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