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About the museum

The Sukiennice, a huge market hall built in the 13th century in the middle of Rynek Główny (Main Square), enlarged in the 14th century in the Gothic style and remodelled in the mid-16th century after Renaissance fashion, was restored in 1875–1879 and became the city’s showpiece facility hosting grand balls and patriotic celebrations. Its location and character made the rooms on the first floor of the Sukiennice a perfect place for the National Museum in Krakow. Initially the Museum shared premises with the Fine Arts Society.




For the period of the Sukiennice renovation (Project NOWE SUKIENNICE Renovation and modernization of the Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art in the Sukiennice, 2008-2010) the Gallery of the 19th-Century Polish Art of the National Museum in Krakow has been moved to the Royal Castle in Niepołomice.



History of the Gallery in the Sukiennice

The building of the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), dating back to the Middle Ages, served as the main seat of the National Museum in Krakow for many years. In the mid-14th century, a Gothic hall was built in the place of the former 13th-century market stalls, and between 1556 and 1560, it was re¬modelled in the Renaissance style. Towards the end of the 18th century, apart from the former, purely storage and commercial use, the Sukiennice acquired symbolic significance. Due to balls and parties held in honour of personages visiting the city as well as numerous patriotic celebrations organized here, the Sukiennice, located in the very heart of Krakow, became an extremely important place for national culture.


The shape of the Sukiennice did not change much until 1875, although it was five years earlier, in 1870, that the then mayor of Krakow Józef Dietl regarded the restoration of the building as one of his priorities. It was already then that  Dietl intended to use the rooms on the first floor for museum purposes. In the end, the restoration started in 1877, under the mayorship of Mikołaj Zyblikiewicz. According to the design produced by Tomasz Pryliński, the building was to be remodelled in the spirit of historicism and combine two styles: Gothic and Renaissance. The restoration work also included tidying up the surroundings of the Sukiennice. 


The ceremonial opening of the restored Sukiennice, celebrated along with the fiftieth anniversary of literary work of Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, took place on October 3, 1879. The event, with the participation of Poles from all the partitioned territories, became a manifestation of national unity. During a ceremonial ball held two days later, it was announced that Henryk Siemiradzki had decided to present his painting Nero’s Torches to the city, “to be displayed in the Sukiennice.” This unexpected gift started the collection of the National Museum. Other artists who participated in the event followed Siemiradzki’s example and also donated their works to the collection. They included, among others, Władysław Łuszczkiewicz, Juliusz Kossak, Michał Elwiro Andriolli, Leopold Loeffler, Hipolit Lipiński, Walery Gadomski, Feliks Szynalewski, Franciszek Żmurko, Antoni Gramatyka, Antoni Piotrowski, Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, Kazimierz Pochwalski, Wacław Koniuszko, Aleksander Mroczkowski and Stanisław Chlebowski. Works were also donated by collectors and eminent personalities of public life from the country and from abroad, among others: Władysław Mickiewicz, Konstanty Schmidt-Ciążyński, Henryk Bukowski, Władysław Bartynowski and Stefan Ciecierski. Deprived of their state, Polish people living in all the partitioned territories and representing all émigré circles decided to emphasize the existence of the centuries-old, rich culture and art of their nation in this way. As a result of this spontaneous response to the generous gift of Henryk Siemiradzki, the idea of the national museum came true in Krakow.       


On October 7, 1879, the City Council adopted a resolution which founded the National Museum in Krakow, committing itself to maintain it and giving the southern part of the first floor in the Sukiennice to house the newly established institution. The first statute of the museum, in which it was described as the property of the whole nation, was passed in March 1883. In accordance with the provisions of the statute, the main aim of the new museum was: “to present Polish art on the example of the collected exhibits, showing its whole historical and current development.” Władysław Łuszczkiewicz, a painter, art historian and teacher, became the first director. The museum began its operation still in the same year, with an exhibition showing artefacts from the time of King John III Sobieski, organized on the bicentenary of the relief of Vienna. The first permanent exhibition was opened to the public in the south wing of the gallery one year later. Shortly after the opening, the collection expanded with numerous paintings and sculptures, for example, works by Jan Matejko, Wojciech Korneli Stattler, Piotr Michałowski, Henryk Rodakowski, Aleksander Gierymski, Józef Chełmoński, Jacek Malczewski, Pius Weloński, Jakub Tatarkiewicz and Teodor Rygier, holding a special place in the collection of the Museum and identified with the gallery in the Sukiennice to this day.
The collection grew further, largely with donations from the patriotically-minded representatives of various circles, from the aristocracy and the gentry, to the townsfolk and the intelligentsia. However, the expansion of the collection resulted in financial difficulties and problems with room. At the close of the 19th century, following the exhibition aesthetics of the time, the gallery in the Sukiennice was filled with exhibits dating back to the Middle Ages to the present, hung densely on several levels, arranged in picturesque groups, including not only paintings, prints and sculptures, but also arms, textiles and other examples of decorative arts. 


After the death of Władysław Łuszczkiewicz, Feliks Kopera was appointed to the post of director  in 1901. At that time, Krakow’s museum became one of the most important culture and research centres in the Polish lands, at the same time gaining recognition on the European scale. The collection also grew, and in the late 1930s, it consisted of nearly 300 thousand inventory items. It was possible thanks to a great many benefactors including, among others, Teodor and Zeneida Dunin, Władysław and Julia Branicki from Sucha, Wiktor Osławski, Wacław Lasocki, Wiktor Wittig, the Czapski family, Adam and Włodzimiera Szołayski, Edward Goldstein, Edmund Łoziński, Adam Wolański, Stanisław Ursyn Ru¬siecki, Jan Glatzl, Leon Kostka, Jan Matejko and the Jan Matejko Society, Róża Aleksandrowicz, Eliza Krausowa, Edmundowa Starzeńska, Julia Simmler née Högenstaller, Eustachy Jaxa-Chronowski, Maria Dembowska and Stanisław Badeni, Erazm Barącz, Maciej Wentzel, as well as heirs of the artists like Piotr Michałowski, Jan Stanisławski, Olga Boznańska and Stanisław Wyspiański. The largest collection, comprising over 15 thousand objects, was donated to the museum in 1920 by Feliks Manggha Jasieński.


A gallery of contemporary art, presenting “the state of art and culture in Poland in historical and current development,” was opened in the north wing of the Sukiennice in 1902. The objects were exhibited in chronological order, and special emphasis was put on particular themes and phenomena in art. A year later, other sections were added including: national memorabilia, ethnographical and archaeological pieces, 15th- century guild art and artefacts dating from the 15th to the 18th century. 


The character of the exhibition in the Sukiennice did not change significantly until 1914. During World War I, it was closed, as the museum suspended its operations for two years. In the interwar period, the Sukiennice displayed Polish contemporary art and, with short breaks, the collection of medieval pieces. This shape of the exhibition was maintained until the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, the collection was removed from the Sukiennice and stored in the Czapski Palace and the building of the Museum of Industry in Smoleńsk Street. Germans closed down all former exhibitions during the war, and in the empty rooms of the gallery, they, for example, displayed Japanese art.
After 1945, the gallery in the Sukiennice underwent renovation aimed at restoring the pre-war exhibition layout and design. In 1950, the National Museum, which had been a municipal institution up to then, was taken over by the state and came under the authority of the Ministry of Culture. Tadeusz Dobrowolski replaced Feliks Kopera at the post of director. After the modernization, carried out by the new director, the exhibition in the Sukiennice featured Polish paintings and sculptures from the mid-18th century to the year 1945. It was arranged based on the chronological and thematic criteria, and the former, dense layout of paintings and sculptures was replaced by groups of works limited to one or two, and more seldom three, rows. The character of the gallery established by Dobrowolski was retained under the management of Adam Bochnak (1957–1962) and later, when Jerzy Banach (1963–1974) was director of the museum. The gallery was reorganized in 1970. At that time, for example, two large-size paintings: Prussian Homage by Jan Matejko and Four-in-Hand by Józef Chełmoński were displayed in two opposite rooms, marking the main axis of the exhibition pattern (Prussian Homage was hung on the northern wall of the gallery and Four-in-Hand on the southern wall of the opposite room).


Several other changes in the arrangement of the gallery, according to the concept of Mieczysław Porębski and after the design by Andrzej Pawłowski, were carried out in 1975, when Tadeusz Chruścicki was director of the museum. The authors were inspired by the original appearance of the gallery in the Sukiennice and decided to restore its 19th-century décor. The Pompeian red of the walls and the “stylish” elements of decoration, that is plush sofas and palms, returned to the Prussian Homage Room. Paintings were placed close together, in a few rows. The selection and arrangements of objects were based on both their aesthetic value and ideological character. Works on display represented different levels of artistry, therefore the public could see a full picture of 18th and 19th-century Polish painting.


The gallery in the Sukiennice, a national treasure of Poland and one of the most important historic sites of Krakow, needed modernizing for a long time to preserve the historic character of the building and improve its technical state, at the same time taking into consideration modern museum standards and the needs of more and more visitors, including the disabled. Therefore, between 2006 and 2010, on the initiative of Zofia Gołubiew, director of the National Museum, with the financial support of the Norwegian Financial Mechanism, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Civic Committee for Restoration of Krakow Heritage, the Sukiennice underwent a complete refurbishment including the modernization of exhibition rooms and other spaces open to the public, as well as storerooms, a conservation studio and service spaces. As a result, one of the oldest museum buildings in Poland was adapted to the needs of the contemporary public, without detriment to its historic character. The collection was not closed in storehouses for the time of renovation works, but – also thanks to the efforts of the director of the Museum and the kindliness of the authorities of the town of Niepołomice – put on display in the Royal Castle of Niepołomice, in a gallery arranged especially for this purpose.


The Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art in the Sukiennice was re-opened to the public in 2010. Despite the fact that originally the project “Nowe Sukiennice” did not include any change in the thematic layout of the gallery, the National Museum decided to implement a new scenario in 2008. Apart from extensive changes in technical equipment, as well as putting into use new spaces in the entrance hall and on mezzanine floors, a new exhibition layout was introduced. At present, the gallery consists of four rooms: 1. The Bacciarelli Room: Enlightenment; 2. The Michałowski Room: Romanticism. Towards National Art; 3. The Siemiradzki Room: Around the Academy, and 4. The Chełmoński Room: Realism, Polish Impressionism, Beginnings of Symbolism. The authors of the new concept, Barbara Ciciora and Aleksandra Krypczyk, took into account the former line of development of this unique, already historical exhibition, and also based their idea on the latest research on the Polish art of the close of the 18th and the 19th century. The chronological-thematic layout of the exhibition reflects major trends in the Polish art of the time, showing not only the most outstanding artists and their works, but also providing a broad view on Polish art. The exhibition places special emphasis on genres and subjects typical of individual periods (e.g. history painting, oriental painting, portraiture, landscape painting) as well as selected art and socio-political phenomena which were reflected in art (e.g. the development of the idea of patriotism and nation, issues related to the village people and folk character as well as changes in the curricula of art schools).


The authors of the concept decided to take advantage of the specific scope of the  Sukiennice collection, focussing on its patriotic and pro-independence character. The idea underlying the establishment of the National Museum was to build up a collection which would be evidence of the vitality of the nation and its culture – developing continuously despite the loss of independence. It was the culture which had a sense of its identity and at the same time developed in relation to Western art, responding to it in all sorts of ways. In this context, the room devoted to the age of Romanticism, when the primary focus of culture and art was the idea of a struggle for independence and when national myths were expressed in art, may be regarded as the spiritual “centre” of the restored gallery in the Sukiennice.  


The ideological and visual character of every room is defined by one work. In the Enlightenment Room, this role is played by Portrait of Stanisław August Poniatowski in Coronation Robes by the court artist Marcello Bacciarelli; in the next one – it is Somosierra by Piotr Michałowski. In the further part of the exhibition, in the room called “Around the Academy,” it is a work by Henryk Siemiradzki, Nero’s Torches, which started the collection of the museum. Finally, the last room has always been dominated by Four-in-Hand by Józef Chełmoński.


The historical interior of the gallery in the Sukiennice, etched in the memory of many generations, abounding in famous and recognized works of art by, among others, Jan Matejko, Henryk Rodakowski, Maurycy Gottlieb, Piotr Michałowski, Józef Chełmoński, Maksymilian Gierymski and Władysław Podkowiński, was enriched with less-known paintings by the artists mentioned above as well as with works by other painters, hardly ever exhibited before (e.g. January Suchodolski, Franciszek Faliński and Wandalin Strzałecki). As a result, the exhibition offers a more diverse and complete view of 19th-century Polish art.


From the moment of establishing the National Museum in Krakow, every new appearance of the gallery in the Sukiennice, to a certain degree, reflected the aesthetics of the day and changes in the outlook on life, being also influenced by research on the country’s culture and art. The present new gallery in the Sukiennice harmoniously combines the knowledge of the historical tradition of this edifice, unique for every Pole, with the latest research in the field of art history.   


We hope that the gallery in the Sukiennice will still maintain its character, reminding the next generations about the patriotism of our ancestors, whose generous gifs made it possible to make this extraordinary idea of the gallery of painting and sculpture, part of the oldest Polish National Museum, come true.


Aleksandra Krypczyk

Copyright (c) 2006-2009 National Museum in Krakow