Kosciuszko’s Face

An interesting face that I’ve encountered this month is General Thaddeus Kosciuszko (1746–1817): Polish independence and American Revolutionary War hero, and a friend of Thomas Jefferson who left him money for the freeing of slaves. This was a name I knew previously only as the highest mountain in Australia (where we pronounce it, very literally, as “Kozzy-osko”. I’m now informed that ‘Ko-shu-sko’ is more accurate).[1]

At the Battle of Macieiowice on October 10, 1794, Kosciuszko received several injuries including a severe sabre cut across the forehead. He was then captured and held a Russian prisoner, and complained once he was eventually released to England in mid-1797 that “his wounds were long neglected”.[2] Two portraits completed surreptitiously by Benjamin West and Richard Cosway show Kosciuszko in London, with a black scarf over his wound, very much the Romantic Hero who would later be feted by the likes of John Keats and Lord Byron.

Kosciuszko continued to hide the scar in black silk or ribbon, but unlike some other early modern war veterans who used the patches on their facial scars to promote their histories of service (see for example Peter Mews (1619–1706), who served the King in the Civil War before he rose to Bishop of Bath and Wells and thereafter Bishop of Winchester, and Charles, 9th Lord Cathcart (1721–1776), shot at the Battle of Fontenoy), Kosciuszko doesn’t seem to have used the injury in portraits in the same way—in fact, he actively tried to prevent his portrait from being made. Eliza White, daughter of one of Kosciusko’s hosts, General White, recalled that “He pertinaciously resisted any attempt to obtain his likeness, and one day perceiving a lady stealthily endeavouring to sketch his features whilst he was lying on a sofa, he immediately threw a handkerchief over his face.”[3] Several reports attest to this reluctance, although at this stage I’m not entirely clear whether this was a life-long or post-injury situation. Kosciuszko’s other physical wounds were frequently commented on as evidence of his valour: the American Dr Rush epitomised this thinking in his reflection that “He will always limp—but what then? To use an ancient play upon words, every step he takes will remind him of his patriotism and bravery.”[4] Kosciuszko himself allegedly overplayed and concealed progress with this limp so as to deceive his enemies about his capacity to return to battle for Polish independence.

Oliver Cromwell famously told his painter to depict him “warts and all”, but the portraits of Kosciuszko reveal the tension in this desire for a balance between portrait accuracy and heroic tone. The sculptor Henry Dmochowski Saunders added aesthetic desires to this mix, remarking that “As the General was not a handsome man, and his virtue, courage and goodness were the prominent characteristics of his physiognomy; it was a task of no common difficulty to make his likeness, and at the same time an attractive object of art.” As Kosciuszko refused to sit for paintings, Swiss artist Urs Pankraz Eggenschwiler was commissioned by Peter Zeltner to secretly sketch and then create a classical sculpture of him. He’d got as far as sculpting three marble busts when Kosciuszko happened to visit the studio with Zeltner. He pushed two of the busts to the floor with his cane, and Eggenschweiler had to plead for the third to be spared; Kosciuszko complied on the promise that there would be no further copies made.[5] This bust is now in the collection of the New-York Historical Society and fits the bill as a classical bust–Roman haircut, toga and all, with a very clear-faced Kosciuszko.

However, it must be said that it doesn’t look very much like any of his other likenesses either, even in the face shape. In fact it’s very hard to know the extent to which any of his portraits present an accurate likeness: Lady Vera-Diana Kwilecka, Polish divorcee who became friends with him, noted that on their first meeting, “He looked nothing like the portraits I had seen.”[6]

Because the sabre wound produced a significant lifetime scar, as depicted on this bust.


This, I learned yesterday from Jan Lowys at the Polish Museum of America, is an undated but modern tourist piece, mass-produced, made “of plaster and spray painted gold brown at least ten years ago” and so far is the only statue I’ve found that even hints that the seasoned soldier didn’t have perfect skin. Lorys suggests that this is based on a smaller bronze bust designed as a patriotic souvenir—hence the medals, uniform, and its inscription ‘Warszawa’ (Warsaw). If so it’s interesting to see Kosciuszko’s disfigurement brought so prominently back into this narrative when it was omitted elsewhere. It reminded me of an interview with the esteemed Nelson scholar Colin White, who attributed the myth that Lord Nelson had worn a patch over his blind eye to a nineteenth-century wish to made the disability of the hero of Trafalgar more visible.[7] Several sources note that he had a “wrinkled” forehead (the smitten Lady Kwilecka describes him having “a face full of wrinkles”; is this a sort of euphemism? Where are they in the busts?  I’ll be chasing the scarred bust further in the hope of finding a date (any leads welcome!) and further information about what the sculptor is saying through this scar.


[1] I was unable to find a veritable source (ie. not Wikipedia) for the indigenous name/s for the mountain, and welcome corrections on this.

[2] Gentleman’s Magazine 30 May 1797, in Alex Storozynski, The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Evolution. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2009), p.219.

[3] Quoted in Miecislaus Haiman, Kosciuszko: Leader and Exile (New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, 1946), p.52

[4] In Storozynski, p.225

[5] Storozynski, p. 253.

[6] In Storozynski p. 253

[7] White adds, “There was no need for him to wear an eye patch because there was no disfigurement…. Nelson had to produce extra support to prove he was blind. The letter [to Commissioner Hope, in 1797] demonstrates that, looking at him, you couldn’t tell which eye was blind.”

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