Of all the paintings on view at the Founder’s Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon I think my favourites where the section featuring the 19th century works.
The first work I have chosen is by the English painter Joseph Mallord Turner and is entitled The Wreck of the Transport Ship which he completed around 1810. The painting is one of a series of large-scale depictions carried out by Turner in the first decade of the 19th century which were all about natural disasters at sea caused by storms. Shipwrecks and other disasters at sea were a popular theme in Romantic painting. They revealed the unrelenting and brutal forces of nature which were constant dangers to those who set off on a sea voyage. The inspiration for this work has been much debated. At one time it was thought that Turner painted the work the same year the vessel, Minotaur was wrecked in December 1810, as a result of a navigational error in a gale on the Haak Sands off the mouth of the Texel, with around 370 of her crew lost, including Captain Barrett. However, this idea was discounted when billing records showed the sale of the painting to Charles Pelham, 1st Earl of Yarborough, in April 1810, some several months before the sinking of the Minotaur.
The popular thought is that Turner was influenced by an earlier painting of his, The Shipwreck, which is part of the Tate Britain collection in London, and one he completed in 1805.
Calouste Gulbenkian was an avid collector of works by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and the one I especially like is entitled A Road to Ville-d’Avray which he painted in 1874, the year before his death. In the work we see the road leading to the railway station at Ville d’Avray, a village in the western suburbs of Paris, located twelve kms from the centre of the French capital. It was a very small village where Corot spent long periods of his life at a summer house which was purchased by his parents in 1817. This small hamlet, as it was then, was one of the artist’s greatest sources of inspiration. Corot’s paintings of Ville d’Avray are thorough observation of nature. They are closely associated with plein air painting although sketches first made outdoors were then usually finished back in his studio utilising both his memory and his imagination. It is thought that Corot positioned the figures we see in the depiction, at the end, to act as a balancing mechanism for the finished work. Jean-Baptiste Corot died in Paris of a stomach disorder on February 22nd 1875, aged 78 and was buried at Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Another painting by Corot which I liked was his work entitled Bridge at Mantes which he completed around 1870. The outlying towns and villages of the French capital were one of Corot’s favourite subjects throughout his career and many depictions of them appear in many of his works. Mantes-la-Jolie was one of Corot’s favoured places to paint. The town is situated a few kilometres to the north-east of Paris and the depiction we see before us is as seen from the Île de Limay on the Seine. Corot painted many views which incorporated the old medieval bridge, Le pont de Mantes, and the Gothic cathedral. Corot had begun a series of works around the middle of the nineteenth century and completed the last one around 1870. This painting was one of his later works to feature the town. It is both a clear and natural looking depiction which Corot achieved by the use of monochrome shades and the way he reduced the use of colours. The painting shows soft fluent brushstrokes and this fluidity makes it seem as if the leaves on the trees are being moved by a gentle breeze and the painting displays a freshness that floods all of the senses. Corot’s art in this period is magical and as he himself declared, sensations captured in the open air are reproduced without ever losing sight of the importance of the first impression.
I have always liked the rural realism paintings of Jean-François Millet such as The Gleaners, The Angelus and The Winnower and so to see something quite different from the French artist at the museum was of great interest. The painting was Winter which he painted around 1868. The depiction in the painting, Winter, is of grim harshness, and exudes an air of melancholia. We see before us a frozen wintry landscape which disappears into the distant horizon. The tiny figure of a man can be seen to the right of the haystack and the inclusion of the figure enforces a sense of loneliness in this bleak expanse of the frozen plain. It forces us to think about man’s relationship with nature and his ever-changing environment. This sense of cold desolation has been achieved by Millet through his constrained use of colours. Before us we see a vision of a grey, hostile, and unwelcoming world and it is this sombre intensity which dominates the entire surface of the canvas.
In 1868, the wealthy French industrialist Frédéric Hartmann had given Millet a twenty-five thousand francs commission to paint a series of four paintings depicting the seasons. A painting from that series, Haystacks: Autumn which Millet went on to paint in 1874 and which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, bears a resemblance to his aforementioned Winter
Étienne Pierre Théodore Rousseau was just eighteen years old when he completed his 1830 painting entitled The Town of Thiers. He had visited the Central French Auvergne town in the summer of 1830 and during his stay completed many works depicting the commune. The depiction reveals the scene of a medieval town with its gathering of houses which ascend the steep slope that culminates in the Church of St. Jean, the towns highest point. The pale blues of the background signify the mountain range of the Puy-de-Dome. Rousseau’s biographer, Alfred Sensier, believed that the style used in the series of work Rousseau completed in this region were to forever become his own style.
My last offering for this first look at the 19th century paintings is one by the Barbizon school artist, Constant Troyon. Troyon was born in Sèvres a southwestern suburb of Paris in 1810. The painting, The Fishermen, which he completed around 1850 was the integration of an imported pictorial style from the Dutch Golden Age. It was recorded that Troyon visited the Low Countries in 1847 and was influenced by the great Dutch artists, such as Albert Cuyp and Paulus Potter and such influence can be seen in this work in a group of animals seen on the plain somewhere in the region of Normandy. In the middle ground we see ancient oaks set against a cloud covered sky. It is a balance of Romanticism and Naturalism.
In my final blog about the paintings in the Founders Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian I will be looking at more of the nineteenth century paintings on display.
The first 18th-century painting housed in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian which I want to talk about is a still-life, entitled Peacock and Hunting Trophies, by Jan Weenix. Jan Weenix or Joannis Weenix was thought to have been born in Amsterdam sometime between 1640 and 1649. The exact date is unknown but at the time of his marriage, in 1679, to Pieternella Backers, he gave his age as “around thirty”. The couple went on to have thirteen children. He received his education in art from his father, Jan Baptist Weenix and his cousin, Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The Weenix family lived in a castle outside Utrecht, but his father died young following a series of personal financial disasters that rendered him bankrupt. Jan Weenix was a member of the Utrecht guild of painters in 1664 and 1668. The subjects for his paintings were varied but we remember him best of all for his paintings of dead game and of hunting scenes. In this large oil on canvas painting (200 x 195 cms) we see various hunting trophies and a peacock framed by a landscape in the background. The main depiction in this work is the lifeless arrangement of the swan which imitated the widely used representation for such paintings. Behind the dead swan, we have a large urn decorated with bas-reliefs. Bas-relief being a French term from the Italian basso-relievo (“low relief”), which is a sculpture technique in which figures and/or other design elements are just barely more prominent than the overall flat background. The 3-D trompe l’oeil effect of the dead game “hanging over” steps was often used in this kind of depiction and adds to the beautifully crafted work. The painting dates back to the period 1702 to 1712 when Weenix had been commissioned to paint twelve works featuring hunting motifs for the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm for his castle of Benberg. They were to illustrate the favourite pastime of the elites. It was all about social power for the hunting of certain species was a special privilege granted solely to the nobility.
The French term, fête galante, is used to describe a type of painting that first came to the fore with Antoine Watteau. They are representations in art of elegantly dressed groups of people at play in a rural or parklike setting. This painting genre began with Watteau’s famous painting, The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera which he submitted to the Academy as his reception piece in 1717. However, when Watteau applied to join the French academy there was no suitable category for this type of work and so, rather than reject his application which was described as characterising une fête galante, the academy simply created one!
In the Founder’s Collection at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, there was a painting by Nicolas Lancret, entitled Fête Galante which he completed around 1730. Like most Fête Galante works it is small, measuring just 65 x 70 cms. The painting was once part of the Collection of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, an admirer of Watteau and Lancret and who had built up a collection of twenty-six of the latter’s works. The painting was acquired by Gulbenkian in 1930. Lancret had a habit of sketching individual figures and later incorporating them into his final work.
An example of this is the preliminary sketch of the reclining man, dressed in brown, we see at the bottom left of the Fête Galante painting. This sketch can be found at the Ackland Art Museum, which is part of the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill.
The 18th century works in the Founder’s Collection feature many portraits. One of my favourites was one by Nicolas de Largillièrre entitled Portrait of Tomas Germain and His Wife which he completed in 1736. Largillière was a French-born and Antwerp-trained artist who spent time in London between 1665 and 1667, and again from 1675 until 1679 when he worked for the English artist Sir Peter Lely. However, in England, at the time, there was widespread anti-Roman Catholic sentiment and he, being a Catholic, decided to return to France and find work in Paris. He did return to England for a 12-month stay in 1688 having received a commission to paint portraits of King James II and his wife, Queen Mary of Modena. The two figures depicted in the painting above are King Louis XV of France’s famous goldsmith Thomas Germain inside his workshop at the Louvre along with Anne-Denise Gauchelet, his wife.
Thomas Germain became known as The Prince of Rocaille. Rocaille was a French style of decoration, with a profusion of curves, counter-curves, undulations, and elements which were modeled on nature, and which played a part in furniture and interior decoration during the early reign of Louis XV of France and was prevalent between 1710 and 1750. It was the start of the French Baroque movement in furniture and design, and also signaled the beginning of the Rococo movement. Germain was appointed sculpteur-orfèvre du Roi (sculptor-goldsmith to the king). Look carefully at the shelf in the right background. On it are several models, which were used as patterns for tableware pieces created by Germain, and later his son, François-Thomas Germain. Such tableware adorned many tables in the European and Russian royal courts. Germain is seen in the painting pointing proudly to the shelf and a very ornate silver candlestick with satyrs on its shaft. This model of a candelabrum would result in a series of identical pieces delivered in Lisbon in 1757 for the court of King Joseph I of Portugal, which was sent by his son François-Thomas Germain.
In my next blog I will look at some of the 19th century paintings which adorn the walls of the Founders Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.
In my last blog I looked at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and talked about its founder Calouste Gulbenkian. In my next couple of blogs, I want to talk about my favourite paintings I saw in the Founders Collection of the museum. I have to admit when I entered the building and followed the path you had to take it was all about ancient pieces of porcelain, furniture and jewellery – all good, but not what I was interested in, and I was starting to wonder if there were any paintings but I finally came across the rooms where they hung.
My first painting I want you to see is one by Jacob van Ruisdael. I have always loved the works by this seventeenth century Dutch painter especially his rural landscape paintings. The one on show at this gallery was a seascape entitled View from the Coast of Norway or sometimes referred to as A Stormy Sea Near the Coast, which he completed around 1660. It was a painting that Gulbenkian acquired in 1914. I had not realised that Ruisdael had actually completed forty to fifty seascapes. Once again he has adhered to his successful formula of having two-thirds of the work occupied by the threatening sky and by doing so, he has added a palpable melodramatic energy to the work. In the mid-ground we see boats struggling against the force of nature as they are pounded by ferocious seas and bent over by gale-force winds. Oddly shaped rocks, which have been eroded by past storms, lie in wait and we cannot help but wonder about the fate of the boats. Ruisdael’s inclusion of the rocks further adds to the atmospheric ferocity of the depiction.
Another painting by a seventeenth century Dutch artist which I liked was simply entitled Dutch Landscape, a work by Jan van der Heyden. Van der Heyden, the third of eight children, was born on March 5th 1637 in Gorinchem, a city and municipality in the western Netherlands. His father was by turns an oil mill owner, a grain merchant and a broker. The family moved to Amsterdam in 1646 and van der Heyden’s father acquired local citizenship. Jan van der Heyden himself would never acquire Amsterdam citizenship. Initially his painting genre was still-lifes but later this changed and he became known for his townscapes featuring groups of buildings. . Van der Heyden, although a talented artist, was better known in his own day as an inventor and engineer. One of his most famous accomplishments was that he designed and implemented a complex system of lighting for the streets of Amsterdam, which was utilised from 1669 until 1840 and which was also adopted by other Dutch cities and even used abroad.
Van Heyden would travel extensively in Flanders and Holland as well as the Rhineland towns of Germany close to the Dutch border constantly looking for inspiration for his cityscapes. In his early seventeenth century work, Dutch Landscape, we see depicted the Dutch town of Zuylen which lies on the banks of the River Vecht, close to the city of Utrecht. One can see in this work, like many of his other cityscapes, that his main interest is not one of nature but on architecture and his painstakingly accurate way in which he depicts the facades of buildings, especially when we look at the Gothic church on the left of the painting. There is nothing flash about this depiction. It is not ablaze with colour. It is a simple yet sober interpretation of everyday life. It is thought that another artist executed the figures in the painting.
Among Gulbenkian’s seventeenth century paintings on show at the Founder’s Collection there were a number of portraits. I particularly liked Portrait of San Andriedr. Hessix by Frans Hals. It is an oil on canvas depiction of Sara Andriesdr (daughter of Andries) Hessix who was married to Michael Jansz. Van Middelhoven, a pastor from the city of Voorschoten, near Leiden, and another of Frans Hals’ sitters.
Both portraits formed a pair which were completed around 1626 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the couples wedding which took place on 1586. Unfortunately, the portrait of the pastor was confiscated by the Germans during World War II and has never been recovered. Frans Hals methodology regarding the portrait of the woman would be repeated in many of his works.
It is an accurate resemblance of the sixty-year-old woman. She has a serious expression on her face. There has been no attempt by the artist to “beautify” the lady. The way we see her, turned in three-quarters and against a plain dark background, is in the finest Dutch tradition of portraiture.
Another portrait which caught my eye was one by the Dutch Master, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. It was his 1645 painting entitled Portrait of an Old Man. The portrait which was once owned by Catherine the Great came into the possession of Gulbenkian in 1930. Nobody knows for certain the identity of the sitter although many theories abound. The man is dressed in expensive clothes but this does not necessarily indicate his wealth, occupation or social status as they could well be props belonging to the artist’s studio and simply used as a decorative effect. Rembrandt is known for his penchant for portraits of people in their old age and has appeared as an old man in a number of his self-portraits. It is a beautifully crafted work. Look at the skin texture of the man’s hands as he holds on to his walking cane. It is both a complex and emotional depiction. Rembrandt has concentrated on a palette of browns with the odd flash of gold and the painting is enhanced by the artist’s use of chiaroscuro. The light homes in on the man’s hands and face and in some way elicits a feeling of tragedy – the tragedy of ageing.
My final look at the seventeenth century paintings I saw in the Founders Collection in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian was another portrait painting, this time one by Anton van Dyck. The title given to this 1621 work was simply, Portrait of a Man and so like the previous painting we are unaware of the identity of the sitter. But maybe we do, as when it was purchased for Gulbenkian in 1923 at Christies, it had the title Portrait of Anton Triest.
He is mentioned in documents as being the Burgomaster of Ghent and is also referred to as Nicolas, but this theory is contested by many art historians. His social status has been set due to the absence of a sword which would suggest that the sitter in question is a member of the bourgeoisie. The man sits on a leather chair with Spanish style nail-work which was often used by van Dyck in his early works.
In the next blog I will showcase some of my favourite 18th century paintings which can be discovered in the Founder’s Collection at Lisbon’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.
My eight-week holiday in the sun on the picturesque Algarve coast has come to an end and I have now returned to the gales and rain back home. Whilst away I had no real quiet time to concentrate on writing another blog on art but was full of ideas, which I can now work on.
A few months ago when I was in Moscow I was fortunate to visit the Tretyakov Museum and look at their wonderful collection. I started that series of blogs by talking about the founder of the Museum before looking at some of the works in the collection. Whilst in the Algarve I took a train up to Lisbon and spent three days in the capital. During that time I visited the large Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in the heart of the city. It was an incredible museum in a tranquil and beautiful setting in the heart of the Portugeuse capital. So who is Calouste Gulbenkian?
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was a very wealthy businessman, art collector, and philanthropist of Armenian descent, who was born on March 23rd, 1869 in Üsküdar, or as we know it, Scutari, a large and densely populated district on the Asian side of Istanbul.
He was the eldest of three sons of Sarkis and Dirouhie Gulbenkian. His father was an Armenian oil importer/exporter who was heavily involved in the oil industry. Sarkis’ wealth came from his ownership of several oil fields in the Caucasus around Baku.
Young Carnouste Gulbenkian commenced his education attending the local Aramyan-Uncuyan Armenian school. He then attended the Lycée Saint-Joseph a private high school located in Istanbul. His father believed that his son’s ability to speak French fluently would be important in later life and so, in 1884, when Calouste was fifteen-years-old, his father had him attend the Ecole de Commerce in Marseille where he studied basic business skills, honed his ability to speak French and in the evenings began to learn English. On returning to Istanbul, Calouste continued his studies at the prestigious American Robert College and completed his studies with a diploma in engineering. Following his academic success, his father sent him to London and had him enrolled at the Kings College School to study petroleum engineering. Once again Calouste excelled and in 1887, at the age of eighteen, he earned himself an associateship of the Department of Applied Sciences an honour bestowed upon him for winning the second and third year prizes in physics and the third year prize in practical physics.
In December 1887 Calouste returned home to Istanbul. In September 1888 he travelled to Eastern Europe and the Azerbaijan capital of Baku via Batumi and Tiblisi, to learn about the Russian oil industry. Three years later in 1891, he published a book about his month-long journey of discovery entitled La Transcaucasie et la péninsule d’Apchéron; souvenirs de voyage (“Transcaucasia and the Absheron Peninsular – Memoirs of a Journey”) and parts of it appeared in the Revue des deux Mondes, the French language monthly literary, cultural and political affairs magazine.
Another Armenian oil baron and colleague of Calouste’s father was Ohannes Essayan who had five children, one of whom was a daughter, Nevarte. Calouste and Nevarte became friends. According to Jonathan Conlin’s biography, Mr Five Per Cent: The many lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the world’s richest man, Calouste fell in love with Nevarte whilst the two were playing dominoes, one summer’s day in 1889, at her parents house in the Turkish town of Bursa. Calouste was twenty and Nevarte was a mere fourteen years old. Because of Nevarte’s young age the couple were continually being watched and chaperoned when they were together. Even the writing to each other was difficult lest the missives fell into the hands of Nevarte’s parents. To give an idea of how difficult things were between the two young people one only has to look at an old love letter to Calouste written by Nevarte. In it, she worries about their love being discovered. She wrote:
“…Forgive me, my friend, for not going to the garden today. Yesterday afternoon, Dad was looking at me in such a strange way that I feared he suspected something. He forbade me to go out with that girl, saying that she is too young to accompany me. So don’t expect to see me in the garden again. See you in B [uyuk] D [ere] – if my friend goes there. I think we’ll see each other at the latest in a month. Oh, my friend, I know it is useless to remind you of your promise, but, for God’s sake, don’t forget your vow not to reveal to anyone anything that happened between us […] Au revoir , your faithful friend . If I seem cold to you, if and when I go to B [uyuk] D [ere], please ignore it, it will be to mitigate any suspicions. Forgive me this doodle and love me. If you have anything to say to me, you can write it on a piece of paper and give it to this girl, she doesn’t know French. Destroy this paper. Cheers…”
Both Calouste and Nevarte’s parents believed Nevarte too young to marry and so the youngsters had to wait a further three years before they married. In 1892 Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian married Nevarte Adèle Essayan in London. She was 17 and her husband 23. The couple went on to have a son, Nubar Sarkis, born in Istanbul in 1896 and their daughter, Rita Sirvate, was born in London in 1900.
Calouste Gulbenkian, despite his wealth and prestige was forced to move home due to wars and conflicts. In 1896 he and his family had to hastily flee the Ottoman Empire by steamship, during the Hamidian Massacres, which lasted almost three years, during the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the anti-Armenian sentiment in the country, which led to the persecution and killing of thousands of Armenians. The Gulbenkian family landed in Alexandria, Egypt where they temporarily settled. In later years, Calouste and his family spent time living in London and Paris. However, in April 1942, during the Second World War Gulbenkian who had been living in France, decided to seek refuge in a neutral country. For Calouste, the choice lay between Switzerland and Portugal. Gulbenkian decided on Portugal because of its geographical situation for, if necessary, he could easily escape by sea to the United States. He also favoured Portugal as it had a favourable tax regime, a stable society and he believed he would be able to avoid the prying media in places such as London and Paris. He remained there until his death in 1955. Calouste felt the Portugeuse people were very welcoming he praised the country’s hospitality, which he said he had never felt the like anywhere else.
Gulbenkian had amassed a great fortune from his businesses in the oil industry. With his vast wealth Gulbenkian took pleasure in purchasing works of art whether it be paintings, furniture, porcelain, or jewellery, dating from antiquity to the 20th century, in total over six thousand items. He acquired his first painting in April 1899, an oil painting entitled Versailles by Giovanni Boldini. His wide-ranging collection covers various periods and areas: Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Islamic and Oriental art, old coins and European painting and decorative arts. Although many works of art in Gulbenkian’s collection were once in many museum across the world, after his death, and following long-running discussions with the French Government and the National Gallery in Washington, the entire collection was brought to Portugal in 1960, where it was exhibited at the Palace of the Marquises of Pombal from 1965 to 1969. Then, on July 18th, 1956, a year after his death, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, part of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, was opened in the Portugeuse capital. It had been specifically built to house his collection. Gulbenkian derived considerable pleasure from his collection, which he referred to as his “children”.
The Gulbenkian Museum is now looked upon as one of the best museums in Portugal. There are two buildings. One houses The Founder’s Collection which has works ranging from Antiquity to the early 20th century, including paintings by the great masters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner, and Degas. The other building houses the Modern Collection which contains more than ten thousand works and is considered to be the most complete collection of modern and contemporary Portuguese art. Tour the museums and see how the Gulbenkian Museum can take you from Ancient Egypt to the present day across its two collections.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is set in one of the most emblematic modern gardens in central Lisbon, which is open all year round and offers visitors a great sense of tranquillity. When I visited there, hundreds of students were relaxing on the grass in the sunshine and being besieged by hungry ducks which had emerged from their large lake looking for tasty food that the young people were lunching upon.
In my next blogs I will look at some of the paintings which I saw when I visited the Gulbenkian Founder’s Collection.
Two weeks ago, I went on a four-day city break to Moscow. I had always wanted to visit the Russian capital and especially visit the famous Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of Russian art in the world. I had read books about the wonders it had to offer and I knew I had to go and see it first-hand. Recently I wrote five blogs on the museum and the works of its leading proponents of portraiture, including Repin, Serov and Kramskoy but in the next few blogs I want to concentrate on lesser known artists (that is lesser known to me!) whose works also graced the walls of this outstanding Gallery.
As I have mentioned before, I live on the coast and a large number of paintings by local artists feature seascapes or marine paintings. My featured artist today is looked upon as one of the greatest maritime and seascape painters of all time and regarded as one of the most successful Russian painters of the 19th century. His work was admired by many seascape painters such as Turner. Let me introduce you to the Russian Romantic painter, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky.
Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky was born on July 29th 1817. At his baptism at the local St. Sargis Armenian Apostolic Church, he was given the name of Hovhannes Aivazian. His father, Konstantin, was an impoverished Armenian merchant whose family originated from the Polish region of Galicia, a historical and geographic region between Central and Eastern Europe. In the early 1800’s Aivazosky’s father settled in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in the Crimea and it was here that he met a local girl, Ripsime, who later became his wife. They had five children, three daughters and two sons. Ivan’s elder brother, Gabriel, was to become an important historian and an Armenian Apostolic archbishop. Ivan began his education at Feodosia’s St. Sargis Armenian Church school and it was also during this period that he received his first tuition in art. His tutor was Jacob Koch, a local architect. In 1830, at the age of thirteen, he moved with the Taurida governor, Alexander Kaznacheyev’s family to Simferopol, the Crimean capital, where, through the good auspices of Jacob Koch, he was enrolled at the city’s Russian grammar school. Three years later, in 1833, having now established himself as a talented painter, sixteen-year-old Ivan transferred to the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts where he joined the class of the landscape painter, Maxim Vorobiov. He was a model student and progressed well. In 1835, he was awarded the silver medal for his painting Air over the Sea.
In 1836 the French artist Philippe Tanner arrived in St Petersburg to teach at the Academy and was immediately impressed by the talent of nineteen-year-old Ivan. Tanner’s forte was his marine paintings and during the time Aivazovsky worked as his assistant, he taught the young man marine painting techniques. In the autumn of 1836 Ivan had five of his works shown at art exhibitions, including his painting, The Roads at Kronstadt. Soon Ivan’s work was noticed and praised by both the press and the art critics alike.
In 1837, Aivazovsky joined the battle-painting class of Alexander Sauerweid and participated in Baltic Fleet exercises in the Gulf of Finland.
In October 1837, he graduated from the Imperial Academy of Arts with a gold medal and received the official title of artist. He left the St Petersburg Academy in 1838 to carry out a commission to paint views of several Crimean towns and to do this he moved back to his home town of Feodosia in the Crimea where he set up a shop and started painting vistas of the Crimea and his beloved Black Sea. He would paint en plein air carefully recording the elements and then return to his studio to put the finishing touches on his masterpieces. He remained in his homeland for two years.
In 1839 Ivan Aivazovsky was invited to participate in a Navy operation which was taking place off the Crimea shores. There he took part in military exercises off the shores of Crimea, and where he met prominent Russian admirals Mikhail Lazarev, Pavel Nakhimov and Vladimir Kornilov and soon a long friendship blossomed between the artist and the military men. His canvases depicting sea battles were remarkably true to fact and so full of accurate details that they are now considered as illustrations of naval attack tactics. One of his paintings depicting a naval battle was entitled The Landing at Subashi.
In 1840 the Imperial Academy of Arts of St Petersburg sent Aivazovsky to increase his knowledge in art by going and studying in Europe. His first stop-over was Venice which he reached after travelling through Berlin and Vienna. In Venice he went to San Lazzaro degli Armeni, a small island in the Venetian Lagoon which has been home to the monastery of the Mekhitarists, an Armenian Catholic congregation, since 1717. This was the home of Aivazovsky’s elder brother Gabriel.
Whilst here, Aivazovsky studied Armenian manuscripts and familiarised himself with Armenian art. From Venice he travelled across Italy and arrived in the Tuscan city of Florence and later took in the sights of Amalfi and Sorrento. He took up residence in Naples and stayed there until 1842. In that two year period in Italy, Aivazovsky fell in love with Italian art. Among the people he met whilst in Italy was the Ukranian-born Russian writer Gogol and the Russian Neoclassical painter Aleksandr Ivanov.
Aviazovsky returned to Russia in 1842 and he was given an official title within the General Naval Office. As such, he was allowed to join Russian research and science expeditions which travelled to Turkey, Greece, Egypt, America and Asia. From these journeys Aivazovsky was able to bring home hundreds of sketches which he later turned into his famous paintings.
He then visited Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, where he met English painter J. M. W. Turner who, was so impressed by Aivazovsky’s painting, The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night that he dedicated a rhymed eulogy in Italian to Aivazovsky.
“…Like a curtain slowly drawn It stops suddenly half open, Or, like grief itself, filled with gentle hope, It becomes lighter in the shore-less dark, Thus the moon barely wanes Winding her way above the storm-tossed sea. Stand upon this hill and behold endlessly This scene of a formidable sea, And it will seem to thee a waking dream. That secret mind flowing in thee Which even the day cannot scatter, The serenity of thinking and the beating of the heart Will enchain thee in this vision; This golden-silver moon Standing lonely over the sea, All curtain the grief of even the hopeless. And it appears that through the tempest Moves a light caressing wind, While the sea swells up with a roar, Sometimes, like a battlefield it looks to me The tempestuous sea, Where the moon itself is a brilliant golden crown Of a great king. But even that moon is always beneath thee Oh Master most high, Oh forgive thou me If even this master was frightened for a moment Oh, noble moment, by art betrayed… And how may one not delight in thee, Oh thou young boy, but forgive thou me, If I shall bend my white head Before thy art divine Thy bliss-wrought genius…”
In 1845, Aivazovsky travelled to Istanbul upon the invitation of Sultan Abdülmecid. He would return to this Turkish city many times during his lifetime. He became court painter to the Ottoman Sultans Abdülmecid, Abdulaziz and Abdulhamid, and thirty of his commissioned works are still exhibited in the Ottoman Imperial Palace, the Dolmabahce Museum and many others at various other museums in Turkey. One of his paintings from this time was The Golden Horn. The Golden Horn is a horn-shaped estuary which divides the European side of Istanbul and is one of the best natural harbours in the world. The Byzantine and Ottoman navies and commercial shipping interests were centred here.
In the next part of my bog looking at the life and works of Ivan Aivazovsky I will be looking at his beautiful depictions of the ferocity of the sea and its devastating affect on the seagoing fraternity.
The Tretyakov Gallery is one of the world’s richest museums, a veritable treasure house of the finest works of Russian and Soviet art. In all, there are in excess of fifty thousand paintings, sculptures, drawings and engravings in the storerooms and galleries of this great establishment. The magnificent collection of art was founded by Pavel Tretyakov who began to collect art in the mid nineteenth century with a clearly formed conception of founding a museum that would be open to all to see and appreciate. It was to be a gallery for the people whereas entry to the Hermitage in St Petersburg was granted exclusively to visitors in full dress or tailcoats and the titles of all the paintings on show were in the French language. The Hermitage was only for the elite. In my final look at paintings housed in the Tretyakov Gallery I am going to showcase my five favourite works. Although my five previous Tretyakov blogs were solely about portraiture, and I do marvel at the technical ability shown by artists of that genre, the favourite paintings I am showing you today are all quite different, but gems in their own right.
My first offering is a painting by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov who was born in St. Petersburg on July 16th 1806. It is entitled The Appearance of Christ Before the People (The Apparition of the Messiah) which he started in 1837 and yet did not complete until 1857. This monumental oil on canvas work measures 540cms x 750cms (18ft x 24ft 6ins) and the depiction is set on the banks of the River Jordan. The painting is based on the first chapter of the Gospel According to John (1: 29–31):
“…The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel…”
Ivanov’s fame is inseparable from his great masterpiece. The finished painting is based on hundreds of preparatory studies he made over twenty years, many of which are gems in themselves and are considered by art historians as masterpieces in their own right. This painting and about 300 preparatory sketches are housed in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Art critics believe that the preparatory sketches reveal greater expressiveness and psychological depth than the finished painting itself.
In the middle ground we see the solitary figure of Christ on a rocky mound approaching the gathering. Behind him in the background is a wide plain and the distant mountains. His figure is small in comparison to the others but nevertheless stands out because of it being a lone figure. In the foreground of the picture there are a number of male figures of varying ages, some of whom are already undressed waiting to be baptised.
The main figure with his wavy black hair, dressed in his animal skin under a long cloak, is John the Baptist. In his left hand he holds a crosier. He is standing on the banks of the River Jordan and has raised his hands aloft and gestures towards the approaching solitary figure of Christ. To John the Baptist’s left, we see a group of apostles: the young John the Theologian, behind him – Peter, further on – Andrew and behind his back – Nathaniel, the so-called “doubter.” To the right of the approaching Christ and below the two soldiers on horseback, we have the Pharisees and scribes who unbendingly reject the Truth. In the centre of the painting we see a haggard old man struggling to his feet buoyed by the words of John the Baptist.
There are two interesting inclusions in the depiction. Firstly, to the right there is a figure that stands nearest to Jesus and it was he who was depicted as the Repin’s good friend, the writer and dramatist, Nikolai Gogol.
Ivanov also included a self-portrait. Just under the raised right hand of John the Baptist, one can make out a seated man with a red headgear – this is Ivanov himself.
In 1858, Alexander Ivanov went with his beloved painting to St Petersburg where it was exhibited. Its lukewarm reception must have been heart-breaking for Ivanov. Just imagine how you would feel if you had spent almost half of your life on one painting and then after all that effort it was not well received. Ivanov died of cholera in St Petersburg on July 3rd 1858, just a fortnight before his fifty-second birthday, not knowing that some years after his death his work of art would be hailed, by the likes of Ilya Repin, the most celebrated Russian painter of his day, as “the greatest work in the whole world, by a genius born in Russia”
My second choice is a painting by Ilya Repin. In an earlier blog regarding the Tretyakov Gallery I looked at some of Repin’s portraiture but my favourite works by him are his Social Realism works of art. His most iconic and most famous work is one he started in 1870 and completed in 1873. It is his painting entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga, which was bought by the Tsar’s second son. After the Russian Revolution the art collection of the grand duke was nationalized and it is now housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.
However, the Tretyakov Gallery houses another great painting by Repin. It is his 1883 work entitled The Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk. Like the Barge Haulers on the Volga it is a monumental painting measuring 175 × 280 cm. It is the annual religious procession in honour of Our Lady of Kursk at which the famous icon, Our Lady of Kursk, is carried twenty-five kilometres from the Korennaya Monastery, south, to the city of Kursk. The setting for the painting is a time of drought and we see a large group of people crossing the parched earth. The hillside to the right appears to have been recently cleared of timber, and we can see fresh tree stumps in the ground. Further back along the procession we can see another platform, holding what appears to be a circular icon, besides which are two large banners. Further back along the procession we can just make out a large processional cross which is being held aloft.
The leaders of the procession carry aloft a bier on top of which is the icon inside an elaborate neo-classical case. The light from the many candles inside the glass case gleam and this reflects off the gold riza icon-cover. A riza is a metal cover protecting an icon. To the left we see a line of peasants holding hands in an attempt to prevent any of the crowd getting too close to the icon. We see a peasant holding a stick out in front of him to try and prevent the crippled boy breaking through the cordon.
Following behind the icon are the priests and better-dressed people, some of who clutch icons to their chests. Note how Repin has portrayed one of the priests in a dandified manner as he carefully straightens his hair. Repin has also scornfully depicted the large stout woman in a yellow dress and bonnet carrying an icon behind the priest. She clutches an icon case to her chest.
What is interesting about the procession is that there is a great mix of people of various social standing in the community. Look carefully at the painting and observe the various characters Repin has depicted. He, by his portrayal of how the people are dressed, stresses the difference in their social status and highlights life’s inequalities. Some are in rags whilst others are bedecked in rich caftans.
We focus our eyes on the young hunchback as he struggles along with his makeshift crutch totally focused on the icon, which is being held on the shoulders of the monks. To him, the icon may mean salvation. To him, life cannot get any worse and for him this procession will lead him to a better existence. Compare that with the posture of the cavalry officer atop of his horse who oozes a kind of sanctimonious piety, his attitude appears to be of one who only half believes in the power of the icon and who probably, unlike the hunchback, needs little that the icon can possibly offer anyway. This is a “them and us” scene, a “have and have not” scenario, which Repin liked to depict in his social realist paintings. This was part of a slow build up to the revolution which would take another twenty years to arrive with its 1905 initial uprisings leading eventually to the ultimate revolution in 1917 which finally destroyed the Tsarist rule and the inequalities of life. For Repin, the procession we see before us in this painting maybe an allegory for the slow but unyielding forward advance of the working classes towards social change. Of his painting Repin wrote:
“…I am applying all of my insignificant forces to try to give true incarnation to my ideas; life around me disturbs me a great deal and gives me no peace – it begs to be captured on canvas…”
David L Jackson wrote in his book, The Wanderers and Critical Realism in nineteenth-century Russian painting, that one art critic at the time wrote with obvious disapproval with regards Repin’s painting and the people viewing it, saying that they were:
“…undesirables who thronged around it at exhibition, noting a preponderance of liberated women with short haircuts, nihilistic young men, and a strong Jewish element; the chief characters of Imperial xenophobia…”
While the American writer and educator, Richard Brettell, wrote about the painting in very unflattering terms, in his book, Modern art, 1851–1929: capitalism and representation, that the painting depicted:
The painting was bought by the leading collector of the time, Pavel Tretyakov for a record 10,000 roubles and there is an interesting tale connected to this purchase. Tretyakov wanted Repin to replace the maids carrying the empty icon-case with “a beautiful young girl, exuding spiritual rapture”. Repin refused !
My third choice is a landscape work. It is Alexsei Savrasov’s 1871 painting entitled The Rooks have Returned, which is considered to be one of his finest works. Savrasov is looked upon as one of the most important of all the 19th century Russian landscape painters and is regarded as being one of the early architects of the “lyrical landscape”, sometimes referred to as “mood landscape”. In 1870 Savrasov became a member of the Peredvizhniki group of Russian realist artists who had protested about academic restrictions, and, with other disenchanted aspiring artists, formed an artists’ cooperative, which eventually evolved into the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions in 1870, which allowed the artists to break away from government-sponsored academic art. In December 1870, Savrasov and his wife went to Yaroslavl and later, Nizhny Novgorod, which was close to the Volga River. The artist was overwhelmed by the splendour of the beautiful Russian countryside and spent much of his time outdoors painting landscapes en plein air.
The painting, The Rooks have Returned, depicts the start of Spring, evidenced by the return of these birds. Savrasov’s landscape works were influenced by the great English landscape painter, John Constable. This painting is considered by many critics as being the high point in Savrasov’s artistic career. The depiction we see before us is a simple, and depicts the somewhat inconsequential occurrence of birds returning home in spring to an extremely unpretentious landscape, but it was Savrasov’s way of communicating the change of seasons from Winter to Spring. Simple and yet beautiful. Ivan Kramskoy, the Russian painter and art critic who was the intellectual leader of the Russian democratic art movement wrote that the landscape in “The Rooks Have Come Back” was the best he’d ever seen; and despite the fact that there were similar landscapes painted by other renowned Russian artists, only “The Rooks” mirrored the artist’s soul. Another famous Russian painter, the classical landscape painter, Isaac Levitan commented about its simplicity saying that although the painting was very simple, beneath its simplicity there is the tender artist’s soul, who loves nature and values it. The painting enhanced Savrasov’s reputation as a landscape painter and it contributed to the success of the first exhibition organized by the Peredvizhniki.
My final two choices are both historical painting by Vasily Surikov which Pavel Tretyakov bought for his Gallery. Surikov was born in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia on January 24th 1848 and at the age of twenty-one, he moved to Moscow. Many believe that he was the greatest Russian historical painter. The paintings like many others by Surikov have one thing in common – the depiction of crowds. He once wrote:
“…I cannot see individual historical figures acting without the people, without the crowd, I want them all out in the street…”
Both these works of art I have chosen hang in the Tretyakov Gallery. The first one is his monumental 1887 work entitled The Boyarynia Morozova which measures 304 x 588cms. A boyarynia is a woman of high nobility.
Tzar Alexey Mikhailovich Romanov who ruled between 1645 to 1676 was the father of Peter I the Great, and he started the reforms in Russia; one of which was intended to subordinate the church to the tsar. The reforms resulted in the Russian Orthodox Church split into Nikonians (those who followed the new course set down by the tsar, the name comes from the revolutionary patriarch Nikon) and the Old-Believers who were against the radical changes. The changes included the revision of icons and holy books, and there were even changes in the divine service. It was also deemed that making the sign of the cross should be done with three fingers, instead of two. In the picture the Boyarynya and her supporters are shown with two fingers up, which means they are Old-Believers.
The painting depicts the arrest of Feodosia Morozova, one of the most well-known of the Old Believers in 1653. She is being driven, bound in chains, on a simple peasant sledge through a narrow Moscow street. She has been condemned to a terrible death and is now being exposed to shame and abuse. She remains unbending in her beliefs and we witness her as she sweeps her hand upwards with two outstretched fingers – the sign of the schism. She looks pale and emaciated but still her eyes sparkle defiantly. Few of her followers dare to copy her gesture as they are afraid to openly show their support with the woman because of the brutal oppression by the authorities. However, a beggar to the right holds up his two fingers in a gesture of solidarity whilst others bow their heads in grief.
The second work by Surikov, and my final choice, is his 1881 painting entitled The Morning of the Streltsy Execution. Surikov’s very large historical work (218 x 379cms) depicts an event during the reign of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, the second Streltsy Uprising of 1698. The Streltsy were infantry units which were formed in the 16th century by the Russian Tsar Ivan IV ‘Ivan the Terrible’. These units were considered elite units. Over time the Streltsy became a power behind the throne and in 1682 they attempted to prevent Peter the Great from coming to the throne in favour of his mentally disabled half-brother, Ivan. Whilst Peter the Great was on a scientific tour in western Europe during 1697 and 1698, the four thousand men from the Streltsy-regiments of Moscow rebelled. The rebellion was crushed, Peter the Great cut short his tour and returned to Moscow to punish the rebels with savage reprisals, including public executions and torture. Surikov’s painting depicts the crushing of the rebels. The setting is Red Square, with the large Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the background. The stone platform on the left is the Lobnoye Mesto, a 13-meter-long stone platform situated on Red Square in Moscow in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. On the right, on horseback, we can see Tsar Peter the Great, with his advisors standing next to him. To the left we can the Streltsy rebels on carts, their family and loved ones surround them agonising over their impending fate. Fifty-seven Streltsy were executed in Red Square by hanging, with seventy-four more to follow four days later. Many Streltsy were also whipped, drawn and quartered, and buried alive, with the total number of executions eventually reaching 1,182. Six hundred were sent into exile. The Streltsy-regiments were then disbanded.
Of all the world’s Art Galleries the Tretyakov in Moscow is one to visit.
My third look at portraiture exhibited at the Tretyakov Gallery features the work of Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy, the artist who was born into an impoverished lower middle social class family on June 8th 1837 in the village of Novaya Sotnya, near Ostrogozhsk, a town in south-west Russia. He was the third son of a town council clerk of the municipal duma. He attended the local school but, at the age of twelve, when is father died, he was unable to continue his education. During these early years Ivan showed a great interest in and a talent for drawing but lacked the support of family and friends to follow his dream of becoming an artist. Help finally came his way when he was employed by a visiting photographer who employed him to work as a colour correction artist. In October 1853, aged sixteen, Ivan left his native village and after much travelling arrived in St Petersburg.
Having already worked for a photographer back home he found a job with a well-known St Petersburg photographer, Andrey Denier. Ivan gained many friends whilst living in the city and many were amazed at the quality of his artwork and persuaded him to study art. In the Autumn of 1857, aged twenty, Ivan Kramskoy enrolled at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.
The St Petersburg Academy had, like most European Academies of art, a fixed way of teaching and pushed the long-established practice of depictions focusing on the Neoclassical tradition, as suitable subjects. However, many of the young aspiring painters were not interested in old fashioned historical and mythological subjects preferring to dwell on works of art, the depictions of which embraced social realism. The students were also critical of the social environment that caused the conditions which were depicted in their social realism paintings. It came to a head in 1863 when fourteen young artists, all studying at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art, rebelled against the choice of topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, “The Entrance of Odin into Valhalla”. Instead, the fourteen wanted to depict in their paintings the reality of contemporary Russian life, a Realist style similar to what had emerged in the art world in 19th century Europe and in protest, had refused to take part in the competition. The rebel students asked to be allowed to choose their own subjects but the Academy Council turned down their request, and so they left the Academy. It was such a sensitive issue with political connotations that the rebel artists were put under secret surveillance and the press was forbidden to mention them.
Ivan Kramskoi, who had already spent six years at the Academy, led this “group of fourteen” rebels. The protest was not just about what they had to paint but in the unjust conservatism of Russian society and the desire for democratic reforms which he believed could be furthered if artists developed a political responsibility through their art. His views were anathema to the Academy hierarchy and he soon became a figurehead for an increasing number of disillusioned artists who believed in his artistic and political philosophy.
The revolt of the fourteen, as it was termed, led to the formation of the Artel of Artists which was a cooperative association (artel). It was formed and organised by the art students who had been expelled from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. because of the “revolt of fourteen”. Ivan Kramskoy and four other artists set up home and a workshop in an apartment in the apartment house of Gudkov on Vasilievsky Island. It was here that they formed a kind of commune with the common workshop. Almost every evening young people gathered in Kramskoi’s apartment.
In 1870, seven years after the establishment of the Artel for Artists, the group under the leadership of Kramskoy formed the Peredvizhniki (Передви́жники, mobile workers), often called The Wanderers or The Itinerants. This group of Russian realist artists formed an artists’ cooperative in protest of academic restrictions. They formulated plans to hold a series of “Itinerant Art Exhibitions” in provincial locations which could be funded without State assistance allowing them to choose what was being exhibited without State interference. It was also a chance for them to preach political reform. They decided that the subject of their paintings should showcase the achievements of Russian art to the common man and woman. They hoped to foster public understanding of art and at the same time develop new markets for the artists. The first of Peredvizhniki’s “Itinerant Art Exhibitions” was held in 1871, in Nizhny Novgorod and from then on, the group organized a series of shows across Russia. Running besides the exhibition of their paintings were artists’ lectures and talks on social and political reform.
Surprisingly, the St Petersburg Academy initially welcomed the Peredvizhniki and even allowed them to host their first exhibition 0n November 29th, 1871. In all there were forty-seven paintings exhibited which received favourable reviews from the art critics. Ten of the paintings were portraits establishing the role of portraiture within the group. Kramskoi put forward three portraits of fellow artists, one of which was a monochromatic one depicting Fedor Vasilev. Vasilev was a Russian landscape painter who brought to the Russian art scene the term “lyrical landscape”. Lyrical landscapes were those which exhibit a certain spiritual or emotional quality. It could be that the depiction is of a sensitive and expressive nature. It could also be that the landscape, as well as depicting a picturesque view, conveys a particularly reflective, ardent or tender feeling, conceivably associated with romanticism. Vasilev was one of the twenty founder members of the Peredvizhniki Association in 1870. In 1871, aged just twenty-one, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and so left St. Petersburg and travelled to Crimea, where he had hoped to find a cure for his illness. The plight of Fedor Vasilev touched the heart of many of his friends and contemporary artists. Kramskoy regularly contacted his friends asking them to help the ailing artist. The Society for Promotion of Artists sponsored his stay in the Crimea, but to meet his living costs he had to sell his paintings. He died in Yalta on October 6th, 1873 at the age of 23. A posthumous exhibition was held in Saint Petersburg and was an outstanding success with all his paintings being sold prior to the start of exhibition. Kramskoy’s portrait of Vassily avoided a mawkish depiction of a dying young man. Instead he depicts the young artist as a dapper young professional with an aura of dignity and professionalism wearing his attractively tailored three-piece suit and fob watch. Feodor Vassily reputation as a “boy genius” was well founded.
My next offering, in a way, is not actually a portrait, per se, but it is one of my favourite paintings by Kramskoy which hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery. It is entitled Christ in the Wilderness and was completed in 1872. It was first shown in 1872 at the Peredvizhniki exhibitions in St. Petersburg and later in many cities throughout the country. The haunting depiction is radical and, some may say, shocking. Kramskoy offers us an image of Christ that is very different from the usual sterile submissions of the past. In his depiction of the temptation of Jesus we can see his unbending realism. Jesus is seated on a boulder in a barren and dry wilderness. He is hunched over and has a dishevelled appearance. It depicts Christ sitting in a state of profound dejection and indecision, hands clasped due to tension not prayer. We see the suffering of Jesus as he endures life in the barren arid wilderness. He has his back to the rising sun as he sits hunched forward on a boulder. Mentally he looks anxious. Maybe he is contemplating the forty-day exile and whether he should or is able to continue despite all the temptations. Physically, he looks dishevelled. He looks tired and his face is gaunt and there can be no doubt that he is suffering. We can empathize with his hunger and thirst and through Kramskoy’s realist depiction we are able to sense Jesus’ loneliness during this period of haunting isolation. Leo Tolstoy described it as the best Christ he had ever seen.
The plays of William Shakespeare were very popular in Russia in the nineteenth-century with the first edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare being published in the 1860’s. The Russian actor who was most famous for his portrayal of the Shakespearean characters was Alexander Lensky who often appeared on the stage of the Maly Theatre in Moscow which had opened in 1806. The theatre would often not appoint a director for the plays giving the position to one of the main actors. Lensky would often assume the role of main actor and director. Kramskoy and Lensky became good friends and in 1883 the artist gave the actor some painting lessons. Maybe it was the number of hours spent teaching Lensky that gave Kramskoy the chance to study him at close quarters. In his portrait entitled The Actor Alexander Lenskyas Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew we see the actor in the costume of Petruchio, with his leather gauntlet, heavy jewelled chain and white ruff, so arranged to form tiers of differing textures. Against this, we have the tousled hair and downcast eyes of the actor who is immersing himself in his theatrical role.
Fourteen years before Pavel Tretyakov commissioned Ilya Repin to paint portraits of Leo Tolstoy, he had approached Ivan Kramskoy with the same task once he realised that Kramskoy lived near Leo Tolstoy. Whether Tretyakov told Kramskoy that he had approached Tolstoy requesting him to be a sitter for a portrait on several occasions only to be refused, we will never know, but he did add that Kramskoy should use all his charm to persuade Tolstoy to acquiesce. Tolstoy did agree and artist and writer ended up becoming great friends. Tolstoy was working on his novel Anna Karenina at the same time Kramskoi was at the writer’s home painting his portrait. It is believed that Tolstoy ended up creating the character of Mikhailov, a Russian artist who paints Anna’s portrait in his book, and was based on Kramskoi’s personality. Kramskoy’s portrait is a dark and sombre depiction of the great man but one which Tretyakov liked and paid Kramskoy 5oo roubles for it in 1874.
The final portrait by Kramskoy, belonging to the Tretyakov Gallery, which I am going to show you, is one surrounded in mystery as to who is the beautiful sitter for the painting. The unknown female is seen leaning back on the leather seat. She is exquisitely and sophisticatedly dressed. She wears a dark blue velvet fur coat which is trimmed with silver fur and decorated with satin ribbons. She has an elegant hairstyle which is almost hidden by a stylish hat with a white ostrich feather. Her right hand is concealed inside a furry clutch whilst the other hand can be seen covered by a dark kid glove. On her wrist we can see her lustrous gold bracelet. This majestic beauty is composed and looks down upon us with a somewhat haughty expression. She is very aware of the power her beauty commands. The architectural landscape in the background occupies an important place in the painting, with its pink/brown colouring. It is the blurry outlines of the Anichkov Palace that we glimpse as it emerges out of the fog.
The 1883 work by Kramskoy is simply entitled Unknown. In all the papers and notes left by Kramskoy nothing sheds light as to the identity of the beautiful woman. The Kramskoy portrait appeared at the eleventh exhibition of the Peredvizhniki’s Association Itinerant Art Exhibitions in November 1883. Viewers were mystified by who the model was for this work. Speculation came fast and furiously that it could have been a member of minor royalty or an actress but Kramskoy would not reveal the model’s name. Could she just be Kramskoy’s idea of the fictional heroine in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s female character Nastasya Filippovna, in his novel Idiot. Another possible answer to the identity of the woman comes from a book written by Ilya Repin. In 1916 Repin worked on his book of reminiscences entitled Far and Near, with the assistance of Korney Chukovsky and in the book Repin tells of an incident which occurred in the workshop of the Artel of Artists group. He wrote:
“…One morning, on Sunday, I came to Kramskoy … From a troika-sleigh that arrived, a group of artel artists-artists with cold frost on fur coats fell into the house with a beautiful woman. I was just dumbfounded by this wondrous face, the height and all proportions of the black-eyed… In the general turmoil, chairs quickly boomed, easels moved, and the general hall quickly turned into a study class. They set the beauty on an elevation … I began to stare at the back of the artists … Finally, I got to Kramskoy. Here it is! That’s her! He was not afraid of the correct proportion of eyes with a face, she has small eyes, Tatar, but how many shine! And the end of the nose with nostrils is wider between the eyes, just like hers, and what a beauty! All this warmth, charm came only from him…”.
Dis Kramskoy remember that incident and make the lady the subject of his Unknown painting ? We will never know.
Ivan Kramskoy died at work 0n April 6th 1887 in St. Petersburg while standing at his easel. He was painting the Portrait of Doctor Rauchfus, which remained unfinished. He was forty-nine years of age.
In my final blog regarding the Tretyakov Gallery’s paintings I will talk about my favourite works housed by the Moscow institution, other than the portraits which I have looked at in the previous blogs.