Valentin Serov, the teacher

Svetlana Yesenina

Magazine issue: 
#3 2015 (48)

Any discussion of Serov as a teacher ought to focus mainly on his work at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (MSPSA), since it afforded the exceptional artist an opportunity to interact with talented youth and unlocked his outstanding teaching talents. Teaching at private schools from time to time, Serov understood, however, that a consistent approach to the training of the young generation could only be achieved using the solid foundations that had been formed at MSPSA over decades. Perhaps this explains why he accepted the offer of the position as a life-drawing instructor in 1897, after the school’s inspector, and then director, Alexei Lvov had spent several years trying to persuade him to take the job. That was the beginning of Serov’s nearly 12-year-long service, which left an indelible mark in the school’s history.

Serov never set forth his teaching principles in a systematic manner since, according to his friends and students, he disliked not only writing but even talking about art. His teaching, for the most part, was rooted in his artistic attitudes and their affirmation through his personal example. His instruction was based on the experience he had acquired cultivating in himself the qualities of a true artist, which he wanted to possess himself and wanted his friends and, of course, the young generation to possess too. What we know today about Serov's teaching principles is culled from his rare general pronouncements about art, as well as from his disparate brief remarks and dialogues recorded by his fellow artists and students. Given these valuable records and, most importantly, Serov's practical work at the school, we can say that he had an elaborate holistic method with specific goals and a system of exercises to attain them, and also that the educational process was neatly organised.

After signing up with the school, Serov began to actively introduce numerous innovations not only in his course but throughout the entire school as well. Along with other teachers, in 1901 he initiated the establishment of a preparatory class, thus building a neat system of preliminary selection and primary training of the applicants, as well as their exposure to the school's requirements. In addition, Serov championed the "one course-one teacher" principle, insisting on uniformity of requirements and, consequently, a single strategy in artists' education.

At the core of the teaching process in Serov's courses was the worship of nature, involving careful study of, and devotion to it. As a staunch advocate of artistic truth, Serov continued the traditions of Pavel Chistyakov and Ilya Repin which had nourished him in his artistic youth. All his life he drew and sketched from nature relentlessly, and at the school he would often join his students as they drew models whom he brought to the class. According to his students, this was the best kind of training, which left a stronger impact and was more instructive than long lectures and explanations. At the same time, Serov repeatedly warned against indiscriminately copying what one saw - he believed that "the formulas of nature are different from the formulas of painting, and only the formulas of painting are fully expressive of it... And this... only this is art."1

In order to break the young artists' habit of committing snapshots of reality to canvas in a photographic manner, Serov abruptly changed the pace of work at the class - assignments would now take several sittings, and sometimes several hours, to finish, and students were instructed to paint from memory. Very different from Chistyakov's and Repin's classes, these exercises developed the ability to capture forms and to notice in nature the most general, but distinctive and expressive elements. The mode of seeing moulded by the teacher, in combination with other professional skills, became a launch pad for the students' search for their creative identities and enabled them, while always keeping in touch with nature, to capture it on paper or canvas, applying their individual artistic idioms.

Yet another goal pursued at the classes was to teach students to appreciate drawing as the foundation, the backbone of painting, without which a painted composition was bound to become only a flashy show of paintwork and brushwork, even if the artist sought to justify it with his unique vision. "Paint well, so that images have a likeness - now you're just a near miss;" "drawing is easy - painting is harder," are among the great artist's words recorded by Konstantin Korovin2.

In an effort to bring current teaching methods closer to real life, Serov replaced the professional models used at the school with ordinary people - caretakers, cabmen, street traders and the like - whom he would find on the streets and bring to the school. Nikolai Ulyanov reminisced how he and Serov once found in the Khitrovka marketplace a young lad who turned out to be a peasant from Ryazan, and invited him to sit for the student artists. "Most students did not like our sitter, although in this case, too, Serov found what one might call interesting colour combinations: a solid sandy spot of the sheepskin jacket with white spots on the floor, which he created using big white wallpaper pieces accidentally left over from the repairs. It was not for nothing that when walking around Khitrovka and Tolkuchka [marketplaces] he paid special attention to how colour spots on human figures looked against the snow."3

Female models were another novelty. "Serov, by the way, ensured that the students draw naked females - previously this was not practiced either at the MSPSA or at the Academy of Arts."4 Women are potentially excellent models for artists, with their fluid forms, smooth contours, and velvety skin, which interacts with lighting quite differently from the skin of a man - all this ensured an enthusiastic response to the women models at Serov's workshop.

Not only was one type of model replaced with another, but the principles of assigning compositions changed as well. Serov insisted that students use the language of painting to convey their deeply personal attitudes to their sitters. "At his classes models were no longer simply models: Serov taught his students to see in them their unique individuality and to convey it through the 'stories' told in the pictures (as Serov himself did in his portraits)."5 In order to help his students locate these narrative "pegs", he cultivated in his workshop a special easy-going atmosphere, trying to make the models feel at home, open up and carry themselves as naturally as possible.

Ulyanov reminisced a great deal about different life-drawing assignments at Serov's workshop. "One of our female models was 'a dissident'... she was followed by a 'Spanish woman', naked to her waist, and many other women, for some of whom it was difficult to find a suitable label,"6 read his account of one such sitting. Serov said about one of the female models: "Doesn't this sitter inspire you to paint something different, something greater than just a likeness? Don't you yourselves see the issue here? Doesn't this face have something. something valorous about it, say? For instance, something of a Valkyrie?"7 Perhaps precisely this "Valkyrie" was depicted in 1900 by Semyon Nikiforov, one of Serov's apprentices, in the picture titled "Female Model", now held at the Ryazan Art Museum. A heavy face with large features, loose fair hair with a slim ribbon tied around it, a strong naked body - all this perfectly fits our mental image of a woman warrior from the Nordic sagas. An ordinary composition is staged as a primeval scene of the admiration of the trophy or a scene of a sacrifice from an ancient myth. Encouraging his students to adopt such an approach to the assignment, Serov was training them for independent serious work, gently preparing them for painting a portrait or a large composition. Unlike that of the Academy of Arts, the MSPSA curriculum did not include a large composition as a graded assignment, but Serov, whose vision reached beyond the standard training process, saw his mission in educating independent and serious artists.

Many of Serov's students wrote in their memoirs that he was very particular about the tonal integrity of pictures, correctness in the selection of tones, and mutual subordination of different colours. Eager to sensitize his students to tones of colours, Serov, assigning a composition, advised "to make first drafts with two paints - white and black"8, and according to Mikhail Shemyakin's memoirs, Serov's students would start off on a project "with three paints: white, bone-black and fair ochre"9. Numerous images of female sitters accomplished in Serov's courses by Nikolai Ulyanov, Mikhail Shemyakin and Semyon Nikiforov are evidence that the students coped well with their teacher's assignments.

As we see it today, this colour scheme was so popular because for many Russian artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries it marked the transition towards a new visual idiom: "thickening shades of grey were a lead-up of sorts to intense and, thereafter, contrasted colour combinations."10 In other words, art based not so much on colour as on tones accommodated deeper and subtler colour schemes for life-painting and encouraged a use of the visual properties of colour more freely in the future. The artists had to do all these exercises, which were indispensable for their further exploration of decorative techniques. "Artists who love bright tones like greys, too,"11 Serov liked to say, for good reason. Later in their lives, the skills Serov taught his students enabled them to handle competently the problem of colour tones giving due consideration to its solid connection with the problem of colour combinations, and to set to work on colourful polychrome compositions.

Another aspect complicating the assignments was Serov's predilection to place models in an obscurely lit corner of the workshop: "by doing so he immediately proclaimed his artistic credo, emphasizing the tonality of illumination."12 Thus, "the student was taught to treat illumination as the most important condition of the objective representation of nature, and the weight ratios of colours, as the method of rendering material qualities of objects."13

The focus on light and its interaction with both the model and surrounding objects was not simply a component of but the backbone to Serov's assignments, designed to develop in his students a correct approach to general colour, lighting and tonal combinations in nature, and an understanding of how each colour reacted to a particular degree of illumination, which changed its richness and intensity.

The Tretyakov Gallery holds a small piece by Ulyanov, "In Valentin Serov's Studio. The Window" (1900). It is not just valuable evidence of the warm relations existing among Serov's students14 - the word "window" in the title is indicative of the importance attached at the workshop to the skills of rendering the effects of light, especially inside a room. The numerous examples of life-drawing accomplished at the workshop in different years all tell a similar story. This approach was manifested most prominently in the lasting tendency to combine natural and artificial lighting, as well as in interest in interior lighting in general, with artificial illumination often serving as a "tuner" for the entire tonal scheme of a composition. Nikolai Krymov recorded his thoughts about the efficacy of Serov's training: "I've thought a lot about the essence of realist painting and become convinced that painting is rendering visible matter with tones (plus colour). The illuminating power of light is what I call tone. Or, rather, the vision of tone was more important for the artist than the vision of colour because an inaccurate tone gives a wrong colour. Without an accurately chosen tone you cannot faithfully render the general state of nature, or the space and the material."15

Undoubtedly, at student exhibitions works produced by Serov's courses stood out. For instance, Sergei Glagol, reviewing the MSPSA student exhibition in 1900 and pointing to Serov's students' increased professional skills, wrote: "...but let's see how the school is working towards its narrow and one can say technical objective. In this respect things seem to be going much better, especially in the life-drawing class, where students produce excellent studies with naked bodies - for instance, Mrs. Nikiforov, Trifunovich, Dudin, Myasoedov..."16

In 1901 Serov began to teach the recently merged courses of genre painting and portraiture - students had to take these courses at the end of their study period at the MSPSA. He demanded that the school sign up Korovin to teach at his classes together with him. Despite the long-standing friendship between Serov and Korovin, Serov's move seems surprising because the two painters' approaches to teaching, and even to art in general, differed cardinally. Serov's system of training was built "on the understanding that drawing, painting and composition are methods of learning about the real world and on the means of expressing this acquired knowledge in art"17. The key word here is undoubtedly "learning", the ability to see, understand and feel in nature the most essential, fundamental things, that was to become the backbone of any piece of art. These principles were at variance with the visionary approach of Korovin, who based his teaching on imaginative perception of nature, "study of nature as the means of expressing what you feel about the world around you in any of its manifestations"18.

An episode described by Ulyanov highlights the difference in the approaches and temperaments of the two artist-teachers. On one occasion Semyon Nikiforov brought to his teacher his summer sketches featuring boys fishing by a river on a bright sunny day: "When Serov looked at the sketches, he seemed reluctant to answer but, pulling himself up straight, said in a bored and indifferent voice: 'Show this to Korovin. He is a fisherman too. He is a good judge of such matters. He himself paints the sun. And I... I like grey days.'"19 At the same time, this seemingly minor incident illustrates Serov's sagacity as a teacher. Insisting on having Korovin as a co-instructor, he understood that his students not only could be, but had to be exposed to a different artistic thinking, and he introduced to his students the paths along which they could seek their own artistic vocabularies, loathe to force them into a single mould.

The fruits of this artistic and pedagogical union were quickly noticed: "Overall, the works of Nekrasov, Nikiforov, Kuznetsov. run counter to the prevailing opinion that Korovin's and Serov's students are 'pulled in different directions'. The present-day works of the portraiture workshop students issue diplomas not only to students (to qualify as artists) but to their teachers as well - to qualify as teachers,"20 Nikolai Shebuev wrote in 1902.

The question of "school" with relation to Serov's students was broached even by his contemporaries. Analysing the work of one of Serov's students, the critic Abram Efros wrote: "One can talk only about the degree of purity of Serov's influence, and even more about the student's ability to attain the level of the master's craftsmanship."21 We know today that for all the great respect and admiration Serov's students felt for their tutor, many of them later in life chose little by little a different artistic direction. It would be enough to say that in his time at the workshop Serov taught artists as diverse as Nikolai Ulyanov, Mikhail Shemyakin, Pavel Kuznetsov, Konstantin Yuon, Nikolai Krymov, Martiros Saryan and others. For most of them the idea of creative freedom grafted onto them at their classes remained forever a yardstick to apply to art; they left the workshop with excellent professional skills necessary for true freedom of self-realization, the ability to think creatively, to look closely at nature, to work intensely and stubbornly, and to hate all sorts of professional sloppiness. Not surprisingly, these principles of teaching were greatly appreciated by Serov's contemporaries already during his lifetime: "These are students, not pupils, not children. They don't copy their teacher slavishly with their brain switched off - no, they begin to share his creative spirit, love him, worship him, but worshipping they do not forget their own dignity."22 This is the essence not just of education but of the "school" in the noblest sense, and the mission and reward of a true teacher like Serov, both as a person and as an artist.

In conclusion, some comment about a different, more personal aspect of Serov as a teacher is required. His correspondence and his students' memoirs contain many episodes characterizing their personal relations. Serov many times asked the Council of Teachers to grant allowances to needy students, sometimes even offering his own salary as the source of such funds23, and actively participated in fund-raising for the benefit of such students. Quite often he recommended them for teaching positions at private schools. Aware of the importance of supporting and further developing the talent of Mikhail Shemyakin, who had already finished the MSPSA in 1899, Serov sought authorization for him to study at the school again - this time at his, Serov's workshop24. By way of exception this request was granted and Shemyakin studied at the school in 1902-1905. One of the most important episodes testifying to the artist's respect for talent and his determination to advocate the right of all to creative work occurred when Serov, famously, decided to leave the MSPSA after Anna Golubkina was expelled from the school as punishment for disseminating prohibited literature. Serov explained his decision, sometimes used as an illustration of his supposed sympathy for the young radicals, in fairly simple terms: "...for Golubkina is not my kin - she's an artist who has appealed through me to other artists"25. Words such as these are evidence of the teacher's deepest respect for his students who were also his associates, and of his wisdom in understanding and appreciating their art, irrespective of his personal, let alone political beliefs.


  1. Petrov-Vodkin, Kuzma. From the manuscript "About the 'World of Art'". In: "Valentin Serov. Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries". In two volumes. Editors, compilers, and authors of the preface, essays about the memoir-writers, and annotations: Zilbershtein, Ilya, and Samkov, Vladimir. Vol. 2. Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR (Artist of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic), 1971. P 214.
  2. Korovin, Konstantin. 'Valentin Serov's Pronouncements, and Thoughts Provoked by Him (from Korovin's Notebooks)'. Ibid. Vol.1. P 313.
  3. Ulyanov, Nikolai. "The People I've Met". Moscow: Publishing House of the Academy of Fine Arts of the USSR, 1959. P 103.
  4. Dmitrieva, Nina. "The Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture". Moscow-Leningrad: Iskusstvo (Art), 1951. P 144.
  5. Ibid., p. 144.
  6. Ulyanov, Nikolai. 'Recalling Serov'. In: "Valentin Serov. Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries". Vol.2. P 119.
  7. Ibid., p. 119.
  8. Ibid., p. 119.
  9. Shemyakin, Mikhail. 'Memoirs. On the Occasion of the Centennial Anniversary of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. 1845-1945'. In: "Panorama iskusstv" (Panorama of Arts). 12. Moscow: Sovetsky Khudozhnik (Soviet Artist) publishing house, 1989. P 272.
  10. Vlasova, R.I. "Konstantin Korovin the Artist". Leningrad: 1969. P 68.
  11. Ibid., p. 68.
  12. Ulyanov, Nikolai. 'Recalling Serov'. In: "Valentin Serov. Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries". Vol.2. P 118.
  13. Moleva, Nina, and Bielutin, Ely. "Russian Art School in the Second Half of the 19th-early 20th Centuries". Moscow: Iskusstvo (Art) publishing house, 1967. P 263.
  14. The picture features the artist's fellow students from Serov's workshop: N. Yanchenko, Konstantin Kuvakin, Semyon Nikiforov, A. Prokopovich.
  15. Krymov, Nikolai. 'On Painting'. In: "Nikolai Petrovich Krymov: the Artist and the Teacher. Articles and Memoirs". Compiled by Razymovskaya, Sophia, and Morgunova, N. Moscow: 1989. P 17.
  16. Glagol, Sergei. 'From One Art Show to Another'. In: "Kurier" (The Courier). 1900, December 30. No. 361. P 4.
  17. Moleva, Nina, and Bielutin, Ely. Op.cit., p. 267.
  18. Ibid. In our opinion, the two quotations from Moleva's and Bielutin's book quite accurately pinpoint the different vectors of Serov's and Korovin's art, which were reflected both in their artistic idioms and teaching systems.
  19. Ulyanov, Nikolai. 'Recalling Serov'. P 135.
  20. Shebuev, Nikolai. 'The Young'. In: "Russkoe Slovo" (Russian Word). 1902, December 9, No. 349. P 3.
  21. Roscius (Efros, Abram). 'Postmortem Exhibition of Semyon Nikiforov's Artwork'. In: "Russkie vedomosti" (Russian News), 1913, No. 90, April 19. P 4.
  22. Shebuev, Nikolai. Op.cit., p.3.
  23. Serov's letter to Viktor Duksht. May 26 1900. In: "Valentin Serov: Correspondence, Interviews, Documents". Edited and compiled by Zilbershtein, Ilya, and Samkov, Vladimir. Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR (Artist of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic). Vol.1, 1985. P 288. Serov in this letter asks to deduct from his salary 50 rubles and give it to a student, G. Magula.
  24. Serov's letter to Mikhail Shemyakin. October 12 1902. Ibid. Vol. 1. P 380.
  25. Serov's letter to S. Ivanov and others. February 9 1909. Ibid. Vol. 2. 1989. P. 161.


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