Self Portrait with Wife1904 by Stanisław Wyspiański

Teodora's richly embroidered peasant costume, complete with three strands of coral (a sign of status in peasant society), provides vivid colors and ornamentation in another pastel, Self Portrait with Wife of 1904. Rather than idealize her as he would the following year in Maternity, the artist rendered his wife in a very direct manner, endowing her with a penetrating gaze not unlike the one he gave himself. The frankness of this picture reflects a modernist view of the peasant, not as an object of study from which the artist or writer was removed, but as a psychologically complex individual.
[Out Looking in: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890-1918 by Jan Cavanaugh, found on Google Books]

Looking at the artist’s depiction of his wife of four years, wearing beads, we cannot help but wonder: how did the marriage between a sensitive, educated artist and a simple uneducated peasant woman come about? Was the then fashionable folkmania the only reason?

The artist’s wife – Teodora Teofila Pytko – came from Konary, a village near Tarnów. She was born on 9 April 1868, and was a year older than Wyspiański.

There are many stories and hypotheses, more or less credible, at times sentimental and full of poetic exultation, concerning the circumstances in which they met and the nature of the relationship between the painter and Teofila. Many biographies of the artist claim that she was a maid and a cook in the house of his aunt Joanna Stankiewicz. Reportedly, Teodora was an assistant mason in the Franciscan basilica and that was where Wyspiański was supposed to meet her while he was working on designs for the wall paintings decorating the church interior. Family hearsay also speaks about how the young student from Krakow was charmed by a peasant girl chasing geese, and about the country wedding during which the young painter saw a dancing girl…

Tadeusz Seweryn, an ethnographer from Żabno who knew Teodora’s family, mentioned that ‘Miss Pytko left home early to work as a maid in the city. In Krakow, she must have experienced some tragedy as she was considering suicide. When she was about to jump off a bridge over the Vistula, a young man stopped her. It was the first time she had seen her future husband.’

However, the most likely version is that Stanisław met his future wife in Joanna Stankiewicz’s house, where he lived for several years before moving to Paris and also after his return – until 1898. Therefore, he cannot have met he by chance on the Vistula bridge, unless – having talked her out of her suicidal intentions (Teodora was pregnant… Wyspiański adopted her son Teodor Tadeusz) – he himself offered her a job in his aunt’s house.

In 1893, probably in Paris, a few years before his wedding, Wyspiański wrote about his dilemmas concerning the relationship and his future life with the village girl :

‘Can I possibly love her? […]
And when I imagine my life as a painting, how can I invite her to the realm of my thoughts and pull her towards me – a girl whose existence does not depend on colors, sounds, imagination, melody, or capturing the forms, but on the form itself, and who lives a vegetating life, which I look upon with equal compassion as upon the life of a flower or an insect, the development of an orchid or chamomile, the maturation of a fly or a bee. […]. On many occasions her eyes said ‘leave me alone’, really, and I repeated it to myself ‘leave me alone’. – Take all the pity that you brought to my eyes to make them shed their tears, take all the pity awakened in my heart, which now beats stronger, as my mouth trembles longingly to touch yours, like when my face caresses flowers cups moist with fragrance. – How many times was I enamored of a flower by pity, and only by pity did I sometimes love a girl that I once spotted somewhere. Is this enough to live?’

...Ludwik Tomanek remembered the artist’s wife in the following words: ‘[…] Poor old woman who never understood her husband’s greatness, so she did not even feel overwhelmed … Even so, if she were any other woman, educated and worldly, who knows if Wyspiański would be so happy with her. He needed his Teosia. Teosia did not bring in ideas, only pencils and paper. However, Teosia cooked well, watched over him, dressed and cut her husband’s hair. She herself used the word ‘doll’ to describe him. For her, he was a doll, for us – a cry of the nation’s soul […].’

Could Wyspiański possibly love her?
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