Portrait of Emilia Plater

Portrait of Emilia Plater

Author: Łukaszewicz Tadeusz, 1802 - 1842

Created: 1830.

Material / technique: oil on oilskin.

Dimensions: 61,5x53,2 cm.

The Portrait of a Woman in a White Dress was obviously made by a talented artist and certain principles of composition and general visual imagery imply he studied the art of portrait in the 1st half of the 19th century at Vilnius school of art, which had a very strong tradition of painting portraits: the small frame of the portrait, the dark background from which the figure is as if drawn by a sheaf of light, the modest quality of the model, all these characteristics are typical of the work of Jan Rustem and his students. Still, similar features can indeed be found in the mid-19th century art from other countries, which would make the story behind the painting the key source of the artist’s attribution and identification of the person portrayed; however, the amount of data available in that regard is very scarce. By way of verbal tradition, the woman in the painting is connected to the Pliateris family.

The portrait shows a girl of an obviously noble descent; she is wearing a fashionable, expensive but rather modest white dress with no adornments. Based on the woman’s outfit and hairstyle, we can determine the time the portrait was at done quite accurately. Fashion was apt to change quite rapidly in the 19th century, and certain garment elements would appear in one year or the other. The type of the dress shown in the portrait (straight-cut at the waist with a wide yet flat neckline that visually enhances the shoulders, and puffed sleeves) became popular in 1821 and was worn, with some variations, until 1839. Individual details help narrow down the period even further, for a strap or a bow as an element to accentuate the waistline was only introduced circa 1829. The sleeves of the dress are quite peculiar as well: in early 1820s, sleeves would be widened with a small puff at the shoulders; they then tended to flare up until mid-1830s. The sleeves shown in the portrait are quite specific and double-layered, with long and broad arms of transparent fabric sewn on top of short, albeit broad, puffed sleeves.

The hairstyle of the girl portrayed also belongs to a rather specific period – that of around 1830: the hair is done up in a braid-wrapped high bun with tightly spun, not-quite-shoulder-length locks framing the face.

Based on these details, the portrait can be dated around 1830. The girl in the portrait can only be identified hypothetically. Judging by the age of the girl portrayed, she could have been born in early 19th century. Comparing this portrait with the self-portrait of Emilija Pliaterytė (1806–1831) made before 1831 and kept in the family’s collection to be later (in 1838) re-drawn by an unknown artist, who altered some of the details of her image slightly, is an interesting thing to do. The self-portrait has little in common with the romanticised graphical images of the heroine that were in circulation after 1831: these are very far removed from her actual image and have eventually become a kind of a cliché. As a matter of fact, one of the first images of her as an officer – this one, too, believed to be done by herself – is also different from the subsequent romanticised lithographs. Comparing the faces in the self-portrait and in the portrait of the girl, one could see quite a few similar features: the shape of the face, the eyes, the solid eyebrows, the lip line, and the rounded and quite strongly highlighted chin.

It could be assumed that The Portrait of a Girl in a White Dress might be that of Emilija Pliaterytė, who only cut her hair and dressed like a man after the start of the uprising on 29 March 1831. The modesty, solemnity of the girl in the portrait that reflects her character could serve as a side-argument. Besides, the girl in the picture has blue eyes, which matches her description as well.

The portrait might have been painted by Tadas Lukoševičius (1802–1842) of Vilnius school of art, who was a student to Rustem in 1825–1829 and became connected to the Zyberk-Pliateris estate in 1829, possibly accompanying them on their foreign travels; however, he was soon to return to Lithuania and in 1893 he enrolled in Munich Academy of Art with sponsorship from the Zyberk-Pliateris family. The portraiture by this artist has been largely neglected so far. His portraits that were made after the assumed portrait of E. Pliaterytė and have recently been appearing at auctions bear testimony to a high level of his professionalism.

It is a known fact that Lukoševičius has the support of the counts Pliateris-Zyberk. Another known fact is that E. Pliaterytė, daughter to Pranciškus Ksaveras Broel-Pliateris and Ana von Mohl, was born in Vilnius but after her parents’ divorce in 1815 moved with her mother to live at the estate of Emilija’s uncle Mykolas Pliateris-Zyberkas and Izabella Helena von Zyberk in Liksna near Daugavpils. Which makes both the painter and the subject connected to the Plateris-Zyberk family. This fact supports the hypothesis regarding the author and the subject, which can only be confirmed or debunked by further historical, iconographical, and attributional studies of the portrait.

Reference by dr. Rūta Janonienė, Chief research worker at the Institute of Art Criticism of Vilnius Academy of Art.