Alexei Savrasov: Truth and Poetry
24 May 2005 marked the175th anniversary of the birth of one of Russia’s most eminent landscape artists, Alexei Savrasov. Well-loved to this day, Savrasov is most often associated with his masterpiece "The Rooks Have Arrived” (1871). Although this is an outstanding achievement of Russian realist landscape painting, the actual scope and depth of Saurasov’s work is far greater. As early as the 1850s, Savrasov was seen as one of the leading Russian landscape painters. By his mid-twenties, he had produced many wonderful works, most of which played an important part in the development of Russian painting as a whole. Isaak Levitan, Savrasov’s favourite pupil and follower, called his teacher “the creator of the Russian landscape”, claiming that Savrasov’s art brought out the “lyrical quality of landscape painting”, being filled with “boundless love for his homeland”.
On 6 December 2005, an exhibition of Alexei Savrasov's works opened at the Tretyakov Gallery. Both the size and content of the event were different from that originally planned, but nevertheless a wide range of paintings was included, containing works from private and museum collections as well as the famous masterpieces from the Tretyakov Gallery and Russian Museum. Some of the works on display have only recently come to the attention of the organisers: these were new not only to the general public, but to specialists as well. The exhibition played a vital role in showcasing both the scope and the importance of Savrasov's work, simultaneously, perhaps, rekindling some of the "boundless love" for the homeland which is so often lacking today.
The son of a merchant, Savrasov spent his childhood years in Moscow's Zamoskvorechye district. His first impressions of the fine art of landscape painting date from his early years. By the tender age of twelve, the self-taught artist was producing romantic views and selling them cheaply to street traders. His father was against this "useless business", yet with the help of Karl Rabus, teacher of landscape painting at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture, and the enlightened Moscow chief of police Luzhin, the talented youth was able to pursue his studies. Impressed by Savrasov's artistic ability, Rabus and Luzhin succeeded in persuading his father, and in 1844 Savrasov enrolled at the institution where Rabus taught.
At that time, Russian and European landscape artists sought to capture the particular traits of their native countryside, to highlight the link between man and his native land. Without losing their sense of nature as a single and beautiful phenomenon, developed over previous periods, artists strove to explore man's everyday life and history in its connection to a specific landscape. Moscow proved an ideal location for studying the Russian countryside and traditions. From the late 18th century onwards, Nikolai Karamzin's sensitivity towards nature was held in high esteem, and national history and folk traditions in art were widely discussed. At the Moscow School, such topics were also important food for thought. In 1843, Rabus became a landscape tutor at the school, and Savrasov quickly proved himself the teacher's most gifted pupil. In 1848, his copies of views by Aivazovsky were praised, and his sketches deemed the best in his class. The following year, Savrasov travelled to the Ukraine, producing a series of successful landscapes: critics hailed him as the rising star of Russian art. In 1850, for his "View of the Moscow Kremlin by Moonlight", only the name of which survives, and two landscapes created that summer at Luzhin's estate Grigorovo near Dmitrov, the board of the Moscow Artistic Society granted Savrasov the title of artist. Whilst showing clearly Savrasov's great respect for the traditions of Venetsianov, Tropinin and Lebedev, these works also possess the direct, poetical quality present in his very earliest landscapes. "Rock in the Forest by the 'Razliv'", in the Tretyakov Gallery, is filled with a child's wonder at the world, recalling the beautiful books illustrated around that time by the artists of the Abramtsevo circle. The "View of the Kremlin from Krymsky Bridge in Bad Weather" (1851, Tretyakov Gallery) shows Savrasov's powerful ability to blend impressions of art with those of real views, creating novel, natural-looking artistic structures to bring new imagery and meaning to Russian landscape painting.
Reminiscent of the majestic stormy landscapes of romantic artists such as Maxim Vorobiev and Vasily Rayev, this view nevertheless focuses on an everyday scene, fusing elevated sentiments with a down-to-earth portrayal of city life. The "View of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra from the Dnieper", created in 1852 after Savrasov's travels in the Ukraine, is in many ways similar. The whereabouts of this large painting, now in a private collection, only recently became known to specialists. Savrasov's trip to the Ukraine resulted in many other wonderful views of its wide-open spaces, notably "Afternoon in the Steppes", now in the Russian Museum.
After the exhibition held in the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture in 1854, Savrasov achieved fame as an artist. The president of the Academy of Arts, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna not only purchased one of his paintings at the exhibition, but also invited him to paint some landscapes from nature at her country residence near St. Petersburg. In the space of several months, the artist produced a wide range of drawings and two paintings, which so impressed the board of the Academy of Arts, that the 24-year-old Savrasov was made an academician. The first, "Sea Shore near Oranienbaum", now in a private collection, showed Savrasov to be a talented painter of seascapes. A fine, poetic evening view, it shows the rolling countryside by the sea, rosy in the sun's waning rays. The second painting, "View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum" (in the Tretyakov Gallery), shows Savrasov's interest in nature's everyday life: a sunlit glade is portrayed in fascinating detail, drawing the viewer in and making him privy to all of its little secrets.
Although Savrasov's "Petersburg" paintings were clearly of great importance, neither was purchased by the Academy or its president, the Grand Duchess. Perhaps their modest, "democratic" nature was not to the liking of the grand art lovers who originally saw Savrasov as a second Aivazovsky, a master of impressive views and brilliant sunsets. Four years later, the "View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum" was bought by Pavel Tretyakov and became one of the first landscapes in his collection.
Returning to Moscow, Savrasov went back to working in his favourite country locations around the city. One spot much loved by the artist was Kuntsevo. Very quickly, a series of views appeared which served in many ways to shape the future of Russian landscape painting.
In the late 1850s, Savrasov worked with papier pele, a special type of gypsum-covered paper. An excellent draughtsman, he strove to make these fascinating drawings as full and complete as his paintings, rendering with love and precision the richness of nature, the beauty of the slender trees and the still waters that he observed. They recall the later paintings of another outstanding landscape artist, Ivan Shishkin.
After the death of Karl Rabus in 1857, Savrasov took his place as landscape tutor at the Moscow School. That year, he married Sofia Herz, the sister of his friend and fellow pupil Konstantin. Sofia's second brother, the art critic Karl Herz, was considered one of the most educated and enlightened Muscovites, the founder of the History of Art department at Moscow University.
This new stage in Savrasov's life coincided with the period of reform which took place in Russia following the death of Tsar Nicholas I. At the School of Painting and Sculpture, Savrasov was an active advocate of new teaching methods, maintaining that artists should be truly educated, open minded and creative individuals. Some of his landscapes from the late 1850s and early 1860s are full of romantic, poetic imagery which shows Savrasov's mood of expectation. Like most Russians, the artist was living in the hope of beneficial change. Other works focused on harmony between man and nature, among them "Landscape with Windmills" (1859, Tretyakov Gallery) and "Landscape with Oak Trees and Shepherd" (1860, Tretyakov Gallery). Filled with tender, pensive calm, these canvases show Savrasov's connection with Venetsianov and his school and with the elevated, idyllic tradition in art and poetry.
1860 saw the foundation of the Moscow Society of Art Lovers, in which Savrasov played an important role. The society brought together artists, academics, writers and patrons who sought to promote in the arts the "values underpinning the new public life of Russia": values which, in the opinion of the enthusiastic "benevolent Russian minority", stemmed from "enlightened, kind thoughts and a desire to help others". The society supported talented artists, organised exhibitions, competitions and public readings. At the time of the Rumiantsev and Public Museum's establishment, in 1 862, Savrasov was responsible for transporting Ivanov's "Appearance of Christ to the People" to Moscow from St. Petersburg. The Moscow Society of Art Lovers, indeed, played an instrumental role in the creation of this museum.
In 1862, Savrasov visited the World Fair in London before travelling to Denmark, France, Switzerland and Germany. Bringing out the range and variety of Savrasov's artistic tastes, this trip had an enormous impact on his art. The work of old and new Western European painters, among them Alexandre Calame, had always held an important place in Savrasov's approach. In his travels, the artist was particularly impressed by the work of the English landscape painters and the scenery of Switzerland. He continued to paint Swiss mountain views for several years after his trip to the Alps, although, sadly, few are known to Russian specialists. The few works that are known allow us to share the delight of the Society of Art Lovers, which felt that Savrasov's Swiss views were "among the most gratifying fruits" of its activity. Equally far from dull imitation and exaggerated cliche, these views breathe life, showing truthfully the variety, rich colours and textures of the mountain landscapes.
For some years, only Western works by Savrasov could be seen at exhibitions. The artist's decision was perhaps linked to an inner need to revise his approach, to rethink the objectives that Russian art should follow in new historical circumstances. In 1866, Russian landscapes by Savrasov again began to appear at exhibitions, yet now the measure of the artist's and, hence, the viewer's, involvement in the subject was different. Savrasov's attention became even more focused on nature and simple, country living. His "Landscape with a Wooden Hut" (1866, in the Nesterov Art Museum of Bashkiria, Ufa) and other views of that period, the location of which, sadly, are not known, bear testimony to his unique ability not merely to depict Russian villages, forests and fields, but, as Levitan put it, to portray the "intimate and deeply poignant features" of the simplest Russian landscapes which "touch our soul so powerfully". Savrasov's lyrical attention to detail was coupled with an intense feeling for space and rich use of colour. An important milestone in his development was the "Village View" painted in 1867, currently in the Tretyakov Gallery. The modest flowering apple trees, lowly hut and figure of a beekeeper by a bonfire are offset by the rolling expanse in the background. The trees reach up as if to touch the clear skies above, with the viewer receiving a sense of intense springtime activity in nature.
In comparing the study made from nature and the final version of the 1869 painting "Losiny Island in Sokolniki", both now in the Tretyakov Gallery, the viewer can understand better the nature of Savrasov's artistic quest. The painting skilfully combines majestic pines soaring gracefully with the peaceful, unassuming beauty of a field with grazing cows. Savrasov's landscapes often feature the sky reflected in water: a powerful and expressive image, the poetic force of which we seldom consciously appreciate.
This motif is treated by the artist in a number of ways: one outstanding example is, however, "Moonlight on the Marshes" (1870, now in the Serpukhov Museum of History and Art).
Savrasov's range of imagery continued to grow, particularly in the early 1870s. The artist made frequent trips to the provinces, particularly to the Volga. Of the cities on the river, Savrasov painted in Nizhny Novgorod, Yurievets and Yaroslavl, and around Kazan and Zhiguli. Making dozens of sketches, he produced some exceptionally powerful paintings, portraying the great river as an image of Russia itself - "humble yet generous, lowly yet powerful". The first painting of the Volga series, "The Pechera Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod", was completed in 1870 and purchased by Tretyakov in the autumn of that year. Savrasov, however, went on to make some alterations, finally dating the canvas 1871. Today, the work is in the Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum. "The Volga near Yurievets" (1871), the artist's largest painting, is currently part of a private collection in France and virtually inaccessible. One critic described it thus: "A fairly large painting, this measures over a 'sazhen' [2.13 m] in width. The colouring, so to speak, is that of a rainy day. The endless rippling of the mother Volga, overcast skies, Yurievets up on the hillside and a group of barge haulers towing their barge: a sober, yet typical landscape."
Savrasov's legendary painting "The Rooks Have Arrived" was also painted on the Volga. The artist began work on his masterpiece in the Spring of 1871, in Yaroslavl, continuing the task in Molvitino village, homeland of Ivan Susanin, where the season arrives late. At the end of that year, the painting was shown at the first Wanderers' exhibition, Savrasov being one of the founders and a member of the board of the "Peredvizhniki" group.
The charming painting itself is known to every Russian schoolchild. As Andrei Platonov wrote of Pushkin, it is a part of Russian culture "along with the forests and the fields". Yet what is it that gives this work its poetic depth, or, as Kramskoy put it, its "soul"? Savrasov's pupil Lev Kamenev called the "Rooks" "a sacred prayer", whilst the "Westerner" Benois claimed it showed "a mighty temperament", "a sacred gift: the ability to heed the mysterious voices in nature ... as yet unheard by any of the Russian painters". Konstantin Korovin reminds us that Savrasov liked to tell his pupils that: "Nature is always breathing, always singing, and the song it sings is full of majesty. Contemplating nature is the highest pleasure. The world is heaven, and life is a mystery - a beautiful mystery."
His awareness of life's beautiful mystery and intense feeling for nature's perfect harmony are what gives Savrasov's art its remarkable charm, likening it to the work of the best Russian poets. The artist's reverence for nature could undoubtedly be seen as religious, yet it would be incorrect to link his work with the beliefs of any one faith or religious tradition. Savrasov's paintings feature not only Russian churches - recall, for instance, the Muslim mosques in his Volga landscapes, or the snow-white obelisk on Pushkin's grave.
The artist's worldview and philosophy find perhaps their most direct and poetic expression in the small painting "Spring" (from the 1870s, in the Tretyakov Gallery). The high water of the thaw is turquoise and gold with the light of the Spring morning. Slender birches reach their graceful boughs up towards the gleaming sun, and are reflected in the clear, bright water. This "indescribably tender blue" speaks of the mysterious union of heaven and earth in the human soul and in nature. "Country Road" (1873) is another remarkably poignant landscape, which recalls the words of Tretyakov: "Give me a puddle in the mire, and it will have poetry and truth, because there is truth and poetry in everything, if the artist can but reveal them." The collector was a great admirer of Savrasov's art and bought many of his paintings.
Savrasov's lyrical worldview and his remarkable sensitivity towards the "nervous system" of nature emerge in the very subjects of his paintings. Rain-bathed fields gleaming in the sun, the countryside at dawn and dusk, fairytale Winter forests, the outskirts of sleepy villages, birds flying south. The plants in Savrasov's paintings are also expressive and full of life. Some reach jubilantly for the skies whilst others dreamily await the long Winter slumber. Some are broken, felled or dry, conveying a sense of anxiety or even impending death ("Autumn Forest. The Damned Spot" from 1872, in the Rostov the Great Kremlin Museum). Many of Savrasov's works are lit by a rainbow - that beautiful natural phenomenon to which people have always ascribed symbolic meaning ("Rainbow" and "By the Monastery Gates", both from 1875 and now in the Russian Museum).
In the 1870s, Savrasov produced a number of idyllic scenes, showing small islands of simple, natural life in the urban hubbub. With tender affection he painted cosy courtyards and picturesque houses like "House in the Provinces" (1878, in the Tretyakov Gallery). Other works of this period are more dramatic: in "The Grave by the Volga" (1874, in the Altai Regional Museum of Art, Barnaul), the artist ponders the brevity and fragility of human existence.
The 1880s saw the abrupt end of the rise of Savrasov's career. The artist was plunged into crisis as his marriage fell apart, and he turned to drink, losing his position at the School of Painting and Sculpture where he had taught for 25 years. His decline and withdrawal from society bear all the marks of an existential crisis, deepened, it seems, by insufficient recognition. His growing anxiety is clearly visible in the portrait of the artist painted in 1878 by his friend Vasily Perov, in the Tretyakov Gallery. Savrasov, it seems, found it difficult to accept the departure from earlier ideals which was becoming evident in both art and society. The widening gap between machine-driven urban civilisation and his beloved nature caused Savrasov great pain. All this contributing to his decline, and before long his name was but a fading memory in the official art world. Seven years before Savrasov's death in 1890, the following information was published in Bulgakov's reference book "Nashi Khu- dozhniki" ('Our Artists'): "Savrasov Konstantin Alexeyevich (1830-1876). Landscape painter and academician.' This inaccurate beginning was followed by several lines on Savrasov's studies and exhibitions, containing further mistakes.
Excluded from contemporary artistic life, Savrasov, Korovin noted, began to perceive the world as a grotesque "fair" - "a terrible, dark cellar". Nevertheless, the artist's spirit was not completely broken. The early 1890s saw some normality return to his life with the appearance of a new partner and children, one of whom, Alexei Morgunov, would go on to become a well-known avant-garde artist. Several wonderful landscapes were created by Savrasov during this late period, which bear testimony to the fact that the artist was still able to rejoice and wonder at nature's beauty. 1893-1894 were, perhaps, the most productive years, resulting in delights such as "Spring. The Vegetable Gardens", now in the Perm Art Gallery, and the drawing "View of the Village of Pokrovskoye-Fili", in the Tretyakov Gallery. Showing exceptional mastery in his use of plain white paper, Savrasov depicts a winter's day, when all nature awaits the coming of Spring.
These later years resulted in many fine drawings: in 1894, an album of Savrasov's latest drawings was published in Kiev to mark the 50th anniversary of his debut. The later paintings and drawings expressing the artist's sadness and angst leave a powerful impression. They show the tender landscapes of Spring violated by ugly, sprawling factories, whose thick black smoke appears to cut the earth off from the skies. Such are "The Ice Breaks: View with Factory" (from the 1890s, now in a private collection) and "Landscape with Volynskoye Village" (1887, in the Tretyakov Gallery). Savrasov, it seems, heard the dull thud of the axe in the "Cherry Orchard" far earlier than most of his contemporaries, foreseeing and deploring the ecological catastrophe which the 20th century would bring to Mother Earth.
Despite Savrasov's personal tragedy, the final years of his life saw his hopes and ideas shared by others. Many of the best late 19th-century Russian artists gave huge importance to a sense of "oneness" with nature and to peaceful contemplation of their native countryside. This was particularly true of the Moscow school of painting. Thanks to Savrasov's legacy, the artists of the Moscow school produced works full of spirit, emotion and life, which spoke of their urge to embrace the very roots of Russian culture.
The sponsors of the project were Surgutneftegaz plc and Mr. Anatoly Novikov
Oil on canvas. 62 by 48.4 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Photo portrait, 1860s
Oil on canvas. 91.5 by 129 cm. Private collection, St. Petersburg
Oil on canvas. 44.5 by 60 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 44 by 71 cm. Private collection, St. Petersburg
Oil on canvas. 43.5 by 62.5 cm. Nesterov Art Museum of Bashkiria, Ufa
Oil on canvas. 77.5 by 66.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 69.5 by 106.5 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Pivate collection, France
Oil on canvas. 81.3 by 65 cm. Altai Regional Museum of Art, Barnaul
A sketch for ‘Rooks Arrived’ (1871). Pencil and black chalk, flat-washed paint, white, wet brush on tinted paper mounted on cardboard. 49.8 by 33.4 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 18 by 26.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 40 by 25 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 53.5 by 76 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 45 by 56.5 cm. State Russian Museum
Pencil and black chalk, flat-washed paint, watercolor, wash, scraping, on papier-pelle. 36 by 53.3 cm. Tretyakov Gallery