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.
In today’s blog I want to look at another artist who has many of his works of art featured in the Tretyakov Gallery, including a number of portraits. Let me introduce you to Valentin Alexandrovich Serov who was a Russian painter, and one of the leading portrait artists of his era.
Valentin Alexandrovich Serov was born in St Petersburg in 1865 and was to become one of the foremost portrait artists of his time. He was the only-child of Alexander Nikolayevich Serov and his wife, Valentina Serova née Bergman. His father Alexander was a Russian composer and one of the most important music critics in Russia during the 1850s and 1860s.
His mother, Valentina had studied for a short time at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Anton Rubinstein but left to study with Alexander Serov whom she married in 1863. Valentin Serov was brought up in a musical and artistic household. At the age of six his father died from a heart attack and his mother sent him to live with a friend in a commune in Smolensk province and later he accompanied his mother on her travels throughout Europe as she sought to further her musical career. In 1874 mother and son arrived in Paris where they met Ilya Repin who took the nine-year-old Valentin under his wing and gave him daily drawing lessons. In 1880 Repin arranged for Valentin to attend and study art for five years at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts under Pavel Chistyakov. Serov was very interested in the Realism genre of art and was greatly influenced by what he saw in the major galleries and museums of his home country and those of Western Europe.
In 1874, Repin introduced Valentin Serov and his mother to Savva Mamontov the railroad tycoon and entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder and creative director of the Moscow Private Opera. Mamontov was best known for supporting a revival of traditional Russian arts at an artists’ colony he led at Abramtsevo. On returning to Moscow from Paris, he and his mother were invited by Savva Mamontov to settle at Abramtsevo, an estate located north of Moscow, on the Vorya River. This estate had become a centre for the Slavophile Movement, an intellectual movement originating from the 19th century that wanted the Russian Empire to be developed upon values and institutions derived from its early history.
Abramtsevo was originally owned by the Russian author Sergei Akaskov. On his death the property was purchased by the wealthy railroad tycoon and patron of the arts, Savva Mamontov. Through his efforts, Abramtsevo became a centre for Russian folk art and during the 1870’s and 1880’s the estate was to be home for many artists who tried to reignite the interest, through their paintings, in medieval Russian art. Workshops were set up on the estate and production of furniture, ceramics and silks, ablaze with traditional Russian imagery and themes, were produced. It was during his time here that Serov came into contact with the cream of Russia’s artistic and cultural talent.
Portraiture can come in a number of forms. Portraits can look official, stiff with a muted background so as not to detract from the aura of the sitter or they can be gentler and loving, often depicting family members. To start with let me show some of Serov’s more “natural” portraiture. One of my favourite works by Serov, and probably his best known, is his 1887 work entitled Girl with Peaches. Portrait of V.S. Mamontova which is housed in the Tretyakov Gallery. It was during his time at the Abramtsevo Colony, that Valentin Serov met and painted the portrait of Vera Mamontov, the twelve-year-old daughter of Savva Mamontov. Some believe that this work launched Russian Impressionism. Serov exhibited this painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, St Petersburg and received great acclaim and it is now looked upon as one of his greatest works. The painting which hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is a more relaxed study and is breathtakingly beautiful. In the centre of the painting, we see depicted a portrait image of Savva’s Mamontov’s eldest daughter Vera. Serov was fascinated by the young girl who he looked upon as the little “Muse” of the Abramtsevo circle. The painting is a mixture of portraiture, fragments of interior, landscape, still-life which Serov combined in this beautiful work. The light shines through the window behind the girl and she is depicted using warm tones, which contrast with the cold grey tones of the space around her. The black eyes of the girl look out at us, thoughtful but slightly impatient at the length of time she had to pose for Serov and the number of sittings she had to endure. Valentin Serov knew Vera Mamontova from when she was born as he was a regular visitor to Mamontov’s Abramtsevo estate, and on a number of occasions he would live there for long periods. Serov would later recall painting this picture:
“…All I wanted was freshness, that special freshness that you can always feel in real life and don’t see in paintings. I painted it for over a month and tortured her, poor child, to death, because I wanted to preserve the freshness in the finished painting, as you can see in old works by great masters…”
During the 1880’s Serov travelled abroad and came into contact with French Impressionism and the Impressionist painters such as Degas. Due to his family background and the popularity of his paintings, Serov never struggled financially. He was the foremost portraiture artist of his time and his subjects included Emperor Nicholas II.
In 1887, after knowing each other for many years, Valentin Serov married Olga Feerovna Trubnikova and one of the witnesses at the wedding was Ilya Repin. Serov completed a watercolour portrait of his friend and one-time mentor Repin in 1901. It is now to be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Olga was a quiet lady and was once described as a petit, pleasant blonde with beautiful eyes, simple and very modest. She was the ideal wife for Serov. She was supportive, a sympathetic listener who and would listen to her husband’s grand plans for his artistic future. In a letter to his wife dated May 1887 he talked about his love of the Impressionist’s lifestyle writing:
“…I want to be just as carefree. At present they all paint heavily without joy. I want joy and will paint joyfully…”
Olga Serova featured in many of his paintings. One example of this is his 1886 work entitled By the Window. Portrait of Olga Trubnikova.
Serov completed another more famous portrait of his wife in 1895 entitled In Summer. In this work we see Olga in the foreground and in the background one can see Olga and Yuri, two of their children, playing in a field in the village of Domotkanovo, at the country estate of Serov’s former schoolfriend and fellow Academy of Arts student, the watercolourist, Vladamir Derviz. Derviz had bought the estate with his inheritance from his father, a St. Petersburg senator. Serov often stayed on the estate as, for him, it was a welcome relief to get away from the large city of Moscow and the professional networking he had to endure to secure commissions. It is a modest depiction of great charm. It is a plein air painting which really captures the qualities of the light. The painting is full of silver-greys and muted green, blue and white colours. Olga’s dress is a mixture of pale pink, a hint of gold and blueish lilac colours.
Another of Serov’s female portraits was of his cousin, Maria Simonovich, entitled Girl in the Sunlight which he completed in 1888. His cousin remembered the long plein air sittings for the painting, writing:
“…He was looking for new ways to transfer to the canvas infinitely varied play of light and shade while retaining the freshness of colours. Yes, I sat there for three months, and almost without a break…”
During one of his stays at the Domotkanovo estate of Vladamir Derviz, Serov completed a portrait of his host’s wife, Nadezhda with her young child. Nadezhda was Serov’s cousin. The painting entitled Nadezhda Dervi with Her Child is dated 1888-1889 but is unfinished. It was experimentally painted on an iron roofing-sheet, presumably purchased for the replacement of the old wooden lath roof of the Domotkanovo house with a new one. Serov initially started painting this portrait in 1887 when baby Maria was a breastfed baby and Serov continued with the painting a year later when baby Maria had become too big.
Art needs artists. Artists need commissions. Commissions come from wealthy patronage. In the late nineteenth-century many of the Russian patrons were wealthy industrialists. A prime example of this was the Morozov family. Savva Vasilyevich Morozov was the eighteenth-century entrepreneur, who founded the Morozov dynasty of entrepreneurs. Two of the descendants from this ultra-wealthy family were the brothers, Ivan and Mikhail Morozov, both art collectors and patrons of the art. Ivan, a major collector of avant-garde French art, was known for his patronage of both the theatre and visual arts and was a painter himself. Ivan Morozov had a passion for paintings by Matisse and in Serov’s 1910 portrait of Ivan Morozov we can see Matisse’s 1910 painting, Fruit and Bronze which the industrialist had acquired that year.
Ivan’s brother Mikhail was also featured in a Serov portrait. Mikhail like Ivan was a wealth patron of the arts as well as being an avid collector of works by Van Gogh, Gaugin, Degas and Renoir. Serov’s portrait of Mikhail is a much sterner depiction. He stares out at us with a stern gaze which is somewhat unsettling. In the early 1900s Mikhail had built up a collection of eighty-three paintings by Russian and West European artists. The highlight of his collection were works by Maurice Denis, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh. It was Mikhail who brought these artists to the attention of his brother Ivan and another art collector by the name of Sergei Shchukin. Mikhail sadly died in 1903, and sixty paintings from his collection were bequeathed to the Tretyakov Gallery.
In complete contrast to this disconcerting portrait of Mikhail, that same year Serov painted a wonderful portrait of Mikhail’s son, Mika. It all came about when Serov and Mikhail Morozov were sitting talking when Mika bounded into the room, full of energy, full of life. Mika’s childish innocence amazed Serov and he agreed to carry out a portrait of the young boy. Serov’s problem with carrying out such a portrait was how to get the child to sit still. Serov’s solution to this problem was to start telling Mika Russian fairy tales and Mika listened with his eyes wide-open and that is what we see in this poignant portrait by Serov. In return to hearing the stories, Mika also retold the tales back to Serov, which he had heard from his nanny and so with the story telling continuing, the portrait was completed.
My final set of portraits completed by Valentin Serov features Henrietta Leopoldovna Girshman, a lady who was once referred to as the most beautiful woman in Russia. From 1904 Serov’s favourite model was Henrietta Leopoldovna Girshman. She was the hostess of a famous Moscow salon as well as being the wife of the prominent industrialist, art collector and patron of arts, Vladimir Girshman. Strikingly beautiful, Henrietta inspired several well-known Russian artists to paint her portrait. Serov’s 1904 gouache on cardboard Portrait of Henrietta features the subject sitting with its flowing lines associated with the modernist style. Yet Serov was not satisfied with this drawing and attempted to destroy it.
Valentin Serov’s 1906 portrait of her in her boudoir hangs at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Henrietta stares confidently out at us in the knowledge that she has attained her status as the influential centre of Russian culture. Serov mimics Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” with his image appearing in the reflection of himself at the right side of the mirror.
Henrietta Girshman and her husband, Vladimir nurtured cultural exchanges and initiatives by organizing art-oriented programs and meetings and by founding the Society of Free Esthetics in 1907. They often opened their home for recitals, poetry readings and theatrical improvisations and welcomed such friends as Valentin Serov, Sergei Diaghilev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Maxim Gorky.
Of all the paintings featuring Henrietta, Serov’s favourite was his final portrait of her, an oval, which he completed in 1911. The 1917 Russian Revolution forced the Girshmans into exile. Their house was confiscated and its contents and their art collection were nationalized. They eventually settled in Paris, and Henrietta revived her salon albeit on a much smaller scale.
Serov taught in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture from 1897 to 1909. He died in Moscow on December 5th 1911, from a form of angina that eventually led to cardiac arrest and heart failure due to severe complications. He was just forty-six years old. He was buried at the Donskoye Cemetery and later his remains exhumed and reburied at the Novodevichy Cemetery. A retrospective of his work was held at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2016 and it attracted record crowds.
This is my first blog in a series which looks at Russian portraiture on display at the Tretyakov Gallery. As I wrote in my previous blog about the art gallery, the founder Pavel Tretyakov had wanted to have a large collection of portraits of famous Russians in his gallery. The first Russian artist I am featuring, who has paintings in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, is Ilya Repin.
Ilya Yefimovich Repin was born in the southern Russian (now Chuhuiv, Eastern Ukraine) town of Chuguyev close to the Georgian border on July 24th, 1844. He was the fourth of six children of Efim Vasilievich Repin and his wife Tatyana Stepanovna Repina. His parents were a family of military settlers. Military Settlements in those days were places at which there was a combination of military service and agricultural employment. His father traded horses and his grandmother ran an inn. From the age of ten, Ilya studied at the Chuhuiv School of Military Topography and in 1857, Ilya studied art as an apprentice with the local icon painter, Ivan Bunakov. During his apprenticeship he would help paint icons and frescoes for the local churches. Throughout his life religious representations remained of great importance to him.
Even at the early age of fifteen, Repin demonstrated a rare talent for painting portraits which can be seen in his 1859 painting of his maternal aunt, Agrafena Stepanovna Bocharova, entitled Portrait of A.S. Bocharova, the Artist’s Aunt.
In 1863, at the age of nineteen, Repin moved to St Petersburg and enrolled for a one-year course at the School of Drawing of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists, a school which was created by a decree of Tsar Nicholas I in 1839 and was a preparatory school for the St. Petersburg Art Academy. Here he studied under the portrait painter Rudolf Zukowski and the Realist painter, Ivan Kramskoi, an intellectual leader of the Russian democratic art movement in 1860-1880.
It was whilst at that artistic establishment that the Rebellion of the Fourteen took place in September 1863. The rebellion consisted of fourteen young artists who left the Academy in protest against its rigid neoclassical dicta and who refused to use mythological subjects for their diploma works. The rebel artists insisted that art should be close to real life and they formed the Society of the Peredvizhniki to promote their own aesthetic ideals. In order to reach the widest audience possible, the society organized regular travelling exhibitions throughout the Russian Empire.
In 1864, Repin, having completed his preparatory year, was accepted at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Repin completed another portrait of a family member in 1867. It was a painting featuring his younger brother, Vasily Efimovich Repin.
Later, Repin would be become a close friend and associate with some of rebel artists of the Society of the Peredvizhniki and fifteen years on after returning from Europe he would join the group. But for the time Repin remained at the Academy and in 1871 won the prestigious Major Gold Medal award and received a scholarship to study abroad.
In 1872 Repin married Vera Alekseevna Shevtsova and in 1873 they travelled to Paris where Repin exhibited work at the Salon. The marriage lasted ten years but ended in divorce in 1884, on the grounds of Repin’s infidelity.
In 1874 whilst living in Paris Repin was contacted by Pavel Tretyakov who offered him a commission to paint a portrait of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, a popular Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, and playwright who at the time was also living in the French capital. Turgenev was at the time the undisputed figurehead of the Russian artistic community in France. Repin was delighted and proud to be asked to paint the portrait of such a famous and influential man and Turgenev in turn held Repin in high regard as can be seen in a letter he wrote to the writer and art critic, Vladamir Stasov in November 1871, praising the talent of Repin:
“…I was delighted to learn that the young man [Repin] is moving ahead so vigorously and rapidly. He has great talent and unquestionably the temperament of a painter, which is most important of all…”
Pavel Tretyakov planned to fill his museum with portraits of the “great and the good” of Russia and a portrait of Turgenev was a prime example of what he wanted. Vasily Perov, another Russian portrait artist, had already completed a portrait of Turgenev in 1872 but Tretyakov was unimpressed by it and so had approached Repin, who by this time had established a reputation as one of the most promising artists of his generation. Tretyakov was pleased with the Repin’s final portrait but Turgenev was less pleased with the result. Turgenev was a steadfast supporter of modern French painting which he considered should serve as a model for Russian artists. Repin disagreed and poured scorn on the French paintings Turgenev was buying. The portrait of Turgenev prompted such heated debate, with one side who believed Russian artists should follow the Western style of painting whilst the opposing view was one which believed Russian artists and their art should follow their own path. The extent to which Russian artists should look inward or outward for inspiration was becoming a highly controversial debate.
Alexei Pisemsky was a novelist and dramatist, who, in the late 1850’s was looked upon as an equal to Turgenev and Dostoyevsky and in the late 1850’s wrote two hard-hitting books, One Thosand Serfs and A Bitter Fate both of which were critical of the peasant/master relationship. Later in the 1870’s he wrote about the evils of Russia’s emergent capitalism but his later books were often ignored by the reading public. Despite his fall from grace Pavel Tretyakov wanted Pisemsky’s portrait in his Moscow gallery and commissioned Repin to complete the task. Repin’s 1880 portrait of the fifty-nine-year-old Pisemsky depicts him as an ageing man with pouchy eyes clutching a walking stick. His coat is rumpled and his bow-tie droops giving the impression that Pisemsky’s best days are well passed and yet he seems alert and looks at us with a fixed stare. Alexei Pisemsky died shortly after the portrait had been completed.
One of Repin’s most moving and beautiful portraits was of the Russian composer, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky. He was, as well as working as a civil servant, a giant of Russian music and was therefore an ideal subject for one of Pavel Tretyakov’s paintings. Although a genius, Mussorgsky had one great failing; he was an alcoholic. Mussorgsky’s decline in health became increasingly steep and he was increasingly unable to resist drinking. He was aware of the dangers of alcoholism and despite a succession of deaths among his closest associates which caused him great pain, he was unable to abstain. The decline could not be halted, and in 1880 he was finally dismissed from government service and through help from friends, managed to stave off destitution.
In early 1881 Mussorgsky suffered four seizures in rapid succession and was hospitalized. It was at this time that Tretyakov commissioned Repin to paint Mussorgsky’s portrait. Repin started the work on March 2nd 1881 in the ward of the Nikolaevsky Mlitary Hospital. It was the day after Emperor Alexander II was assassinated by, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, a young member of the Narodnaya Volya, a radical political organisation. Repin wrote about working on Mussorgsky’s portrait in the hospital ward:
“…When I painted M.P.’s [Mussorgsky’s] portrait in the Nikolaevsky Hospital, a terrible event had just occurred: the death of Alexander II; and during the breaks between sittings we read a mass of newspapers, all on one and the same terrible topic……[Mussorgsky] lived under a strict regime of sobriety and was in a particular fine sober mood….But as always, alcoholics are gnawed by the worm of Backus; and M.P. was already dreaming of rewarding himself for his long patience. Despite strict orders forbidding cognac…..an attendant obtained a full bottle of cognac for M.P.’s birthday…. My last session was planned for the next day. But when I arrived at the appointed hour, I did not find M.P. among the living…”
Mussorgsky died a week after his 42nd birthday. This beautiful portrait depicts the composer wearing a dressing gown. The striking burgundy decorative flap frames the florid features of this once-great man. We catch a glimpse of his highly decorative shirt between the folds of the dressing gown. His expression is one of rebelliousness but with a hint of feared inevitability. His eyes are turned away from us maybe in embarrassment at his parlous state. His hair and beard are unkempt. It is an uncompromising portrait but ever so poignant. Repin refused to keep the commission fee that Tretyakov gave him for the portrait and donated it to a memorial for the composer. Pavel Tretyakov was delighted with the finished work as he recognised it as one of the most passionate and emotional deathbed portraits of all time.
With Pavel Tretyakov’s desire to build a collection of portraits of famous Russians for his gallery, it was inevitable that he would want a painting depicting the great writer Leo Tolstoy who had cemented his position as one of the greatest writers of the century with his 1869 historical novel, War and Peace and his 1877 novel Anna Karenina. Through an introduction by Vladamir Stasov, the art critic, Repin and Tolstoy met in Moscow in 1880. Vladamir Stasov pointed out to Tolstoy that Repin’s exalted reputation in painting was the same as Tolstoy reputation in literature. By 1880, despite Tolstoy being a prominent writer he began to renounce his earlier works and decided to devote himself to religious and philosophical enquiry. He was in a state of “spiritual quest”, re-evaluating the values and his achievements of his earlier years. He took to wearing peasant clothes and renounced earthly pleasures. That first meeting of the two great men took place at Repin’s studio and Repin often visited Leo Tolstoy at his house in Khamovniki in Moscow. A number of portraits of Tolstoy were completed by various artists in the 1870’s but Ilya Repin’s worked on the great man’s portraits in August 1887 when he stayed with Tolstoy for eight days at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana at Tula, some 120 miles south of Moscow. In all, Repin produced twelve portraits, twenty-five drawings, eight sketches of Tolstoy and his family members, as well as seventeen illustrations to enhance Tolstoy’s works.
One of the portraits entitled The Ploughman. Leo Tolstoy ploughing, depicts the fifty-nine-year-old artist guiding a plough in bright sunlight. Repin remembered his time at Yasnaya Polyana and watching Tolstoy move around his estate, talking to the peasants. Repin recalled one hot day in August when Tolstoy was in the field ploughing for six hours without a break. Repin said that he had his sketchbook with him and kept sketching each time Tolstoy with his horse-driven plough passed by. Lithographic prints depicting Tolstoy the Ploughman followed and they were popular throughout the whole world.
In that same year, 1887, Repin completed a large portrait of Tolstoy sitting in a chair dressed in a black robe. On his knee is a book which Tolstoy has marked in two places as if to emphasise his passion for reading.
Another stunning portrait by Ilya Repin which hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery is entitled Portrait of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt which he completed in 1889. It is a narrow oil on canvas work with unusual dimensions. It is 197cms tall and yet only 72cms wide and yet it skilfully depicts this beautiful slender woman. Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt was the wife of the Russian ambassador to Rome who hosted soirées at her home in Moscow during the 1880’s with eminent writers and artists as her guests, one of whom was Ilya Repin. She was the hostess of a noisy and motley literary salon, who herself used to write a lot in her youth. Pavel Tretyakov commissioned Repin to paint a portrait of the salonnière in 1889. On receiving this commission, Repin wrote to Tretyakov:
“…The Baroness is in rapture at the thought that her portrait will be in such a famous gallery……..She is an interesting model and poses like a statue…”
The almost life-size portrait is brought to life by Repin’s use of red and black. The artist has captured the detail of the lady’s attire with great skill, from the ruched skirt and tightly cinched blouse with its high-necked bow to the curious points and folds of the headdress. There is a concealment of flesh with just the hands and face bared and even the latter is partially veiled, partly concealing her eyes. Yes, the pose is quite static but one cannot deny it is a dynamic one. In 1917 following the Revolution, the baroness was forced to leave her mansion and flee to Finland and later Paris.
Ilya Yefimovich Repinwas was, without doubt, the most renowned Russian artist of the 19th century. In this blog I have just concentrated on some of his portraiture which can be found at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow but he is probably best remembered for his realist paintings such as his 1873 work Barge Haulers on the Volga
If I was to ask you to name one famous museum of art in Russia I think most of you would give me the Hermitage in St Petersburg but actually the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow has the largest collection of paintings by Russian artists in the world and includes numerous portraits by them, some of who may be better known for their non-portraiture works. In the next few blogs I am going to look at the genre of portraiture and in particular Russian portraiture held at this great institution. To start, let me tell you a little about the Gallery itself.
To talk about the Tretyakov Gallery one must first speak about its founder, Pavel Tretyakov. Pavel’s ancestors came from the town of Maloyaroslavets which lies sixty miles south-west of Moscow. His great grandfather was a merchant who had brought his family to Moscow in 1774. In 1801 Pavel Tretyakov’s father Mikhail was born. Mikhail turned out to be an astute and very successful businessman whose shops, which he ran with his brother Sergei, sold textiles. On his brother’s death in 1831, aged just twenty-five, Mikhail became the head of the family business. In the same year that his brother died, Mikhail married Alexandra Borisova, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a year later, in 1832, the couple had the first of their eight children, a son Pavel. As a teenager Pavel helped his father in the shop. In 1850, when Pavel was eighteen years of age, his forty-nine-year-old father died. The business was then headed up by Mikhail’s widow who in 1859 relinquished control of it, making her sons Pavel and Sergei joint partners in the company and the brothers made their sister Elizaveta’s husband, Vladimir Konshin, the third partner. In August 1865 Pavel married Vera Nikolaevna and the couple went on to have six children.
The Tretyakov family bought a house on Lavrushinsky Pereulok in the Zamoskvoreche district of Moscow at the end of 1851. This was a district where merchants used to congregate during the nineteenth century. The following year, whilst visiting St Petersburg on a business trip, Pavel Tretyakov became fascinated with art and he decided to buy eleven simple drawings from a book shop at Sukhareva Market which he used to visit when he was in the city. This was followed by the purchase of oil paintings by Old Dutch Masters. Although not rich enough to buy paintings by contemporary Russian artists, in 1856, he raised enough money to buy two paintings which are, to this day, believed to be the first two paintings of the Tretyakov collection.
One was entitled Skirmish with Finnish Smugglers, painted by Vasily Khudyakov and the other was entitled Temptation by Nikolai Shilder.
Pavel was a tireless worker and secured his family financially but was always careful with his money. In a letter to his daughter he wrote:
“…Money should serve better purposes, than just be wasted for everyday needs………. Since my early age I knew, that acquired from the society should return to the society in some useful to it form. … Living conditions should never allow a person to live idle…”
Pavel’s art collection grew each year and he had special outbuildings added to the family’s main residence to house them. For the next four decades, he committed large amounts of money to develop and enlarge his collection. His dream was to house a collection of national portraits within his gallery to commemorate prominent Russians in public, intellectual and cultural life and to achieve that aim he commissioned Russia’s leading painters to portray them. Tretyakov donated the museum and his collection of almost two thousand works of art to the city of Moscow in 1892. The official opening of the museum called the Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov took place on August 15th, 1893. Pavel Tretyakov died in 1898 and four years later the residence in Lavrushinsky Pereulok was redesigned transforming the private house into the current great museum with its famous façade designed by the artist Viktor Vasnetsov.
In June 1918, the Tretyakov Gallery was declared as being owned by the Russian Federated Soviet Republic and was named the State Tretyakov Gallery. Today, it forms the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s national gallery in Moscow and is acknowledged as the greatest collection of Russian art in the world. In total it houses more than 170,000 works of art ranging from early religious icons to modern art and it spans a period of a thousand years.
In my next blog I will start to look at some of the work by famous Russian artists whose works grace the walls of the Tretyakov.
Today’s is a shorter blog. It is going to be an unusual blog for me as I am not showcasing an artist or a painting. I am going to look at the work and the life of a sculptor. I have never been a great lover of sculpture even though I know it is a skilful art form, but it is just not for me. So why the blog?
The reason for looking at this sculptor and his work is that I happened to see some of his sculptures whilst walking around the old part of Cadiz a fortnight ago and happened upon the Casa de Iberoamérica. The definition of the term Ibero-America or Iberian America is that it is a region in the Americas comprising of countries or territories where Spanish or Portuguese are the predominant languages and are usually former territories of Portugal or Spain.
The Casa de Iberoamérica, House of Ibero-America in Cadiz is located in the 18th-century building on Concepción Arenal Street on the edge of the Old Town of Cadiz. It was once the building that housed the Royal Prison. The foundation stone for the building was laid in 1794 but it was not completed until 1836. The buildings remained a prison until 1966 when it was abandoned. Subsequently, it was decided to use it as a courthouse thus preventing it from becoming a crumbling ruin. In 2006 the building was returned to the City Council, and in January 2011 it became the Casa de Iberoamérica.
On entering the sumptuous marble-floored building I found that its permanent exhibition on the ground floor highlighted the work of the Dutch-born sculptor Cornelis Zitman. The exhibition comprised of 78 pieces, of which 49 were sculptures, 28 drawings, and a single oil painting. The selection on show was made up of pieces from Zitman’s whole career, from 1946 to 2007.
Carlos Zitman was born to a family of construction workers in Leiden, in the Netherlands on November 9th, 1926. He studied drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leiden and at the age of sixteen, Zitman enrolled in the painting classes at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Following the completion of his studies there in 1947 he was called up to serve in the Dutch military in Indonesia but he refused on the grounds that he disagreed with the Netherlands’ political actions in that country, and so, to avoid incarceration, fled the country aboard a Swedish oil tanker that was bound for the oil fields of Aruba and Venezuela.
In 1948, Zitman settled in the northern Venezuelan coastal town of Coro, where he found employment as a technical draftsman for a construction company. In that same year, he married a Dutch lady, Vera Roos, whom he had first met in The Netherlands. The couple went on to have three children, Berend, Lourens and Barbara. Much of his free time was spent painting and creating sculptures. Later, in 1949, he moved to the city of Caracas, and the following year, he found work as a furniture designer at a factory of which he later became the manager. In 1951, he was awarded the National Sculpture Prize. In 1955 he was hired by the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the Universidad Central de Venezuela to teach courses in decoration, drawing, watercolour and gouache, which was then combined into a design workshop.
In 1958, he exhibited a collection of drawings and paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas. That year, he decided to give up his life as a businessman and concentrate on his art and sculpture and moved with his family to the island of Grenada, where he dedicated himself completely to painting and began to affirm his style in sculpting.
In 1961 he took part in an exhibition of Gropper Gallery in Boston. He returned to Holland, and studied foundry techniques with Pieter Starrevelt, in Amersfort, and then went back to Caracas where he was given the post as a design professor at the Architecture School of the Central University of Venezuela. In 1964 he converted an old sugar cane mill, known as a trapiche into his residence and workshop, in Caracas’ Hacienda de la Trinidad.
In 1970, Zitman met Dina Viery, a Russian immigrant, and French art dealer, art collector and one time a model for the French painter and sculptor Astride Maillol whom she met in 1934. Viery was a great friend of Maillol during the last ten years of his life and when he died she helped establish the Musée Maillol art museum in Paris. From then on, Zitman dedicated himself exclusively to sculpture. More exhibitions of his work followed in Venezuela, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, Japan and other countries, earning a host of national and international awards.
Zitman died on 10 January 2016 at the age of 89. Zitman earned numerous national and international awards for his work and in 2005 he was decorated with the Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion.
I will leave you with a recent write-up from the Diario de Cádiz, a Spanish-language newspaper published in Cadiz, regarding the Cornelis Zitman’s permanent exhibition at the Casa de Iberoamérica in Cadiz:
“…The sculpture by Cornelis Zitman bases a style and a language generated from various positions and that he gets to make them extremely personal. On the one hand, we find references to the plastic strength and forceful sense of the static of Arístides Maillol; he also drinks the source of that volumetric reductionism that characterized a part of the work of Henri Moore and, in Zitman with much more creative intensity, the generous bodies of Fernando Botero. In that supposed shaker would have to take a meticulous observation of reality, of everyday life; a spark of ingenuity, a knowledge of the autochthonous and an overdose of decisive drawing that shapes the forms and accentuates the powerful modeling. With all of them we obtain a brave, pure work, without artifice, a sculpture that vindicates the great plastic manifestation so unfortunately forgotten in the most immediate art…”