Nikolai Ghe and Konstantin Flavitsky

The Tale of Two Deaths

In the early days of this blog I would just write about a single painting, its history, its hidden meaning and just a little about its creator. Later I changed the format and wrote about the artist and included many of his or her works. Today I am reverting back to my former structure.

My blog today features two paintings by two different Russian artists, which I saw at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow that are connected by imprisonment and death in a State institution. Both can be classified as works of Historical Realism.  Both are works by a Russian realist painters.  One artist was famous for his many works on historical and religious subjects. The other is a painter whose name will always be synonymous for just one of his works of art.

Peter and Paul Fortress on Zavachy Island in St Petersburg

The State institution which connects the two paintings is the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. The military fortress was established by Peter the Great on May 16th 1703 on the small Zavachy Island by the north bank of the Neva River. Peter the Great commissioned his architect, Domenico Trezzini, to design the fortress as a defence against the Swedish, in case they tried to re-conquer this area. Russia had been involved in the Great Northern War against Sweden, and in 1703 managed to re-conquer the lands along the Neva River. From around 1720, the fortress served as a base for the city garrison and also as a prison for high-ranking or political prisoners and became known as the Russian Bastille. The subjects of both today’s paintings spent the last days of their lives in this prison. There are other connections between the subjects of the two paintings. The perceived threat to the ruling classes can have devastating consequences, even to family members.

Portrait of Nikolai Ghe by Nikolai Aleksandrovich Yaroshenko – 1890

Nikolai Nikolayevich Ghe is looked upon as one of the greatest nineteenth century Russian Realist painters and in this 1871 painting he has depicted a meeting between father and son. The father, sitting at the table, is Pyotr Alekseyevich, better known as Peter the Great who became Tsar of Russia, at the age of ten, in 1682. Peter ruled jointly with his brother Ivan V from 1682, until the death of Ivan in 1696, at which time Peter was officially declared Sovereign of all Russia.

Standing forlornly by the table is his son, Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich. Alexi Petrovich was the son of Peter the Great and his first wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina who were married in 1689. The couple had three children of whom Alexi, born in February 1690 was the eldest. His brothers, Alexander and Pavel died before they reached their first birthday. Peter divorced his wife in 1698 and forced her to join a convent. Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich was just eight years old when is mother had been banished. There can be no doubt that losing his mother at such an early age scarred young Alexei. The father-son relationship broke irrevocably in 1715, when Peter, hoping threatened his son that unless he changed, he would be deprived of the succession on his father’s death. Peter, who had believed such a threat would change the mind of his errant son, was astonished when Alexei volunteered to enter a monastery. However, at the last moment, Alexei had a change of heart, and fled to Vienna, where he was granted asylum.

Portrait of Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725)

Peter’s main aim was to re-establish his country as a great and powerful nation and to achieve that he had to undertake many reforms which affected great swathes of the population. People are averse to change and so was the case in Russia. He secularized schools, administered greater control over the reactionary Orthodox Church and introduced new administrative and territorial divisions of the country and with all these changes came many enemies who did not like what he was attempting to do. Peter would not tolerate dissent and he ruthlessly implemented his reforms, steamrolling over all opposition. He faced much opposition to these policies at home but brutally suppressed rebellions against his authority, including by the Streltsy, Bashkirs, Astrakhan, and the greatest civil uprising of his reign, the Bulavin Rebellion.

Portrait of Alexei by Johann Gottfried Tannauer, c. 1712–16

Rebellion was even closer to home in the shape of his son, Alexei, who although out of the country, was suspected of being involved in a plot to overthrow his father. Alexei sought to stake out his individuality by contrasting himself with his father. To that end, he became conservative and religious, and attracted admirers from amongst the traditionalists who wanted the return of the “good old days” – the days before Peter’s reforms. At the news of this perceived treachery, Peter sent agents to track down his son. In 1717, they contacted him and handed him a letter in which the Tsar berated Alexei but promised not to punish him if he returned to Russia. Alexi was advised to ignore the promises of his father and returned to Russia in 1718, where he begged forgiveness.

Peter I interrogates Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich at Peterhof, by Nikolai Ghe, (1871)

The 1871 painting at the Tretyakov Gallery by Nikolai Ghe depicts that first meeting of Peter and his son in a room at his father’s residence, the Monplaisir Palace at Peterhof after he returned to St Petersburg. It is entitled Peter the Great Interrogates Tsarevich Alexei. In this psychological painting the drama unfolds purely through the characterisation of father and son. Look at the protagonists. The red-faced father, Peter, angrily sits resolute and stares at his guilty son, who stands before him, meek and guilt-ridden. His head is bent dejectedly. He probably realises that it was a mistake to return home to his father. Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin, a nineteenth century Russian Satirical-Fiction writer, on seeing the painting, wrote:

“…Anyone who has seen these two simple, ingeniously positioned figures must confess that he was a witness to one of those stunning dramas which can never be erased from the memory…”

In Ghe’s painting, the artist has displayed an understanding of the historical struggle between the reactionary and the progressive. It is a depiction of the drama between father and son which overrides the sphere of personal relations. The artist has brought to us a feel for this turbulent and critical age with the image of Peter with the vital idea of his own time and his readiness to sacrifice his son for the sake of the interests of society.
During a public spectacle in which Alexei was disinherited. The Tsar forced him to name those who had aided his flight, which resulted in the torture and execution of dozens of Alexei associates. That done, Peter ordered his son jailed. On June 19th, 1718, Peter had Alexei flogged for days, until he confessed to conspiring to have his father assassinated. He was convicted and sentenced to be executed. The sentence could be carried out only with Peter’s signed authorization, and Alexei died in prison, as Peter hesitated before making the decision. Alexei died, aged 28, on 6 June 1718.

Konstantin Dmitriyevich Flavitsky


The second painting I am looking at is by the nineteenth-century Russian artist, Konstantin Flavitsky and it depicts a purported event which happened in 1777 although it is thought that the end of the story deviates slightly with the whole truth. The painting is undoubtedly the most famous of Flavitsky’s works and one he will always be remembered by.


Portrait of Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov (1763)

The ruler of Russia at the time of this incident was Catherine II of Russia, known as Catherine the Great. Catherine was the wife of Tsar Peter III, the grandson of Tsar Peter I from my first story. Peter III had become Tsar in January 1762 but only ruled for six months. His downfall came because he had the habit of offending groups of powerful people. He offended the Russian Orthodox Church by trying to force it to adopt Lutheran religious practices and he alienated the imperial guards by making their service requirements more severe and even threatened to dispense with them. If all that was not bad enough, he turned away from his wife, Catherine, and we know that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Catherine suspected that he was planning to divorce her and so, with her lover Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov and the help of other members of the Imperial Guard that Peter had planned to discipline, she managed to have the emperor arrested and forced to abdicate on July 9th 1762. Later, he was transported to Ropsha, a settlement situated about 20 kilometres south of Peterhof and 49 kilometres south-west of central Saint Petersburg.  Here, he was allegedly assassinated, although it is unknown how Peter died.

Count Alexsey. G. Razumovsky

Being a ruler of a great empire, Catherine had to overcome many problems and in 1772 she faced yet another predicament for her to overcome in the shape of a beautiful young and refined woman who laid claim to Catherine’s position as ruler of Russia. It all started in Paris when the woman who had captivated French Society claiming she was illegitimate daughter of Empress Elizabeth, Peter III’s cousin, and thus, she was the legitimate heir to the Russian throne. She called herself, Princess Vladamir. She regaled her story that she was born in St. Petersburg in 1753, and later taken to Persia. There, she grew up in the home of a Persian nobleman. Whilst there she was tutored and one of her tutors made the astounding discovery about her true lineage. According to the tutor’s discovery she was the product of an affair between Elizabeth and her favourite, Count Aleksey G. Razumovsky. Elizabeth had many liaisons as a young woman and Razumovsky was her favourite lover.

Princess Tarakanova, in the Peter and Paul Fortress at the Time of the Flood
Princess Tarakanova, in the Peter and Paul Fortress at the Time of the Flood by Konstantin Flavitsky

Empress Catherine was shocked by the news of this impostor, who claimed to be the late Empress Elizabeth’s daughter and as such would have a greater claim to become Russian ruler than Catherine as before she married Peter III, Catherine was Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, and as such had no direct birthright to the Russian throne. Catherine knew that if her enemies decided to support the “false” princess, the her reign could be at risk and therefore, she knew she had to act fast.

Catherine conjured up a plan to lure this pretender to Russia and once there she would be under Catherine’s absolute authority and her claims to the throne would be immediately quashed. Catherine turned to Count Alexei Orlov, the brother of her companion, Grigory Orlov, for help. Alexei Orlov was a Russian soldier and statesman, who rose to prominence during the reign of Catherine the Great. He had served in the Imperial Russian Army, and through his connections with his brother, became one of the key conspirators in the plot to overthrow Tsar Peter III and replace him on the Russian throne with his wife, Catherine.   Alexi Orlov put together a clever plan to seduce the faux princess. He arranged to meet the imposter princess in the Italian port of Livorno. At a meeting he agreed to help overthrow Catherine and she in turn offered Orlov a joint role in governing the country. Orlov took the plan a step further, seducing the princess and proposing marriage which would take place on his ship. On the day of the wedding, the princess, wearing her fine clothes and jewellery, boarded a small skiff and was ferried out to Orlov’s ship. Once on board, she was seized by a squad of soldiers commanded by Orlov himself and was arrested in the name of Catherine II.

The shipset sail for St. Petersburg, where the imposter princess was imprisoned in a dank cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress. She was brutally interrogated, but even under torture, she did not contradict herself, admit to fraud, or deny her royal descent. She died of tuberculosis whilst in a cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1775 and was buried without ceremony in the fortress graveyard.  So, this was the true version of the story of the princess, later to be known as Princess Tarakanova but many versions of this story came out in books and films and the magnificent 1864 painting, Princess Tarakanova, in the Peter and Paul Fortress at the Time of the Flood, by the Russian artist Konstantin Flavitsky. His take on the story was a depiction of the death by drowning of the imposter in her cell which was deluged by the flood waters of the great flood. It was a case of artistic licence as the great St Petersburg Flood, with water levels rising over ten feet, occurred in September 1777, two years after the princess’ death. It is a very moving painting and I remember being at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and standing in front of it for a long time taking in all the details. Flavitsky powerfully depicts the tragedy and suffering of this young woman who was facing certain death in a depressingly dark dungeon which is flooding with water coming through her cell window. Look how the rats are desperate to reach the higher ground of her mattress. It is a poignant depiction of her vulnerability and despair. Shafts of light stream through the window of the gaol cell in the Peter and Paul fortress as the water continues to rise. Eventually, the troubled twenty-two-year-old will die. The tragedy is immediate and realistic.

So there you have it.  Two paintings connected to two death in the same gaol of two people who had the temerity to threaten the Russian leader of the time.

Ivan Aivazovsky. Part 2. The Master of seascapes.

In the first part of my blog featuring the Russian seascape and marine painter, Ivan Aivazovsky I concentrated on his seascapes and marine paintings which, on the whole, depicted calm and idyllic seas.  However, what made me choose Ivan Aviazovsky for my blog was the masterful way he depicted the raging fury of the sea and man’s fight for survival in those terrifying conditions. I experienced that ferocity during my years working on ships but never have I seen it being depicted so graphically. His vivid depiction in his paintings of the terrifying power of the raging seas is masterly.

The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivakovsky (1850)

One of my favourite seascape paintings by Aviazovsky is his 1850 work entitled The Ninth Wave. It is also probably his best-known work. The title refers to a popular sailing legend that the ninth wave is the most terrible, powerful, destructive wave that comes after a succession of incrementally larger waves. In his painting, set at night, he depicts a raging sea, which has been whipped up by a storm. In the foreground we see people clinging to the mast of a vessel which had sunk during the night. Note how the artist has depicted the debris the people are clinging to in the shape of a cross and this element can be looked upon as a metaphor for salvation from the earthly sin. The people clinging to the debris are lit by the warmth of breaking sunlight and this gives one to believe that they may yet be saved. The painting was originally acquired for the State Russian Museum of St Petersburg and was one of the first paintings in the collection of the Emperor Alexander III Russian Museum in 1897.

The Billowing Sea by Ivan Aivazovsky (1889)

There are many great paintings by Aviazovsky depicting raging seas. I particularly like one entitled The Billowing Sea.

The sheer size of this work, 304 x 505cms (119 x 199 in) is breathtaking.

The Rainbow by Ivan Aviazovsky (1873)

Another one of his works which I saw at the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow the other week was his painting entitled The Rainbow which features a sailing ship foundering on rocks whilst two lifeboats full of sailors try to manoeuvre their boats ashore through the fierce seas. It is a truly remarkable work in which Aviazovsky created a scene of a storm as if seen from inside the raging sea.  In the foreground, we see the sailors who have taken to a lifeboat and abandoned their sinking ship which had foundered on the rocky shoreline. They had spent the whole night in the boat. Suddenly they see a rainbow and feel that all is not lost. The reflection of the rainbow can just be seen to the left of the painting.  Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, was an admirer of Aivazovsky’s art and The Rainbow was his favourite work.  Of the painting, Dostoevsky wrote:

“…This storm by Aivazovsky is fabulous, like all of his storm pictures, and here he is the master who has no competition. In his storms there is the trill, the eternal beauty that startles a spectator in a real-life storm…”

Shipwreck near Gurzuf by Ivan Aivazovsky (1898)

In 1842 Aivazovsky had completed his two-year stint in Italy. He had spent many hours in various museums studying paintings by the Italian masters and became heavily influenced by Italian art and he looked upon his time at the museums as time in his “second academy”. He was awarded a gold medal by Pope Gregory XVI for his artwork. Aivazovsky left Italy in 1842 and travelled around Europe for the next two years. He had his work exhibited in an international exhibition at the Louvre, where he was the only representative from Russia. During his stay in France, he also received a gold medal from the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In 1844 he returned to Russia.

Storm on the Sea by Aivazovsky (1847)

Upon his return to Russia, Aivazovsky was made an Academician of the Imperial Academy of Arts and was appointed the official artist of the Russian Navy to paint seascapes, coastal scenes and naval battles. In 1845, Aivazovsky travelled to the Aegean Sea with Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich and visited the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, and the Greek islands of Patmos and Rhodes. After years of travel Aivazovsky decided to settle down in his hometown of Feodosia In 1845. He built a house and studio and cut himself off from the outside world just maintaining a friendship with close friends.

Chaos (Anno Mundi) by Ivan Aivazovsky (1841)

As in life itself, time moves on and change is inevitable. So was the case with Russian art in the mid nineteenth century. Aivazovsky’s love of painting romantic seascapes was becoming unfashionable with the new style of Russian art – Russian Realism, becoming more and more popular. Aivazovsky could not accept the change and persevered with his Romantic style seascapes and his artwork began to be criticised.

Among the Waves by Ivan Aivazosky (1898)

For a beautiful seascape one needs look no further than the one which the eighty-one-year-old Ivan Aivazovsky completed in 1898, just two years before he died, entitled Among the Waves.  For once it is a pure seascape without any ships, afloat or sinking, and no sailors in lifeboats trying to survive their watery ordeal. However, with this painting came an interesting tale with regards the depiction. Before us we see that a storm has already erupted in full force and the black stormy sky threatens worse to come. Look how the water in the foreground is almost translucent, a mixture of greyish-green and silvery blue, dependent on how the sunlight, which bursts through from behind the storm cloud, falls upon the water. The waves are topped with white caps of foam. It is a pure sea and sky painting but it was not always so. Originally Aivazovsky had included in the depiction his “signature” boat which was struggling to survive but when Ivan asked his grandson what he thought of the painting his grandson told the elderly man that it was admirable work but queried why his grandfather had added to the depiction a “toy-like” boat with people in it. According to the memoirs of his grandson, the artist was terribly angry with his comments and, without a word, turned and walked away. The next day when the family members looked at the painting they found that the little boat full of sailors had been removed from the canvas !

In 1847, Aivazovsky became the professor of seascape painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts and was elevated to the rank of nobility. That year, he also was elected to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Aivazovsky with his first wife, Julia, and their four daughters

In 1848, Aivazovsky married Julia Graves, an English governess. She was the daughter of a St. Petersburg doctor, the Briton Jacob Grevs. It is believed that he may have been more than just an ordinary physician as rumour had it that he was personal physician of Tsar Alexander I.  Grevs mysteriously disappeared after the death of the emperor. Julia was an eighteen-year-old well-educated beauty when she married thirty-one-year-old Aivazovsky. The couple went on to have four daughters: Elena (1849), Maria (1851), Alexandra (1852) and Joanne (1858). Their marriage foundered after twelve years and they separated in 1860 with Julia leaving the marital home and taking the children. The breakdown of their marriage seems to have been the result of Ivan’s all-consuming passion for his art which left him little time for his wife. Anna finally could not accept this kind of marriage. The couple divorced in 1877 with permission from the Armenian Church, since Graves was a Lutheran and Julia remained in her new home in Odessa.

Battle of Chesme at Night by Ivan Aivazovsky (1848)

Aivazovsky completed a number of paintings depicting Russian naval battles and one of his most famous works was his 1848 painting entitled Battle of Chesme at Night which illustrated the Russian-Turkish naval battle which took place on July 7th, 1770. At this significant battle, the Russian Navy defeated the Turkish navy at the Bay of Chesme. This was quite an upset as the Turkish navy at that time was the strongest in the world. It would seem that the Turkish fleet had all the advantages – a significant advantage in the power of their fleet, the backup of their on-shore batteries, a good location and the glory of the strongest navy in the world. But for the Turks nothing quite went to plan. Early into the battle, following a bombardment by the Russian ships, one of the Turkish ships exploded. That night, the remaining part of the Russian fleet came to the bay, including their four fire-ships (specially converted small vessels of the fleet, which were intended to set fire to enemy ships of the line). Just one of them reached the Turkish warships and the Russian sailors set fire to their fire-ship and took flight in their lifeboats. The tactic succeeded and the Turkish battleship which had been rammed by the Russian fire-ship exploded and started a chain reaction. Soon more Turkish ships were ablaze and by the end of the night the Turkish navy had been destroyed. The horror of the battle was perfectly conveyed by Ivan Aivazovsky in his painting.

The Battle of Sinop by Ivan Aivazovsky (1853)

In 1853, the Crimean War erupted between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and Aivazovsky was evacuated to the northern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. When the Crimea became safer, he returned to the besieged fortress of Sevastopol to paint battle scenes. He also depicted the famous Battle of Sinop, at which the Russian navy was victorious over the navy of the Ottoman Empire on November 30th 1853 at Sinop, a sea port in northern Anatolia.  It was during this maritime battle that a squadron of Imperial Russian warships struck and defeated a squadron of Ottoman ships anchored in the harbour. It resulted in an ignominious defeat of the once all-powerful Turkish fleet at the hands of the Russian navy.

The Battle of Sinop (Night after the Battle), by Ivan Aivazovsky (1853)

In another painting of the battle often referred to as Night after the Battle, the sky is black, and the light from the stars has been extinguished. The fierce battle resulted in the death of a large number of sailors. In the background of the picture we see the burning ships of the Ottoman navy. The Turkish fleet is burning and a ship is exploding in the darkness. Part of the Turkish fleet went to the bottom, the rest of them burn out. In the foreground we see fragments of a sunken ship, on which people try to escape from imminent death.

Tempest on the Sea at Night by Ivan Aivazosky (1849)

Many honours were bestowed on Aivazovsky in the 1850’s. He had been working in Paris during 1856 and 1857 and became the first Russian, actually the first non-French artist to receive the prestigious Legion of Honour for his services to art. Leaving Paris in 1857, he visited Constantinople and was awarded the Order of the Medjidie. Also that year, he was elected an honorary member of the Moscow Art Society and the following year he was awarded the Greek Order of the Redeemer in 1859.  In 1865 he was further honoured, this time by his homeland, when he was given the Russian Order of St. Vladimir. It was also the year that Aivazovsky opened an art studio in Feodosia and was awarded a salary by the Imperial Academy of Arts the same year.

The Seashore with a Lighthouse at Night by Ivan Aivazovsky (1837)

Aivazovsky had become such a talented and prolific artist that he no longer needed to go outdoors for inspiration. During his almost 60-year career, he created around 6,000 paintings, making him one of the most prolific artists of his time. He had spent so many years observing his treasured surroundings that he was able to produce canvases with remarkable speed. It had got to the point in his artistic career that he often astonished his visitors by creating a large canvas in a matter of hours. Aivazovsky frequently compared his work to that of a poet saying:

“…The artist who only copies nature becomes a slave to nature. The motions of live elements are imperceptible to a brush: painting lightning, a gust of wind or the splash of a wave. The artist must memorize them. The plot of the pictures is composed in my memory, like that of a poet; after doing a sketch on a scrap of paper, I start to work and stay by the canvas until I’ve said everything on it with my brush…”

Moscow in Winter from the Sparrow Hills by Ivan Aivazovsky (1872)

Although most of Aivazovsky’s paintings were seascapes or marine depictions he did complete a number of works featuring landscapes and I particularly like his 1872 winter scene, Moscow in Winter from the Sparrow Hills.

Aivazovsky’s painting of his second wife Anna Burnazian-Sarkisova  (1882)

Aivazovsky had been living alone since his wife left him, taking their children. It was four years after his divorce was finalised that he happened to attend the funeral of a Feodosian merchant, named Sakrisov. At first sight of the grieving widow, Anna, following her husband’s coffin, he fell in love. Realising it would be inappropriate to approach her at such a time he bided his time but never forgot the sight of the young woman. After waiting for the sake of decency, he made an offer of marriage, which Anne accepted. Aivazovsky married his second wife, Anna Burnazian-Sarkisova in 1882. She was twenty-six-years of age and her husband was sixty-five. Aivazovsky believed that as his second wife was Armenian this marriage had brought him closer to his Armenian nation. Anna, unlike his first wife, Julia, was content with her husband devoting most of his time on his paintings and artistic career without becoming jealous, whilst she was able to enjoy her free time.

Tomb of Ivan Ajwazovsky in Feodosia, Crimea.

Ivan Aivazovsky died, aged 82, on April 19th 1900 in Feodosia. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried at the courtyard of St. Sargis Armenian Church. A white marble sarcophagus was made by Italian sculptor L. Biogiolli in 1901.

After Aivazovsky’s death, Anna lived a life of a recluse and for 25 years she did not leave the walls of the house, where she had been happily married. During World War II, she refused to leave her home when the country was under occupation and managed to survive by exchanging the last of her jewellery for bread and cereal. When the Germans left Feodosia, Aivazovsky’s widow, aged 87, forgotten by all, was found by the artist Nikolai Samokish and taken to his home in Simferopol. Anna died a year later, aged 88 and is buried next to her husband, in the square of the Armenian church, where they were once married.

American Shipping off the Rock of Gibraltar by Ivan Aivazovsky (1873)

On June 14, 2007 his painting “American Shipping off the Rock of Gibraltar” sold for £2.71 million pounds, and was the highest price paid at auction for an Ivan Aivazovsky painting. Ironically, he is also said to be the most forged of all Russian painters.

The Tretyakov Portraits. Part 4

The portraiture of Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy

Russian Stamp from 2012 celebrating 175th anniversary of Kramskoy’s birth

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.

Portrait of the Photographer Andrey Denier by Ivan Kramskoy (1883).                      The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

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.

Artel of Artists (1863-1864) (l-r) Venig, Zhuravlev, Morozov, Lemokh, Kramskoi, Litovchenko, Makovsky, Dmitriev-Orenburgsky, Petrov, Kreitan, Peskov, Shustov, Korzukhin, Grigoryev

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.

The Peredvizhniki (1885)  Ivan Kramskoy (back row, 5th from the left)

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.

Fedor Vasilev by Ivan Kramskoy (1871)

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.

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoy (1872)

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.

Actor Alexander Lensky Pavlovich as Petruchio in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew by Ivan Kramskoy (1883)

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 Lensky as 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.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoy (1873)

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.

Unknown by Ivan Kramskoy (1883)

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.

Portrait of the Doctor Karl Rauchfus by Ivan Kramskoy (1887).                                                   The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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.

The Tretyakov Portraits. – Part 2

The portraiture of Ilya Repin

Self portrait by Ilya Repin (1878)

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.

Portrait of A.S. Bocharova, the Artist’s Aunt by Ilya Repin (1859)

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.

Portrait of V. E. Repin, the Artist’s Brother by Ilya Repin (1867)

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.

Portrait of Vera Shevtsova by Ilya Repin (1869)

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.

Turgenev, by Ilya Repin, 1874

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…”

Portrait of the Author Ivan Turgenev by Vasily Perov (1872)

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.

Portrait of Alexei Pisemsky by Ilya Repin (1880)

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.

Ilya Repin’s celebrated portrait of Mussorgsky, painted 2–5 March 1881, only a few days before the composer’s death.

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… 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.

Portrait of Art Critic Vladimir Stasov by Ilya Repin (1873)

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.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy as a Ploughman on a Field by Ilya Repin (1887)

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.

Ilya Repin, Portrait Of Leo Tolstoy, 1887

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.

Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildebrandt by Ilya Repin (1889)

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


Vasily Perov, Part 1 – the critical realist

Portrait of Vasily Perov by Igor Kramskov (1881)
Portrait of Vasily Perov by Igor Kramskov (1881)

For my blog today, I am returning to Russia and featuring one of its greatest nineteenth century artists, Vasily Grigoryevich Perov.  He is known as one of the great critical realism artists of his time.

Perov was born in 1834 in the town of Tobolisk, a Siberian town, which lies east of the Urals.  Perov was the illegitimate child of Baron G K Kridiner, the provincial prosecutor for the region of Arzamas.  Perov, who was born prior to his mother and father’s marriage, was given the surname of his godfather, Vasilyev and yet, Perov himself disliked the name and had it changed to Perov, which was his nickname as a child as he was an excellent hand writer and a talented calligrapher.  Pero in Russian means pen.

Sermon in a Village by Vasily Perov (1861)
Sermon in a Village by Vasily Perov (1861)

In 1846, Vasily Perov received his first painting lessons, at the age of twelve, at the Alexander Stupin Art School in Arzamas. Stupin was a painter of the classicism genre, whose school was the first of its type in provincial Russia.  From there, in 1851, Perov moved to Moscow and entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which was one of the largest educational institutions in Russia.  It was here that he studied under Sergey Zaryanko, a Russian painter of Belarusian birth.   Whilst at the academy, he won a number of awards for his work from the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and his major award was when he won the Grand Gold medal for his diploma work in 1861.  The work was a set of preliminary sketches and the finished painting, Sermon in a Village.  He was also awarded a scholarship to travel abroad to enhance his knowledge of European art.

The Sermon in a Village is not simply a depiction of the congregation listening to a sermon.  In the centre foreground we see a nobleman asleep, head slumped forward on his chest.  He has no interest in the sermon.  He is just present to be seen.  Sitting next to him is his dutiful wife, prayer book in hand,  who plays coy as an admirer standing behind her flirts with her.  Look at the woman who stands behind the sleeping nobeleman.  She pulls her veil away from her ear and leans forward to try and hear the sermon.  Next to her one of the nobleman’s footmen tries to prevent her getting to close to his master. Earlier paintings depicting Russian clergy depicted them with veneration and the utmost respect so this mocking depiction of the church clergy by a young up and coming artist was frowned upon by the Establishment but it was accepted as an exhibit and won the artist, Perov, a European trip.

The Village Religious Procession at Easter by Vasily Perov (1861)
The Village Religious Procession at Easter by Vasily Perov (1861)

The preliminary sketches and painting, which won him the Gold Medal, were not his initial submission.  His original submissions were preliminary sketches for another of his works, The Village Religious Procession at Easter.  However the Academy rejected these because of their overt criticism of the Church and the clergy.  One needs to understand that Perov wanted to not only highlight the plight of the poor and the deprived, he wanted to condemn the role of the Church and its leaders who led a comfortable life and, in his mind, offered little comfort to the poor.  Despite the St Petersburg Academy’s rejection of his preliminary sketches for the The Village Religious Procession at Easter, he completed the work in 1861.

This oil on canvas work was his way of recording his belief that the clergy had forgotten their duty to parishioners.  It was blatantly an anti-clerical depiction.  The setting is a dull landscape.  The discordant movement of the participants in the procession together with the gloomy sunset accentuates the unattractiveness of the whole scene.  Before us, we see a drunken mix of clergy and their congregation embarking on a parade of icons through the village. Some of the people in the parade are carrying icons and gonfalons (a type of heraldic flag or banner, often pointed, swallow-tailed, or with several streamers, and suspended from a crossbar).  In the foreground of the painting, the peasants stagger past us towards a precipice with half-closed eyes.  It is as if they are all blind. We can make out a woman with an icon that has lost its face. A little further on, we observe the figure of a poor man carrying an icon upside down, albeit, we can still make out the “all-seeing” eye on the gonfalon and maybe Perov left it in to remind people that nobody can escape the Supreme Judgment.  The leader of this group is a drunken priest who we can see on the right, standing on the steps of the wooden building, hanging onto the upright structure to stop him falling.  We can also see, despite the desperate efforts of one of his helpers, that he has stepped on and crushed the Easter egg.  He has abandoned his “flock”.

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)
Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)

The painting was exhibited at the Society for the Encouragement of Artists in St Petersburg but the curators were told to remove it on grounds that it was an “immoral” work, which criticised the Church and its clergy.  Even the press were banned from reproducing it in their newspapers; such was the power of the Church at the time.  Twenty years later Ilya Repin completed his famous work, Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk (See My Daily Art Display Aug 29th 2011), which again compared the lot of the downtrodden peasant class and the wealth of the clergy.

In 1862, Perov chose to go to France and also visited some German cities.  He returned home in 1864, even though his scholarship would have funded a longer stay in Europe.  Maybe he missed his homeland.

Perov lived through the 1860’s in Russia and was well aware of the social problems in his beloved country and he began to highlight the plight of the poor and downtrodden as well as contrast that to the wealth of the Russian church and its hierarchy.  Perov’s paintings carried strong social implication and thus his realistic depictions became an important landmark in the history of Russian painting.

Marriage à la Mode by William Hogarth (c.1743)
Marriage à la Mode by William Hogarth (c.1743)

Perov, at this time, had become influenced by the work of Pavel Fedotov,  who is now looked upon as the founder of critical realism in Russian art.  Perov was also aware of the genre scenes by the Old Dutch masters, often depicting poverty.  Another painter who influenced him was the English painter William Hogarth, the eighteenth century pictorial satirist and social critic whose work ranged from realistic portraiture to what is referred to as Sequential Art, which uses images arranged in sequence for graphic storytelling or to communicate information, a kind of narrative art. One example of this is Hogarth’s almost comic strip series which questioned the morals of the privileged (see – Marriage a la Mode – My Daily Art Display May 4th – 9th 2011).

On his return to Moscow he became one of the founder members of a group, known as the Peredvizhniki, often referred to as The Wanderers or The Itinerants.  This group of artists were influenced by the liberal ideas of the philosopher and critic, Nikolay Chernyshevsky and the philosopher, Vissarion Belinski.  They established the first Free Society of Artists in Russia. In a way it was a group, which felt it their duty to portray, through their art, the necessity of denouncing the social order in Tsarist Russia.  Other great Russian artists which were part of this group and have featured in My Daily Art Display were, Ilya Repin, Alexei Savrasov, Isaac Levitan and the landscape painter, Ivan Shishkin.  This group of young artists, who in protest at Academic restrictions formed themselves into a co-operative.  Perov’s influence on the art of the time, developing realism in art during the last five decades of the nineteenth century, cannot be underestimated.

The Drowned Woman by Vasily Perov (1867)
The Drowned Woman by Vasily Perov (1867)

The height of Perov’s success as a realist and genre painter came around the latter part of the 1860’s.  In 1867 Perov produced the highly emotive work entitled The Drowned Woman.    In Perov’s painting we see a policeman, who has just dragged the body from the river.  He is sitting, smoking his pipe, and looking down on the dead woman.  The artist wants us, like the policeman, to think what might have been the circumstances of the young woman’s death.  Had life been just too hard to bear?   The casualness of the policeman’s demeanour gives us the idea that the dragging of a lifeless body from the river was a common occurrence.  It should be remembered that what we see in Perov’s depictions of social inequality was mirrored in the literature of the time by the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose writing explored human psychology at a time of the difficult political and social mood of 19th-century Russia.

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)
Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)

The subject of this work by Perov harks back to a work by the English realist painter, George Frederic Watts, and his 1855 work Found Drowned, a portrayal of a fallen woman, who drowned and whose body was discovered on the shores of the Thames.  (See My Daily Art Display July 4th 2011).

The Last Journey by Vasily Perov (1865)
The Last Journey by Vasily Perov (1865)

In 1865 Perov produced another heart wrenching oil on canvas work entitled The Last Journey, which can now be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  It is a depiction of both sorrow and condemnation.  There is an overwhelming sense of bereavement as we see a horse-drawn sleigh driven by an old woman.  We just see the back of her, hunched over, driving the horse.  She is taking the wooden coffin, which contains her recently deceased husband and breadwinner, to his final resting place.  Also on the sleigh are two children who, like the woman, face an uncertain future.  Their pet dog follows on.  The painting is gloomy matching the atmosphere of the story behind the depiction. Dark clouds are seen above the funeral cortege.  It is thought that Perov got the idea for this painting when he read the book, The Red Nose Frost, published in 1863 by Nikolai Nekrasov.  It is in two parts, the first part tells about a funeral of a young peasant and in the second part of the widow fight for survival in the forest. Nekrasov was a Russian poet, writer, critic and publisher.  His intensely empathetic poems about peasant life made him the hero of the freethinking and revolutionary circles of Russian intelligentsia.

Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)
Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)

I am completing this first part of my blog about Vasily Perov by featuring one of his greatest and certainly his largest genre painting (123 x 168 cms).  It has the simple title, Troika, which is the Russian word for “group of three”, and was completed in 1866 and now resides in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  It is a pictorial social commentary, which in this case, focuses on child labour.  We see children pulling a sled piled high with heavy barrels.  They face us.  Look at the way Perov has depicted their faces.  There is of course a child-like quality about them but one cannot fail to notice the pain and suffering their task is causing.  The air of gloom is added to by Perov’s background – The backdrop, the gloomy walls of the monastery create a mood of hopeless melancholy.  The children are being used and humiliated by this onerous task.

In my next blog I will showcase more of Perov’s paintings and look at the final years of his life.

Natalia Goncharova and Rayonism

Natalia Goncharova       1881 - 1962
Natalia Goncharova
1881 – 1962

In my blog today I want to look at the life of the avant-garde Russian painter, stage designer and printmaker, Natal’ya (Sergeevna) Goncharova.   Natalia was born in Russia on her father’s estate in the Tula governate in June 1881.  She was the daughter of Sergey Mikhaylovich Goncharov, a renowned architect and mathematician, and her mother was Yekaterina Il’icha Belyayeva.  However, in her early infant days she grew up in her grandmother’s home at Ladyzhino, near Kaluga. When she was ten years old, the family moved to Moscow and she attended the Fourth Gymnasium for Girls in Moscow and in 1898, when she was seventeen years old she decided to study sculpture and enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture as a sculpture student where her tutor was Paolo Troubetskoy.  It was at this establishment in 1900 that she met and became friends with fellow student, Mikhail Larionov.  He had enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture at the same time as Goncharova, studying painting under Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov.  Larionov was a student with very contentious and provocative views and was suspended from the academy on three occasions for his deep-seated opinions.   He and Goncharova became lifelong friends and he was to have a great influence on her.  It was Larionov who persuaded Goncharova to switch from studying sculpture to concentrate on studying painting.

Natalya Goncharova by Laborov
Natalya Goncharova by Laborov

Goncharova’s early work concentrated on the medium of pastels and her first works were showcased at the Diaghilev’s Russian Art Exhibition, which was held in Paris in 1906 at the Salon d’Automne and a year later her first paintings were shown at the Moskovskoye Tovarishchestvo Khudozhnikov (Moscow Association of Artists) of which she was a member.  At this time, her friend Larionov’s painting style was that of Impressionism and Natalya, for a time, also became interested in the style which had become so popular in France.  In 1908 she took part in the Golden Fleece exhibition and it was during this show that she became more aware of a modern style of art with the works of Bonnard, Matisse, Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec.  The influence of these painters made Goncharova rethink her artistic style.

Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)
Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)

In 1909 she completed a work of art, which highlighted her much-loved topic that of Russian peasants hard at work on the land.  The painting, which is currently housed at the Tate Liverpool, is entitled Gardening.  It is a painting, which is typical of her depictions of peasant life and was made around the time of her stay on a family estate in rural Russia.  Of this style of painting and her patriotism, she explained:

‘…If I extol the art of my country, then it is because I think that it … should occupy a more honourable place than it has done hitherto…”

In the painting we immediately sense her love for colour and her depiction of the peasants is a somewhat stylistic portrayal.  The display caption at the Tate describes the way she has portrayed the subjects shown in the paintings as:

 “…Her statuesque peasants, with their thickset bodies and massive limbs, are imbued with a heroic grandeur…”

 Her subsequent works were so colourful that they were likened to the work of the Fauves, which was an avant-garde movement that thrived in France during the first decade of the twentieth century, led by the likes of Matisse and Derain, these artists were the first to split from the Impressionism.

Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)
Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)

  In 1910, Goncharova became one of the founder members of the Jack of Diamonds group, sometimes referred to as Knave of Diamonds.  This group of painters was deemed to be the first group of Russian avant-garde artists and it was Mikhail Larionov who came up with the group’s name.   This collection of painters came from both Moscow and nearby provinces and most of them, including Goncharova, had studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  They were all influenced by the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse.  Once again we see a group of artists coming together with the common idea that they would discard the links with traditional art, and discard the knowledge that they were taught at their alma mater. For them, it was all about change and new artistic ideas.  Goncharova exhibited a number of her works in the group’s first exhibition in December 1910.  Their art was not loved by everybody, in fact it horrified some.  The influential Russian artist, art critic, historian criticised the group of young artists for having gone too far in overthrowing accepted artistic ideals.  Many other critics and members of the public declared that many of the works of art shown at the exhibition were in bad taste, gauche and lacked artistic elegance and some were even criticised as being too violent.

Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)
Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

She exhibited another example of her Primitivist style art at the 1912 Jack of Diamond exhibition.  It had been completed a couple of years earlier and was entitled Fishing.  Again the style is similar to her painting Gardening and is part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and is housed in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)
The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

 Another one of the paintings which Goncharova exhibited was entitled The Evangelists and this was among her first mature works devoted to a religious subject.   In her 1962 book, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, art historian, Camilla Gray, the daughter-in-law of Sergei Prokoviev, wrote:

“...The depiction is typical of Russian iconic paintings and so is a combination of old and new influences in Russian art. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of these four paintings is their effective use of color, line, and composition to create a strong rhythmic whole. Goncharova manipulates these elements with such understanding and perception that when one looks at the four authors of the Gospels there are no distractions and no weak points — only strength and security in a modern interpretation of tradition and native style. Both line and color become here “expressive entities in their own right” and convey the sense of calm spirituality and wisdom treasured by icon painters. However, what the Neo-primitivists of Goncharova’s time might have treasured most was an almost childish “directness and simplicity” characteristic of folk art which they tried to imitate in their works. Today, the four paintings of the Evangelists may be admired for many reasons, and regardless of the basis for the viewer’s appreciation, they definitely are an integral part of the Russian avant-garde movement…”

This religious work by Goncharova was heavily criticised for its primitive depiction and the critics believed no religious work should be associated with a group known as The Donkey’s Tail as it was bordering on blasphemy and so it was removed from the exhibition.

Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) by Natalia Goncharova (1911)
Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Natalia Gonchorova produced a series of paintings in 1911 that became known as the Peacocks.  They were highly colourful and were influenced by Larionov and his new style of work at the time which was termed Rayonism or Luchism (luch being the Russian word for “ray”) which was a type of abstract or semi-abstract painting.  The Rayonists sought an art that floated beyond abstraction, outside of time and space, and to break the barriers between the artist and the public. They derived the name from the use of dynamic rays of contrasting colour, representing lines of reflected light — crossing of reflected rays from various objects.  .The painting seen above is an example of this and is entitled Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) which can be found in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow.  The museum’s description of the work states:

“…The works in question combine the laws of Ancient Egyptian art and traditions of Russian folk art. The figure of peacock is transformed into an expressive sign. The bird’s chiselled head and elegant neck are shown in profile, whereas the magnificent tail is spread in front, as prescribed by Ancient Egyptian art. Between them is a green oval providing a background for the neck, head and body. The peacock seems to be examining its own tail in surprise, the tail resembling a grand architectural structure. It resembles at the same time the Coliseum, an arched iconostasis, a rainbow and palette. Unlike the artists of Art Nouveau, who associated peacock feathers with elegant luxury, Goncharova interprets this motif as primordial power, expressed in colours. The image of peacock seems to embody the ancient symbol of immortality…”

All was not well within the Jack of Diamond group as a rigorous debate took place between, on one side, David Burliuk, who was a fervent supporter and strongly supportive of Western art, and on the other side, Natalia Goncharova and Larionov, who favoured Russian themes. The two parties could not agree a compromise and so the Russian artists split into two camps. In the one corner was David Burliuk with his supporters, such as Alexi von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky, who favoured the art which was influenced by Western painters.  In the other corner was the more traditional camp, including Goncharova and Larionov, who believed that a modern Russian art should address the question of national artistic traditions and therefore they disassociated themselves from the Jack of Diamonds on the grounds that Burliuk was a “decadent Munich follower” while the others, known as Cézanne-ists, were conservative and eclectic..

Sunset Over the Adriatic by the ficticious Genoese painter  Joachim Raphale Baronali
Sunset Over the Adriatic by the ficticious Genoese painter Joachim Raphale Baronali

A year later in 1911 the more radical artists in the group, including Goncharova and Larionov, broke away and formed a new artist’s group which Larionov launched as Osliny khvost (the Donkey’s Tail), in order to promote avant-garde art inspired exclusively by Russian themes.  The name, The Donkey’s Tail, derived from a famous Parisian hoax in which the art critic, Roland Dorgelès and Fréderic Gérard, proprietor of the Montmartre café, Le Lapin Agile, had painted a lurid red and blue seascape by tying a paintbrush to a donkey’s tail. The work was exhibited as Sunset Over the Adriatic under the name of Joachim Raphale Baronali at the Salon des Indépendants of 1910 apparently without comment.

Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo
Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo

That year, Ilya Repin recounted the incident of the donkey’s tail in his review of Izdebsky’s International Exhibition and used the term as a critical epithet for the modernist work on show. Shortly afterwards, the Russian press satirized the Knave of Diamonds exhibition by publishing a cartoon of a donkey painting with its tail, with the cynical caption:

“…Off home already after looking round just one hall. Don’t be shy. Get your sixty kopeks worth and next year come again. Then we will change the name and under the sign of ‘the Donkey’s Tail’ we will show you the way we paint our pictures...”

In adopting this name for his group, Larionov beat the critics with their own stick.  Other artists to join the group were Marc Chagal and Kazimir Malevich.  The group, however, was only short-lived, disbanding at the end of 1912 having only managing to stage one exhibition in the March of 1912.  Goncharova submitted over fifty works of art to this exhibition.

The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova
The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova

Goncharova continued with her Rayonist works of art but unlike her friend Larionov her paintings depicted distinguishable objects or people, whereas Larionov’s paintings became more pure abstract. One of her most famous works of that period was one entitled The Cyclist in which her depiction cleverly captures the energy of the man on his bike as he passes by.  The blurred background adds to the sense of speed and movement.

Goncharova and Larionov were fervent believers of Rayonism, so much so they issued a joint manifesto in 1913 of what Rayonism meant to them.  The manifesto entitled Rayonists and Futurists, The Manifesto, began with:

“…We, rayonists and futurists, do not wish to speak about new or old art, and even less about modern Western art. We leave the old art to die and leave the “new” art to do battle with it; and incidentally, apart from a battle and a very easy one, the “new” art cannot advance anything of its own. It is useful to put manure on barren ground, but this dirty work does not interest us. People shout about enemies closing in on them, but in fact, these enemies are, in any case, their closest friends. Their argument with old art long since departed is nothing but a resurrection of the dead, a boring, decadent love of paltriness and a stupid desire to march at the head of contemporary, philistine interests. We are not declaring any war, for where can we find an opponent our equal? The future is behind us. All the same we will crush in our advance all those who undermine us and all those who stand aside. We don’t need popularization—our art will, in any case, take its full place in life—that’s a matter of time……..”

The American art historian, Camilla Gray, in her book gave her definition of Rayonism as:

“…[as an art style which] encompasses all existing styles and forms of the art of the past, as they, like life, are simply points of departure for a Rayonist perception and construction of a picture…”

Larionov and Goncharova started to believe that light was the indispensable source of our sensory appreciation of the world and believed that for any object to be observed it had to be lit up and the Rayonist style was to incorporate rays of light that then allows us to view a particular scene. Their manifesto explained:

 “…In fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision…”

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)
The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

In March 1913 Goncharova’s friend Larionov organised an exhibition entitled Mishen (Target) to introduce the Donkey’s Tail group of painters to the Moscow art critics and public.  One of the paintings Goncharova exhibited at the show was entitled La Forêt (The Forest) which is now part of the National Gallery of Scotland collection.  Although this is looked upon as an example of Goncharova’s Rayonist style with its coloured rays shooting out in different directions, it offers up the thought that Goncharova was more influenced by the Cubist style when she painted this work.  The shapes she has used in the depiction of trees in this work was replicated in a number of her works around this time.  It is a truly fascinating work.


The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)
The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

Goncharova went on to design ballet costumes and sets for ballets in Geneva and in 1914 she and Larionov moved to Paris to work alongside the great Russian ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghliev, during which time they designed a number of stage sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  Goncharova still found time to carry on painting and exhibited works at the Salon d’Automne, Salon des Tuileries and the Salon des Indépendants.

Goncharova was quite a controversial character.  She was a woman that did not “toe the line” of convention.  It was said that she would sometimes appear topless in public, with symbols painted on her body. In a sense, their use of odd, possibly meaningless symbols united the masses with the past Symbolist aesthetic. In John Bowlt’s 1990 article in the Art Journal entitled Natalia Goncharova and Futurist Theatre, he commented on her bizarre behaviour writing:

“…in private relations and behavior, Goncharova enjoyed a license that only actresses and gypsies were permitted, and perhaps because of this dubious social reputation rather than as the result of any apparent innuendos in her paintings, she was said to traverse the ‘boundary of decency’ and to ‘hurt your eyes…”

According to Mary Charmot who wrote an article in 1955 for the Burlington Magazine entitled The Early Work of Goncharova and Larionov, Diaghliev was full of praise for this unconventional painter who had brought life to his ballets.  He talked of her, saying:

“…The most celebrated of these advanced painters is a woman. [. . .] This woman has all Saint Petersburg and all Moscow at her feet. And you will be interested to know that she has imitators not only of her paintings but of her person. She has started a fashion of nightdress-frocks in black and white, blue and orange. But that is nothing. She has painted flowers on her face. And soon the nobility and Bohemia will be driving out in sledges, with horses and houses drawn and painted on their cheeks, foreheads and necks…”

Project poster for the ballet by Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo by Natalia Goncharova (1935)
Project poster for the ballet by Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo by Natalia Goncharova (1935)

Goncharova and Larionov had lived together shortly after their first meeting in 1900 as fellow students at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and they stayed together as an unmarried couple for more than fifty years.  She and Larionov became French citizens in 1939 and in 1955 the two artists married.  The reason for marrying so late in their romantic relationship was believed to be so that their paintings would revert to the surviving partner.  In the latter years Larionov and Goncharova suffered financially.   Goncharova suffered badly with arthritis in her hands and it is said that to carry on painting she had to tie the paint brushes to her wrist.  Goncharova died in Paris, in October 1962 and Larionov died two years later.

So what happened to their works of art?  The story goes that when the couple had both died, most of their collections were inherited by another Russian émigré, Alexandra Tomilina, who had met Larionov in the 1930’s when she was his student, and later became his mistress.   After Goncharova died in 1962, Larionov married Tomilina in order that she would inherit all the paintings, which by this time was numbered in the thousands, and by doing so the two artists would continue to be remembered and therefore it would safeguard both artists’ legacies.  Sadly Tomilina had always viewed Goncharova as a love rival and so hated her, so much so that she gave away, destroyed or disposed of many of Goncharova’s works. Tomalina’s old age became one of a life of poverty and so, desperate to pay off her debts, contacted the Soviet authorities and offered them all the remaining artworks if they would financially support her for the rest of her life.  This they agreed to.  When Tomilina died in 1987, her ashes were buried in Goncharova and Larionov’s double grave

Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)
Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

After her death, Goncharova was almost forgotten as a painter in the West. Why?  Maybe it was because she painted in many styles — Cubism, Futurism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayism, and  also maybe because she worked in many forms, from oil painting to textile design. This lack of recognition was all to change in 2007 when her work, Picking Apples, which she completed in 1909, was sold at Christie’s Modern and Impressionist sale in London for £4.9 million ($9.8 million), a record for a female artist, only to be bested a year later when her painting, The Flowers, sold for £5.53 million ($10.8 million).

The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)
The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)

Goncharova’s life, like her art, was very colourful.  She was unconventional and actually fell foul of the law on a number of occasions.  She was tried for pornography after a show of nude paintings in 1910 and as I mentioned earlier, her religious paintings were forcibly removed from several exhibitions and for a time were banned by the Holy Synod.

Alexsei Savrasov – the lyrical landscape artist

Portrait of Alexei Savrasov by Vasily Perov (1878)
Portrait of Alexei Savrasov by Vasily Perov (1878)

My last two blogs featured the life and works of the great nineteenth century landscape painter, Isaac Levitan.  Whilst I was researching his early life as a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture I came across the name of Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov who was one of Levitan’s tutors.  Having a rest from writing about Levitan, I had a look at some of the works of Savrasov, who had influenced Levitan and amongst them I came across the most exquisite painting and the one Savrasov was probably most famous for; but more about that later.

Alexei Savrasov was born on 12 May 1830 into the family of a Moscow merchant.  As a young boy he developed the love of drawing and by the age of twelve he was experimenting with painting gouache and watercolour landscapes and during his early years he managed to exchange his paintings with vendors for chicken feed.  He persuaded his father to let him study art and at the young of eight he attended the painting school.

In 1844, when Savrasov was fourteen years of age, and plans for his future career had to be discussed with the family.  His father was adamant that his son should follow him and become a merchant and thus end all the time his son spent painting which his father regarded as just a hobby.    However for Alexei, his heart was set on becoming an artist.  Alexei eventually had his way and enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and in 1848 he was fortunate to join the special studio of perspective and landscape painting which was run by Karl Rabus, who was the Professor of Landscape painting.  Alexei loved the genre of landscape painting and began to specialise in it. Soon he was widely acknowledged by the tutors as the best student of landscape painting in the School.    During the last years at the painting school, Savrasov, received a bursary from a well-known Moscow art patron and member of the Moscow Art Society, Likhachev, which enabled him to go on a painting and sketching trip to Odessa, where he captured the beauty of the local landscape.

View of the Kremlin from the Krymsky Bridge in Inclement Weather by Alexei Savrasov (1851)
View of the Kremlin from the Krymsky Bridge in Inclement Weather by Alexei Savrasov (1851)

In 1850 Savrasov graduated from the Moscow School of Painting receiving the official title of “unclassed artist”.  One of the first paintings Savrasov completed after leaving the art school was entitled View of the Kremlin from Krymski Bridge during Inclement Weather.  The storm clouds rush from the right to the left of the painting pushed relentlessly by the strong winds which have caused the branches of the trees to bend towards the river.  The sun has pierced the clouds and illuminated the Kremlin in the background of the painting.  In the foreground of the painting we see that the sun has lit up a small patch of land where the water from the Moskva River laps the sandy ground.  A woman, pail in hand, rushes past.  Her hand clutches her coat to hold it closed while  the wind whips at her skirt which is billowing in the gale.

View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum by Alexei Savrasov (1854)
View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum by Alexei Savrasov (1854)

Savrasov travelled to the Ukraine in 1852 and steadily built up a portfolio of sketches and paintings and with them he started to develop a reputation as an up and coming artist.  Two years later, in 1854, he received a painting commission for several works of art for the Russian Art Academy from the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna,   She was one of the daughters of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.    She was an avid and well-known art collector and President of the Russian Academy of Arts in St Petersburg.  To carry out his commission, Savrasov moved from Moscow to the Gulf of Finland, close to St Petersburg.  Two of the paintings he produced, View in the Neighborhood of Oranienbaum and Seashore in the Neighborhood of Oranienbaum, are now looked upon as excellent examples of the genre known as romantic landscapes   These works of art by Savrasov allowed him to depict, with great fondness, the charm and appeal of a summer evening at the sea, with the moistness associated with the sea air in the shade of ancient rocks, whilst envisioning the twilight which we observe under the spread­ing branches of trees.  The works Savrasov produced during this period, and these two works in particular, earned him the title of Fellow of the Russian Art Academy.

Alexi Savrasov had studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture for ten years from 1844 to 1854, some of the time under the tutorship of Karl Rabus.  When Rabus died in 1857 Savrasov was asked to take over Rabus’ landscape class which he did and remained in post until 1882.  During his tenure he took many students under his wing, including the subject of my last blog, Isaac Levitan.  Savrasov was an excellent teacher and much loved and admired by his students.  In 1857 Savrasov married Sophia Hertz, the sister of art historian and archaeologist, K. Hertz; the couple went on to have several children. In their home they entertained artists and collectors including the famous art collector and patron of the arts, Pavel Tretyakov, who gave his name to the Moscow Art Gallery.

After leaving the Moscow School of Art in 1862, Savrasov took up the suggestion made to him by the Art Amateurs’ Society and left Russia on a painting expedition of Europe.   He travelled to that year’s World Fair in London, where he exhibited his painting View of the Surroundings Oranienbaum, and was amazed by what he saw and was unstinting in his praise, writing:

“…no academies in the world could so advance an artist as the present world exhibition…”

View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken by Alexsei Savrasov (1862)
View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken by Alexsei Savrasov (1862)

On the way back home he visited Paris, Switzerland, Copenhagen, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig.  During his European travels the two landscape painter whom he admired the most were the English artist, John Constable and the Swiss landscape painter Alexandre Calame.   One of the paintings he completed in 1862 originated from his travels through Switzerland.  It was entitled View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken and was completed in 1862.

Rafts by Alexei Savrasov (1868)
Rafts by Alexei Savrasov (1868)

I particularly like his painting entitled Rafts which he painted in 1868.

Elk Island in Sokolniki by Alexi Savrasov (1869)
Elk Island in Sokolniki by Alexi Savrasov (1869)

However the painting of his which drew the most acclaim in this period was a beautiful landscape work entitled Elk Island in Sokolniki, which he finished in 1869 and for which he was awarded the first prize at a painting competition organised by the Moscow Art Amateurs’ Society.  Elk Island straddles the boundary between the centre of Moscow and its suburbs to the north of the city.  It is home to a remarkable variety of animal and plant life.  The area was believed to have been a favourite place for Ivan the Terrible to enjoy falconry and bear-hunting. The area was given the name Elk Island in the early 17th century, when documents say that the place was used for hunting “all manner of game birds, and especially elk”.

Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod by Aklexei Savrasov  (1871)
Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod by Aklexei Savrasov (1871)

In December 1870 Savrasov, his wife and family went to live in Yaroslavl which lies on the Volga, three hundred kilometres north of Moscow.   Whilst there he produced the beautiful work of art entitled  Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod, which is now housed in the Gorky State Art Museum in Nizhny Novgorod.  It was one of the largest canvases Savrasov ever painted.    The left hand side of this wide panoramic view is taken up by the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers with the blue lagoons whilst the right hand side of the painting depicts the Pechersky Voznesensky monastery.  The original monastery is believed to have been founded around 1330 by St. Dionysius, who, along with several followers, arrived in Nizhny Novgorod from Kiev Pechersk Lavra also known as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, (pechery meaning ‘caves), hence the title of the painting.  On arrival at Nizhny Novgorod they dug a cave on the shoreline of the Volga and later it became the site of a monastery and church.  The original monastery was destroyed by a landslide in 1597; but in the same year a new monastery was built a short distance upstream.

Detail from Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod
Detail from Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod

In the right foreground, we see suburban homes with their small gardens awash with greenery which contrasts with the towering white stonework of the monastery.

The Rooks have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov (1871)
The Rooks have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov (1871)

The last work of Savrasov, which I am showcasing, is the one I talked about at the start of this blog.  Its beauty and simplicity immediately struck me and I was reminded of one of my favourite artists Pieter Breugel the Elder who had a propensity of including rooks or magpies in his winter scenes, such as his 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow.  This painting by Savrasov entitled The Rooks have Come Back was completed in 1871 at the height of his artistic career.

Members of the Peredvizhniki group (Savrasov,with beard, standing, third from left)
Members of the Peredvizhniki group (Savrasov,with beard, standing, third from left)

A year earlier he had became a member of the Peredvizhniki group, often known as  The Wanderers or The Itinerants who were a group of Russian Realist artists, who like many artists throughout Europe railed against the Academic restrictions and decided to go off on their own and set up artists’ cooperative.   The Wanderers eventually evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions.  It is a simple painting with an equally simple theme – the birds returning home in Spring.  It was a transitional depiction.  A transition of nature from winter to spring heralded by the return of the rooks. This landscape work with all its simplicity was termed a lyrical landscape painting later to be termed a mood landscape painting and Savrasov was one of the founding exponents of this type of landscape art.  His pupil Isaac Levitan would continue with this style.  Of this painting the artist, art critic and leader of the Russian Democratic Art movement, Ivan Kramskoi,  wrote:

“…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.

Savrasov’s former pupil and fellow landscape painter Isaac Levitan declared the painting:

“…to be “very simple, but beneath the simplicity there is the tender artist’s soul, who loves nature and values it…”

Although the year 1871 and this painting marked the height of Savrasov’s fame it also marked the beginning of the end of the great man for in  February 1871 Savrasov’s life took a tragic turn with the sudden death of his baby daughter.  This was the third child he and his wife had lost.  Maybe it was “the straw which broke the camel’s back” as Savrasov never recovered from this loss and descended into deep depression and despite friends who tried to help him he took to alcohol to ease the pain..  His work suffered and by 1882 he could no longer hold down the post of professor at the Moscow Art School and was sacked.   His wife eventually left him and took their children with her,  His bad manners and unpleasant demeanour caused friends and family to eventually desert him and his alcoholism and lack of sales of his work culminated  in the 1880’s with him living the life of a pauper.  In 1890 Savrasov went to live with Evdokiya Morgunova, and the couple had two children.

Savrasov's grave in Vagankovo Cemetery, Moscow
Savrasov’s grave in Vagankovo Cemetery, Moscow

Alexei Savrasov died in September 1897 in a city hospital, in a ward for paupers. When it came to his funeral, the doorkeeper of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and Pavel Tretyakov, who later founded the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, were the only people to attend Savrasov’s funeral .

I will leave you with a quote from his pupil Isaak Levitan, who wrote of his mentor:

“…One of the most profound Russian landscape-artists has passed away. With him, lyricism came to land­scape painting, and boundless love for one’s na­tive land. Yes, Savrasov was the father of Rus­sian landscape painting, and this undisputed merit of his will never be forgotten in the field of Russian art…”

Isaac Levitan. Part 2 – The later years

Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Isaac Levitan (1886)
Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Isaac Levitan (1886)

Anton Chekhov, the writer and physician, was born in January 1860.  He was the third of six children and was brought up in the coastal town of Taganrog which lay on the north shore of the Sea of Azov in southern Russia.  In 1876, when he was sixteen years old his father, Pavel, was in the process of building a new house but ran out of money and was mired in a huge debt.  Rather than face the prospect of languishing in a debtors prison he escaped the town and moved to Moscow where his elder sons, Alexander and Nikolai were studying. Alexander was attending Moscow University and Nikolai was an art student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  Anton Chekhov remained behind in Taganrog to finish his studies at the local secondary school and was also charged with the task of selling the family’s possessions.  It was not until three years later in 1879 that Anton Chekhov joined the family in Moscow.

Anton Chekhov enrolled at the Moscow State Medical University and it was shortly after arriving in Moscow that he was introduced to Isaac Levitan by his brother Nikolai who was a fellow student of Levitan at the Moscow School of Painting.  Anton Chekhov was just eight months older than Levitan and the close friendship between the two great men of the Russian Arts steadily grew and it would last until the end of their lives.  This was a coming together of two Masters of Russian literature and the visual arts, and this close camaraderie led to a close style in the way the two considered and dealt with artistic challenges, so much so that their names are often quoted side by side both in specialized literature and popular writings.

The Watermill, Sunset by Isaac Levitan (1880)
The Watermill, Sunset by Isaac Levitan (1880)

Levitan completed a beautiful but small landscape painting, The Watermill, Sunset.  It measured just 33cms x 52cms.  He painted this work in the summer of 1880 when he was spending time in the small riverside town of Plyos on the banks of the mighty Volga River.  Levitan loved the area and this period could be looked upon as one of the happiest times of his life. His friend Anton Chekhov said that when his artist friend and he were in Plyos he could detect a smile on Isaac’s face.  Sadly, because of family tragedies and his unending fight against poverty, Levitan rarely smiled and was often the victim of melancholia.

Isaac Levitan had developed a great love of nature which almost certainly originated from his time at the Moscow School of Painting and the time he spent with one of his tutors, the Russian landscape painter, Alexei Savrasov.  Savrasov was one of the most eminent of all 19th century Russian landscape artists and was renowned for his lyrical style and melancholic works of art.  He was looked upon as the creator of the lyrical landscape style.

In all, Levitan painted this view three times.  The first, which we see above, is housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and the other two, which were painted later, form part of two private Russian collections.  The scene is set at sunset and the mill is in shadow whilst the forest, on the opposite side of the river in the background is bathed in evening sunlight.  The light slants in from the right illuminating the far bank.  It is the ending of the day and although the blue skies suggest otherwise, the location will soon be cast in darkness.  In the foreground, the focal point is the wooden mill and the small rickety bridge which crosses over the small waterfall, the water of which powers the mill.  In many of Levitan’s paintings he depicts small bridges crossing over water along with jetties which often had boats moored to them.

Levitan’s moody landscapes and the artists and poets who had influenced this style of art were commented upon by Alexandre Benois in his 1916 book, The Russian School of Painting.  He wrote:

“…He brought to a summation that which Vasiliev, Savrasov and Polenov had foretold.  Levitan discovered the peculiar charm of Russian landscape “moods”; he found a distinctive style to Russian landscape art which would have been distinguished illustrations to the poetry of Pushkin, Koltzov, Gogol, Turgenyev and Tyutchev.  He rendered the inexplicable charm of our humble poverty, the shoreless breadth of our virginal expanses, the festal sadness of the Russian autumn, and the enigmatic call of the Russian spring.  There are no human beings in his paintings, but they are permeated with a deep emotion which floods the human heart…”

To supplement his income Levitan gave private painting lessons and he collaborated with the Chekhov brothers on the illustrated magazine “Moscow”.  Levitan also spent time spent time on the popular Russian magazines, “Raduga” (Rainbow) in1883) and “Volna” (Wave) in 1884, where he worked on graphics and lithographs for the publications.  He also collaborated with illustrations for Mikhail Fabritsius’ guide book, The Kremlin in Moscow.  During the summers of the mid and late 1880’s Levitan spent much of his time with the Chekhov family, who had a summer residence on the Babkino estate close to the banks of the Istra River.   The estate was owned by Alexsei Kiselev and he and his wife Marila would entertain artists and writers at their many soirees.  Levitan eventually moved into the Chekhovs home and set up his own studio.   One painting he completed in 1886, whilst staying with the Chekhovs was The Istra River.

In the Crimean Mountains by Isaac Levitan (1886)
In the Crimean Mountains by Isaac Levitan (1886)

His impoverished upbringing during which he often had no idea where or when his next meal would come from combined with the stress of being an artist trying to eke out a living had affected his health and he was diagnosed as having a degenerative heart disease and advised to move to a warmer climate further to the south of the country and so in late March 1886 Isaac Levitan visited the Crimea for the first time.  It was here that he completed more than sixty sketches and paintings during his two months sojourn including one entitled In the Crimean Mountains which depicted an area around the town of Feodosiya, in eastern Crimea.  It is a painting which manages to capture the bright sun and the intense heat of the mountainous setting.  Levitan exhibited all the sketches he had completed whilst staying in the Crimea at the Moscow Society of Art Lovers (MSAL).  All were purchased and with that success came financial stability for Isaac Levitan.

Evening on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1888)
Evening on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1888)

Between 1887 and 1890 Levitan would travel far and wide spending the long summer months in small towns along the Volga River, such as Plës (Plyos) and Vasil’sursk and two of his paintings of that time, Evening on the Volga (1888) and Evening: The Golden Plyos (1889) depicted the beauty of the river and the townships, which were situated on the banks of the great waterway, during the hours of sunset.

Evening: Golden Ples by Isaac Levitan (1889)
Evening: Golden Ples by Isaac Levitan (1889)

Levitan painted the Volga River scenes in various weather and light conditions and by doing so was able to convey associated moods.  The Volga series established Levitan as the painter of the landscape of mood and his style became popular with other Moscow landscape artists of the time.

The Mediterranean Coast by Isaac Levitan (1890)
The Mediterranean Coast by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Levitan realised that much could be learnt from European artists and so, in March 1890, he embarked on a tour visiting Berlin and Paris and the Cote d’Azur towns of Nice and Menton.  From his visit to the south of France, he completed a work entitled The Mediterranean Coast which is a truly beautiful depiction of the multi-coloured sea and the pebbled shoreline.  He went on to Italy and visited Venice and Florence, Germany and Switzerland.  However Levitan was a true Russian and despite the lure of the artistic life in the European capitals he preferred to return to his homeland.

In March 1891 Isaac Levitan became a member of the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions, and by the end of the year, displayed ten of his paintings at a Moscow Society of Art Lovers (MSAL) exhibition. His exhibits met with unreserved acclaim from both his fellow artists and the public.

Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery by Isaac Levitan (1890)
Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Another of Levitan’s works of art I really like was completed in 1890, ten years after The Watermill painting, and was entitled Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery.  The monastery in question is the Krivooserski Monastery which is close to the river town of Yuryevets, located at the confluence of the Unzha and the Volga Rivers, some 350 kilometres north east of Moscow.   Levitan had visited the area in the summer of 1890.  In the painting we see the monastery in the background nestled amongst the high trees with just the ornate cupolas peaking above the tree canopy.   In the foreground we can see a curved rickety wooden-planked bridge which traverses the slow-flowing river.  The surface of the river shimmers in the sunlight.  Look how beautifully Levitan has depicted the reflection of the monastery and the trees in this still expanse of water.

Anton Chekhov was so impressed with his friend’s painting that he introduced it into his 1895 novel, Three Years, in which he had the heroine of the story, Yulia Sergeievna, visit an Easter Week art exhibition and stand in front of what he described as

“…a small landscape… In the foreground was a stream, over it a little wooden bridge...”

Above the Eternal Peace by Isdaac Levitan (1894)
Above the Eternal Peace by Isdaac Levitan (1894)

One of the most haunting works by Levitan was his painting entitled Above the Eternal Peace which he completed in 1894.  The first thing that strikes you about this evocative work is it is the depiction of an endless landscape.  In the background we have a beautiful depiction of threatening heavy grey clouds which are  intermingled with fluffy white ones, all of which are reflected on to the still waters of the lake below.  In the foreground, sitting isolated on a verdant promontory which juts into the lake, is a small church with its gleaming silver cupola.  Behind the church is the graveyard.  It is separated from the church by some birch trees which have been bent over by strong winds.  The graveyard looks abandoned and is rather overgrown and some of the crosses have lean over from the constant force of a strong wind which raced unhindered across the exposed promontory.  The picture was painted on the shore of Lake Udomlia in Tver province, 250 kilometres north of Moscow.

Vladimirka by Isaac Levitan (1892)
Vladimirka by Isaac Levitan (1892)

My final offering is another haunting work of art, not for its pictorial depiction but because where and what it is being depicted.   It was a depiction of a well-trodden road which led convicts towards their penal colonies in Siberia.  The painting is entitled The Vladimirka Road and Levitan completed it in 1892.  The Vladimir Highway familiarly known as the Vladimirka was a 190-kilometre road which went from Moscow to Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod, Siberia in the east.  Siberia was at this time the customary place of exile, and this road depicted in the painting saw an endless movement of prisoners in shackles being marched from Moscow to the Siberian penal colonies.  Levitan’s work of art is not just another landscape painting it is a combination of his realistic vision with a message.  Before us is a somewhat desolate landscape but the point of the painting is to remind people, who look at the depiction, of the traumatic history of the road.  It was about exile but it was not just about the exile of prisoners to Siberia.  Levitan himself probably reflected on his own life at the time as in 1892 through to the beginning of 1893, by order of the Moscow governor-general, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, about 20,000 Jews were deported from Moscow.  Isaac Levitan was among those forced from his home and this expulsion because of his religion had traumatised him.

Everything about the painting reflects his troubled mind.  Levitan has depicted the sky and the fields in dull and rather uninviting tones.  Before us we have a flat and almost lifeless landscape with just the odd trees in the background.  There is little or no vegetation and the path has been almost reduced to gravel due to the thousands of prisoners who had been marched along it over the years.   Look at the colours he has used.  Instead of bright greens and yellows he has gone for dull browns and lacklustre darker greens. The sky is grey with no hint of blue to uplift the painting.  There is no sign of the sun which would have brightened the landscape but that was not the intention of the artist.  There are no people depicted as he and many other realistic landscape artists believed the inclusion of people into a landscape painting  detracted from the surroundings.  Most of Levitan’s landscapes are without people.  This work of art was termed a mood landscape in which the artist has transferred his mood into the way he depicts the scene.  There is nothing uplifting about the view.  There is nothing in the scene that would raise one’s spirits but that is just as Levitan wanted it to be.  It was Levitan’s way of depicting hopelessness.  It was the historical hopelessness of those who trudged their way to what would simply be slave labour.  It was his own feeling of despair at his plight as a persecuted Jew.

To put a more uplifting spirit to this road the Bolsheviks, post-Russian Revolution, renamed it Shosse Entuziastov (“Enthusiasts’ Highway”) and many years later it became known as the Volga Motorway.

In March 1894 Levitan moved to the Tver Region, and later to Gorki.  His health was deteriorating and by 1895 the degenerative heart disease which had been diagnosed ten years earlier was making life more difficult for Levitan.  He was in constant pain and had little energy.  His physical ailment triggered mental health issues in the form of depression and it was known that on a number of occasions he attempted to end his life.  The only thing which gave him happiness was his love of nature.  In 1897, he had become world-renowned as a landscape painter and  he was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts  and in 1898 he was named the head of the Landscape Studio at his alma mater, the Moscow School of Painting.

The Lake by Isaac Levitan (1890)
The Lake by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Levitan spent the last year of his life at Chekhov’s home in the Crimea.  Even though Levitan was aware that he was dying his last works were ones of brightness of colour.  An example of this is one which remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1890.  It was entitled The Lake although Levitan called it Rus’.  It is believed that he labelled the work thus as he believed the painting reflect ed tranquillity and the eternal beauty of Russian nature and embodied all that was good about his homeland –  its landscape, its people and its history.

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)
Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)

In 1898 Levitan was given the title of academic of landscape painting. He still taught in the Moscow College of Art, Sculpture and Architecture. His paintings were constantly on display at Russia-wide exhibitions, at International exhibitions in Munich and the World Exhibition in Paris. He became internationally famous. His health started failing, his heart disease progressing quickly. He went abroad for some last-ditch medical treatment but any slight improvement was short lived.   Isaac Levitan completed over a thousand paintings, during his short life.  He died on 22 June 1900, just forty years of age. Levitan never married and had no children.   He was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Dorogomilovo, Moscow.   In April 1941 Levitan’s remains were moved to the Novodevichy Cemetery, close to the grave of his friend Anton Chekhov.

In August 2008 in the village of Eliseikovo, Petushinsky District near Vladimir – the Levitan House of Landscape was opened. Isaac Levitan first came to this area in May 1891, on invitation of the historian Vassily Kluchevsky, who had a summer home by the Peksha River. In 1892, Levitan returned, but on this occasion it was not from choice as it was the time when the Russian authorities banished Jews from Moscow.  The great Russain opera singer and friend of Levitan, Fyodor Shalyapin, spoke of the art of his friend:

“…It has brought me to realization that the most important thing in art is this feeling, this spirit, this prophetic word that sets people’s hearts on fire. And this prophetic word can be expressed not only in speech and gesture but also in line and colour…”

Isaac Levitan. Part 1, His early life and paintings

Self portrait by Isaac Levitan (1880)
Self portrait by Isaac Levitan (1880)

From the portraiture and the religious works of the 16th century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni I am moving in a completely different direction.  I am focusing on the Russian Empire and one of, if not the greatest Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century.  Today let me introduce you to Isaac Levitan.

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)
Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)

Isaac Ilyich Levitan was born in August 1860 in the small schetl of Kibart.  A schetl is a small settlement with a large Jewish population.    Kibart was close to the border town of Verzhbolovo, and was then part of what was known as Russian Poland.  The town is now part of Lithuania and is known as Virbalis.  Levitan was one of four children who was born into an intellectual working class Jewish family.  His father, Elyashiv Levitan, was a language teacher, teaching French and German at the nearby school in Kowno (now Kaunus, Lithuania) He alaso supplemented his pay as a teacher by acting as a translator for a French building company, which was constructing a nearby bridge over the Lieponio River for the St. Petersburg to Warsaw railway.  Elyashiv spent a lot of his free time educating his children at home.  Both Isaac’s mother and father were interested in art and so, when their son and his brother Axel also showed an interest in it, they were only too pleased to nurture their children’s love of drawing and painting.

Landscape on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1878)
Landscape on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1878)

In the Spring of 1870 the family moved to Moscow and the following year his older brother Axel enrolled at the Moscow College of Art, Sculpture and Architecture, which was one of the largest educational institutions in Russia.  Two years later, in September 1873, Isaac also registered as a pupil at the college to study art.  His initial artistic training concentrated on copying but, after a year, he moved on to a class which focused on nature and art and soon he was embroiled in the genre of landscape painting, which was later to make him famous.  He had first-class teachers at the college, including the landscape painters, Alexi Savrasov, the head of the landscape department, his successor, Vasily Polenov and the Realist painter Vasily Perov, who was the founder of the Peredvizhniki often known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants, who were a group of Russian realist painters who in protest at academic restrictions formed an artists’ cooperative.  The group later evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions.

Autumn Road in a Village by Isaac Levitan (1877)
Autumn Road in a Village by Isaac Levitan (1877)

Isaac loved the challenge of landscape painting and was greatly influenced by the landscape work of the Barbizon painters as well as the work of the French realist painter Camile Corot.  Things were proceeding well for Isaac until 1875 when, at the age of fifteen, tragedy struck with the death of his mother and in 1877, after contracting typhus and having endured a long illness during which time he could not earn money, his father died.  Now Isaac was without financial support.  He had neither money to pay the college fees nor the money to live.  He was asked to leave the college due to non-payment of his tuition fees but was rescued by the kindness of friends who gave him the money so that he could continue studying and later, thanks to the College Council who appreciated his talent, the tuition fees were waived and furthermore they awarded him a small bursary.

A Sunny Day, Spring by Isaac Levitan (1876)
A Sunny Day, Spring by Isaac Levitan (1876)

In 1877, the year that his father died, the fifth Travelling Art Exhibition was held at the Moscow College of Art.  Isaac Levitan submitted two of his works with great hopes of a medal.  He had completed one of the works, Solnechnyi den Vesna (A Sunny Day, Spring) the previous year, whilst his other entry, Vecher (Evening) had been completed in 1877.  Levitan was disappointed in the judges’ decision.  He didn’t receive a medal for either work but was granted a diploma which allowed him to become an art teacher.

The year 1879 proved to be a year of turmoil and triumph for nineteen year old Levitan.  The turmoil occurred on the morning of April 20, 1879; Tsar Alexander II was attacked by a thirty-three year old former student, Alexander Soloviev, as he walked towards the Square of the Guards Staff.  The result of this assassination attempt was a crackdown on groups of people who were believed to be a threat to the Tsar.  The government issued an edict that there would be a mass deportation of Jews from the big cities of the Russian Empire.  This meant that Isaac’s family were forced to move out of the centre of Moscow to the eastern suburb of Saltykovka. Later that year, due to pressure on the local government officials by art lovers, Isaac Levitan was allowed to return to the city.

Autumn Day, Sokolniki, by Isaac Levitan (1879)
Autumn Day, Sokolniki, by Isaac Levitan (1879)

The triumph came that December, when Isaac entered his painting, Osenniy den Sokolniki (Autumn Day, Sokolniki) in the second students’ exhibition.  Levitan liked to paint views of different settings in the Moscow area. Considered to be one of the best works of this period is his poignant work entitled Autumn Day, Sokolniki, which he completed in 1879.   The painting reveals to us Levitan’s belief in the connection between nature and human feelings.  The painting is a depiction of a grey-clouded autumn sky and one can imagine the rustling sound of the wind through the trees causing the dying leaves to fall to the ground.  The path which disappears into the distance is the focal point of the painting.  It is empty with the exception of a woman dressed in black, who strolls towards us.

This work of art by Levitan was his reminder of his joy of walking along the forest path of his beloved Sokolniki Park.  The park lies to the northeast of the city and was so named because of its connection with falconry which took place there and was the favourite sport of members of the royal court (sokol is the Russian word for falcon).  This work of art received great revues and the following year it was purchased by the art collector and philanthropist, Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the famous Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  This marked the initial public recognition of Isaac Levitan and his art.  The painting can now be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

It was around the end of the 1870’s that Isaac Levitan met the writer Anton Chekhov.  The meeting came about as Anton’s brother, Nikolai, was a fellow student of Levitan at the Moscow College of Art.  This was to be a friendship which lasted all Levitan’s life.

In my next blog I will continue looking at the life of Isaac Levitan and feature some of his most important later works.

Zinaida Serebriakova – Part 2.

My blog today continues with a look at the life of the Russian painter, Zinaida Serebriakova.  At the end of my last entry I told you that she and her family’s life had been turned upside down by the onset of the October Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.  Lenin, who was the leader of the Bolsheviks, wanted to keep the peasant classes on his side so when he made his attempt to overthrow the provisional Russian government, he ensured the neutrality of the peasants by offering them land, owned by the aristocracy.  The Revolution saw the riches, property and lands owned by the aristocratic classes being taken from them by the Bolsheviks and redistributed to the peasants.   That October, Serebriakova had been living at her family estate of Neskuchnoye when the Bolshevik forces descended upon her and her family.  When it was all over the reserves of Neskuchnoye had been plundered and the family was left without food.   Zinaida was left with nothing – no income, no husband, for he had been dragged off by the Bolsheviks and jailed and would die of typhus, which he contracted during incarceration, two years later.  Notwithstanding the fact that she was penniless and had no means to earn money, she was responsible for the upbringing of her four children as well as having to care for her widowed mother.    Zinaida was forced to give up oil painting in favour of the less expensive techniques of charcoal and pencil sketching

Zinaida eventually managed to get some work at the Kharkov Archaeological Museum, where she made pencil drawings of the exhibits.   In December 1920 she and her family went to live with her grandfather who had an apartment in Petrograd.    Petrograd had formerly been known as St Petersburg but when World War I broke out in August 1914 it was decided to change the name of the Russian capital from the Germanic  St. Petersburg to the more Russian equivalent, Petrograd.  It was not until 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the city reverted back to the name of St Petersburg.   Because of a Bolshevik dictate which stated that all inhabitants of private apartments had to share their living space with other people, Zinaida found herself sharing her lodgings with artists from the Moscow Art Theatre.

In Ballet Dressing Room (Big Ballerinas) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1922)
In Ballet Dressing Room (Big Ballerinas) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1922)

Serebriakova’s work during this period focused on theatre life. It was around this time that her daughter Tatyana became interested in ballet and her mother managed to get her enrolled at the prestigious ballet school of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, the home of the Russian Ballet, where Zinaida’s uncle, Alexander Benois was the scenic director.   Much of Zinaida’s time was absorbed by the theatre and she produced a series of exquisite pastels on the balletic life at the theatre.  Many of her works showed young ballerinas in their dressing room preparing to go on stage.

In 1924 Zinaida Serebriakova got the offer of work in Paris and with some financial help from her uncle Alexander Benois, she left St Petersburg and headed to the French capital, leaving behind her four children with her ailing mother.  A few years later Zinaida managed to bring her son Alexander and her daughter Katya to live with her in Paris but her son Yevgenyi and her daughter Tatiana had to remain in Russia with their grandmother, and it was not until 1960 that she was able to have Tatiana visit her in Paris.

Zinaida was now one of many Russian exiles living in Paris who could not return to her homeland.   She earned a living by painting society portraits. Her children also often featured in her work, and her daughter often posed in the nude.   She also painted other female models, reclining in her studio with patterned wraps and decorative drapes. These works were of a very informal nature and often highly erotic.  According to her daughter Ekaterina these nude studies were probably the most intimate images of the female body in Russian art.   She later wrote:

“…The female nude was mother’s favourite subject. While she was in Russia young peasant women would pose for her. In Paris her friends would come over to her studio, drink a cup of tea, then they would stay and pose for her. They were not the professional models that you might find in Montparnasse and maybe this is the reason why they are so natural and graceful…”

Sleeping Nude (Katya).by Zinaida Serebriakova (1934)
Sleeping Nude (Katya).by Zinaida Serebriakova (1934)

Zinaida completed one of her best known nude studies of her daughter, Ekaterina, in 1934, entitled Sleeping Nude (Katya).  It was a veritable masterpiece which is similar in imagery to the sleeping Venuses of the Venetian masters, the nymphs of Boucher and the bathers of Cabanel and Renoir.  In this work, Zinaida does not offer us some anonymous heroine from Greek mythological tales but presents us with an innocent young girl, who lies before us, totally relaxed, her cheeks flushed from sleep.  It is so natural and it is even more endearing knowing that the model for this painting was her twenty-two year old daughter, Katya who had modelled for her mother for the previous fifteen years.

Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket)by Zinaida Serebriakova (1923)
Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket)
by Zinaida Serebriakova (1923)

In 1923, before Zinaida left for Paris she had painted a nude study of the then ten-year old Katya, entitled Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket), in which we see her young daughter, in all her innocence, sprawled across a blue blanket.

Zinaida’s uncle Alexander Benois, an artist, art critic and co-founder of the art magazine and movement Mir iskusstva (World of Art), commented on the way his niece had portrayed her naked young women.  He wrote:

“…[Her nude studies were] not by a generalised sensuality but by something specific, which we recognise from our literature, from our music, from our personal experiences. This is truly the flesh of our flesh. Here is that grace, that comfortable languor, that cosy, domesticated side to Eros – all of which are actually more alluring, more subtle and sometimes more perfidious, more dangerous than what Gauguin found on Tahiti and in search of which blasé Europeans left their pampered life at home and set off in the footsteps of Pierre Loti, across the whole of the white, yellow and black world…”

Zinaida Serebriakova’s nudes were always dignified, self-assured and classically beautiful.  She created the most sensual and intimate images of the female body in the Russian art and remained true to the Neo-Romantic tradition and her classical training.  At an exhibition of Russian art at the Midi Fair in Brussels in 1928, people noted Serebriakova’s ‘nude’ oeuvre and it was here that she met the industrialist, the Belgian nobleman, Baron de Brouwer.   So impressed was he with her work that he became her patron and commissioned her to paint portraits of his family.

Reclining woman (Etude de femme hadija) Marakech by Zinaida Serebriakova (1932)
Reclining woman (Etude de femme hadija) Marakech by Zinaida Serebriakova (1932)

De Brouwer also financed her painting trip to Morocco where he owned a plantation.  Zinaida set off for North Africa on her own and fell in love with the colour and light Morocco afforded her.  The baron had wanted her to bring back paintings of the area and its people.  He had also said that he had wanted to some nude studies of the Arab women but Zinaiad found this very difficult to achieve.  She wrote:

“…He (Brouwer) wants nude paintings of the lovely native women, but it’s a fantasy hardly worth dreaming about – even in their veils which cover everything but their eyes nobody will pose for me. There is no question of a nude…”

However she did return with many paintings of the area and the Arab and Berber women, some of whom she had even managed, with much haggling and offers of financial rewards, to get some to pose in the nude but it was difficult.  She wrote of this time:

“…As soon as you sit to draw the women walk away – Arabs don’t wish to be drawn, so they immediately close up their shops or charge up to 10 or 20 francs for tea an hour!…”

De Brouwer was delighted with the works Zinaida brought back from North Africa, so much so, that he commissioned her to paint a series of murals for his villa Manoir du Relais in Pommeroeul near Mons, in Belgium.  Zinaida customized the theme of this mural series to that which appealed to her patron.  The baron had a love of classical art, which of course was ideal for somebody like Zinaida who had a talent for painting portraits of the naked human form.  She set about the commission and decided to paint four separate vertical panels each displaying a standing nude,  each with their allegorical attributes which in some way would mirror the leisure activities and talents of de Brouwer.

Jurisprudence by Zinaida Serebriakova (1937-8)
Jurisprudence by Zinaida Serebriakova (1937-8)

One of the figures would be Jurisprudence, which would represent the baron’s career as a lawyer.  A second would be Flora, which would symbolize his passion for gardening, his plantations and his love of flowers.   Light, would be another figure which referred to his role as a director of power and gas plants and finally Art which would embody his interest and patronage of the arts.  For Zinaida there could only be one possible candidate for the role of model for the four nudes, which would be depicted on the four vertical panels.  It was to be her daughter Katya.  Her stance in each panel was to be different turning slightly for each depiction.  A further two large horizontal panels (145cms x 710cms) were also created and these depicted four maps in cartouches.  Zinaida left the painting of these to her son, Alexander, and these were of Flanders, Morocco, India and Patagonia. Next to the maps Zinaida had added half-seated female nudes which were initially intended to represent the four seasons, but she later changed their titles to the countries represented on the maps they adorned. Years later, Zinaida wrote about this commission:

“…The assignment was to paint decorative geographical maps in the 18th-century style, single-tined (my son did the maps); and I painted in the corners of the maps, against that background, the images of the ‘four seasons’ (summer with a sheaf, spring with flowers, etc.), and four figures standing in ‘niches’ on another wall. I painted all this in Paris and, unfortunately, did not see how all this looked on the walls, because the house was not quite ready yet, and the residents were yet to move in … during the war the area was a battlefront, and de Brouwer’s summer house was destroyed…”

Even more pleasing to Zinaida’s was the comments by her artist brother Yevgeni Lanceray, who on seeing photographs of the paintings wrote to her:

“…I love them..You have exactly that which others around you do not – an understanding of composition. The panels are excellent in the simplicity of their execution, completeness of shape, and so monumental and decorative. You completely understand the form of objects. Particularly difficult, I think, is the panel Jurisprudence… It is especially elegant and richly executed. In everything is simplicity and parsimony, so to speak, of decoration and attributes. I envy you your ease, your flexibility, and how broad and accomplished is your representation of the body…”

Nadezhda Tregub of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow wrote about the four nude figures:

“…These murals can be considered entirely cosmopolitan works: they were accomplished on a commission from Belgium, by an artist from Russia who worked in France, and who drew on the major achievements of all European art…”

Sadly the baron and his wife did not have much time to enjoy the murals which were completed in 1937/8 as both died during the Second World War, and it was also thought that their house had also been destroyed. In fact this assumption was incorrect as the house remained standing and even changed ownership a number of times. The murals also remained untouched for over 70 years, but curiously the owners did not recognise the work as being done by Zinaida.  They thought they had been executed by an unknown Flemmish artist.

In 1966 a large exhibition of Zinaida Serebryakova’s works was mounted in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev and the critics loved what they saw.  In September of the following year Zinaida died in Paris, at the age of eighty-two. She was buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Orthodox cemetery in Paris.  The cemetery is a burial place for more than 10,000 Russian emigrants, including the celebrated ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev.