by Petar Meseldžija

Paja Jovanović is one of the greatest Serbian painters. Uroš Predić, another great painter, is perhaps the only artist from the Serbian art Pantheon, who can match, to a certain degree, Paja Jovanović in terms of the technical excellence and the impact of his paintings on the Serbian people and their culture. (I will write about Uroš Predić in the near future).

Paja Jovanović was a greatly talented, virtuous painter, nationally and internationally very successful, rich, praised and adored, although later in his life his art was criticized and dismissed by some of the 20th century art critics as outdated, dry, staged, detached from real life and a sterile example of the Academic Realism. Whatever the point of view of the scholarly art establishment, the fact is that his art was loved by the people. It has been said that, during a certain period, there was almost no Serbian home that did not have a reproduction on the wall of one of Jovanović’s famous pictures. (Nowadays the situation is quite different…)

In his long and prolific life, Paja Jovanovic created a large number of paintings, and although he also gained popularity as the remarkable portraitist, immortalizing many kings and queens, the politicians, the wealthy people and the artists, he is after all best known for his genre-compositions and works with the historical content. Although classified as the works of the Academic Realism, these depictions of the important  moments from the national history, and the representations of the folkways, give more or less idealized, almost romantic, view of the history and the reality of life in the Balkans during the second part of the 19th century. Never the less, these images had a great appeal to the people of his time (they still do, as you will probably see for yourself while looking at the pictures below), and rooted themselves deeply within the national psyche. In a way they represented the powerful symbols of iconic, almost epic proportions, offering the guidelines to the national spirit that was, in those days, seeking its visual manifestation.

Wounded Montenegrin, 1882 (Paja Jovanovic was still a student of 22 in Vienna when he painted this painting, his first master piece)

However idealized, or unrealistic these images might appear, I think they should primarily be seen as the works of art, often technically brilliant, that deals with symbols and archetypes. As we know, the symbols are never meant to be the accurate historic, or journalistic accounts of the specific moments in time and space. Their function is rather to embody a certain universal idea, or the unifying aspects, and to communicate them to the consciousness in a way that enables the emotional and spiritual recognition and acceptance of their message. Many of Jovanović’s paintings, and their subsequent history, show how powerful and evocative these symbols can be.

However important or crucial to life, or to society, when taken out of the right context, all things tend to become less relevant; they lose their power and meaning. Therefore, my strong conviction, especially when it comes to less exact, or less “measurable” aspects of Life, like Art, is that it is outermost important to see things within the right context. When it comes to judging the artistic achievements of Paja Jovanović, this was apparently a difficult task during the 20sth century because of the dominion of the Modernistic Dogma, among a few other things, like politics, etc.. Nowadays, after being freed from its possessive and mighty grip, the world of art, and the art loving public in particular, is again allowed to enjoy and rediscover the forgotten qualities of until relatively recently despised forms of art like the Academic Realism, and alike. The fact that a serious, full scale monograph about life and work of Paja Jovanović has been published in Serbia just two years ago, more than 50 years after his death, is an example of the impact of the various dogmas on the way many people saw his art. The good thing is that there are now two Paja Jovanović books in the bookstores; one written by Nikola Kusovac and published by Belgrade City Museum (text is in Serbian, with only the summary in English); the other being published by “Radionica duše” and edited by Momčilo Moša Todorović (text in Serbian and English).

In spite of all the criticism, whether justified or unjustified, that the work of Paja Jovanović had to endure during the 20th century, and having in mind his remarkable and important position in the Serbian art and culture, he definitely deserves these monographs. As Mr. Kusovac stated in his book abuot Paja Jovanović: “…Still, no Serbian painter, before or after Paja Jovanović, has ever influenced the fine arts education, culture and, most of all, the patriotism of his people to such extend and so powerfully…”

Decorating of the Bride, 1886

Alas, when I was an art student in the eighties, there was no book full of glorious images of  Paja Jovanović’s art. Therefore I often used to visit the museums to analyze and to try to reveal the secrets of his paintings, or better said a limited number of them that I had access to. I must say that, in those days, it was not very popular for an art student to be interested in such an art, and to seek the inspiration in something that was considered to be old-fashioned and conservative. But, in spite of the mockery, I stayed close and fateful to Jovanović’s art. Paja Jovanovic was my artistic hero. Thanks to the guidance and help that I have found in his art at the beginning of my art career, I have become what I always wanted to become – a good painter, truthful to his artistic vocation and his personal vision.

Paja Jovanović in his Munich studio, 1889

At the end, because there are not many hi-res images of Paja Jovanović’s work on the internet, and in order to show you some of his greatest paintings, I was forced to scan the images from my Paja Jovanović’s  books and prints. You will certainly notice which images I am referring to.

More about life and work of Paja Jovanović you can find here or here or here


Migration of the Serbs (The First Serbian Migration occurred during the Great Turkish War under Patriarch Arsenije III Čarnojević in 1690), 1896

Crowning of Emperor Dušan, (in 1346), 1900 (This is a hudge canvas, 390 X 589 cm. Jovanović painted a few versions of this painting)

The Wedding of Emperor Dušan, around 1900

Uprising of Takovo ( The Second Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire in Takovo, 1815), 1898

Return of the Squad of Montenegrins from the Battle, 1888

Furor Teutonicus,  black and white reproduction, so called heliograph,1899 (the whereabouts of this huge canvas, about 20 square meters / 216 square feet, is unknown)

Rooster Fight, 1897

Fencing Game, 1890

Albanian resting, around 1890

Traitor, 1885

Falconer, 1890–95

Two Guards in front of a Gate, 1888-89

Snake Tamer, 1887

Mihailo Pupin, 1903

King Aleksandar Karadjordjević, 1930

Jožef Gorup, 1903

Muni, the Artist’s Wife in the Salon, 1930

Portrait of a Lady from Vienna, 1905

Portrait of the painter Symington, 1902-03

King Ferdinand of Romania, 1925

Mrs. Hudson, 1911

Djordje Jovanović, Sculptor, 1905

A Nude on Red Cloth, 1918 – 20

Restoring the Migration of the Serbs