Starting in the spring of 1894, Józef Mehoffer, who was on scholarship in Paris, began to devote his free time quite intensively to music. He owed this to having made the acquaintance at that time of the Janakowski sisters, Jadwiga (1871-1956), his future wife, and Wanda (1873-1940), who had come to the French capital to study art. They were from a landowning family in the Eastern Borderlands. Jadwiga developed her painting skills, while Wanda’s forte was singing. Both were particularly fascinated by the music of Richard Wagner
In one of the letters he frequently wrote at the time to his mother, Aldona Mehoffer née Polikowska, he reported that he and the Janakowski sisters, as well as his friends, the violinist and musicologist Henryk Opieński and the painter Karol Maszkowski, always frequented the Théâtre du Châtelet on Sundays for concerts by the famous conductor Édouard Colonne. The artist was also likely invited to musical gatherings at the home of the composer and violinist Władysław Górski and his wife, Maria née Rosen, who were friends of the Janakowskis.
Wanda Janakowska was to win praise for her interpretation of operatic parts from Richard Wagner’s works from the brilliant composer’s widow, Cosima. It is known that she did indeed visit Bayreuth in Bavaria, home of the annual Wagner festivals, then directed by Cosima Wagner – a souvenir of Wanda’s visit to this Bavarian town is her photographic portrait from the second half of the 1890s, taken in the photography atelier of Hans Brand there. She may have met Cosima at that time.
Mehoffer was undoubtedly intrigued by her personality and vocal talent, and often attended her singing lessons and solo chamber performances. He first mentioned his intention to paint her portrait in a letter to his mother at the end of January 1896. The idea for the work finally crystallised some two weeks later. The artist began working on it inspired by a “costume party” the Janakowskis had hosted, at which the younger sister appeared in a Spanish-style outfit, which she later wore when posing for the portrait. By the end of March that year, it was finished for certain, and soon became known as The Singer.
In this life-size image, the figure of Wanda is integrated into the narrow frame of the space of the stage. By depicting her as an opera soloist, in Spanish-style costume, in a characteristic pose of counterpoint, with one hand placed on her hip, Mehoffer may have intended to allude to the figure of Carmen from the opera by Georges Bizet. However, the singer stands motionless on stage, immersed in her thoughts and seemingly absent. Behind her, in the background, behind a drawn back curtain revealing a fragment of the backstage, one can see the figures of Mehoffer, Opieński, Maszkowski and Jadwiga Janakowska staring at her.
The work is characterised by sublime colours. It reveals the influence of French portrait painting of the time, and is also an expression of the artist’s highly refined technical skills, which he owed in large part to his studies at the École des Beaux-Art in Paris (between 1892 and 1893 he studied there under the eminent portraitist Léon Bonnat).
The Singer is one of Mehoffer’s most highly regarded paintings. It drew the attention of critics and even gained some fame as early as 1898, at the first exhibition of the Vienna Secession. Great success came with the artist showing the canvas at two Universal World’s Fairs – in Paris in 1900 and in Saint Louis in the United States in 1904 – where it was awarded gold medals.
At the beginning of 1910, the then vice-president of Lviv, Dr Tadeusz Rutowski, approached Mehoffer with a proposal to purchase The Singer for the collection of the recently founded Municipal Picture Gallery. Shortly thereafter, the work became the property of this Lviv museum.
Wanda’s dream of an operatic career was not to be, due to a laryngeal illness. She made the decision to choose the religious life. Around 1900, she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and took the religious name Bohdana. She resided at the convent in Jazłowiec in western Podolia, teaching singing and French at the Lyceum of Jazłowiec, run by the Immaculate Sisters. In 1922, Mehoffer painted a portrait of her in her habit (shown at the exhibition). By the end of the 1930s, she was probably attached to the Immaculata mission house in Hołoby in Volhynia. In the autumn of 1939, she joined Jadwiga and Józef Mehoffer in Lviv, who were staying there, and then, with them, she ended up in the German camp in Asch in the Sudetenland (now Aš in western Bohemia), where she died of pneumonia on 1 March 1940.
Exhibition Curator/ Coordination - dr Beata Studziżba-Kubalska
Exhibition design – Magdalena Bujak