Collection of Portraits of Vilnius Charity Society

Dalia Tarandaitė (PDF)

Vilnius Charity Society, which was established in 1807 at the initiative of the bishop of Vilnius Jan Nepomucen Kossakowski and the physician and professor at Vilnius University Józef Frank, has been among the most active public organisations in Vilnius and among the few to continue its activity well into 1940 along with Vilnius Medical Society that operated for the same time. Information on its activity and its most generous benefactors was published in annual financial reports, the association’s newsletter, Dzieje dobroczynności krajowej i zagranicznej, and popular daily newspapers in the region. The distinguished members of civil merit and charitable activity and the major benefactors were noted on the commemorative plaque embedded on the wall of the society’s chapel, and their portraits adorned the walls of the society’s conference room.

The collection of portraits of the Vilnius Charity Society began around 1819. It was assembled largely from portraits provided by society members, i.e., donated portraits, works presented by relatives of deceased members, and personally commissioned portraits of the members. The collection consisted of 18 portraits on display in the conference room in 1859 and expanded to around 50 pieces at the time of the closure of the society in 1940. Most of the portraits are in the depositories of the Lithuanian Art Museum. The author managed to identify 37 portraits previously included in this collection.

Compared to similar collections comprising mainly replicas, the collection of portraits held by the Vilnius Charity Society stood out for its artistic quality. Most of the portraits were produced by such well-known Vilnius painters as Franciszek Smuglewicz, Jan Rustem, Andrzej Walinowicz, Polikarp Joteyko, Walenty Wańkowicz, Wincenty Smokowski, Jan Zenkiewicz, Henryk Kozlowski, Mikołaj Dawidowicz and Helena Spleszyńska-Kotwicz-Onichimowska. The only portrait of Duke Michał Kleofas Ogiński, which reflects the cosmopolitan attitudes of the Lithuanian aristocracy, was made by the famous French painter François Xavier Fabre.

The article analyses the portrait collection of the Vilnius Charity Society as a whole and concentrates on its content without considering the artistic form of individual works. Drawing on written sources, it discusses the contribution of the members to charity and the activity of the society, simultaneously revealing the principles underlying the building of the collection and some associated history.

Keywords: collection of portraits, Vilnius Charity Society, charitable activity, private donations, Vilnius University, Vilnius School of Art, Vilnius residents