly for her own safety, with the acknowledgement and consent of her closest family.

[9] Ostrowska-Grabska [1978], as fn. 7, p. 392.

[10] R. Malczewski, Pępek świata, Warszawa 1960, p. 114, quoted after: M. Grońska, Wstęp, in: Z. Stryjeńska, Chleb prawie że powszedni, the memoir was edited for publication, prefaced, annotated and indexed by M. Grońska, vol. 1, Warszawa 1995, p. 9.

[11] H. Kenarowa, Od Zakopiańskiej Szkoły Przemysłu Drzewnego do Szkoły Kenara. Studium z dziejów szkolnictwa zawodowo-artystycznego w Polsce, Kraków [1978], p. 173.

[12] The event is described in detail by the artist herself in her memoirs, in which she also placed relevant newspaper clippings See Stryjeńska 1995 (fn. 10), vol. 1, pp. 66–103.

[13] M. Dec, Irena Pokrzywnicka – życie i twórczość, “Biuletyn Historii Sztuki” 96, 2007, vols. 3–4, p. 301.

[14] Ibidem, p. 133.

[15] Grońska 1995 (fn. 10), p. 10.

[16] The artist herself wrote in her memoirs: “Everything went well, but after Marysia’s departure there came Artur [her husband], who although proclaiming sexual freedom, proved to be, in this case, extremely jealous. He had previously spied on me, playing Othello, but now he found the danger greater, and he launched at Montalk [the reference is made here to Geoffrey of Montalk Potocki] a flood of abuses, he chased him away, threw his beret and dictionary after him and beat me up so that I looked like a jaguar with the bruises on my face and my whole body.” – see Stryjeńska 1995, as in fn. 10, p. 320. The fact that her husband physically abused Zofia is also noted by J. Sosnowska 2003 (fn. 8), p. 165.

[17] At least this is what her memoirs say. This issue is addressed many times by the artist’s niece Anna Monika Stryjeńska-Syrzistie (daughter of Władysław Stryjeński, a psychiatrist, Karol’s brother) in her unpublished book Opowieść o rodzinie Stryjeńskich, Poronin 1997–1999,the manuscript owned by the author [chapter: Zofia z Lubańskich Stryjeńska (1891–1976) – bardzo znana przed wojną malarka, pp. 188–203].

[18] D. Suchocka, O sukcesie Zofii Stryjeńskiej, “Biuletyn Historii Sztuki” 43, 1981, no. 4, p. 431, il. 23–28.

[19] A. Manicka, O cyklu “Pascha”, w: Zofia Stryjeńska 1891–1976… 2008 (fn. 2), p. 251.

[20] So claims A. Manicka 2008 (fn. 19).

[21] Warchałowski [1929] (fn. 3), p. 22.

[22] See Suchocka 1981 (fn. 18), p. 131.

[23] About the cellar and the manor we read in S.P.O, “Bluszcz”, 1930, vol. 16, p. 12. After D. Suchocka 1981 (fn. 18), p. 131, fn. 98.

[24] Suchocka, 1981 (fn. 18), p. 431.

[25] M. Wallis, “Pascha” Stryjeńskiej, “Wiadomości Literackie”, 1930, nr. 16. See also the reprint in: Wallis 1959 (fn. 4), p. 202.

[26] W. Husarski, Wystawa sztuki religijnej w Padwie, “Sztuki Piękne” 7, 1931, p. 458.

[27] Ibidem, p. 459.

[28] See Wystawy, in: Zofia Stryjeńska 1891–1976… 2008 (fn. 2), p. 437.

[29] M. Gładysz, O wystawie polskiej sztuki religijnej w Katowicach, in: O polskiej sztuce religijnej, ed. J. Langman, Katowice 1932, p. 211; also see: Kronika artystyczna, “Sztuki Piękne” 7, 1931, p. 270.

[30] The part of the present study devoted to the post-war religious artwork of Zofia Stryjeńska was based on the information from the text by Światosław Lenartowicz, O malarstwie religijnym po 1939 roku, in: Zofia Stryjeńska 1891–1976… 2008 (fn. 2), p. 261.

[31] J. Pabis, Motywy religijne w twórczości Zofii Stryjeńskiej, “Sodalis” 38, 1957, no. 6, pp. 37–40, after: Lenartowicz 2008 (fn. 30). If I am not mistaken, the article by Pabis is the only one – so far – connecting the Polish Diaspora with the post-war religious artwork of the artist.

[32] Grafika 2008 (fn. 32), p. 364.

[33] The last monograph exhibition of the artist took place in the Institute for Art Propagation in 1935, and after 1945 Zofia Stryjeńska’s work was not exhibited either in Poland or abroad [sic!].

[34] The feeling of unfulfillment is due to the fact that the two introductory essays by Maria Grońska and Katarzyna Nowakowska-Sito do not exhaust the subject of the analysis and evaluation of the enormous output of the artist. And although it is difficult to criticize the author of the latter text, since it offers many interesting remarks and observations, the former one is, which is impossible not to notice, little more than a slightly altered – very general – introduction to an album published twenty years ago. (M. Grońska, Zofia Stryjeńska, Wrocław 1991). It also lacks in my opinion in broader context, interpretative remarks in very short almost inventory texts devoted to the cycles: Passover (A. Manicka, p. 251–252) and The Sacraments (Ś. Lenartowicz, p. 252) or the artist’s religious painting after 1939 (Ś. Lenartowicz, p. 261).

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