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.

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

Self-portrait of Ivan Aivazovsky (1874)

Two weeks ago, I went on a four-day city break to Moscow. I had always wanted to visit the Russian capital and especially visit the famous Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of Russian art in the world. I had read books about the wonders it had to offer and I knew I had to go and see it first-hand. Recently I wrote five blogs on the museum and the works of its leading proponents of portraiture, including Repin, Serov and Kramskoy but in the next few blogs I want to concentrate on lesser known artists (that is lesser known to me!) whose works also graced the walls of this outstanding Gallery.

Sunset in Crimea by Ivan Aivazovsky (1865)

As I have mentioned before, I live on the coast and a large number of paintings by local artists feature seascapes or marine paintings. My featured artist today is looked upon as one of the greatest maritime and seascape painters of all time and regarded as one of the most successful Russian painters of the 19th century. His work was admired by many seascape painters such as Turner. Let me introduce you to the Russian Romantic painter, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky.

Odessa by Ivan Aivazovsky (1840)

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky was born on July 29th 1817. At his baptism at the local St. Sargis Armenian Apostolic Church, he was given the name of Hovhannes Aivazian. His father, Konstantin, was an impoverished Armenian merchant whose family originated from the Polish region of Galicia, a historical and geographic region between Central and Eastern Europe.  In the early 1800’s Aivazosky’s father settled in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in the Crimea and it was here that he met a local girl, Ripsime, who later became his wife. They had five children, three daughters and two sons. Ivan’s elder brother, Gabriel, was to become an important historian and an Armenian Apostolic archbishop. Ivan began his education at Feodosia’s St. Sargis Armenian Church school and it was also during this period that he received his first tuition in art. His tutor was Jacob Koch, a local architect. In 1830, at the age of thirteen, he moved with the Taurida governor, Alexander Kaznacheyev’s family to Simferopol, the Crimean capital, where, through the good auspices of Jacob Koch, he was enrolled at the city’s Russian grammar school. Three years later, in 1833, having now established himself as a talented painter, sixteen-year-old Ivan transferred to the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts where he joined the class of the landscape painter, Maxim Vorobiov. He was a model student and progressed well. In 1835, he was awarded the silver medal for his painting Air over the Sea.

The Roads at Kronstadt by Ivan Aivazovsky (1836)

In 1836 the French artist Philippe Tanner arrived in St Petersburg to teach at the Academy and was immediately impressed by the talent of nineteen-year-old Ivan. Tanner’s forte was his marine paintings and during the time Aivazovsky worked as his assistant, he taught the young man marine painting techniques. In the autumn of 1836 Ivan had five of his works shown at art exhibitions, including his painting, The Roads at Kronstadt. Soon Ivan’s work was noticed and praised by both the press and the art critics alike.

Frigate under sails by Ivan Aivazovsky (1838)

In 1837, Aivazovsky joined the battle-painting class of Alexander Sauerweid and participated in Baltic Fleet exercises in the Gulf of Finland.

Yalta by Ivan Aviazovsky (1838)

In October 1837, he graduated from the Imperial Academy of Arts with a gold medal and received the official title of artist. He left the St Petersburg Academy in 1838 to carry out a commission to paint views of several Crimean towns and to do this he moved back to his home town of Feodosia in the Crimea where he set up a shop and started painting vistas of the Crimea and his beloved Black Sea. He would paint en plein air carefully recording the elements and then return to his studio to put the finishing touches on his masterpieces. He remained in his homeland for two years.

The Landing at Subashi by Ivan Aivazovsky (1839)

In 1839 Ivan Aivazovsky was invited to participate in a Navy operation which was taking place off the Crimea shores. There he took part in military exercises off the shores of Crimea, and where he met prominent Russian admirals Mikhail Lazarev, Pavel Nakhimov and Vladimir Kornilov and soon a long friendship blossomed between the artist and the military men. His canvases depicting sea battles were remarkably true to fact and so full of accurate details that they are now considered as illustrations of naval attack tactics.  One of his paintings depicting a naval battle was entitled The Landing at Subashi.

Mhitarists on the Island of St. Lazarus, Venice by Ivan Aivazovsky (1843)

In 1840 the Imperial Academy of Arts of St Petersburg sent Aivazovsky to increase his knowledge in art by going and studying in Europe. His first stop-over was Venice which he reached after travelling through Berlin and Vienna. In Venice he went to San Lazzaro degli Armeni, a small island in the Venetian Lagoon which has been home to the monastery of the Mekhitarists, an Armenian Catholic congregation, since 1717. This was the home of Aivazovsky’s elder brother Gabriel.

The Bay of Naples by Ivan Aivazovsky (1841)

Whilst here, Aivazovsky studied Armenian manuscripts and familiarised himself with Armenian art. From Venice he travelled across Italy and arrived in the Tuscan city of Florence and later took in the sights of Amalfi and Sorrento. He took up residence in Naples and stayed there until 1842. In that two year period in Italy, Aivazovsky fell in love with Italian art. Among the people he met whilst in Italy was the Ukranian-born Russian writer Gogol and the Russian Neoclassical painter Aleksandr Ivanov.

View of Amalfi by Ivan Aivazovsky (1843)

Aviazovsky returned to Russia in 1842 and he was given an official title within the General Naval Office. As such, he was allowed to join Russian research and science expeditions which travelled to Turkey, Greece, Egypt, America and Asia. From these journeys Aivazovsky was able to bring home hundreds of sketches which he later turned into his famous paintings.

The Bay of Naples at Moonlit Night. Vesuvius by Ivan Aviazovsky (1840)

He then visited Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, where he met English painter J. M. W. Turner who, was so impressed by Aivazovsky’s painting, The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night that he dedicated a rhymed eulogy in Italian to Aivazovsky.

“…Like a curtain slowly drawn
It stops suddenly half open,
Or, like grief itself, filled with gentle hope,
It becomes lighter in the shore-less dark,
Thus the moon barely wanes
Winding her way above the storm-tossed sea.
Stand upon this hill and behold endlessly
This scene of a formidable sea,
And it will seem to thee a waking dream.
That secret mind flowing in thee
Which even the day cannot scatter,
The serenity of thinking and the beating of the heart
Will enchain thee in this vision;
This golden-silver moon
Standing lonely over the sea,
All curtain the grief of even the hopeless.
And it appears that through the tempest
Moves a light caressing wind,
While the sea swells up with a roar,
Sometimes, like a battlefield it looks to me
The tempestuous sea,
Where the moon itself is a brilliant golden crown
Of a great king.
But even that moon is always beneath thee
Oh Master most high,
Oh forgive thou me
If even this master was frightened for a moment
Oh, noble moment, by art betrayed…
And how may one not delight in thee,
Oh thou young boy, but forgive thou me,
If I shall bend my white head
Before thy art divine
Thy bliss-wrought genius…”

The Golden Horn, Turkey by Ivan Aivazovsky (1845)

In 1845, Aivazovsky travelled to Istanbul upon the invitation of Sultan Abdülmecid. He would return to this Turkish city many times during his lifetime. He became court painter to the Ottoman Sultans Abdülmecid, Abdulaziz and Abdulhamid, and thirty of his commissioned works are still exhibited in the Ottoman Imperial Palace, the Dolmabahce Museum and many others at various other museums in Turkey.  One of his paintings from this time was The Golden Horn.  The Golden Horn is a horn-shaped estuary which divides the European side of Istanbul and is one of the best natural harbours in the world.  The Byzantine and Ottoman navies and commercial shipping interests were centred here.

In the next part of my bog looking at the life and works of Ivan Aivazovsky I will be looking at his beautiful depictions of the ferocity of the sea and its devastating affect on the seagoing fraternity.

The Tretyakov 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…..an attendant obtained a full bottle of cognac for M.P.’s birthday…. My last session was planned for the next day. But when I arrived at the appointed hour, I did not find M.P. among the living…”

Mussorgsky died a week after his 42nd birthday. This beautiful portrait depicts the composer wearing a dressing gown. The striking burgundy decorative flap frames the florid features of this once-great man. We catch a glimpse of his highly decorative shirt between the folds of the dressing gown. His expression is one of rebelliousness but with a hint of feared inevitability. His eyes are turned away from us maybe in embarrassment at his parlous state. His hair and beard are unkempt. It is an uncompromising portrait but ever so poignant. Repin refused to keep the commission fee that Tretyakov gave him for the portrait and donated it to a memorial for the composer. Pavel Tretyakov was delighted with the finished work as he recognised it as one of the most passionate and emotional deathbed portraits of all time.

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

https://mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/barge-haulers-on-the-volga-by-ilya-repin/

 

The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

If I was to ask you to name one famous museum of art in Russia I think most of you would give me the Hermitage in St Petersburg but actually the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow has the largest collection of paintings by Russian artists in the world and includes numerous portraits by them, some of who may be better known for their non-portraiture works. In the next few blogs I am going to look at the genre of portraiture and in particular Russian portraiture held at this great institution. To start, let me tell you a little about the Gallery itself.

Pavel Tretyakov (1871)

To talk about the Tretyakov Gallery one must first speak about its founder, Pavel Tretyakov. Pavel’s ancestors came from the town of Maloyaroslavets which lies sixty miles south-west of Moscow. His great grandfather was a merchant who had brought his family to Moscow in 1774. In 1801 Pavel Tretyakov’s father Mikhail was born. Mikhail turned out to be an astute and very successful businessman whose shops, which he ran with his brother Sergei, sold textiles. On his brother’s death in 1831, aged just twenty-five, Mikhail became the head of the family business. In the same year that his brother died, Mikhail married Alexandra Borisova, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a year later, in 1832, the couple had the first of their eight children, a son Pavel. As a teenager Pavel helped his father in the shop. In 1850, when Pavel was eighteen years of age, his forty-nine-year-old father died. The business was then headed up by Mikhail’s widow who in 1859 relinquished control of it, making her sons Pavel and Sergei joint partners in the company and the brothers made their sister Elizaveta’s husband, Vladimir Konshin, the third partner. In August 1865 Pavel married Vera Nikolaevna and the couple went on to have six children.

Tretyakov’s portrait by Ilya Repin (1883)

The Tretyakov family bought a house on Lavrushinsky Pereulok in the Zamoskvoreche district of Moscow at the end of 1851. This was a district where merchants used to congregate during the nineteenth century. The following year, whilst visiting St Petersburg on a business trip, Pavel Tretyakov became fascinated with art and he decided to buy eleven simple drawings from a book shop at Sukhareva Market which he used to visit when he was in the city. This was followed by the purchase of oil paintings by Old Dutch Masters. Although not rich enough to buy paintings by contemporary Russian artists, in 1856, he raised enough money to buy two paintings which are, to this day, believed to be the first two paintings of the Tretyakov collection.

Skirmish with Finnish Smugglers by Basil Khudyakov

One was entitled Skirmish with Finnish Smugglers, painted by Vasily Khudyakov and the other was entitled Temptation by Nikolai Shilder.

The Temptation by Nikolai Schilder (1856)

Pavel was a tireless worker and secured his family financially but was always careful with his money. In a letter to his daughter he wrote:

“…Money should serve better purposes, than just be wasted for everyday needs………. Since my early age I knew, that acquired from the society should return to the society in some useful to it form. … Living conditions should never allow a person to live idle…”

Pavel’s art collection grew each year and he had special outbuildings added to the family’s main residence to house them. For the next four decades, he committed large amounts of money to develop and enlarge his collection. His dream was to house a collection of national portraits within his gallery to commemorate prominent Russians in public, intellectual and cultural life and to achieve that aim he commissioned Russia’s leading painters to portray them. Tretyakov donated the museum and his collection of almost two thousand works of art to the city of Moscow in 1892. The official opening of the museum called the Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov took place on August 15th, 1893. Pavel Tretyakov died in 1898 and four years later the residence in Lavrushinsky Pereulok was redesigned transforming the private house into the current great museum with its famous façade designed by the artist Viktor Vasnetsov.

The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

In June 1918, the Tretyakov Gallery was declared as being owned by the Russian Federated Soviet Republic and was named the State Tretyakov Gallery. Today, it forms the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s national gallery in Moscow and is acknowledged as the greatest collection of Russian art in the world. In total it houses more than 170,000 works of art ranging from early religious icons to modern art and it spans a period of a thousand years.

In my next blog I will start to look at some of the work by famous Russian artists whose works grace the walls of the Tretyakov.

 

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.

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.

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…”