Metamorphoses: The Print Collection of Stanisław August Poniatowski
Palace on the Isle
The exhibition Metamorphoses: The Print Collection of Stanisław August Poniatowski is yet another in the series Stanisław August: Patron and Collector being mounted by the Royal Łazienki Museum.
Eighty-two prints that have rarely been seen by visitors are currently on exhibition in the Picture Gallery, Ballroom and Bathing Room of the Palace on the Isle. Thirty-five of the prints on display once belonged to Stanisław August (1732–98). The remaining prints come from the Jan Kanty Szembek (1911–79) collection which was purchased in 1965. In the 18th century, in the times of Stanisław August, prints decorated the first floor apartments of the White Pavilion. Plundered by the Germans during World War II, only part of the collection was recovered and returned to Poland after the war. Both sets of prints come from the same famous edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses of 1767–1771 published by Pierre-François Basan and Noël Le Mire. As opposed to the Szembek collection, the prints belonging to the Royal Collection are possessed of a characteristic bookbinder’s finish consisting of hand-painted green frames.
The exhibition is arranged according to the sequence of events in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Some of the illustrations belong to series of no more than several prints, as in the story about the four periods of the day, the deluge, or the fate of Perseus, while others constitute a narrative encapsulated within one composition. A distinctively separate group of illustrations is made up of prints whose theme corresponds to that of the sculptures in the Palace on the Isle. The prints depicting the stories of Marsyas, Hercules and Andromeda, followed their counterpart sculpted representations in the Ballroom and Bathing Room (see the plan of the Palace on the Isle).
Next to Virgil and Horace, Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC–17 or 18 AD), simply remembered as Ovid, is recognized as the third of the unsurpassed triumvirate of poets of the Augustan era—the period of the cultural flowering of Roman civilization. His creativity was exceptionally varied and profuse, his poetry ranging from light-hearted themes such as facial care in De Medicamine Faciei Feminae (On Cosmetics for the Female Face) or spiritual and physical love in Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) and Remedia Amoris (Cure for Love), to serious themes like in Fasti—in which the poet explained the origin of festivals, or in Tristia, his collection of eulogies.
Ovid’s most important œuvre, the epic Metamorphoses, was written between ca. 2 and 8 AD. The poems, contained in fifteen books, are a chronological narrative describing the creation and development of the world due to the changes wrought by the gods. As a complex literary work, it is also a parable of human existence illustrating its historical, philosophical and moral aspects. One of the overriding motifs throughout the Metamorphoses is that of love and passion between gods and humans—love that is tragic, usually ending in a dramatic way, like the stories of Zeus and Semele, Cadmus and Harmonia, Cephalus and Procris, as well as Scylla and Minos. Some of the stories, like the one about Phaëton, tell us of unsuccessful human attempts to intrude upon the world of the gods.
Ovid described his work as a perpetuum carmen, that is, an uninterrupted poem, with neither an overarching hero nor a series of events which could be pieced together to make up a continuous story encompassing numerous disparate strands.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses constitutes a particularly important source due to its multifarious themes and its enduring presence in European culture. This epic became an inexhaustible source of themes in the fine arts. The relatively short stories, typically running to no more than a hundred lines, with clear points of dramatic climax, lent themselves to transposition into visual form. Additionally, universal acquaintance with mythology facilitated identification of the depicted themes. It should be emphasised that the Metamorphoses, or its adaptations, were the most important sources of mythology in iconography.
THE WHITE PAVILION
The series of prints dedicated to Ovid’s Metamorphoses as exhibited here, were originally on permanent display at the White Pavilion built for King Stanisław August Poniatowski. The first floor western apartment was adorned with 102 French prints produced by the best illustrators and engravers of the second half of the 18th century. The apartment, bedecked with prints, its decor almost entirely preserved intact, is an unusual example in Poland of an original 18th-century interior. Out of over one hundred prints in King Stanisław August’s collection, which originally hung on the walls of the apartment, only thirty-five have survived—in their original mountings and frames. The missing ones have been replaced by prints from the Jan Kanty Szembek collection, which were purchased in 1965 to supplement the original collection that was partially dispersed during World War II.
The interior decoration of the White Pavilion was commenced in 1775, four years after the appearance in Paris of the fourth volume of the Metamorphoses. Drawings and prints were hung on the walls of the first floor apartments before 1783. The use of prints as decorative elements, as in the intimate private quarters of the residential western apartment, was fairly standard practice both in bourgeois town houses and in Royal private apartments. However, in speaking of the decorations of the western apartment of the White Pavilion, it should be considered in the context of Stanisław August’s predispositions as collector and patron of the arts. All the prints decorating the interiors of the White Pavilion were prepared in the same way by the royal bookbinders and placed in gold frames under glass. The sequence of prints on the walls was accentuated by the entwined tendrils with delicate petit multi-coloured flowers painted on the walls, virtually covering them from top to bottom, which were designed in such a way that the tendrils surrounded each engraving. As a result, the symmetrically spaced simple frames with prints acquired an elegant and at once flowing and light ornamental painterly framework. The entire decorative scheme of the apartment is characterised by a consistent unity of vision and carefully thought-out composition. The decoratively painted walls interplay with the garlands surrounding each of the compositions in the Metamorphoses collection.
The second quarter of the 18th century marked the beginning of the golden age in French illustrative art. Nearly all of the most important publications of that epoch, enhanced with prints, are from the period 1750–90. The book market reflected the refined demand of the elite of the time, and the hedonistic philosophy of life, perceived as an interminable chain of leisure and pleasure. Small format prints of elegant and decorative design, which were the perfect complement to rococo boudoirs, were avidly sought after. The increased demand for illustrated publications forced publishers not just to collaborate with painters and draughtsmen, but to employ illustrators as permanent subcontractors and to commence close, often long-term, cooperation with draughtsmen and engravers.
The 1767–1771 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses produced by Pierre-François Basan and Noël Le Mire, is one of the most exceptional publishing ventures of its time. The illustrated four-volume French edition contained 140 illustrations and decorative vignettes. The publication’s typography and superb engravings in terms of artistry, lightness of touch and charm, ensured that, to this very day, this edition is recognized as one of the most elegant rococo publications ever. The aim of the publishers was to produce not only an aesthetically enthralling work, but also one endowed with solid scholarly editorship. In line with the aspirations of the publishers, the publication was to become a source of reliable knowledge on ancient mythology.
This text is based on the essays published in the catalogue to this exhibition.