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 colours, 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?’
So was it pity? Wyspiański had hesitated for a long time before he made the decision regarding marriage, which was an obvious misalliance and as such could not meet with the approval of his family. Her unwed motherhood and having a child out of wedlock with a Krakow lawyer for whom she had previously worked certainly did not increase the number of Teodora’s supporters and friends. Consequently, Wyspiański remained in an informal relationship with her and they had two children in this arrangement: Helena, his firstborn and only daughter, was born on 31 May 1895, and four years later, on 7 September 1899, Teodora gave birth to their son, Mieczysław Bolesław.
It was only then that the Artist, in the best interest of his children, decided to marry her. A quiet wedding with Teodora – Wyspiański did not inform even his aunt Joanna Stankiewicz nee Rogowska (the sister of his prematurely deceased mother) about the ceremony – took place in St Florian’s parish church on 17 November 1900. A year later, on 2 December 1901, their youngest son, Stanisław, was born.
Teodora always remained under fire. Despised by Wyspiański’s closest aunt – Joanna Stankiewicz, she was also never accepted by the artist’s acquaintances or the circle of his closest friends. His cohabitation with a peasant girl followed by their marriage, children out of wedlock, and finally their misalliance hailed as a scandal – it all echoed widely in Wyspiański’s environment. Among the attacks and criticism of his contemporaries and those who wrote about him, there were also voices which manifested some sort of approval and understanding for this relationship with a simple uneducated woman: ‘Though I am not a big supporter of the writer and poet, I bow in admiration before him as a person, particularly for two periods of his life. The first one is his marriage. How many men are there out there who are in relationships with various women that have their children, but what almost always happens is that these gentlemen, having satisfied their passion, forget about their lovers and do not feel responsible for their children? Unlike them, Wyspiański, who had children with his cook or someone similar, concluded that he should marry her, although she was older than him and could not offer him much. But he cared about their children, and since he could not leave his property to them, he wanted them to have at least his name, even though he was later very unhappy (from what I hear, not only did this woman fail to recognize his true nature and appreciate his dedication, but she also put on airs of a grand lady and spent the majority of his literary earnings on stupid expensive outfits, which only made her look more ridiculous). The other part of his life I have great respect for is his death’ – Aleksandra Czechówna wrote in her diary in 1907.
Stories about Wyspiański’s family feature unfriendly and unflattering comments regarding Teodora, some of which even condemn her. Her behaviour, joviality, vulgarity, primitiveness and boorishness offended many guests and friends who paid them a visit. In his book Wspomnienia. Przy sztalugach i przy biurku [Memories. At the Easel and the Desk], Jan Skotnicki reports the atmosphere in the artist’s house, saying: ‘I visited him in Krowoderska street in those days. The door was opened by his wife, a horrible woman. The odour of drugs and iodoform mixed with the smell of sauerkraut and washed underwear was suffocating. Though the room was quite large and light, poverty and mess were omnipresent. I ran away after a few words exchanged with Wyspiański. […] The financial situation of this great artist was difficult, so we collected some money among friends to buy some caviar for him and leave some for his medicines. After a few days, we heard that his wife – on her own and in one go – devoured a kilo of the caviar we had sent, and spent the money we gave him for his treatment on a fur coat for herself. The doctors forbade him to drink alcohol, but since she liked it, she bought wines and liqueurs, poured some down her husband’s throat, and drank the rest herself. It was necessary to free him from the custody of this woman and place him in Dr Gwiazdomorski’s clinic. And so it was done. Wilhelm Feldman took care of it. It was, however, too late, because the last days of his martyred life soon arrived.’
In her letter to Julian Nowak, dated 14 February 1906, his aunt Joanna Stankiewicz, who looked after her terminally ill beloved nephew till the last moments of his life, depicts Teodora in the worst possible light, accusing her of maliciousness, insensitivity and lack of care for her suffering husband: ‘[ …] So today I learned from the woman who looks after him in his illness that for two days, on the 12th and 13th of this month, the state of his health declined, and that today, on 14 February, he is slightly better, though he is deprived of any care both during the day and at night. She is simply wicked – she does not look into the room where he is lying (the yellow room next to his atelier) the whole night, she does not give him his medicine, she does not change the medicine, she shouts and teases him that he does nothing but remain ill, she jostles him – he is so miserable, abandoned and lonely that he is going through the whole purgatory of suffering. She does not give him any letters, just reads each letter with Tadeusz and then destroys it, nor does she send any letter that he wants to post, and so he has to face not only his disease, but also this very evil woman. She threw me out and will not let me visit; if my brother comes, she will not let him in, she got rid of everyone so that she can brutally dominate him. Is there any way we can bring him relief? I do not know anymore, but I am writing to you as to a dear friend – we cannot save his life but perhaps we can ease his suffering and influence this woman so that she comes to her senses and leaves him in peace and gives him food. I am so depressed and heavy-hearted, and have been ill for nearly a month as I have been for the last several years in the spring, therefore I am so helpless that in desperation I am writing to you. Please advise what can be done and excuse me for looking for help and advice among other people. Please accept my heartfelt handshake from me, forever grateful for the long-term care over Staś. J. Stankiewicz.’
Wyspiański himself does not express his opinions of his wife directly, he is rather restrained and economical with words describing Teodora Teofila. His letters and his notebook do not contain passionate confessions of love. They only feature mentions of children’s diseases and their mother’s loving care and slightly ironic comments about her resourcefulness and common sense…
In his letter to Józef Kotarbiński from March 1901, the artist writes: ‘How good it is to have a loving wife. My wife was angry because of a bill sent from the theatre cashier’s office and she would not let me continue to accept a percentage from Wesele [Wedding] performances. I am therefore compelled to make the following demands. Starting with the premiere, I want a 100 Rhine złotys for every performance every evening. […] Since my wife’s demands are reasonable, I am pleased to learn from her the common sense and natural practical poetry […].’
He certainly suffered because of his family’s resentment and lack of acceptance for his decisions in the Krakow circles. In his letter dated May 1905, he bitterly explains to Stanisław Lack:
‘[…] Everything is like a ‘social’ comedy because they can not accept the fact that my wife is not from the ‘city folk’, the so-called intelligentsia, and they would give half of their lives for a good scandal, which they desperately look forward to, or a complex intrigue, or any sort of meanness […].’
This simple and uneducated woman took care of his house, financial matters and royalties he was entitled to from the Krakow theatre, raised four children, living in fact in constant poverty. Did she recognize the significance of Wyspiański and his art? Was she aware of the fact that she he lived with a great artist? Or perhaps the most important thing for her was just the family, the children, their health and well-being? In 1908, less than a year after Wyspiański’s passing, Teodora Teofila married Wincenty Waśka, a peasant from Węgrzce, where she lived almost until the the end of her life. She died in 1957. She is buried in the Rakowice cemetery in Krakow.
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?
Dominika Bartik-Osikowicz – NMK adjunct, philologist, graduate of Postgraduate Museum Studies at the Jagiellonian University, has worked for the National Museum in Krakow for over twenty years. She is interested in museum collections and intellectual biographies of artists, and is passionate about memoirs and epistolography.
See also our photo gallery Selected works by Stanisław Wyspiański