Gift to the Nation: 20 Years of the Lanckoroński Collection at Wawel Castle
“Never, in the most daring dreams of my long life, did it occur to me that I would be granted the chance to write this letter. I present this gift in tribute to the Free and Independent Polish Republic, into the care of her President,” Karolina Lanckorońska wrote on September 8, 1994, in a letter to President Lech Wałęsa. Her gift was unparalleled in post-war Polish history, in terms of both artistic and historic value. The collection is comprised of 122 paintings: 87 of which are by primarily Italian masters dating from the 14th through the 16th centuries presented to the Wawel Royal Castle in Cracow and works by Dutch, Flemish, and French painters – including 18 pictures from the collection of King Stanisław August Poniatowski – presented to the Royal Castle in Warsaw. In addition to the paintings, the Wawel Castle received numerous drawings connected to the Lanckoroński family by Jacek Malczewski, miniatures, 18th- and 19th-century furniture, coins, and family documents.
These works of art, which were once part of the celebrated collection amassed by Karol Lanckoroński in his palace at 18 Jacquingasse in Vienna, immeasurably enriched Polish museum collections. “The entire house was filled to the brim with paintings and objects of exceptional value,” Lanckorońska recalled years later. The future professor of art history at Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów (now Lviv) grew up in a family where, as Princess Nora Fugger wrote “an artistic sense and understanding of the arts were hereditary.” She came of age in the ambience of the Lanckoroński home-cum-museum, a favorite meeting place for the international intellectual and artistic elite of Vienna.
The collection, as shaped by Karol Lanckoroński, existed less than 50 years. The Second World War put an end to its splendor. After the Anschluss [the annexation of Austria by the Third Reich] the collection was confiscated. Evacuated from Vienna in 1943, it never returned to its original home. The palace was heavily damaged during the last phase of the war. Lanckoroński’s heirs – his three children – decided to settle abroad. After much exerted effort, they managed to export their family collection. “After the war, my brother was forced, as I, too, was later, to sell off part of the collection,” recalled Karolina, who [of the three] most thoroughly suffered the cruelty of the war and occupation. Although bereft of her homeland, since she did not want to return to communist Poland, supported Polish scholarship and culture in every possible way. “For me, Polishness is being conscious of belonging to the Polish nation. I believe that it is our duty to give evidence of this consciousness in as concrete a way as possible,” she wrote. Her great gift was the most beautiful evidence.