Black protest in 19th-century Warsaw
The weakened position of Russia following the Crimean War (1853–1856) raised hopes for regaining independence among Poles. Resourceful inhabitants of Warsaw started to organise patriotic demonstrations. One of them took place in 1860, on the occasion of the funeral of the widow of Józef Sowiński, who had fought in the November Uprising. During a protest taking place in February of the following year, law enforcement officers opened fire on the protesters. Five men were killed. The residents of the capital attended the funeral of the deceased in throngs, all dressed – as the occasion demanded – in black. From that moment on, black started to be seen as a symbol of protest against the repressive Russian regime. The colour continued to be worn long after the fall of the January Uprising as a manifestation of mourning not only for the perished combatants, but also for the homeland.
Photographs taken in the period of national mourning, commissioned in well-known photographic studios in Warsaw, primarily in the atelier of Karol Beyer, for example the exhibited albumen print, glued on a paper card, in the format called carte de visite, as well as the ateliers of Aleksander Witkowski, Teofil Boretti, Jan Mieczkowski or Maksymilian Fajans, were all similar in style and had double meaning. The important element of each photograph was not only the image of the person itself, but also the manifestation of patriotic sentiment, expressed through clothes, symbolic accessories, and the grave mood of the people posing for the picture.
Such portraits started to circulate among the population and were copied in other partitions. Many of them have been preserved in family albums. The scale of the phenomenon – patriotic duty fulfilled through photography – is a testament to the popularity of the medium in early 1860s and the beginnings of its use for propaganda purposes in Warsaw.