Things were looking up for the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1790. After having been reduced to little more than a Russian protectorate in the late 17th century and less than two decades after the First Partition of Poland had divvied up much of it territory between Austria, Prussia and Russia, the Commonwealth was headed towards more independence than it had been in centuries. King Stanislaus II August supported liberal reforms and with Austria and Russia busy fighting the Ottomans, the Constitution of 3 May, 1791, was passed, creating in Poland a constitutional monarchy along the same lines as the British system.
A great patron and lover of the arts and well aware of how effectively culture can stimulate national pride, King Stanislaus commissioned English art dealers Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noël Desenfans to buy high-end artworks and create a royal collection of fine art worthy of a new Polish national gallery. The partners worked for five years towards that lofty goal, and then it all fell apart. Polish nobles opposed to the new constitution asked Queen Catherine the Great of Russia to send troops, which she was all too glad to do.
A war (lost), the Second Partition of Poland (Russia and Prussia took almost everything, leaving only a feeble rump state) and a reformist revolt led by Tadeusz Kościuszko ensued. The revolt failed due to the overwhelmingly superior numbers of Russian and Prussian forces and in 1795, the Third Partition destroyed the last sad vestige of the Polish state. Stanislaus abdicated and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth died. The dream of a Polish national gallery to rival those of the great European powers died with it. The works collected by Desenfans and Bourgeois became the core of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first public art gallery in the UK.
Into the devastating breach stepped one Princess Izabela Czartoryska. A writer and collector who hobnobbed with the cream of Enlightenment society — Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire — and advocated progressive reformist politics, Princess Izabela together with her husband Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski made the Czartoryski Palace Pulawy a center of Polish art, philosophy and politics in the 1780s. Pulawy earned the moniker the Polish Athens thanks to the flouring of intellectual life at the Czartoryski Palace.
After the Third Partition annihilated what was left of Polish independence, Izabela had the palace, burned and looted by Russian troops in retaliation for the Czartoryskis support of the Kościuszko Uprising in 1794, rebuilt by architect Chrystian Piotr Aigner and installed a museum of Polish royal and national memorabilia. The nascent collection included Turkish trophies captured by King Jan III Sobieski at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, heirlooms purchased from and donated by Poland’s greatest noble families.
In 1801, Izabela opened the Temple of the Sibyl, also known as the Temple of Memory, on the Czartoryski Palace estate. The Temple, designed by Chrystian Piotr Aigner after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, held the collection of Polish historical and cultural artifacts salvaged from royal castles, a growing collection of books, historic archives (including King Stanislaus II’s) and art. It was the first museum in Poland. Izabela’s son Adam Jerzy Czartoryski expanded the art historical significance of the collection geometrically during a 1798 trip to Italy when he purchased The Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci and Portrait of A Young Man by Raphael.
The collection was endangered by the November Uprising of 1830. The Russian army suppressed the uprising and the Czartoryski Palace holdings. Princess Izabela successfully hustled many of the museum’s treasures, including the Leonardo, out of danger before the Russians came. The family was forced into exile in Paris and Izabela’s son Adam installed the collection at the Hôtel Lambert. The Czartoryski collection returned to Poland in 1878 where it reopened in a new Czartoryski Museum in Kraków.
The Nazi depredations of World War II did a number on the Czartoryski museum. The Lady with an Ermine and Portrait of A Young Man were stolen practically the minute Germany invaded Poland. The Leonardo was brought back to Poland in 1940 because the Governor General Hans Frank wanted to hang it in his office. Allied troops found it at the end of the war and returned it to Poland. Many other works stolen by the Nazis from the Czartoryski collection were eventually rediscovered and returned. The Raphael is still missing to this day.
The Czartoryski Museum was nationalized after the war and administered by the Communist government. The museum and library collections were officially returned to Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski as the rightful owner in 1991. Since then, the Czartoryski Museum has been one of the most visited institutions in Poland, thanks largely to the enduring charm of Leonardo’s beautiful Lady and her muscular ermine.
It’s still privately owned, however, which means in theory The Lady with Ermine and everything else in the collection could leave the country. Poland most assuredly does not want that to happen. The Polish Culture Ministry announced Wednesday that they are in talks to buy the Czartoryski collection for the state.
“The Polish state and thus the Polish nation will own one of the world’s most valuable art collections, including this work, which many art historians deem superior to the ‘Mona Lisa’,” Selin said, quoted by the PAP agency. […]
The ministry told AFP on Wednesday that Minister Piotr Glinski had “announced steps to finally set the status of the collection,” which requires a deal with the president of the foundation, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, who lives in Madrid.
This would bring together King Stanislaus II August’s long-thwarted vision and Princess Izabela’s dogged determination to keep Poland’s history and cultural prominence alive. Whether it can actually happen remains to be seen. The deal would be in the billions of dollars — the Leonardo alone is insured for $350 million — and there is a question whether the terms of the Czartoryski Foundation allow it to be sold in whole or in part.