Portrait of Helena Modrzejewska


Title: A portrait of Helena Modrzejewska

Author: Baker Art Gallery photo lab, Columbus, Ohio
Year Taken: 1900
Kept by: Walery Rzewuski Museum of History of Photography in Krakow

The photograph in the shape of a standing rectangle is glued onto a larger rectangular dark-brown cardboard matte. A plain, light-brown double line forms a frame around the photo. The difference in size between the photograph and the cardboard matte creates margins which are almost identical on the sides and the top, with the lower margin slightly wider. The corners of the cardboard are bevelled (cut at an angle) and rounded. In the lower margin, there is an impression and a lithograph: on the left, two medallions are shown with their obverse on top and reverse only partly visible, as if lying underneath. One medallion has the year 1888 inscribed on the reverse and the other one, with the inscription “Photographers Association of America” bears an image of a bust of the inventor of photography, Luis Daguerre. On the right, the name of the photo lab: “Baker Art Gallery, Columbus, O.” appears in italics (the letter O stands for the state of Ohio).

There are no features visible in the neutral, light grey background of the photo and the image itself seems almost flat. Helena Modrzejewska is shown here at the age of 60 as Constance in Shakespeare’s “King John”. The woman is presented in a bust form, from her right side, the head tilted towards the right shoulder, somewhat down. Her face is focused, the eyebrows clearly marked, the eyes wide open, fixed on a single point. The nose is clearly outlined, her mouth narrow and closed, the chin small. Soft light is falling onto her left cheek and her long, fluffy hair that is parted in the middle and flows freely onto her back and shoulders.

Helena is wearing her stage outfit: a dark outer blouse, creased on her chest, adorned at the front with two vertical strips of jets (those are decorative stones imitating crystals). The collar of her white blouse is visible at her neck and she’s wearing a long chain necklace. The thick draping of the dark blouse lends the photograph a three-dimensional quality in this section, and the subject’s trunk seems larger than in reality.

 Helena Modrzejewska was born on the 12th of October 1840 in Krakow, Poland as Jadwiga Helena Misel. She changed her name to Chłapowska when she married. She died on April 8th 1909 in Newport Beach, California. She was an actress who specialised in Shakespearean and tragic parts, a champion of William Shakespeare’s work. Between October 1900 and April 1901 Helena Modrzejewska was touring North America for the twenty-third time. This photograph, taken at the “Baker Art Gallery” photo lab comes from exactly that period.

Portrait of Helena Modrzejewska detail