Vasily Perov. Part 2 – portraiture and humour

Self-Portrait (1851)
Self-Portrait (1851)

In my last blog I looked at Perov’s early life and his artwork which is often categorised as critical realism because of the way his paintings  focused on the peasants and how they had been let down by the Church, its clergy and the State.  For one of these works he was awarded the Gold Medal by the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and also a scholarship for him to travel to Europe and study European art.  He went to Paris where he spent a considerable amount of time but once again his art focused on poverty, this time, poverty in France.  Perov was now moving away from his anti-clerical depictions, and his barbed narrative works which poured scorn on the Church.  He now wanted to concentrate on the poor themselves and left the observer to decide on the reason for the poverty.

Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)
Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)

One of his most famous paintings, which he completed whilst in France, was one entitled Savoyard which he finished in 1863.  In Perov’s painting we see a young boy sat slumped on some stone steps.  The absence of any movement allows us to focus on the child without any distractions.  The child is asleep.  His feet stick out in front of him and this allows us to see the tattered hems of his trousers and because of the way is feet rest on the pavement we are given a view of the soles of his shoes, which are holed.  The painting itself is made up of dark sombre tones of smoky blue, green and grey.

Street Beggar by Gavarni
Street Beggar by Gavarni

It is thought that Perov’s painting was influenced by the work of Paul Gavarni, a French engraver, who had his illustrations published in a collection of London sketches, featuring life in London at the time.  The sketches and accompanying illustrations were first published as a magazine series in 1848 and later they were collected in one volume, edited by essayist and journalist Albert Smith, which was first published in Paris, in 1862, a year before Perov’s arrival in the French capital.  It was entitled Londres et les Anglais.  One of the sketches was the Street Beggar and its thought that Perov had this in mind when he worked on the Savoyard.

Perov’s arrival in Paris in 1863 coincided with a great upheaval in French art.  The Hanging jury at that year’s Salon had been ruthless in their choice of paintings which could be admitted.  Those which were cast aside were ones deemed to have not been of the quality or type they wanted.  That year, the jury had been more ruthless than they had been in the past, rejecting two-thirds of paintings.  This resulted in vociferous protests from the artists who had had their works rejected.  It was so bad that Napoleon III stepped into the argument and placated the disgruntled artists by offering them a separate exhibition for their rejected works.  It became known as the Salon de Refusés (Exhibition of rejects) and that year this exhibition exhibited works by Pissarro, Fantin-Latour, Cezanne and included Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Whistler’s Symphony in White,no. 1. 

The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant's House by Vasily Perov (1866)
The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House by Vasily Perov (1866)

Perov returned home early from his European tour in 1865 and in 1866 produced a wonderful painting entitled The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House.  This was a move away from his focus on poverty and more to do with the fate of women.  In the painting we see a governess standing before the master of the house, a merchant who is to be her new employer.  This painting depicts the awkward encounter between the governess, who has probably graduated from a school for governesses, where they are taught to act like nobility, and the merchant who has no noble blood and is the face of the nouveau riche.   She presents herself well. She clutches a letter of introduction in her hands. She oozes an air of timidity and subservience, which is a trait that would be required if she was to become a member of the household.  However her demure stance with head bent down is befitting that of a lady.  She stands before, not only the master of the house, a bloated man, but behind him stands his family.  The children of the family are to be her pupils and by the looks of them she was going to be in for a difficult time.  The master of the house and his three children are dressed elegantly and the furnishings we see are fine and elegant and are part of merchant’s plan that they be elevated in status from mere merchants to something approaching nobility. Perov has changed the subject of his biting satire from the clergy of the Church to the oppressive merchant classes and the poor treatment they bestow on their employees.

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

The painting was purchased by thirty-four year old Pavel Tretyakov, a Russian businessman, patron of art, avid art collector, and philanthropist who gave his name to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.   This work along with his Troika painting earned Perov the title of Academician.

Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)
Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)

In the late 1860’s Perov began to concentrate on portraiture, initially of peasants and the title Wanderer was given to three of his works which featured peasants, all different and yet all emotive in their own way, one of which is shown above.  As Perov travelled around he came across a variety of fascinating characters and he was able present them on canvas and highlight their individualism and their way of life.

Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)
Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)

In the early 1870’s Perov’s portraiture focused on cultural greats of Russia but it is interesting to note in these next two paintings they were totally devoid of any background accoutrements which would have added a sense of vanity in the sitter.  In 1872 he completed the Portrait of Dostoyevsky, a the Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher. It was Dostoyevsky’s literary works which influenced Perov in the way they explored human psychology in the troubled political, social, and spiritual atmosphere in Russia during the 19th-century.

Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)
Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)

And in 1871 he finished his Portrait of Alexander Ostrovsky, a Russian playwright who was generally thought to have been the greatest writer of the Russian realistic period, which existed against the background social and political problems.  It started in the 1840’s under the rule of Nicholas I and lasted through to the end of the nineteenth century.   The painting is now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)
Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)

In all his genre works he always managed to tug at your heart strings with his moving depictions.  Another of his heart-rending scenes was completed in 1874 and was entitled Old Parents Visiting the Grave of their Son.  It is said that nobody should suffer the agony of burying their children and in this work we feel the loss of the mother and father as they stand, heads bowed, at the side of the son’s grave.  This painting, like many of his other works, are to be found at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Having received his academician’s degree in 1867, Perov went on in 1871 to gain the position of professor at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.   It was through Perov’s teaching at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture that he managed to influence and nurture the young aspiring artists in his charge.  Many of the great Russian artists had been taught by him or were influenced by his style of painting

Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)
Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)

As always I have the dilemma of which paintings to show you and which ones to leave out.  I just hope the blog will get you to search the internet for more of his works.   My final offering is one that features Perov’s sense of humour.  It is in complete contrast to his works which looked at poverty and the impoverished existence of the peasant classes.   It is a painting entitled Amateur which he completed in 1862.  It is both humorous and fascinating.   Before us we see a man slouched in a chair, chewing on the end of his maulstick, eyes narrowed as he looks at his work.  His wife stands beside him holding a baby.  She too is closely examining the canvas.    From the way the man is dressed along with the background details of the room we gather that this is an upper-middle class couple.  Another give away to the man’s social status is the way Perov has depicted him.  Well dressed, highly polished shoes and overweight.  Perov’s depiction of this man is similar to the master of the household, the merchant, whom he depicted in The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House- overweight, through all the food he had been able to buy and eat, whereas in most cases Perov portrayed the poor peasants as thin undernourished people.

Vasily Grigorevich Perov died of tuberculosis  in Kuzminki Village which is now part of Moscow and was laid to rest at Donskoe Cemetery.  He was fifty-eight years old.

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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.