Roma people are often depicted in Central European literature and fine arts in the end of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. The topic was likely chosen not only because of an ethnographical interest, but also because orientalism in the nineteenth century meant for several Austrian artists the depiction of the life and customs of Hungarian and Transylvanian gypsies, who were believed to be originally from the East. In the second half of the century August Pettenkofen, who had often visited the town of Szolnok in the Great Hungarian Plain with his painter friends, also turned to the ‘exotic’ life of Hungarian peasants, csikós (horse-herdsmen) and nomadic gypsies. The artists of genre artworks depicting the folk, a genre flourishing in Hungary since the middle of the nineteenth century, also often choose the life and customs of Roma people as the topic of their art, usually presenting them in a detailed way and using stereotypes.
This study examines a different kind of depiction of Roma people in the nineteenth century in literature, artworks and music. The so-called ‘Three gypsies’ topic is currently believed to have appeared for the first time in 1836 in Ferenc Pongrácz’s painting, however, it became truly popular because of Nikolaus Lenau’s poem, which had a title similar to the painting’s and was published soon after the painting. The topic appears in several contemporary paintings and illustrations, and Ferenc Liszt also created a musical composition based on it. Lenau’s poem and the artworks inspired by it include a certain symbolical-philosophical approach instead of the ethnographic interest popular at the time or the anecdotical depiction of the everyday life of Roma people. The image of the three gypsies in the poem and the artworks and illustrations – the first one is playing a fiddle, the second one is smoking a pipe and the third one is sleeping – symbolizes not only the longing for a poor but free life without the yoke of social norms, but also illustrates different attitudes and philosophies of life (vita activa, vita contemplativa, turning away from the world).
The symbolical-philosophical nature of the poem and the artworks is emphasized by a significant part of these works, the motif of the instrument hung upon a tree, which first appears in Psalm 137 from the Old Testament. The psalm depicts the pain of the Jews suffering in the Babylonian captivity, who in their sorrow hung their harps upon the willows. The song about the sadness felt because of their exile and the loss of their home was later interpreted in the context of those times. The heartbreaking description of the destroyed home of the exiled Jews in János Thordai’s psalm written in the seventeenth century was likely inspired by the grief caused by the destruction of Hungary during the Ottoman rule. The motif of the instruments hung upon the tree, earlier related to society and nation, was enriched with new, individualistic meanings during the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The depictions of the atypical Three gypsies topic in literature and fine arts are more closely related to allegorical paintings from earlier centuries, for example Giorgone’s The Three Philosophers or The Three Ages of Man, than to the genre artworks in the nineteenth century depicting the life of Roma people in an anecdotal way.