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.

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Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilia Repin (1873)

My blog today continues, as promised, with the Social Realism Movement in art.  Social Realism is a very broad term for painting or literature that comments on contemporary social political or economic conditions, usually from a left-wing viewpoint, in a realistic manner.  It was a way in which artists were able to draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who were critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions.  As I am looking at a work by a Russian painter today it is important that we understand that Social Realism and Socialist Realism are quite different.  Social Realism evolved from the French Realism of the second half of the nineteenth century whereas Socialist Realism never came into being until the mid 1930’s when in 1934 Joseph Stalin made Socialist Realism the official art form of the USSR and later by the other Communist parties worldwide.  Socialist Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life.   It was important to the communist regimes that Socialist Realism Art emphasized not just realism but the optimism and heroism of the people and the dictate was that all forms of experimentalism in art was to be looked upon as being degenerate and totally pessimistic.

One group of Soviet Realist artists, of which today’s featured painter was one, was the Peredvizhniki, which was also known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English.  This group of painters was formed in 1863 in St Petersburg as a protest at the academic restrictions of the official art center, the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.  Sounds familiar?  It should be, as in the past I have talked about the breakaway of artists from Academic control in both France and England.  The St Petersburg Academy, like other Academies in Western Europe, was associated with neoclassicism.   Neoclassicism was based on the ideal of beauty seen in ancient Greek and Roman art and looked to the Italian Renaissance.  The St Petersburg Academy of Arts was no different.  It wanted its student to depict not Russian subjects but more traditional art-historical themes: classical history, legends and myths.  In 1863, fourteen artists broke away from the Academy in protest of the proposed topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, which was to be the mythological subject of the Entrance of Odin into Valhalla. These fourteen painters believed that this subject was too remote from the real life of Russia and that the academic style of neoclassicism was much too constricting.   Having left the Academy, they organized themselves into a society on cooperative principles and developed their own educational program and in 1870 set up a touring group to exhibit their work known as the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions. The Society maintained its independence from state support and their travelling exhibitions allowed them to take their art, which illustrated the contemporary life of the people from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, to the provinces.

The artists adopted the style, which could be termed critical realism. Their aim was to depict their homeland and the life and history of their people from a truthful and democratic standpoint. The artists depicted the working class folk in a favourable and often heroic light but at the same time tore into their corrupt upper classes and aristocracy depicting them as oppressors and enemies of the workers.  Their paintings often highlighted the totally unacceptable and unbearable living conditions that the working class people had to endure.  It should be remembered that even though the first Russian Revolution was still more than 30 years away, and that unlike other Western European countries, Russia was a country where the political freedom to express oneself was strictly prohibited. However things were changing.  Tsar Nicholas I died in 1856 and a year later the Russian armies were defeated in the Crimea.  There was a hint of reform in the air but it was only in the arts, whether it be paintings, literature or the theatre that there was an opportunity to express one’s views.  With this in mind the members of the Peredvizhniki believed it was their duty to effect change to the living conditions of the working class. Our featured artist today, Ilya Repin wrote succinctly that artists come from the people and that the people expect art should reflect a clear understanding of conditions and nature.

Today’s featured work is second painting by Repin which I have looked at in a blog.   The first one was a painting, entitled Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk  (My Daily Art Display of August 29th 2011)   Today’s work is entitled Barge-Haulers on the Volga which he completed in 1873.   An alternative title is Burlacks on the Volga.   A burlak was a Russian nickname for a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. The word itself came from the Tatar word bujdak, ‘homeless’.  Before us is a river scene. The barge in the painting’s title is relegated to a minor role in the right background and if you look closely you will see in the distance, behind the barge, a small steam-powered boat, which makes us realise that at the time of the painting we were at the onset of the industrial age and the days of using human beings to haul barges was coming to an end.

The Barge Pullers

It is a magnificent portrayal of a group of eleven men, dressed in rags and bound with leather harnesses, who struggle with their backbreaking task at hand, the towing of a barge along the waters of the River Volga.  This painting is looked upon as being one of the best works of the Peredvizhniki movement.   The men we see before us are simply human pack mules.  This painting focuses on the difficult life endured by the peasantry at that time.  Look how Repin has portrayed the barge haulers.   It is a hot day and the men seem to be at the point of collapse and exhaustion as they lean forward in a desperate effort to keep the laden barge moving.   The painting is not just a testament to the peasant’s heroic efforts but it is a damning condemnation of the people that have set them this inhumane task.

The young optimist

There is an added touch of heroism.  Look at the line of men.  All but one of them is dressed in drably-coloured clothes.  In the middle of the line one man stands out from the others.  He is a fair-haired young man, dressed in slightly brighter colours.  He is not exhausted and bent over like the others.  He stands upright and proud as he looks out over the river.  He is not humiliated by his menial  and backbreaking task.  His spirit, unlike the others, is not broken.  He scans the horizon and in this gesture we realise he is not just scanning the river, he is looking to the future – his future. 

Repin, who was twenty-six at the time he started this work, formulated the idea for this painting during a summer holiday he spent near Stavropol, close to the river Volga in 1870.  He had spent three months there with his brother Vasily and friends. During that time he took a boat trip down the Volga and watched the gangs of barge haulers. Initially he made many oil sketches of the area and the men working on the riverbanks and the people we see in the painting were real people.  One was a former soldier, one and artist and one a defrocked priest.  The former priest’s name was Kanin, who became a good friend of Repin, and he can be seen as the lead hauler of the group wearing a bandana.  From the dialogue Repin had with the barge haulers he was shocked to find that at one time most of them had held relatively important positions in society but had since fallen on hard times.  Although not shown in this painting, there would often be women employed as barge haulers and the number in a barge-hauling gang would normally be more than the eleven Repin has depicted.

Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, who was looked upon as the most respected Russian critic during his lifetime, said of the way Repin depicted the barge haulers:

“…They are like a group of forest Hercules with their dishevelled heads, their sun-tanned chests, and their motionlessly hanging, strong-veined hands. What glances from untamed eyes, what distended nostrils, what iron muscles!…’

and of the painting itself, Stasov commented:

“….with a daring that is unprecedented amongst us [Repin] has abandoned all former conceptions of the ideal in art, and has plunged head first into the very heart of the people’s life, the people’s interests, and the people’s oppressive reality… no one in Russia has ever dared take on such a subject…”

Despite its critical message of how the upper classes badly treated its workers, the painting was bought by the Tsar’s second son.   After the Russian Revolution the art collection of the grand duke was nationalized and it is now housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Repin commented on the paintings of the Russian Social Realist artists and what they achieved, saying:

 “…The pictures of those days made the viewer blush, to shiver and carefully look into himself…. They upset the public and directed it into the path of humaneness…”