The works from the easel of Józef Mehoffer include still lifes alongside his quite numerous landscapes, genre and allegorical scenes. Although they are only a complementary strand in the rich iconosphere of the artist’s paintings and more modest in number, they are a nevertheless significant one. They are an expression of an important feature of his creative personality, or of his character in general – a tendency to devote his attention to small everyday motifs, to notice their inconspicuous beauty and decorative qualities, sometimes hidden mystical meanings, and their importance arising from their connection with specific people and situations. Mehoffer’s still lifes are thus images of slices of reality reproduced with feeling, and each is characterised by a specific, intense emotional shade.
Ornaments on the Mantlepiece, painted in Paris in 1895, is the best known of these works. The inspiration for Mehoffer was his acquaintance with Jadwiga and Wanda Janakowska; he met the artistically talented sisters in 1894. He dedicated three compositions to the younger sister, Wanda, in the second half of the 1890s – The Singer (1896), recently shown at the Józef Mehoffer House in a separate exhibition, The Muse (1897), and expressive landscape The Ravine (1897) with a depiction of her silhouette as staffage. Both Janakowska sisters, in turn, appear in the painting The Conversation (1896).
Ornaments on the Mantlepiece, on the other hand, is associated with the figure of Jadwiga. The painting depicts a small, beautiful motif from her room in Paris, which had been rendered somewhat earlier in oil by Karol Maszkowski.
Mehoffer’s penchant for private scenes and his intimate sensitivity is not apparent in any of his works as clearly as it is in Ornaments. The extraordinary decorativeness of this composition is determined by the sublime colouring and the thoughtful, ornamental arrangement of the colour spots that build it, as if tangled together. The image of the ornaments lying on the mantlepiece and the image of their reflection in the mirror in this symbolist still life are closely intertwined and inseparable, which puzzles and intrigues the viewer.
Jadwiga Mehoffer recalled how two views of the interior of her room in Paris came to be painted by Maszkowski and Mehoffer:
“The painters liked Miss Jadwiga’s room because it looked aesthetically pleasing and cheerful. To cover the ugly wallpaper, a frieze of brown and red wine leaves arranged on white paper ran under the ceiling; below it hung oil studies, gifts from friends, and the remainder of the walls were covered with large panels of then-fashionable placards, fabulously coloured brio, sometimes by a masterful hand, by Cheret, Besnard, Forain and others. The room (...) was dominated by the sea-green or steel-blue colours. Maszkowski made the ‘interior’ of the corner dark, as it was separated from the rest by fine curtains falling from above. In it stood a bed in this sea colour, and the really artistic moment in this interior was a standing chest of drawers with toiletries, carefully drawn, next to the headboard. The thin outlines stood out delicately against a wall that was also murky, distinguished by the muted cinnabar of a large collection of Japanese woodcuts.
Mehoffer made the interior further into the room: a mirror in a gilded frame, beneath it a fireplace in the prevailing colour of steel blue, embroidered with a gold pattern. On the mantlepiece stood a Japanese bronze, an ibis, which held in its beak a vertically bent branch, topped with a lotus flower adapted as a candlestick. Next to it were arranged trays, a pot with a tulip, and vases with bunches of mimosas. The painting called Ornaments on the Mantlepiece was nicely drawn.”
Exhibition Curator / Coordination – Beata Studziżba-Kubalska
Exhibition design – Paulina Zwolak-Nowak