Celebrating Jan Rustem’s 250th anniversary

  • 2013-01-23
  • By TBT Staff

Jan Rustem. Self-portrait.

VILNIUS - This year celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of Jan Rustem (1762–1835) in Constantinople (now called Istanbul), in the Christian-inhabited suburb of Peros. He was the most renowned artist of Vilnius in the first half of the 19th century. He was professor of the Department of Drawing and Painting at Vilnius University and he had a large influence on the development of art in Lithuania through his creative work and educational activities in the 19th century.

The artist left behind only very sketchy and contradictory hints about his origin. In some sources he describes his father as a Greek, in others as an Armenian merchant, and he said his mother was French. Around 1774 Rustem was brought to Poland by the General of Podolia, nobleman Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski. The boy was brought up on the estate of Czartoryski, which was well known as a focus of active cultural life. He received his first art lessons from Jean-Pierre Norblin. Around 1788–1790 Rustem was deepening his knowledge of art in Berlin. When he returned he continued his studies with Norblin in Warsaw. He attended the Royal School of Painting, which was headed by Marcello Bacciarelli. During the years 1793–1798, Rustem worked as a drawing teacher and decorator on the estate of the Soltanas family in Dzyatlava.

In 1798 Rustem was appointed as an Associate to Franciszek Smuglewicz, professor of Painting in the newly established Department of Drawing and Painting at Vilnius University. He taught drawing and painting until the University was closed down in 1832. In 1811 he was approved as an ‘extraordinary’ professor and in 1821 as an ‘ordinary’ professor. In 1828 Rustem received the Highest Commendation from the Education Minister for his diligent long-term service. In 1830 the artist was awarded an Order of Merit and the Order of Saint Anne Grade II.

Right from the start of his employment at the University, and particularly after 1819 when he became the de facto head of the Department of Drawing and Painting, Rustem concerned himself with making improvements to the teaching of Art at Vilnius University. He arranged teaching programs and projects to reorganize Art Departments; he attended to the strengthening of the school’s material base, student scholarships, internships, awards, conferral of academic degrees, furthering the art gallery’s collection, etc. He began organizing student art exhibitions – the first such group art shows in Vilnius.

Rustem’s creative work encompasses pictures of different genres, including mythological and religious topics, domestic scenes and landscapes. He was nevertheless a portraitist. On his canvases, this artist immortalized almost all the contemporary nobility of Vilnius and some from other parts of Lithuania; likewise the city’s university professors and intelligentsia, as well as family members and friends. His own distinctive face is also preserved in more than one of his artistic creations. The exoticness of his features was highlighted even more by his habit of constantly wearing a red Turkish fez, which, according to contemporaries, “he always wore on his head.”

No less an important part of the cultural legacy of Rustem are his drawings. During his long years working as a lecturer in drawing, this craftsman paid drawing particular attention, regarding it not just as a preparatory study for more advanced formats; instead, he regarded it to be an independent branch of artistic creativity. In his impulsive drawings, done with a sure and expressive line, the artist captured everyday life in Vilnius, including colorful people that he encountered in the streets and salons, representatives of various nationalities (Jews, Turks, and Tatars), peasants, itinerant merchants, acrobats, jugglers, etc. Rustem created stage props and costumes at Vilnius Theater and helped to produce amateur plays and popular “living pictures.”

A generation of Romantic artists was formed at the Department of Sketching and Painting headed by Jan Rustem. Students gained a belief in the educational power of art and an understanding of the artist’s mission in society from their teacher. After the 1831 insurrection, in which some of Rustem’s students participated, art became a form of resistance to the Czarist regime and a way to support the national consciousness. The young generation of artists and litterateurs cherished national culture and paid attention to all that was typical of their native land. In their creative work, they recreated landscapes, old castles, national customs and rituals, scenes of nobility life, episodes of ancient history, members of the nobility from the past and famous people who lived at the time. An exotic motif they inherited from their teacher was scenes from the life of Jews, an inherent part of the country’s history that was attractive because of its otherness and mystery.

Exhibition will be held in Vilnius Picture Gallery through Feb. 17.
More information can be found at: www.ldm.lt