Vasily Surikov: I loved beauty everywhere...

Galina Churak

Magazine issue: 
#1 2006 (10)

On March 1 1881 the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) group was to open its ninth exhibition at the Yusupov palace on the Moika Embankment in St. Petersburg. Tragically, the event coincided with anotherone, among the most sinister in Russian history - the bomb thrown by a member of the secret political group Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) killed Emperor Alexander II. However, as soon as the days of mourning ended, the long wait of art enthusiasts was more than rewarded with masterpieces from the new generation of talented Russian artists: alongside Ilya Repin’s portraits of the composer Modest Mussorgsky and the author Alexei Pisemsky, “Alyonushka” by Vasily Vasnetsov and landscapes by Alexei Savrasov and Ivan Shishkin, viewers would discover the talent of the young Vasily Surikov. His name meant little at the time, but his work “Morning of the Streltsy Execution” seemed to predict in some enigmatic way the recent tragedy. The painting created a sensation. “His appearing to the artistic world with the painting ‘Execution of the Streltsy’ was sensational; nobody had started like that,” remembered Alexandra Botkina, Pavel Tretyakov’s daughter. “He did not hesitate, did not try to size up whether the time was good or bad for the exhibition of such a painting, but went off like a bolt.”[1] Immediately after the exhibition in St. Petersburg, Surikov’s painting, acquired by Pavel Tretyakov before the exhibition, was moved to its permanent home in Lavrushinsky Pereulok. The Tretyakov Gallery was already considered a major collection of Russian art.

Surikov's canvas depicts a historical tragedy, that of the young Peter the Great's attempt to manage the rebellious "Streltsy". The huge space of Red Square does not seem so enormous, wrapped as it is in the cold mist of an early autumn morning that is dawning over Moscow. St. Basil's Cathedral stands as if "beheaded" by the top frame of the canvas. At the foot of the cathedral, around the Execution Block, are clustered the carts in which the "Streltsy", either roped together or in the stocks, are waiting for execution. Their mothers, wives and children sit nearby, in carts or on the ground. Lights of candles flicker in the hands of the sentenced "Streltsy" and a subdued murmur seems to fill the air. The picture brings the past back, both rubbing salt into old wounds, and invoking compassion. Peter's reforms set the whole country in turmoil, and involved the army too. Unhappy with the new rules introduced by the Tsar the "Streltsy" repeatedly ran riot. The final such incident took place in 1698 and was crushed, with its tragic conclusion becoming the theme of the painting.

The gallows erected along the Kremlin wall seem to be waiting for their first victims, while those who throng the square appear in tense expectation of the macabre finale. The burning candles in the hands of the "Streltsy" look symbolic, as a last farewell to life: a candle burns down - a man's life ends. Although each of the "Streltsy" has his own rebellious and mutinous feelings, the general sentiment shows most openly and defiantly in the wilful look of the red-bearded "Strelets". He looks straight into Tsar Peter's eyes, and the confrontation of the two characters is the major psychological build-up of the dramatic narration.

Any question as to which side the artist was taking sounds rhetorical. He is with the rebellious "Streltsy", sharing the suffering of their wives, mothers and children, appraising the drama through the eyes of a foreign envoy; but he also understands the anger of the young Tsar who was working for the future of Russia. The force of the artist's imagination captures an episode of Russia's grim past when ordinary people were the first to suffer, as before, and demanded understanding and compassion; their courage, endurance and will for freedom deserved veneration. On the canvas, the "Streltsy", together with the sympathetic crowd, embody the ever-rebellious character of the Russian people.

The dominant dramatic note of the scene is implied, with equal skill, in the psychological portrayal of the characters and in the emphatic plasticity of the painterly images, such as the disturbing flickering of the candles against the dim misty dawn, or the orange and red blurs on the kaftans, hats, shawls, on the garments of the Boyars in Peter's party. The splashes of crimson around the canvas remind the viewer of the scene's approaching bloody close - this is not yet a scene of execution but captures the final minutes preceding it. The fact that the artist avoided showing the execution testifies to his delicate sensibility. "I have never intended to shock," he would admit. "I loved beauty everywhere."[2]

That was apparent not only in the attractive faces and characters, but in everyday details that might seem commonplace: the decorated shaft-bows, so typical of the Russian harness, the harsh surface of the carts' sideboards, sparkling "like pure silver" iron sledge-slides, a muddy road. "When my eye caught a cart, I was ready to bow with respect at its every wheel," Surikov wrote. "That is what I painted beside all those dramas. I adored those details."[3] At times the artist found details the most important thing in his canvases - painting in its pure form: the design of rich brocade gowns or a simple cotton skirt as a treat for the eyes, or a pool of water glittering on the muddy road. Such details counterbalance the tragic message of the canvas.

"Morning of the Streltsy Execution" became a strange amalgamation of Surikov's memories of his Siberian childhood and his impressions of Moscow, with its characteristic architectural image, and original tide of life, types and characters. "Something strange started to happen to me here, in Moscow," Surikov wrote in a letter to Sergei Glagol. "First of all, here I felt much easier than in Petersburg. There was something in Moscow that reminded me more of Krasnoyarsk, especially in the winter. As if long-forgotten dreams, some pictures of my childhood, and later of my youth, began to come to mind again and again."[4]

The artist chose Red Square, the historic heart of Russia, intentionally as the scene for the deadly opposition of the "Streltsy" and Tsar Peter. The walls and towers of the Kremlin, the Execution Block, St. Basil's Cathedral, the very expanse of Red Square have been witness to many events, both major and minor in their significance; it was simultaneously an everyday market place, the setting for grand royal processions and the coronations of Russian tsars, and the arena for mass executions. With a characteristic flair, Surikov visualized Moscow and Red Square in such a way, remembering how he used to take long walks through quiet Moscow streets which brought him to Red Square where he would stop in the twilight, as the coming night disguised its well-known lines and everything was transformed beyond recognition.

The artist's imagination depicted the bushes and trees along the Kremlin walls like some strange men in old Russian attire, or it seemed that some women dressed in brocade "dushegreika" (a warm woman's jacket) and traditional headwear might appear from the towers. "And soon I noticed that I peopled the neighbourhood of Red Square with types I used to see so many times back in my home place."[5] Thus, Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral, which always "looked bloody" to the artist, became logically part of the imagery of the painting along with the "Streltsy", their wives, children, and Peter's Preobrazhensk regiment, that was loyal to the Tsar. It was on Moscow's streets and in its noisy markets, by the walls of Moscow's churches and cemeteries that Surikov picked up the "grains" of his historical drama. The atmosphere of Moscow's life, deeply rooted in national history, easily evoked pictures of the past as well as portraits of its characters, prototypes for whom could be found among the artist's contemporaries. "The black-bearded 'Strelets' is Stepan Fyodorovich Torgshin, my mother's brother. And the peasant women in the painting, you know, look like some old women in my family ... The old man of the 'Streltsy' is a former convict, of 70 or so years old. The red-haired 'Strelets' is a gravedigger; I met him in the cemetery."[6] The past and present, intertwining, created images of convincing power.

Surikov's talent for "understanding" past eras, nourished by memories of his childhood and youth, happily coincided with the general interest among Russian intellectuals towards the country's culture revealed in the second part of the 19th century. Such an interest stimulated the appearance of the fundamental historical works by Sergei Soloviev, Vasily Kluchevsky's lectures on Russian history, the publication of old Russian texts by Nikolai Tikhomirov, Ivan Zabelin's research on the history of Russian folk everyday life, Count Alexei (Konstantinovich) Tolstoy's historical verse plays "The Death of Ivan the Terrible", 'Tsar Fyodor loanovich" and "Tsar Boris" staged both in and outside Moscow, the operas "Boris Godunov" and "Khovanshchina" by Mussorgsky and "Prince Igor" by Alexander Borodin and, finally, Leo Tolsloys colossal "War and Peace".

Surikov's close associates such as Vasily Vasnetsov, Vasily Polenov and Ilya Repin each in their own manner paid attention to historical themes somewhat around the turn of the 1870s-1880s. Repin tried to catch signs of Peter the Great's mutinous epoch in the portrait of the wilful Tsarina Sophia, his sister and rival; the historical canvas "The Last Battle of Igor Svyatoslavich's Army against the Polovsty" (1880) demonstrated an original vision of past events by Vasnetsov, who referred to himself as "a historical painter in a somewhat fantastic way". Polenov had the idea for a historical genre scene 'Taking the Veil. A Condemned Tsarina". Vasily Perov was close to painting historical dramas with his canvases "Pugachev's Judgement" (1875) and "Nikita Pustosvyat. Dispute on the Confession of Faith" (1881). Vasily Surikov was acquainted with the subtle painting of Vyacheslav Schwarz's historical genre canvases. He was able to muse over Nikolai Ghe's "Last Supper" and his "Peter the Great and Tsarevich Alexei". He was witness to the great acclaim given to Konstantin Makovskys scenes from the Boyars' life, responding to the Russian aristocracy's fashionable style. Accepting the most serious of the above ideas, Surikov did not hesitate to reject many of current mainstream "models" - he had his own ideas and knew his own ways to convey them on canvas.

The first such example became the "Streltsy". The documentary authority for the idea came from the diaries of the Austrian envoy in Moscow Johann Georg Korb who kept a record of the bloody events of 1698. Published abroad when Peter the Great was still alive, the diary enraged the Emperor, and Peter demanded that the Austrian government destroy all the copies of the book.

Even after Peter's death the book was long banned. An abridged version of it was first published in Russia in 1840, but that edition excluded the records of the "Streltsy" execution. It was only in 1867 that an unabridged full text of the diaries appeared in Russian translation. Korb narrated in detail eight executions of the "Streltsy" in October 1698. Surikov attentively studied the evidence of the eye witness, his subject deriving not from one of the described events but, on the contrary, combining the features of all into a wider construction of the slaughter. Telling Maximilian Voloshin about the idea for his future painting, Surikov said: "Some one called it 'Morning before the Streltsy Executions. A good name. The solemnity of the last minutes is what I wanted to convey, rather than the execution itself."[7]

The memoirs about Surikov, the record of conversations with the artist written by Voloshin and other contemporaries, provide an exciting although not full picture of how the idea of the "Streltsy" appeared and came to be realized. In them the artist mentions how it was when the whole scene of the execution suddenly came to his mind like a flash and "he was busy making sketches of either the general composition or separate groups until late at night".[8]

Today, there exists only one sketch of the general composition known to have been made by the artist in pencil as well as one of the left part of the future painting, of the carts and the bunched-together "Streltsy", drawn on the same sheet. Although the initial sketch, dated by Surikov from 1878, reveals a composition almost identical to the final one, the artist would spend three more years searching for the imagery and conceptual dominants that most truly convey the key of the painting. It comprises a combination of ideas: the collision of the people and the authorities, the past and the future, the fatal force of opposition, compassion, misery, despair, courage and endurance as well as many other shades of emotions, and contemplation of a moral dilemma - questions to which there is no clear answer.

Of course, the artist understood the importance of the right equation of the dimensions of the canvas. For him it was a far from academic matter: Surikov added an extra piece of canvas to the right edge of the picture to be able to show the Kremlin wall, the rows of Peter's loyal soldiers, the Boyars, foreign envoys and, most importantly, the figure of Tsar Peter himself as a counterforce to the rebellious opposition. Initially, that view was cut off by a row of gallows, and the changes were made in the process of painting on the canvas, without preliminary work. Repin is said to have suggested Surikov increase the tragic twist of the scene by depicting some executed rebels.

In the course of the 1970 restoration of the painting the Tretyakov Gallery restoration unit carried out a thorough study, including X-ray analysis[9] The latter supplied art historians with information they had lacked in the absence of any preliminary sketches and enabled them to give answers to particular questions. They discovered that the initial variant included two figures of the executed: the X-ray photograph clearly demonstrated an overpaint of two hanged rebels to the left of Tsar Peter with the Kremlin wall in the background. Later, the two figures were over-painted. "I could not stop being afraid of distressing viewers. I wanted a sense of calmness in everything,"[10] wrote Surikov.

The artist's quest for the right composition was accompanied by a search for the right characters: the "Streltsy", Peter's people, the young Tsar himself and all the other seemingly insignificant personages of the large canvas, like the woman who appears in the window of a carriage. Working on this painting, the first that he painted as a self-made master rather than as a pupil, Surikov developed his own method, one that he would follow in his later works, most of all in "Boyarynya Morozova": the painting of the canvas was preceded by dozens and even hundreds of preliminary studies which themselves often became small masterpieces.

Everything was of importance for Surikov in his first major work: psychologically convincing characters and historically authentic details in the architecture, swords and guns, clothes and headwear. He would ask his mother in his letters what kind of clothes used to be worn in the old days, in what manner Russian women used to wear shawls and kerchiefs. Addressing his brother Surikov would ask: "Will you, Sasha, notice for me, when you visit the market next time, what kind of hats our peasant folk usually wear in the winter? And, as far as you can, draw them for me roughly. I need it."[11] The artist was most meticulous in his treatment of the Streltsy. For the character of the red-bearded figure alone Surikov had to make eight studies and drawings (those that are known today, at least). Although far from all such studies have survived, those which have testify to the gigantic work the artist undertook before the painting was finally completed.

The historical subject made Surikov research a range of sources, study old engravings, and read many books. "To depict the events of a far-away past so vividly he had to read and look through whole libraries," wrote Alexander Benois referring to Surikov as "a great realist scientist, but, in effect, a poet." [12] His early Siberian memories, combined with deep reflection on contemporary artistic life as well as careful study of the historical sources, gave birth to Surikov's first historical tragedy.

The "Streltsy" made the new artist's name known to the public, announcing a powerful and original new talent, as the young artist from Siberia - Surikov was 33 when the painting was finished - declared his rights firmly and convincingly. Even before the exhibition at the Yusupov palace opened, Repin wrote to Pavel Tretyakov: "The Surikov painting makes a striking, profound, impression on everybody ... every viewer's face shows that it is the pride of this exhibition ... A powerful picture!" [13] Repin was the first to give such a receptive appraisal to Surikov's work. On examining the painting more carefully and meticulously, Mark Antokolsky expressed his professional opinion in the following way: "Although it may be a bit rough, it may need a bit more perfection, its merits are so numerous that they compensate its faults by more than one hundred times." [14]

It cannot be said that all critics were as unanimous in their opinions as those two artists: Vladimir Stasov, a great authority, accepted the "Streltsy" with some reserves, while Ivan Kramskoy refused to accept it at all; the newspaper reviews depended on the political orientation of their owners. Nevertheless, the overwhelming conclusion, despite open misunderstanding, malignity and caution, was: "This is one of the most outstanding paintings of the Russian school" [15], and its creator "is one of the most amazing Russian artists". [16]


  1. A.P Botkina. Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov v zhizni i iskusstve [Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov in Life and Art]. Moscow, 1993, p. 207.
  2. Vasily Ivanovich Surikov. Pisma. Vospominaniya o khudozhnike [Vasily Ivanovich Surikov. Letters. Memoirs about the Artist]. Leningrad, 1977, p. 184. Hereinafter: Surikov.
  3. Ibid., p. 184
  4. Ibid., pp. 213 - 214.
  5. Ibid., p. 214.
  6. Ibid., p.183.
  7. Ibid., p.183.
  8. Ibid., p. 214.
  9. In 1970, a special enlarged council for art restoration, which included the most outstanding specialists from Moscow and Leningrad, as well as artists and art historians who specialised in Surikov's work, decided to clean the painting from the layers of grime and dust which had accumulated over the years. The cleaning of the painting was carried out according to a proven method. A special committee was created to ensure that not only the original paint but also the original vanish were not spoilt. To this effect the cotton swabs used for cleaning were regularly checked for the traces of chemicals after the procedure. Sophia Goldstein, the well-known art historian, was in charge of the research. See in: Khudozhnik [The Artist], 1973, no. 2.
  10. Surikov, p. 183.
  11. Ibid., p. 52.
  12. Benois A.N., Istoria russkoi zhivopisi v XIX veke [History of 19th-century Russian Painting]. Moscow, 1995, p. 331.
  13. Pisma I.Ye. Repina. Perepiska s P.M. Tretyakovym [Letters of Ilya Yephimovich Repin. Correspondence with Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov]. 1873-1898, Moscow-Leningrad, 1946, p. 47.
  14. Antokolsky M.M., Yego zhizn, tvoreniya, statii [His Life, Works, Articles]. Edited by V.V. Stasov, St. Petersburg, p. 414.
  15. "Novoye vremya" [New Time], 1881, 26 March.
  16. Benois A.N., op.cit., p. 325.
Vasily Surikov. Self-portrait. 1879
Self-portrait. 1879
Tretyakov Gallery
Morning of the Streltsy Execution. 1881
Morning of the Streltsy Execution. 1881
Oil on canvas. 218 by 379 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Central part of the painting: the “Strelets” saying his farewell to the people. Wife of the “Strelets” taken to the Execution Block.
Central part of the painting: the “Strelets” saying his farewell to the people. Wife of the “Strelets” taken to the Execution Block. Detail
Left side of the painting: the red-bearded “Strelets”
Left side of the painting: the red-bearded “Strelets”
Vasily SURIKOV. Strelets in a hat. Study. 1879
Vasily SURIKOV. Strelets in a hat. Study. 1879
Oil on canvas. 34 by 27 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Right side of the painting: Peter the Great and his party. Detail
Right side of the painting: Peter the Great and his party. Detail





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