What does the name Kosciuszko mean to you? Australians know it as their tallest mountain; New Yorkers know it as the bridge connecting Brooklyn and Queens; daytime television fans know it as the Mississippi town that gave us Oprah Winfrey. Residents of Washington DC, Chicago and Boston may have seen the name on an old statue somewhere.
Two hundred years ago, the name commanded more respect; and not least among the British. Lord Byron declared it the “sound that crashes in the tyrant’s ear”; John Keats claimed it as “a full harvest whence to reap high feeling.” Back then, the Polish general and national leader, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, was as well known to the public as his contemporaries (and acquaintances) Washington, Lafayette, and Napoleon. But time has been less kind to Kosciuszko—at least outside of Poland and centres of Polish immigration.
This is unfortunate, because Kosciuszko was a truly remarkable man. He left Poland to fight in the American Revolution and became one of the heroes of that conflict. Hoping to bring American-style democracy to his homeland, he led an unsuccessful uprising in Poland against its invading neighbours. And, though he admired the United States, he opposed slavery and left money in his will to buy the freedom and education of enslaved African Americans. Though both Napoleon and Tsar Alexander courted him, Kosciuszko knew that neither would grant Poland its sovereignty.
But Kosciuszko is remarkable for another reason. Because of his political beliefs, he was banished from his homeland—a homeland that had ceased to exist. After the defeat of the Kosciuszko Uprising, Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland off the map of Europe. It would only reappear as a sovereign nation in 1918—more than a century after Kosciuszko’s death.
As the grandson of a Polish immigrant, I’ve had a long fascination with Tadeusz Kosciuszko. I’ve written about him, and I’ve visited sites associated with his life. I often compare him to Nelson Mandela—but without the success that Mandela experienced after his release from prison. Perhaps a better parallel is the Dalai Lama, another figure of exile forever identified with a nation that only appears on maps as part of another nation. Like the Dalai Lama, Kosciuszko was widely travelled and widely honoured, but few foreign leaders were willing to assist him in recovering his nation’s sovereignty. Thinking of Poland in 1831, the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell lamented those government officials who “mouth fair Freedom’s classic line” but fail to act on their words. Campbell’s concerns remain pertinent today.
Most representations of Kosciuszko, whether prints, paintings, or sculptures, present him in the familiar military poses: in uniform, sword in hand, often on horseback. These images portray Kosciuszko the public hero. But there is another image of Kosciuszko that I find far more interesting: Kosciuszko the exile. That image survives in a remarkable portrait in the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio. Painted by the American artist Benjamin West in 1797, the image was made shortly after Kosciuszko had been freed from a Russian prison. Imprisoned for leading the uprising that today bears his name, he was released under the condition that he would not return to Poland. He was making a short stop in Britain before continuing on to the United States. He lived another twenty years, but he would never return to his homeland.
Kosciuszko was still recovering from wounds to his leg and head when he arrived in London. Nevertheless, he received a steady stream of visitors to his Leicester Square hotel. Politicians, military men, artists, and celebrities all wanted their moment with the Polish hero (not unlike the swarm of people who surround Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, or the Dalai Lama today). One of those visitors was Benjamin West. Kosciuszko refused all requests for a portrait, so West went back to his studio and painted from memory.[i]
West’s painting shows Kosciuszko in an unpretentious room, reclining on a couch with papers spread about. His injuries are evident: his left hand touches his bandaged head and a crutch stands behind him. A Polish military cap and a sword, reminders of his profession and nationality, lie before him on a small table. A grey, impressionistic view of London appears through an open window, with St. Paul’s Cathedral dominating the scenery. The painting is quite small (12 1/2 by 17 1/2 inches), and one scholar has compared it to a Dutch still life. But Kosciuszko’s unguarded pose and weary, melancholy expression make this image remarkable. West has captured the sadness and solitude of a national leader in exile. It is difficult to imagine one of Kosciuszko’s military peers—Napoleon, Horatio Nelson, Lafayette—appearing in an image that presents its subject in such a private, vulnerable position.
West’s composition has precedents in British art. Sixteen years earlier, Joseph Wright of Derby exhibited at the Royal Academy a large portrait of Brooke Boothby, a writer whose greatest contribution to letters was his publishing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Dialogues in London. In Wright’s painting, Boothby appears in idyllic surroundings, absently folding a volume of Rousseau as he looks off in a reverie that carries his eyes just beyond the viewer. Boothby’s melancholic absorption in the volume of Rousseau makes him appear oblivious of the fact that we are gazing at him. Like Boothby, Kosciuszko stares just beyond the viewer; but the focus of his attention, the cause of his melancholy—Poland—is impossible to picture, because it no longer exists. It is only present in scraps and pieces: a crutch, a sword, a cap, some papers strewn about the room.
One scrap of paper, tellingly placed just below the crutch, contains the name of West’s subject. The name, however, is partially obscured by an inkstand in the shape of a ship. Perhaps West was suggesting the ship that carried Kosciuszko to London. Or perhaps he was thinking of the recent British naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore—mutinies that brought fears of revolution to Britain. West told his friend Joseph Farington that Kosciuszko “asked abt. the meeting at the Nore—is agitated by the thoughts of revolutions and wishes to proceed to America where He expects to find peace.” In any case, the indistinct letters of Kosciuszko’s name become a powerful metonym for the wounded leader, himself a symbol for his dismembered nation. All that appears from behind the inkstand is “Genl Co…osko, Lond;” General Kosciuszko in London is divided, incomplete, miswritten.
Contemporary accounts noted that Kosciuszko enjoyed drawing landscapes; perhaps the other scraps contain landscapes of Poland. But as that landscape would never again be accessible to Kosciuszko, the general’s scriptural musings might have turned toward the view of London seen through the open lattice. Considering England’s refusal to interfere in the partition of Poland, however, there is a certain irony in this image. The presence of St. Paul’s reminds us that Kosciuszko is a displaced person, a foreigner who would prefer not to be in London. Even the figure itself seems aware of the dangers of those deceptive promises emanating from hazy St. Paul’s, an obvious symbol for a distant and vague English morality that sympathized with the fallen leader but failed to help him. His left hand—touching a black cloth that hides war wounds—keeps that London light from brightening his countenance.
While West was an important figure in London and president of the Royal Academy, he was also American and would have been aware of his young country’s debt to the Polish general. There’s also evidence that West felt sympathy for the motives of the French Revolution. This need to balance British, American and continental sympathies may help explain West’s ability to produce what his biographer Robert C. Alberts called “an astonishing picture for the year 1797, an obvious anachronism, a precocious anticipation of Byronic melancholy and mood laden Weltschmerz.” West produced an aesthetically and politically complicated image that simultaneously honours a revolutionary hero in exile and challenges the hypocritical society that only honours a revolutionary after his defeat.
It’s appropriate that West’s painting survives in Ohio, a state with one of the largest Polish immigrant communities in North America. Because of the painting’s fragile state, it rarely leaves Oberlin. I wish it could be seen in the United Kingdom. Any visitor to London notes the number of Polish supermarkets and newspapers that have appeared since Poland entered the European Union in 2004. Recent figures suggest that more than half a million residents of England and Wales speak Polish as their first language. Their presence has been controversial: some support them, others oppose them, still others support them as the right kind of immigrants (often for all the wrong reasons). But this recent wave of new immigrants has encouraged Britons to reflect on the longer history of Polish immigration to Britain. Usually this history only goes back to the Polish pilots who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and settled in Britain when Poland became a Soviet satellite. But there was a steady flow of Polish (and Italian, and Hungarian, and Russian) immigrants to Britain throughout the nineteenth century. Kosciuszko didn’t stay long in Britain, but West’s image captures Britain’s ambiguous relationship with not only Polish but all immigrants, and reminds us that those tensions predate our lifetimes.
[i] The discussion that follows is adapted from a lengthier analysis in my book, The Other East and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Imagining Poland and the Russian Empire (Palgrave, 2012).