Who could have been the “Polish fighter with a broken sword in the Hungarian War of Independence”?
An iconic image of Hungary’s 1848-49 War of Independence is a work of graphic art which was written about in the volume published jointly by György Rózsa and György Spiró in 1973: “It is the allegory of crushing defeat – the Polish fighter with a broken sword in the Hungarian War of Independence”. In his study published in 1993, literary historian István Csapláros interprets the history of the work somewhat differently. According to him, the work was reissued with another title due to its topicality, as well as for commercial reasons.
The watercolour with the title The Polish Officer: Praga 1831 is included in the itinerary of the Wallace Collection in London as a work by Léon Cogniet (1794–1880). An aquatint by Jean-Pierre Marie Jazet (1788–1871) made after Léon Cogniet’s drawing entitled Praga 1831 can be found in the Collection of Prints and Photographs of the Bibliothėque nationale. So the watercolour and the print were most probably made in 1831, and their subject matter was a concrete event.
What was the event that inspired Cogniet to paint the watercolour? Although the date next to Praga is 1831, the first tragic event of Polish history connected with this location took place in 1794 when the population of Warsaw supported the Kościuszko Uprising and launched a successful attack against the Russian army stationed in the city. They managed to defeat the Russians despite Prussian support, yet the Russian troops commanded by General Alexander Suvorov occupied the part of Warsaw called Praga. On 4 November 1794 they launched a terrible massacre, killing some 20,000 people in the district. The awful event was almost repeated later. In the Battle of Warsaw of September 1831 the Russian troops attacked the western fortifications of the city. That was the most significant and last battle of the Polish-Russian War. The Battle of Warsaw became an iconic theme in Polish culture during the 19th century. Poets and naturally painters presented the event, which evoked compassion all over Europe for the Poles and their fight for independence.
How could the printed version of Léon Cogniet’s composition, allegorically depicting the Battle of Warsaw and the Polish fight for independence, become an allegory of the defeat of the Hungarian War of Independence in 1849? As a professor at the Academy, Cogniet taught foreign artists including Viktor Madarász, who sent several paintings from Paris to Hungary for the competition of historical painting announced on the 10th anniversary of the defeat of the War of Independence. And if the master influenced his pupil it was possible the other way round. Perhaps it was due to Madarász that Cogniet learnt more about the tragedy of the Hungarian struggle for freedom. There is no date on the aquatint and it is likely that Cogniet reused the theme with respect to the Hungarian events under the influence of the Hungarian painter.