Until the end of World War I it was the only such large museum accessible to the public in the Polish lands, and to this day remains the institution with the largest numbers of collections, buildings and permanent exhibitions.The collection of the National Museum in Krakow was begun with Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradzki’s painting presented to the city of Krakow by the artist himself on 5 October 1879 with the intention of creating a gallery of national art in the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall).

The following day (6 October 1879), 39 artists attending the celebration of Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s 50 years of work as an author gathered in Konrad Wentzl’s townhouse at the Main Market Square and promised donations of their works to form the initial collection of the newly formed museum. The artists’ example was soon emulated by private individuals, who began to send donations to the museum in the Sukiennice.