Lithuania’s ‘Battle of Grunwald’ by 19th century master Jan Styka goes on show in Warsaw
A Lithuanian national treasure that the Baltic country’s cash-strapped pre-war government was so desperate to obtain that they even bought lottery tickets to find the asking price and offered sausages to make up the difference, has gone on temporary display in Warsaw.
The huge canvas which goes by the lengthy title ‘Vytautas swears revenge on the Teutonic Knights against the background of burning Kaunas’ has come to Poland on temporary loan to mark the 30th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Painted by 19th-century Polish master painter Jan Styka, it occupies the same role as an historical icon for the Lithuanians as Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald does for the Poles.
Styka, who had many connections to the Lithuanian aristocracy, was Jan Matejko’s pupil, and a host of similarities can be seen in the two paintings.
The monumental painting, though at 3.5 m high and 6.4 m long is quite a bit smaller than Matejko’s Grunwald which measures 4.2 m by 9.8 m, usually sits in the permanent exhibition of the Vytautas Magnus Military Museum in Kaunas.
Both paintings deal with the threat posed by the Teutonic Knights. But while the victory in 1410 at Grunwald weakened a nuisance on Poland’s northern border, Styka’s painting represents a time when the Knights of the Cross represented an existential threat to the very existence of Lithuania.
Michał Mackiewicz from the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw told TFN: “Vytautas was a great leader of the Lithuanians and if it wasn’t his skill, they might have been swallowed up by the Teutons like others in the region.”
The canvas shows Vytautas sitting on a white horse with his sword raised above his head looking at Kaunas burning in the distance.
Next to him with his back to the viewer is his cousin Jagiełło, the future ruler of Poland-Lithuania. Vytautas swears that he will take revenge of the Teutons.
Vytautas is surrounded by members of the Gediminas dynasty, which had ruled Lithuania since the end of the 13th century and from which the Jagiellonians descended.
Mackiewicz said: “The Lithuanians had many wars with the Teutonic Knights in the fourteenth century. Some went the way of the Teutons, some to the Lithuanians, but eventually the Lithuanians got the upper hand and became one of the largest states in Europe.”
According to Mackiewicz, the scene is actually a fiction. “At the time when the Order's knights were conquering Kaunas, Vytautas was only a few years old, and Jagiełło may not have been born yet. The painting was not meant to be a history lesson. Rather, it shows the heroic history of Lithuania,” he said.
It is easy to imagine, therefore, why the Lithuanians were so keen to acquire the painting for its new military museum in Kaunas when it came on the market in the 1930s at the gallery of the widow of Jan Styka, Luiza, in Paris.
The picture was painted in Paris, where Jan Styka lived at the time with his family, his wife Luiza and two sons, Adam and Tadeusz, who later also became artists. Styka spent over a year working on this canvas.
The painting was exhibited several times in Paris, where it was seen by Ladas Natkevičius from the Lithuanian embassy in Paris in 1935.
Kristina Petrauské from Vytautas Military Museum in Kaunas said: “The monumental size of the painting, its content and style fit in perfectly with the Vytautas Magnus Military Museum, which was being furnished at the time.
“The widow also claimed that before his death, he asked that if the canvas was to be sold, she should first propose the purchase to the Lithuanian government.”
Ladas Natkevičius knew that he had to buy the painting as soon as possible for the new museum but the price set by Styka’s widow of 150,000 francs, which was equivalent to 60,000 Lithuanian litas at the time, was out of the question. The museum’s annual budget at the time was only 25,000 Litas.
In desperation, the diplomat even started to buy lottery tickets in France to meet the asking price.
When gambling did not work, he had the idea of importing Lithuanian sausages and hams to France, selling them and setting the proceeds against the cost of the painting. He even offered sausages to Styka’s window as payment in kind. Her lawyer refused on her behalf.
Luiza Styka stuck rigidly to her price. The widow was afraid that a sale at a lower price could cast a shadow over her late husband's talent.
Eventually, a compromise was found. The official publicly stated sale price was 150,000 francs, while only 12,500 litas exchanged hands.
The painting has hung in the military museum ever since and has become a national treasure.
It can be seen in Warsaw at the newly refurbished Kubicki Stables at the Museum of Hunting and Riding, a branch of the Royal Łazienki Museum, until the middle of November.