Helena Skirmunttowa: a forgotten sculptress of the 19th century
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Helena Skirmunttowa (1827-1874), a draughts(wo)man, amator painter and sculptress who has been acknowledged as being the first Polish woman to 'seriously occupy herself with sculpture in the 19th century', has remained a little-known artist. Her 'Dziennik podrózy z Pinska do Tambowa' (Diary of a journey from Pinsk to Tambov), containing episodes of descriptions from her transportation to Siberia (untranslated) is the first known written account by this Polish artist. Numerous works by Skirmunttowa had already become widely dispersed throughout the estates of Polesia and Lithuania during her lifetime, while many others went up in flames when the Skirmuntt family residence at Pinsk was burnt down in 1901. Most of her works are known only from photographs. Helena Skirmunttowa (or Skirmuntowa) originated from an ancient Lithuanian family.She was born on 5th November 1827 in the family estate of Kolodno near Pinsk (now in the Republic of Belarus), and it was here that she lived following her marriage to a distant relative, Kazimierz Skirmuntt. Having avidly drawn since childhood, Skirmunttowa received lessons in painting by Wincenty Dmowski, while in 1844 and 1845 she was taught at Wilhelm Krause's studio in Berlin, as well as in Dresden. From 1852 to 1854 she learnt sculpture, initially in Vienna, at the workshop of medallist and sculptor Joseph Cesar, before moving onto Rome, where she was taught by the sculptors Pietro Galli i Luigi Amici. It was at this time that she became acquainted with the painter Johann Friedrich Overbeck. In October 1854 Skirmunttowa returned to Kolodno, where she set up her own sculptural workshop and also began to develop contacts with artists based in Warsaw, following artistic life exclusively in the pages of Warsaw papers and periodicals. The ensuing years were passed in intensive study and unsupervised sculptural work.Because of her own imvolvement and that of her husband in the 1863 January Insurrection Skirmunttowa was detained and following a four-month house arrest in the family residence in Pinsk, she was banished to Siberia, spending the years 1863-7 in Tambov, although in 1869 she was able to move to the Crimea, where she settled down in Balaklava. Her state of health seriously deteriorated in 1873 and she died on 1st February 1874 , in Amélie-les-Bains in the Pyrenees. Skirmunttowa's rich artistic output comprises her amateurish oeuvre of drawings and paintings and the sculpture work she carried out from 1852 onwards. Her paintings consisted mainly of portraits; especially of family members and neighbours, as well as some genre scenes. She also carried out numerous bas-relief medallions featuring portraits, among others of personalities connected with public life. From the 1850s she took up religious themes, including sculptured objects such as crucifixes and paschal candles. Subsequently she moved onto historical themes, designing in 1870 a cycle of bas-reliefs (plaques and triptychs) depicting supposed likenesses of the ancient heroes of Lithuania. The most widely known work by this artist is her uncompleted 'Szachy historyczne' (Historical Chess), which presents John III Sobieski's military expedition against the Turks outside Vienna upon which she worked in stages from 1864 to the year of her death. 20 Illustrations.
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