Vlaho and Jelica Bukovac – Meeting One’s Fortune

Vlaho and Jelica Bukovac, Paris, 1892, KB-23

Coming back from England, I felt the urge to return to Dalmatia, as if a voice from within was telling me that it was there, and only there that true happiness was waiting for me. – I had worked hard, dedicated everything to my art, all the inextinguishable fervour and vigour of my youth. Now it was life’s turn to grant me the sort of happiness for which I had suffered and given so much of what I had. – And so I went home to meet my fortune. This is what Vlaho Bukovac wrote while reminiscing about the year 1891 and his return to Cavtat from Liverpool, where he was a guest at the manor of the wealthy couple Richard and Laura Le Doux. Namely, they invited him to their home in West Derby, where he spent the summer of that year. Upon returning home from England, Bukovac did indeed find, in his own words, the biggest joy of his life.

In Dubrovnik, he painted a portrait of the Bibica family; it was the family of a young lawyer Frano, who acted as a guardian to the children of the prematurely deceased captain Ivan Pitarević. While making portraits for the Pitarević family, consisting of mother Jelena and her children Jelica, Marica and Ivo, Bukovac stayed at the family’s house in Lapad. It was precisely there that he found his joy with 17-year-old Jelica, who would become his wife, or as he would later refer to her, his ‘inseparabile’.

Certain of his choice, Bukovac made the fateful decision and married young Jelica on 2nd February, 1892. She would become his greatest support in his work, as well as his most trusted advisor in all aspects of his life. Shortly after their wedding, Vlaho and Jelica moved to Paris, only to be invited by the Le Doux family to Liverpool. They spent their honeymoon at the Le Doux manor, during which Bukovac painted the portraits of their hosts.

Jelica Bukovac, Paris, 1892, KB-22

I can’t even describe the welcome we were given by the Mr. Le Doux. His family members competed among themselves in the ways in which they could entertain and please us. The stay at Marflied, their beautiful castle, will remain a cherished memory to me – we stayed there for almost an entire month. Such was the satisfaction of the Le Doux family with my work that, apart from paying me a considerable fee, they gifted my lady with a precious ring adorned with five large brilliants. That is how I spent my honeymoon.   

The portrait of Laura Le Doux, initially presented at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition and subsequently at the Paris Salon, was the painting that would achieve great success. The young Bukovac couple returned to Paris, where Bukovac had a house on the hill of Montmartre; he wished to present Paris, his second home, in the best light possible to his beloved wife. During that time, Bukovac frequently met with his compatriot Baltazar Bogišić, whose portrait Bukovac painted; the portrait in question would be exhibited at the Salon in the same year.

Although thrilled by the wonders of Paris, Jelica grew homesick. Bukovac says: …and so I was obliged to go to Dalmatia once more, for my wife was stricken with longing for her homeland. A perennial affliction of us Dubrovnik lot!

Marriage certificate, Vlaho Fagioni Bukovac and Jelica Pitarević

They spent the following summer in Cavtat; with the coming of autumn, they started preparing for their return to Paris, with the intention of making a brief stop in Zagreb. While there, they were hosted by the canon Dr. Franjo Rački, a former Chairman of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts, who arranged for them a meeting with Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer in Đakovo.

We arrived happily in Đakovo. The city’s cathedral left an ineffable mark on us. – Bukovac wrote in his autobiography. He had this to say about the bishop himself: ‘To watch and listen to that man speak was more magnificent and interesting to my eyes and ears than all the cathedrals of the world. Those who haven’t enjoyed his refined, humorous, grand-seigneur-like discourse, his pleasant, homely spirit, his tactfulness, his inexhaustible learnedness, and, above all, his divine nature, cannot fathom that such a human phenomenon has been born in our country! We felt like we had arrived under the paternal roof.’

Wedding notice

In the course of their voyage from Đakovo to Paris, they briefly visited Zagreb once more; it was there that the foundations for Bukovac’s relocation to his homeland would be laid. The relocation took place in April of the following year. Jelica, Bukovac’s faithful spouse, would invest her considerable assets into the construction of a magnificent family house in Zagreb. The inseparable couple would spend thirty years living in a harmonious marriage which resulted in four children. On 12th January, 1951, when Jelica Bukovac passed away in Cavtat, Baltazar Bogišić Cultural Educational Society issued an obituary with the following content:

For years, the deceased was not only an exemplary spouse and dedicated mother, but also a loyal companion to a great artist, always inspiring his work by both her beauty and her noble heart. She will forever be remembered in the history of Yugoslav fine arts due to the invaluable impact of her role in the artist’s life. The joy of living, harmonious balance and inner fulfilment emanating from Bukovac’s works could not be imagined without the evident influence of his beloved wife.