Jan Alojzy Matejko was born in the Free City of Kraków in June 1838. Around age eight, he saw the Kraków revolution, and two years later the Austrians besieged Kraków, in 1848. Both of his older brothers fought these battles, one of them died, and the other was exiled.
Matejko studied at St. Ann's High School, but he left in 1851 due to his low grades. He showed talent in arts since a young age but had many difficulties in other academic areas. From 1852 to 1858 Matejko attended the School of Fine Arts in Kraków, he chose to specialize in historical painting and made his first major painting, Tsars Shuyuksi before Zygmunt III.
In 1859, Matejko won a scholarship at the Academy of Fine Arts of Munich under Hermann Anschütz's teachings. One year later, he received another scholarship, this time to attend the Academy of Arts Vienna, but he left after a few months, after a heated disagreement with Christian Ruben. Matejko returned to Kraków and opened his own studio at his family's house. Recognition and commercial success would only come years later. His financial situation improves after he sold a couple of paintings, Jan Kochanowski over the Dead Body of his Daughter and Death of Wapowski during the crowning of Henry Valois, both of 1862. In the same year, he finished Stanczyk, a painting that didn't receive much applause at first but was later regarded as one of his most famous masterpieces.
1863 was the year of the January Uprising. He did not fight due to his poor health, but helped the cause with money and personally transporting supplies. One year later, he finished and exhibited Skarga's Sermon, giving him much publicity at the time. During this time, the painter became a member of the Kraków Scientific Society, for his recreations of historical themes.
Matejko's international recognition started to rise in 1865 when his painting Skarga's Sermon won the gold medal at the Paris Salon. He later won another gold medal, now at the World Exhibition in Paris, with his painting Empress Rejtan.
At the age of 34, he accepted an offer from the Kraków School of Fine Arts as principal, which he was for many years to come. In 1878 he finished another of his masterpieces, Battle of Grunwald. That same year he received a ceremonial scepter from Kraków's city council for his royal status in fine arts and an honorary gold medal in Paris. The artist became an honorary citizen of Kraków, giving a large painting of his, the Prussian Tribute, to the Polish Nation.
He became a prominent figure both artistically and politically, publishing letters regarding Polish-Russian relations and protecting historical landmarks and memory of the city of.
Matejko received from the Jagiellonian University a Doctorate in Philosophy, honoris causa. As a form to justify this new title, he published a collection of twelve sketches with commentary called, History of civilization in Poland, following Matejko's passion for Polish history and culture. From 1890 to 1892, he published another group of sketches, Polish Kings, which over the years, became very popular. His latest works were The Constitution of the 3rd May 1791 and a Self-portrait, he began King John Casimir's Oath, but due to his death remained unfinished.