Henryk Siemiradzki (Polish 1843-1902) Nero's torches 94 x 174.5 cm. (37 x 68 3/4 in.)

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Lot 44
Henryk Siemiradzki
(Polish 1843-1902)
Nero's torches 94 x 174.5 cm. (37 x 68 3/4 in.)

Sold for £ 292,650 (US$ 401,154) inc. premium
Henryk Siemiradzki (Polish 1843-1902)
Nero's torches
signed 'H. Siemiradzki Roma 1882' (lower right)
oil on canvas, in an elaborate giltwood frame, inscribed 'ET.LVX.IN.TENEBRIS.LVCET' (upper centre) 'ET.TENEBRAE.EAM.NON.COMPREHENDERVNT' (lower centre)
94 x 174.5 cm. (37 x 68 3/4 in.)


  • Provenance:

    Acquired from the artist (presumably in Rome) by von Botkinen, later the Russian Cultural Attaché for the Tsar in Berlin. Brought to Moscow, where it hung in von Botkinen's residential palace. Taken to Berlin at the beginning of the World War I, upon his appointment as Cultural Attaché.
    Sold by von Botkinen in Berlin in 1921 for the equivalent of 80,000 Danish crowns to C.C. Christensen, owner and director of the old Victoria Theatre in Copenhagen.
    Collection of C.C. Christensen, Frederiksberg (Copenhagen), Denmark
    Sold in Copenhagen in November 1940
    Private collection, Denmark

    This lot is to be sold with a certificate of authenticity from Dr. Piotr Szubert, dated 16th November 2003.

    Nero’s Torches is arguably the most important work to have been produced by Henryk Siemiradzki. The artist’s own pride for his original version of the subject became apparent when, in 1879, he chose to present it as a gift to the city of Krakow (this donation initiated the collection of paintings of the National Gallery of Krakow. Siemiradzki’s Torches is still catalogued as number 1 in the Gallery’s inventory). Few other versions by Siemiradzki himself are known or traceable today. Copies of the painting by other artists - contemporary and posthumous - have been recorded ever since the painting was publicly exhibited.
    Siemiradzki’s first version was exhibited publicly in Rome (1876); it was then subsequently shown in Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Paris (1878). Following Siemiradzki’s donation of 1879 to the people of Krakow, the younger artist Marcin Gottlieb executed his own copy of the masterpiece (see: Sotheby’s, London, 3 June 2003, no. 43, p. 46). The attribution to Henryk Siemiradzki of the present version of Nero’s torches has been confirmed – following a first hand study of the work - by Dr. Piotr Szubert, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and curator of the forthcoming exhibition dedicated to Siemiradzki to be held in the National Gallery of Art 'Zacheta' in 2005. In the certificate of authenticity dated 16 November 2003 and accompanying our painting, Dr. Szubert writes: “Following a detailed analysis of the form and composition I am positive that the painting is an authentic, smaller-size, auto-replica produced by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902) of his own work of 1876 titled Nero’s Torches or Chandeliers of Christianity.”

    Nero’s torches bears all the hallmarks of Siemiradzki’s classical training as an artist, both in subject matter and in technique. Siemiradzki began his formal studies in art under the guidance of Dmitry Bezperchei (1825-1913), a pupil of Karl Bryullov (1799-1852). In 1864, he went to St. Petersburg and enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts. Following these most promising years as a student, Siemiradzki received a six-year scholarship to study abroad. He then travelled back to Central Europe – visiting Munich, Krakow and Dresden on the way – and eventually reached the Italian peninsula. Siemiradzki stayed in Venice and Florence and arrived in Rome in 1872. Here, he set up a studio and began working on various commissions. Siemiradzki quickly became one of the best-known Polish residents of the Italian capital. As his reputation grew, the studio turned into a workshop, accepting many commissions from the Italians, residing compatriots and foreign visitors alike. Siemiradzki continued to maintain ties with his native country as well as with Russia. While he exhibited works in Krakow and Warsaw, he was elected as a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg (1873).
    Among the Polish visitors to the workshop, Siemiradzki soon befriended the writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916). Both men shared an equal fascination for the history of the Roman Empire. However, through the lens of their Christian faith, their vision of the past also encompassed the plight of the early Christians under the imperial and republican rules.
    Interestingly, as Siemiradzki began producing preliminary sketches for the composition of Nero’s Torches, Sienkiewicz was outlining his great romantic epic, Quo vadis?, a love story set against the historical background of the Christian persecutions in first-century Rome during the reign of Nero. The novel, initially published in instalments in 1895-1896 and in the entire form in 1896, was immensely successful.
    In a letter dated 1901, Sienkiewicz reminisces upon his time writing the novel in Rome: “I was most drawn to Tacitus as a historian. Dwelling on his Annals I was frequently tempted by the idea of presenting, in a literary form, these two worlds in which one was the all powerful governing machine of the ruling power and the other represented only a moral force. The idea of the victory of the spirit over secular power attracted me as a Pole. Also, as an artist I was drawn to it by the wonderful forms with which the ancient world was able to cloak itself.” Quo Vadis? may be interpreted as Sienkiewicz's contribution to the struggle of the Polish people against the Russian oppression; the same may be said about Siemiradzki’s Torches of Nero. Indeed, as a Pole residing abroad, Siemiradzki would have shared similar yearnings for his country’s liberation from the imperial Russian rule. During the 19th century, the survival of the Polish nation owed much to the cultural engagements of its artistic members, both within the country and abroad. Since 1795 Poland had been partitioned and most of its territory was now under Russian domination (until 1918, with the Treaty of Versailles). The Polish Romantic movement thrived on the notion of its people being reconciled with their land, culture and religion. In depicting the sufferings of the early Christian martyrs, Siemiradzki translated into a scene loaded with emotional undertones, the national feeling of oppression felt by his countryfolk. The eventual downfall of the Roman Empire and the triumph of Christianity over its political machinery provided the Polish people with a historical precedent to aspire to - and possibly mirror - in the resolution of their own contemporary plight.

    The painting of Nero’s Torches by Siemiradzki depicts an event following the Great Fire of Rome in the summer of A.D. 64. In nine days, the fire destroyed a third of the city’s busiest and most residential quarters and Nero’s involvement with the initial spark was widely rumoured. Indeed, the time coincided with the construction of Nero’s famed Domus Aurea – the Golden House – , for which urban space was required to satisfy the Emperor’s architectural desires. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Nero now sought to divert the public from the general suspicion of his involvement in the deed: “To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called)…First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned – not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle…. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest. “ [Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, London: Penguin Classics, 1996 edition, Book XV, chapter 14, pp.365-366]

    From this classical reference, Siemiradzki’s painting becomes a visual reportage of Nero’s fury. The artist’s own fascination with Roman history led him to research in detail the social, political and religious background of the scene. With his vast knowledge, Siemiradzki was able to interpret the subject with immense detail of costume and decorum. Here, in the gardens of his magnificent residence, the Emperor himself presides in great pomp over the opening spectacle of the night’s festivities. He appears at the moment when a signal is given to light the human torches brandishing high against a darkening sky. The contrast between the stage-set magnificence of Nero’s new residence – the sparkling marbles, glittering gold and grandiose architecture celebrating the imperial glamour of Nero’s reign – against the physical poverty and moral strength of these faith-driven captives could not be more openly described – and poignant. To Siemiradzki’s visual account of the event, Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? offers a wonderful literary counterpart. Although the narrative does not coincide in every detail with the painted interpretation of the historical event, the juxtaposition of both Polish masterpieces deserves to be presented:

    Darkness had not completely set in when the populace began to direct its steps towards the Garden of Caesar. Dressed in holiday attire, and crowned with flowers, the people marched, singing gaily, to witness a new and splendid spectacle. Almost every man was drunk, […] but never before had the number of condemned approached its present proportions. Wishing to make a comprehensive clearance of the Christians, as well as to arrest the progress of the gaol fever which was spreading from the prisons to the city at large, Caesar and Tigellinus had completely emptied the dungeons, until, until there remained in them only a few score persons who were to be reserved for the close of the games. The result was that, on passing the entrance-gates of the Gardens, the crowd halted in stupefaction: for every avenue – both those which led to the thickets and those which traversed the meadows – as well as every clump of trees, the banks of every pond, and the borders of every parterre of flowers, stood picked out with resin-soaked stakes to which Christians had been bound!
    From the summits of the knolls, whence the view was not obscured by the curtain of trees, there could be seen long lines of bodies adorned with flowers, ivy, and myrtle-leaves. Topping the heights, and descending into the hollows, they extended such distances that the nearest stakes looked like ships’ masts, and the furthest like a multicoloured jumble of flower-bedecked thyrsi.
    Soon darkness fell, and the first stars began to shine forth. By the side of every condemned person slaves armed with torches stationed themselves; and as soon as a trumpet sounded, as a signal for the spectacle to commence, each slave applied his torch to the base of the stake beside which he was standing.
    As soon as the spectacle had begun Caesar appeared among his people in a splendid quadriga drawn by four white racing stallions. Clad in a chariot-driver’s costume which was designed to include the colours of the Greens (those of his own and the Court party in general), he was followed by a number of other chariots, full of splendidly dressed courtiers, of Senator, of priests, of naked, rose-garlanded bacchantes who, drunk, and holding cups of wine in their hands, kept uttering wild cries, and of musicians who, costumed to represent fauns or satyrs, were playing harps, lutes, fifes, and horns. In other chariots there rode matrons and virgins of Roman families – all equally drunken and half-naked; while on either side of these chariots walked Greek youths, brandishing thyrsi adorned with ribands, or playing on tambourines, or strewing flowers in front of the horses’ hoofs. Thus amid smoke and the lines of human torches the procession made its way to the principal avenue […] . At length, arrived at a great fountain where two avenues crossed one another, he descended from his chariot, signed to his companions, and plunged into the crowd.
    There he was received with renewed cries and applause. Bacchantes, nymphs, Augustans, priests, fauns, satyrs, and soldiers surrounded him in a frenzied ring, while around the edge of the fountain a hundred fresh torches blazed forth, of which Caesar made a tour – stopping every now and then to make a remark on the victims, or to rally Chillo, whose face was full of unutterable despair.
    At length the party arrived at an exceptionally tall stake that was ornamented with myrtle and festooned with ivy. The ruddy flames were licking the knees of the victim, but his face was indistinguishable, owing to smoke thrown off by the green branches as they caught fire. Suddenly the night wind blew aside the smoke, and exposed the head of an old, grey-bearded man. At the sight Chillo shrank back like a wounded serpent, and uttered a cry which resembled the croak of a raven rather than the sound of a human voice.
    “Glaucus! Glaucus!” he shrieked.
    From the summit of the blazing stake Glaucus the physician looked down upon him. With his sad face bent forward, he gazed at the man who had betrayed him, who had robbed him of his wife and children, who had inveigled him into a den of villains, and who, after all had been forgiven him in the name of Christ, had once more delivered his benefactor to the executioners.

    [Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis? translated by C.J. Hogarth, Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1989 (first published in 1896), Chapter XXI, pp.388-391]

    The subject of Nero’s Torches could only strike an echoing cord with the plight of the Poles, also religious and also engaged in their own moral resistance to the domineering forces of their foreign governor. It is indeed the painting’s minute description of the great contrasts between physical and political powers on the one hand, and religious and moral strengths on the other which allows the message of Nero’s Torches to transcend the passing of time and the boundaries of spiritual beliefs.
Henryk Siemiradzki (Polish 1843-1902) Nero's torches 94 x 174.5 cm. (37 x 68 3/4 in.)
Henryk Siemiradzki (Polish 1843-1902) Nero's torches 94 x 174.5 cm. (37 x 68 3/4 in.)
Henryk Siemiradzki (Polish 1843-1902) Nero's torches 94 x 174.5 cm. (37 x 68 3/4 in.)
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