MATILDA POKHITONOVA’S CORRESPONDENCE

Eleonora Paston

Magazine issue: 
Special issue. IVAN POKHITONOV. THE ARTIST SORCERER

IN IVAN POKHITONOV'S PUBLISHED LETTERS, HE OFTEN MENTIONS “FAMILY TROUBLES" THAT PREVENTED HIM FROM CARRYING OUT SOME PROJECTS, AND LED TO A LINGERING SEPARATION FROM HIS HOMELAND. THE FIRST PUBLICATION OF THE LETTERS OF POKHITONOV'S FIRST WIFE MATILDA K. POKHITONOVA CLARIFIES TO SOME EXTENT THIS PREDICAMENT OF HIS LIFE.


Matilda Pokhitonova,
the artist’s first wife.
Photo. 1900

Matilda Wulffert-Pokhitonova (1856-1927), the wife of Ivan Pokhitonov, was the daughter of a retired Colonel, a minor nobleman of German descent Konstantin Wulffert, whose ancestors had lived in the Minsk province of the Russian Empire for 200 years. Her mother, Alexandra Wulffert, was Swedish. Matilda was one of the first women in Russia to attend St. Petersburg University1; she also studied medicine in Paris and received her doctorate at the Sorbonne2. Subsequently, Matilda worked in a Paris hospital and had a private practice as a dermatologist and specialist in venereal diseases. She was a renowned and influential clinician who was also actively engaged in research, and wrote a number of scientific and popular books and articles3.

As a student at the Sorbonne, the sociable Matilda came to know many Russian artists who lived in Paris at that time - in a letter to Ilya Ostroukhov included here, she asks him to give her best regards to Grigory Myasoedov, Nikolai Yaroshenko, “and even Shishkin, if he remembers the student who argued with him about medicine at Yaroshenko’s three years ago...4

It is likely that Matilda attended meetings at the “Russian Artists’ Club”, an organisation that was founded in Paris in 1877 by Russian artists, writers and public figures to promote mutual assistance and charitable works within the Russian community. The club organised concerts and dramatic readings; it was the place to learn cultural news and meet exciting people. Pokhitonov, who was introduced to the club soon after his arrival in Paris by Ivan Turgenev and Alexei Bogolyubov, was one of its administrators and a regular at meetings. In his memoir, the sculptor Ilya Gintzburg wrote about Pokhitonov: “Everyone found his modesty and unaffected manner very pleasing.”5 It was probably at the Russian Artists’ Club that the two young people met.

In 1881, Wulffert and Pokhitonov travelled together to the Balkans as the artist had been commissioned by Alexander III to paint a series of landscapes at locations where the future Russian Emperor had lived in camp during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. On 18 (30) October 1882 the couple was married in the town of Chernovtsi. After a short stay in Moscow and Finland, where they lived in the country house of Matilda’s parents (called “Kamchatka”), the newly-weds returned to Paris. They promptly received a moving letter from Pavel Pokhitonov, the artist’s father, who wrote from his residence in Matryonovka to congratulate them on their marriage.6

In November 1882, Pokhitonov started painting his portrait of Ivan Turgenev. In his diary, Turgenev wrote about this time (his entry from 5 (17) December 1882): “Pokhitonov painted a lovely little picture (snow, a herd of cows); he brought his wife with him to meet me - a sharp, pretty little medical student.”7 In his entry of 31 December 1882 (12 January 1883), Turgenev wrote: “Liphart painted my portrait (ink on paper) for Glazunov’s publication. Pokhitonov is also painting one, and it is coming out quite well, and looks just like me! What a master he is! He brought the pictures he had painted over last summer to show to me and [Pauline] Viardot - they are lovely!”8

Turgenev’s great affection for Pokhitonov started from the moment they first met when the young artist came to Paris at the beginning of 1877. Throughout his life the writer closely followed the career of the young self-taught artist. Turgenev contributed to Pokhitonov’s success and recognition by pointing the artist’s work out to his friends, as well as literary and art critics; he often visited Pokhitonov’s studio. The writer’s fatherly interest is also apparent from the way he refers to his protégé’s young wife.

That same winter Matilda wrote the letter to Ilya Ostroukhov which we include in this publication. The reader can see how deeply involved Matilda was in her husband’s affairs, and how much she shared his concerns. Soon afterwards, the couple went to Pau. In May, Matilda wrote to Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky9, describing how Pokhitonov worked: “We are regular gypsies now - we never live in the same place for more than two months, so we have lost track of many acquaintances. My husband is even working out of an atelier roulant [rolling workshop], which was built in Pau according to his design; we also decided not to rent an ‘atelier’ in Paris either.

“It is a good thing for him, since he always works en plein air, and in this ‘atelier’ of his he does not catch colds as often as before... it is just a carriage with overhead light and a side window to see the landscapes he is painting. Clever, isn’t it?”10

Pokhitonov was not the only artist to use a moving carriage to look for places and themes to paint. Francois Daubigny, Pokhitonov’s favourite artist, would take his specially equipped boat-studio on the Oise and paint the scenes he particularly liked. It is worth noting here that Matilda wrote this letter on 16 May 1883, less than a month before she gave birth to their first daughter, Vera11 (she would later be called Barbe), who was born in Pau. This fact is not only a testament to Matilda’s stamina and strength of character, but also to her love for her husband, her desire to be part of his life and share his labours.

Matilda’s letters of that period are full of love and sincere devotion. She wrote in one of them: “My darling, my beloved Vanya. A million thanks for sending your Easter greeting to us. We received your telegramme on the first day, at half past six in the evening. We think you must have sent it right after you broke the fast. Maybe we are mistaken and your telegramme could not have arrived so fast. The weather here is very nice, clear and warm, really festive. Church bells are ringing all the time and come together in a solemn, continuous resonance. We received a letter from your father today; he keeps lamenting that he has not heard from you in a long time. Please take heart and write to him. We have not seen the General after you left. God knows if he is upset with something. Stay in good health, my dear. May the Virgin Mary look after you. I send you my heartfelt embrace. Yours, Matilda.”12

Judging by the comments of her contemporaries as well as photographs, Matilda Pokhitonova was an attractive woman. Pokhitonov first became acquainted with Ivan Kramskoi in 1884 in Menton, a small resort town in the south of France. Until now we only knew Kramskoi’s opinion of the artist’s work - having seen Pokhitonov’s paintings, he wrote: “Pokhitonov is quite remarkably talented”. However, it turns out that during the time both he and the Pokhitonovs were living in Menton, Kramskoi was painting Matilda’s portrait, which recently turned up in the private collection of the artist’s grandson13; it means that the two artists had known each other for longer than previously thought.

In 1885, the Pokhitonovs’ second daughter, Nina, was born in Pau, followed three years later, also in Pau, by Zoya, their youngest child. It is easy to imagine the many cares the young woman now had, considering that she continued her career as a doctor. However, it appears that after 1885, there was already some trouble in the family. Matilda’s 1887 correspondence with Vasily Vereshchagin attests to the lack of understanding between the couple, and to Matilda’s constant exasperation; she candidly reveals her domestic troubles to Vereshchagin, without any fear of being judged negatively. A woman of independent nature, it seems Matilda did not really care what kind of impression she made on people around her. While in Paris, Vasily Polenov wrote in a letter to his wife: “I visited Pokhitonov yesterday night; he is a very agreeable fellow, but his wife I do not like... there is something fake and harsh about her.”14

Regrettably, there is no information as to how and when Matilda Pokhitonova and Vasily Vereshchagin first met; one does have the impression, however, that they had a long and trusting connection, separate from Ivan Pokhitonov. Their correspondence is a valuable source of facts about the artist’s life and art; to some extent, it also sheds light on the circumstances of his separation from his wife, which happened in 1892.

Igor Markevitch, the artist’s grandson, wrote an account of these events, probably based on stories he had heard in his family: “My grandfather’s marriage did not turn out to be a success. His wife, nee Wulffert, was known for her independent nature; she was drawn to science and decided to learn medicine, which was unusual for their time and social circle. When they met, Matilda Wulffert was finishing her medicine studies in Paris; they were married in 1879. However, it was not long before their deep differences began to show. They separated after ten years, and my grandfather bound himself to his wife’s younger sister Yevgenia, with whom he had a son. For a long time, these personal circumstances kept Pokhitonov away from his motherland; for many years, he lived in Liege, Belgium.”

Pokhitonov petitioned for dissolution of the marriage; when he approached Matilda requesting a divorce, she declined. The artist was not allowed to see his daughters until they were adults.

The last of Matilda Pokhitonova’s letters to Vereshchagin was written in 1897. It is possible to date it to 1897 since it referred to the work of the World Congress of Doctors in Moscow that Matilda was planning to attend. This letter is a powerful testimony to Matilda Pokhitonova’s exceptional achievements: despite all the vicissitudes of her personal life, which were a source of emotional hardship for all the members of the Wulffert-Pokhitonov family, she was able to excel as she did, become a renowned doctor and a respected expert in her field - a rare accomplishment for that time.

Eleonora Paston

 

 

Matilda Pokhitonova to Ilya Ostroukhov.
[8 February1883]

Dear Sir:

My husband, Ivan Pokhitonov, being unwell and thus unable to answer your letter right away, has requested that, so that you did not have to wait, I write to you in his place with the following information regarding all that you inquired about. The Bonnat studio has been closed down since last autumn; however, there are quite a few others that can serve well as substitutes. Professors are only involved in these studios to the extent of providing them with their names; however, these studios are valuable as fellowships - the students there are very talented and experienced people, and working alongside with them at those ateliers presents an opportunity. To join, one has only to pay 3060 francs a month, according to the amount of time requested. There are no other formalities. As to our circle of local Russian artists, you can fully count on their help and advice. Regarding expenses, I can tell you that at the beginning, you can live in Paris on 120 francs a month, and not go hungry. For about 350 francs a month, you can live and even rent a small studio.

Unfortunately, we will be leaving Paris in the next few days and will only be coming back in autumn; however, please stop by our apartment in Paris (15 Impasse rue Hélène de l’Avenue Clichy 50) - should we have already left, we will have left for you with our concierge the addresses of a few other artists whom we know well; they will all be happy to help you with advice and information in case you encounter any difficulties. My husband will let these artists know about your upcoming arrival, and they will welcome you like an old friend.

My husband asks you to give his best regards to Repin and all other artists he met while in Moscow. As for myself (formerly Matilda Wulffert, nobody knows me as Pokhitonova yet), I would be very thankful if you gave my warm regards to Myasoedov and Yaroshenko, if you see them, and even Shishkin, if he remembers the student who argued with him about medicine at Yaroshenko’s three years ago.

My husband sends his best wishes.
M. Pokhitonova

Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department. F. 10, Item 5248.

 

Matilda Pokhitonova to Vasily Vereshchagin
Pau (low Pyrenèes), 52, rue Porte-Neuve . 16 February [18]87

Dearest Vasily Vasilievich:


Vasily Vereshchagin,
1888

Having just received your letter, I am responding to it right away - my conscience has been bothering me, as I have not written to you for a while. I was thinking about writing to you with congratulations on the New Year, like I did to all our acquaintances, but then decided that you were “au dessus”[above] all that, and so I hope that you are not upset with me. Also, it was a most unpleasant day for me, since I had to write a lot of holiday cards, and in all languages, too.

Everything is the same with us. “Himself ” is up to his usual mischief, does not listen to me;got himself a bad case of pleurisy and was in bed for a week; he is just getting better. He is sending his best regards to you and Yelizaveta Kondratievna15, of course; the children send their love to both of you.

My lungs are not quite well yet, but I seem to be feeling better. I will not be showing this letter to my husband, since he would find it poor and criticise it, and I would have to postpone sending it again. I would sooner mail it right away, however “imperfect” it may be, rather than not answer you, like he does, or carry a letter in his pocket for weeks! Well, goodbye. Our warmest regards to Yelizaveta Kondratievna; please write to us about your plans for March. Will we see you in Paris around that time? Forgive me for my “imperfect” letter - something constantly gets in the way of writing.

Respectfully yours,
M. Pokhitonova

Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department. F. 17, item 952.

 

Matilda Pokhitonova to Vasily Vereshchagin
15, Impasse Hélène (Ab. Clichy). [12 May 1887]

Dearest Vasily Vasilievich:

It has been a week since we came back to Paris, and we would love to see you. Beginning from next week, we are free of any obligations and will be always at home, so we are asking you and Yelizaveta Kondratievna to visit us, or “si ça  ne vous arrive pas”, invite us to visit you. Please arrange it the way it works best for you, and we will be impatiently waiting for your decision. Warm regards to Yelizaveta Kondratievna from us all, and our daughters. Goodbye,

M. Pokhitonova

Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department. F. 17, item 954.

 

Matilda Pokhitonova to Vasily Vereshchagin
9 June [1887]

Sending a book and a shawl.

Dearest Vasily Vasilievich:

Allow me to share my sorrow with you: American merchants were here today, and I was foolish enough to listen to my husband and not come out to see them; however, I could hear the horrors from behind the drapes. My husband asked for2,000 for his best painting, and they were laughing at him between themselves, saying in English “It is not dear, at all”. Now, how do you like it? Since this painting cost him two cases of pleurisy, which means ten years ofhis life, I would rather smash it into pieces than sell it to the merchants. Even better, let the children inherit it when we are both gone, it will probably be worth more then, and at least they would have something. [He] wants to finish a few more paintings, so our trip has been postponed. But I will use this to move so that I could escape this rot and Ab. Clichy as soon as possible.

This is why I am asking you to take our palm and ivy till autumn; I hope that I can rely on you to honestly say “no, I do not want them ” if you do not want them. I will wait for your reply, and should you agree, please let me know when we could bring them over so that we do not inconvenience you.

11.00. We thought about it and decided to leave the palm here. I just received your letter and was very worried that you were ill, but I hope that you are better by now. None of us fell ill, but my husband is not feeling well, so I got in touch with a doctor we know who treats consumption, Bouchard. He did not have any time to see us before next Monday, so we do not know what to do now, get out of this terrible weather and forget about Bouchard, or stay here for another week and a half to get Bouchard’s advice. I refuse to make this decision by myself. As for the kefir [a Russian milk-based drink] recipe, I did not forget about it and will write to you separately in a few days, so that you do not wait for this letter even longer.

Goodbye and best regards from all of us to you all.
Respectfully,
M. Pokhitonova

Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department. F. 17, item 953.

 

Matilda Pokhitonova to Vasily Vereshchagin.
Eaux-bonnes (B. Pyrenées) maison Albaere. 12 July [1887]

I am skipping the formal “dearest” in addressing you now; however, there is no other word that would be customary, so I am not using any. Thank you for your letter and all the information. As to how you made kefir, we had a laugh over it. Nobody does it this way. You do not need to dry the kefir grains again. Just throw away the milk that had failed to ferment, pour new milk on the grains, and in a day it should ferment again; now you can start anew, ever and ever again... Do not get discouraged, really you should not, because it has to come out right and it will, if not the first time, then the second, or third; and even if it does not seem to look right, just shake it well before drinking, it will taste good. Here in the mountains, we are doing nothing but taking walks and reading. The only misfortune is that “Himself” has taken such a fancy for Tolstoy that he is reading avidly all day till his eyes hurt, and then he makes me read till it gets dark and my voice hoarsens; I wish you were here to “beat some sense into him ”! It is wonderful that he was decisively forbidden to smoke, I am very happy about it; it looks like he realised how important this demand was and will drop this habit. How are you and Yelizaveta Kondratievna feeling during this heat? It gets a bit hot even here in the mountains, I imagine how it is where you are!

Well, goodbye. “Himself and “herselves”, as they say in Bulgaria, are sending their best to you and Yelizaveta Kondratievna.
M. Pokhitonova

Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department. F. 17, item 955.

 

Matilda Pokhitonova to Vasily Vereshchagin.
Pau (lower Pyrenées, Russian Church) .12 July [1887]

Dearest Vasily Vasilievich:

It has taken me a while to answer your letter because we received it as we were leaving, so you can imagine what turmoil we were in. It was the same thing for the first few days here, etc.

Now, to the point: the letter to Girardin was late because he kept it in his pocket and would not give it to me to drop off. What an obstinate, grouchy character! As to the paintings he showed at the Salon, I can tell you about the four years that I have the records from the newspapers, which is 1879-1882. He thinks he may have shown them at some other time, but does not remember when. Later in 1882 he did not show anything at the Salon, but did show some at the World Exhibition.

Life is charming here: the sweet-smelling and peaceful air, and an abundance of fruits of the earth! Only “Himself” is not content and even threatening to go to Paris. The truth is that he had given his barrister a procuration [power of attorney]. Since the wording of the procuration had not been prepared, and being careless as he is, he went to his barrister exactly one hour (sic) before his departure and signed his name and “bon pour pouvoir”[I attest] on a blank piece of paper; the barrister was to put in the words of the procuration himself. So now he is very worried about that; but all this is nonsense, and I will not let him go to Paris in this rotten weather.

How are you? Have you gone to see Bouchard? It would be so interesting to hear the particular results of this visit that took so much preparation!

The girls have already grown stronger and are sunburnt - they are outside all the time. It is not as hot as it is in Paris; imagine, it is even cool, and everyone is saying it is too early to go to the mountains because it may still even rain. So we are staying here and waiting for hot weather, and doing nothing but sleeping and eating, too lazy to even go for a walk.

Warmest regards to Yelizaveta Kondratievna from all of us. “Himself” is sending his best wishes and begs your forgiveness for not writing.

Respectfully,
M. Pokhitonova

Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department. F. 17, item 956.

 

Matilda Pokhitonova to Vasily Vereshchagin.
22 July 189[7?]

Just received your letter and answering right away.

I received your letter on the way to the hospital and just talked to [illegible] about your boy.16 It is a pity that you did not write to me as to how he is being treated now - with rubdowns, or is he on a diet of potassium iodide?It is very important to know. If this is the case, you have to stop giving the boy his medicines if he has vomiting. You also need to let me know if his vomiting is combined with nausea or not. In any case, if he had just a few instances, there is no need to worry: it is common with children under six years of age, and goes away with no consequences. Of course, you cannot disregard constipation. In this case, it helps to simply change his diet: for example, less dark meat17 and more green vegetables and well-cooked fruit like plums and apples and others, but well-stewed, in compote.

Also, please write as to how long you will be staying in Moscow. Will I see you there during the Congress?18 Will I find a place to stay if there are so many people attending the Congress?

I am quite touched that you were kind enough to think about me. It would be very nice of you to ask Sklifosovsky to help me.19 I would very much like to treat the beautiful Moscow ladies’ complexions - indeed, it will be a big expense for me to come to the Congress. One of my patients suggested that I stay at the Continental. I think I should always be able to get a room there, or should I reserve one? Please let me know that you will be there at the beginning of August. How much I would love to meet your wife20 and see all your children! (Having more children means there are more reasons to write).

I have seen so many ailments in my life that when none of the doctors who are present can make a diagnosis, the professor calls for me - they have all become used to me always knowing for sure about my beloved skin diseases. Please do not think that I am bragging, I really do not like to brag. But I have this intuition about skin diseases. Well, goodbye. Thank you, and I hope to see you.

It would be wonderful if you rented the cottage in Finland from my mother, the climate there is so healthy for children. Mine get stronger so fast when they are there.

My best regards, and please write soon. We are sending kisses to you all - the children are allowed, and your wife will forgive me, an old woman.
M. Pokhitonova

Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department. F. 17, item 959.

 

  1. The "Vladimirsky Courses” in St. Petersburg were opened in 1870 to offer "public lectures for men and women” in literary and natural science subjects. It is likely that Matilda studied at the Vladimirsky Courses before she left St. Petersburg. In 1878, Higher Courses for Women were opened in St. Petersburg, under the directorship of Professor Konstantin Bestuzhev.
  2. Matilda Pokhitonova defended her Ph.D thesis titled ''Contribution a l'étude des complications oculaires de l'influenza'' on 24 July, 1890 in Paris.
  3. They included: "“La Beauté par L’Hygiène” (Paris, 1892); "Hygiène de la mère et de l'enfant” (Paris, 1893); "L'hygiene de la peau dans la premiere enfance” (Paris, 1895); "Woman's beauty, its perfection and maintenance through hygiene”. 2nd revised edition, St.Petersburg, 1902. (Reported by Edgar Soulie)
  4. See Matilda Pokhitonova's letter to Ilya Ostroukhov below.
  5. Grebenuk, V.A. "Ivan Pavlovich Pokhitonov”, Leningrad, 1973, p. 11
  6. In his letter, Pavel Pokhitonov writes: "My dear children, Vanya and Manechka [endearing nicknames for Ivan and Matilda]! I congratulate you both on your marriage. From the bottom of my heart, I wish you complete happiness in your new married life; I pray to God that your life is blessed with good fortune, that both of you find happiness in each other. Let your life be peaceful, quiet and calm; may you have the best of luck and success in every one of your undertakings and worldly affairs. I ask my darling Manechka to love me, the old man, like my beloved Vanya does, with a true son's love; as for me, your mutual happiness will be my solace in my old age and will prolong my life. I wish to see you together and rejoice in your presence, and I do not doubt that you will travel to your native Russia and visit Vanya's own native corner, Matryonovka, next year...” From the personal archive of Alexandra Eilenstein von Wulffert, Matilda Pokhitonova's grandniece. Munich, Germany.
  7. Zilberstein, I.S. "I will be the first to rejoice in our very own art”, "Ogonyok” Magazine. 1948, No46, p. 15.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky extended his assistance to Pokhitonov during the first few years of the artist's life in Paris
  10. Grebenuk, V.A. "Ivan Pavlovich Pokhitonov”, Leningrad, 1973, p. 57.
  11. Vera was born on June 11 1883, in Pau.
  12. From the personal archive of Alexandra Eilenstein von Wulffert. Matilda, accompanied by Pokhitonov, must have been in Russia at the time; unfortunately, the letter is dated just "March 26”. It must have been written in 1885, as Orthodox Easter was on March 24 that year.
  13. This portrait is somewhat of a find; Edgar Soulie, Pokhitonov's grandson who currently lives in Paris, sent us a picture of it, which we include in this publication.
  14. Vasily Polenov's letter to his wife Natalya Polenova, December 15, 1889. Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department. F. 54, item 474.
  15. In 1887 Vasily Vereshchagin married Elizabeth Maria Fischer (1856-1941), who became Yelizaveta Kondratievna Vereshchagin by marriage.
  16. Vasily (1892-1981), Vereshchagin's son with his second wife Lydia Andreevsky.
  17. "Dark meat” refers to beef and wild game, "white meat” to veal and fowl.
  18. Matilda Wulffert took part in the 12th World Congress of Doctors in Moscow in 1897. On August 25, 1897 she made a report at the congress titled "Acne, electrolyse, radiotherapie” (Acne, electrolysis, radiotherapy) (as reported by Edgar Soulie)
  19. Nikolai Sklifosovsky (18361904) was a world-famous surgeon, a most renowned doctor of the second half of the 19th century, a scientist and a professor. A student and follower of the great Nikolai Pirogov, he was the founder of the Pirogov Society of Russian Doctors and an active member of the Moscow Society of Surgeons; Skilfosovsky initiated the Pirogov Congress of Doctors and was the president of the 12th World Congress of Doctors in Moscow in 1897.
  20. In 1890, Vasily Vereshchagin divorced his first wife Yelizaveta and married Lydia Andreevsky (1865-1911). Their daughter Lydia was born in 1891 (she died in 1896), their son Vasily was born in 1892, their daughter Anna in 1895, and their youngest Lydia in 1898.

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