The Mona Lisa of Czech Painters

9 2002 Dějiny English
obálka čísla

Everyone is familiar with the painting Mona Lisa or at least a reproduction, even if one is only minimally knowledgeable in art. Even though the artist, Leonardo da Vinci, was an Italian, the painting resides in Paris, France. The reason is that the artist could not part with the painting until his death. My story about a great love also begins with a painting. The painting, which I know for a very long time, has always fascinated me. The painting is of a lady, depicted sitting with bare breasts, round cheeks and face, looking at the viewer with dark eyes. Her right hand is lightly placed on her long, wavy hair, which had been previously pleated in a braid. A bodice with lace shines through the green drapery. Josef Manes painted the painting around 1855, which is known under the laconic name "Josefina". One of our greatest painters originated from a family of miller's from the village Radnice. At the end of the 18th century did the first member of the Manes' family move to Prague. Not until the second generation did two members of the family become renowned painters. They were the two brothers, Antonin and Vaclav, who were excellent landscape painters. People that appreciate romantic paintings are especially impressed by their works of art. Antonin Manes married relatively late, considering Magdalena, daughter of a wealthy family, gave birth to a girl, Gabriela, just three months after their marriage. After that she gave birth to four more children. Two children died while they were still young and the remaining three, Amalie, Josef, and Kvido, showed talent after their father and uncle, and thus painting became their fate. The family held together strongly, which was not typical. Besides that, the Manes men from miller's trade were not too ready to submit to others, who decided on orders and commands and posts of the then freshly grounded Academy. This occurred during the first half of the 19th century, when Prague was a small, provincial village, enclosed by barriers and fortification, where everyone knew everyone else. After the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, despotism, absolutism, censure, and secret police were prevalent. Most of the bourgeoisie admired Viennese, French, or German art. Despite enormous talent, both older brothers and Antonin Manes' other children lived under very moderate conditions. For many years the family lived in Spalena street close to the J. E. Purkyn family, whose son, Karl, was also a great painter and great friend of Josef's. The talented youngster started his studies at the Prague Academy under professor Tkadlik at the age of fifteen. When Count Thun placed a new director at the head of the Academy, Ruben, who was an average painter of history from Munich, it was only a matter of time before Josef Manes would come into conflict with him. The conflict ended when the young man surprisingly left to Munich, where there was not only the largest collections of European art, but also lots of activity and bustle under the Bavarian ruler. After the death of their father, Antonin, the family lived on, more or less, what Amalie earned by teaching the daughters' of wealthy citizens the basics of painting. The family of Sternberks held a protective arm over the Manes family. Amalie was a strong person, who was left under these circumstances to deal with the housework, even though she was a talented painter. When their mother became sick and she still must continue to teach, she requested the help of a young woman, Frantiska Stovickova, who came from a small town in Sedlcanska. The girl lived through an unhappy childhood in an orphanage. The twenty-year-old came to the Manes' in Spalena street around 1846. She was an effective housekeeper. First of all, all the water had to be carried in wooden pails from a public water supply and carry a basket of coal and firewood from the basement, for water for washing clothes, scrub floors, etc. The Manes' welcomed her readily, since they all still remembered their millers' trade background. Not even a full year passed when Josef, who was called Pepa at home, returned from his stay in Munich. What we don't know is when the twenty-six-year-old young man and the twenty-year-old young woman developed an attraction towards each other. The young artist had a devoted following of young ladies and women alike. He dazzled them with his slim posture, his blond hair, his face with its pronounced nose, his high forehead, and underneath all that gazed two blue curious eyes out onto the world. He was an amicable companion, well-behaved, moral, and thanks to his father he entered into the company of the high-esteemed family Sylva-Taroncu. The young man was absorbed by Frantiska's good looks, her sweet eyes, and her beautiful figure. She was excited about their meetings. Both had a strong desire for love. Meanwhile in Prague in 1848 there were turbulent times, and there were arrests, trials, deportation, and hopes diminished and disillusionment spread among the people. People surrounded themselves by their families and met only with their most trusted friends. There was an imminent threat of supervision by the secret police, eavesdropping, spies, and informers. Two of the greatest pieces of art, two nude pieces, come from this time period, symbolically named "Morning" and "Evening". They were discovered long after Josef's death in a Prague pub, whose owner didn't know that they were painted by Manes. At first glance it is evident that Manes was fascinated by his subject and both depict the same young woman. For the contemporary viewer, the paintings are full of poetry, chastity, and longing. The face is lightly sketched with a light smile, the young woman's figure is turned slightly receiving some sun rays from the early morning sunlight, at the same time she is illuminated by a candle light, which looks like the young woman's hand is reaching to turn off the candle. The slanted light depicts the strong features of the model's young figure. The living room is decorated with beautiful curtains and white pillows. A still life is depicted in the corner of "Morning" with a rose and a carnation. We can only assume who is portrayed in the paintings. For the society at the time the depiction of a nude figure was an immoral act. The beauty of both pieces can be compared to the best nude depictions by Tizian, Velasqueze, or Monet. Soon thereafter came the pregnancy of Frantiska, whom Josef wanted to marry. Everyone stood against him, especially his sister, Amalie. He would put the family, the bourgeoisie, to shame by marrying an average commoner. Amalie sent Frantiska away, and we can speculate that it was partly her own bitter life and tiredness about caring for this family. Josef surely worried about Frantiska and her pregnancy, since the fate of servants was never easy. Until this day we can find a bell in the wall of Land Maternity Hospital on the Charles gate, so that they could make the personnel aware that there was another unwanted baby at the gate. The fate of Frantiska and her baby was better. She gave birth to a girl, Josefina, in March 1850. Her daughter, Josefina, blond and blue-eyed took after her father, died in 1916, and rests at Olsanech. The oil painting of "Josefina" is possibly a portrait of his beloved daughter Josefina. Jindriska Slavinska, whose figure is depicted on his last large painting- it symbolizes the twelve months, and its copy is still today on the Astrological Clock at the Staromestka city hall. The loneliness that the artists sensitive soul felt was more pronounced due to the fact that he wasn't recognized as a great artist until long after his death. In addition, he lost two of his closest friends, the sculptor V. Levy, whose monumental sculptures, which until today reside on the rocks in Kokorin, and the painter, Karl Purkyn. His father, J. E. Purkyn, knew about the illness, which destroyed an artists soul and body. Amalie served her dying brother until his death. He died on December 9, 1871 at the age of 51 years. The newspapers didn't even print an obituary, nor make his death known, nor print a commemorative letter with his name with a black border. He rests in Olsany; only his few closest friends attended the funeral. Not long thereafter his brother Kvido and sister Amalie also died. Amalie, concerned about the brothers reputation, threw away and destroyed many of the their writings and drawings and sketches. Only little remained and recognition came long after their death. Hard times and tragedy was the sad destiny for the Manes family. Only a truly great and talented person unsettles and provokes its surroundings. The beauty of Manes' "Twelve Months" on the Astrological Clock, "Morning", and "Evening", and the light smile of "Josefina" remain until today for us to appreciate and admire.

Translated by Helen Vavrecka

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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