Preserving a Polish Past: Izabela Czartoryska and the First National Museum

As a historian, it’s no surprise that I enjoy and value museums for all the work they do in both preserving history and teaching it to the general public. Museums are not-for-profit institutions that are established in the service of society, working to communicate information and conserve the past and present for future generations. National museums are vital to preservation of every country’s history, yet they become doubly important when a country loses its independence and is effectively wiped off the map, as was the case of Poland in the 19th century.

In honor of International Women’s Day on 8 March, it is only fitting to devote this space to the early history of the what would become the first Polish National Museum, and the woman who made it possible.

Izabela Czartoryska was one of the most prominent figures of the Polish Enlightenment. A writer, art collector, and patroness, it was thanks to her curiosity, patriotism, and intelligence that so many artifacts of Polish history survived the Partitions and can be found in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków today.

A painting of Izabela Czartoryska by Alexander Roslin, 1774

Izabela Czartoryska: Patron of Arts and Culture

Izabela Cartoryska was born into the wealthy noble Czartoryski family on 3 March 1746. She never knew her mother who died shortly after Izabela was born, and was instead raised by her father and grandmother. Izabela married Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, a cousin, at the age of 15. Their union was meant to unite the Czartoryski family and consolidate their power. Theirs was not a love marriage at the onset, however Prince Adam did oversee her education (he himself was highly educated) and she frequently traveled abroad with him. It was through this travel and her family connections that she met with the greatest thinkers of her time – Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, among others. These connections exposed her to Enlightenment thought and ideology and would shape her role as a patron of the arts and culture in Poland.

Over time, and despite many extramarital affairs on both Izabela and Adam’s parts, the duo became somewhat of a Polish power couple: they hosted and entertained, and were themselves hosted and entertained by, the greatest statesmen, thinkers, writers, and artists of both Poland and Europe. Izabela’s cousin, Stanisław Poniatowski, eventually became king of Poland, after her husband Adam was briefly considered for the role. Poniatowski, who ascended to the throne under the name Stanisław II August, was himself a much better patron of the arts and culture than he was a statesmen. Always her favorite cousin, he and Izabela became a lot closer – so much so that one of her children, Maria Lubomirska, was most likely the illegitimate child of the Polish king. It was Izabela’s environment and connections with high society that allowed her to flourish as a woman of letters.

Her travels to England particularly made an impression on Izabela. She became a collector of English literature and memorabilia associated with English writers. She amassed letters written by Alexander Pope, Mary Stuart, and George Washington. On one trip to England and Scotland in 1790, she even purchased (for £300, a fortune at the time) a chair once belonging to William Shakespeare. It was this collection that would form the foundation of her museum.

The Czartoryski Palace in Puławy, 1848

Temple of the Sybil

When Izabela’s father-in-law, August Aleksander Czartoryski died, he left his son and Izabela his estate in Puławy, Poland. This would eventually become Izabela’s favorite sanctuary. Izabela and Adam hosted only the most prominent guests of the era at Puławy. The estate would become one of the most important European salons for intellectual thought, quickly acquiring the nickname “the Polish Athens” and Izabela, thanks to her intelligence, curiosity, and charm, became one of the most popular salonnières in the country.

Izabela’s anglophilia extended to her love of gardens; she was enchanted by the English gardens so popular overseas and sought to recreate an idyllic countryside garden at her estate in Puławy. The gardens attracted Enlightened Polish writers and thinkers who would draw inspiration from these natural surroundings. Izabela was so fond of gardening and placed so much care as to the types of trees, plants, and flowers in her garden (some quite rare) that she published a work on gardening called Myśli różne o sposobie zakładania ogrodów, Various Thoughts on Gardening.

One feature of Izabela’s garden, a popular trend in the 18th century, was the addition of a folly, which was a building specifically constructed for decorative purposes, as a main focal point of the garden. Follies were highly popular during this time period; this romantic garden element was often stylized to look like ancient ruins or greek- and roman-era buildings. Izabela had her Temple of the Sybil constructed specifically for her estate in Puławy. More than a garden centerpiece, it eventually became the site of Izabela’s museum in 1796, the first national museum in Poland. Above the entrance to the Temple was a sign: Przeszłość, Przyszłość – The Past, The Future.

As much as Izabela loved collecting historical artifacts from around Europe, she was very much a patriot. Her intention in creating the museum was to preserve and celebrate Polish history. During the turn of the 19th century, Poland’s political situation was worsening and Poland as a European power was declining. Eventually, it was partitioned, wiping the country off the map of Europe. Izabela recognized that it was important to preserve the artifacts she had collected – crown jewels, swords, medals and war trophies, regalia – which reflected Poland’s long history. It was an attempt to preserve the nation, at least in memory if not physically.

A poem written by Izabela Czartoryska, dedicated to the Polish army, lamenting the fate of Poland after the partitions, 1809
The Temple of the Sybil in Puławy, from my collection 2010
Me standing in front of the Gothic House, Puławy 2010

The Czartoryski Museum in Kraków

Izabela’s collection grew, and was not just limited to Polish artifacts. The Temple of the Sybil was the first museum site, but not the only, on the Puławy estate. In her Gothic House, built in the early 19th century, she housed the rest of her collection: the aforementioned Shakespearean chair, a Rembrandt, a Raphael, and a most prized Da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, which is the only Da Vinci in Poland and a cherished national treasure.

The museum expanded past what either the Temple or Gothic House could hold as Izabela’s nephew and subsequent generations of the Czartoryski family continued the collection. Eventually, in 1878, her grandson moved the museum to Kraków, where it still stands today and is known as the Czartoryski Museum.

Izabela Czartoryska was an incredibly influential figure during her lifetime, and in the centuries since. I, for one, am very grateful to her, as a Polish historian. My deep interest in the Polish Enlightenment, in Polish history and culture, really began when I first learned of her and visited Pulawy during my early university years. Without her love of knowledge, her care and patriotism, it is very likely that most of these precious Polish artifacts would be lost and Polish history, as well as nationalism, would have greatly suffered.

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