Art of the Russian Provinces

Irina Kuleshova

Magazine issue: 
#1 2009 (22)

The exhibition “18th-20th century artwork from the Yaroslavl and Kostroma regions. Retrieval, findings, discoveries” hosted by the Tretyakov Gallery was intended for a wide range of art lovers. For some of them it was a recollection of the time when they first had a chance to view the works, never before shown to the general public. When first shown, the pictures by provincial artists, now widely famous, such as Grigory Ostrovsky, Dmitry Korenev, Nikolai Mylnikov, Pavel Kolendas, Ivan Tarkhanov, and Yefim Chestnyakov produced an unforgettable impression. For others, the exhibition, just like the 1970s-1980s shows, offered a chance to discover the unique portraits and paintings that grace the collections of the Kostroma and Yaroslavl museums - their most treasured possessions and the emblems of sorts of the cities themselves.

Now, at this distance of time, we can review what art professionals have achieved as a result of their painstaking efforts. During these years Russian scholars of Russian art have risen to a qualitatively higher level. Many interesting items have been found in museums in other Russian cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg; many splendid albums, catalogues and scholarly articles have been published. But even now it would be fair to say that a huge layer of Russian culture was brought back to life, and scholars were inspired to closely look into it, thanks to the discovery of the portraits from Kostroma and Yaroslavl and Chestnyakov’s pictures, which was accomplished by a professional team from Moscow with Savva Yamshchikov at its head, in efficient and creative cooperation with museum staff.

Famous joint projects include “Soligalich Findings” — 1973, “Kostroma Portraits of the 18th-19th centuries” — 1974, “New Discoveries of Soviet Art Restorers” — 1974, “Yaroslavl Portraits of the 18th-19th centuries” — 1980/81, and “Nikolai Mylnikov” — 1990.

The works, scattered around different cities, were brought together and displayed at the shows, and a wide community of scholars was thus afforded a rare chance to study them. The selection principles, along with focus on certain themes and novelty, included a high quality of restoration, sufficient to bring the artwork back to life.

The collaborative work of the staff of the Yaroslavl art museum, who initiated the show reviewed in this article, and Savva Yamshchikov forged strong friendly ties between them over the years. The friendship had its lull periods, but never faded. A grateful memory tied us together closely and probably forever. This friendship has been buttressed by high-profile events such as exhibitions, joint publications and gifts. In recent times, 1998 was an especially memorable and happy year for us — Savva Vasilievich presented to the museum a portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna by the famed 18th-century artist Dmitry Levitsky, and the piece was added to the museum’s collection.

Thus the concept of the present exhibition was brought about — recollections of past discoveries which brought together within a single cultural space the artwork and the people who made them accessible for the public. Coincidentally, a most pertinent occasion turned up — the 50th anniversary of Savva Yamshchikov’s work in art.

Interestingly, the idea to exhibit work which, though discovered long ago, never lost any of its charm, was supported not only by our colleagues from the Yaroslavl and Kostroma regional museums — Yamshchikov’s partners. The proposal interested the Tretyakov Gallery administration and staff, who provided the Gallery’s rooms for the show and invested considerable creative effort into the creation of the brilliant and memorable show.

Very often artwork sent to museums is in a bad shape. That is what happened to most of Chestnyakov’s pieces, as well as the portraits originating from the nobles’ estates and the descendants of the merchants and commoners. For a long time the darkened and soiled varnish, the crackled paints, abrasions and numerous patches where the painter’s brushwork was completely gone presented an obstacle to the efforts to examine these unique pieces. Local art restorers made some progress in deciphering the secrets of these pictures, but the imagery could not be presented in its entirety to the researchers’ eyes without a breakthrough on the path to discovery (both in the literal and allegorical meaning of the word) of a large number of artworks.

It was then that an important event took place at the Yaroslavl and Kostroma museums. The unhurried pace of provincial life was disturbed when the enthusiastic researcher Savva Yamshchikov, young, energetic, and bursting with new ideas, appeared.

The help lent to the museums by this art scholar and restorer, and, most importantly, a champion of Russian provincial art, proved invaluable. Together with a team of restorers headed by Sergei Golushkin, Yamshchikov delved into these rich collections, scouting for the finest pieces of art to be displayed at future exhibitions. This sort of investigation and research at the museums would have been impossible without a mutual understanding and close creative ties with local museum professionals.

Intuition, a keen researcher’s instincts, and the experienced eye of a restorer helped Yamshchikov identify the hidden gems to be brought back to life. In fact, it was this anticipation of discoveries that drove him to look into the collections of the provincial art museums.

The restoration of artwork, and preparation of the exhibitions which for the first time in art history featured a wide array of provincial artists’ works, encouraged an initial efficient examination of the SOLIGALICH FINDS, That was the title of an exhibition organized by Savva Yamshchikov that opened in 1973 in Moscow. The show featured artwork by Grigory Ostrovsky, a then unknown artist who made portraits of the nobles, which came to the museum from the estate Neronovo belonging to the illustrious family of Cherevins and which were discovered by Victor Ignatiev in the collection of the Soligalich museum in the Kostroma region. The Kostroma gentry’s portraits, restored by the team directed by Sergei Golushkin to their original beauty, stunned both viewers and scholars with their brilliant originality, immediacy and the subtle poetic charm of the imagery, with conciseness coupled with an elegance of style, and, finally, with the artist’s obvious talent.

There is no verifiable information available about the artist himself or his family, only hypotheses. Two appear to us as most credible.

One of the scholars, Viktor Sorokaty, believes that Ostrovsky was the same person as Grigory Silych Ostrovsky (17561814), a painter specializing in icons and secular genres, who decorated several churches in Veliky Ustug. A son of a priest, he was an Ustug commoner, and not a member of a local guild of icon painters.

Sorokaty supplies arguments and archival documents to bolster his hypothesis. So, if the icon painter from Ustug and the Neronovo portraitist are the same person, then the early portrait of Yelizaveta Cherevina, dated to 1773, was made by a 16-year-old lad. This is not surprising, for in the 18th century craftsmen were apprenticed from an early age, and a talented young man, which Grigory Ostrovsky certainly was, could work independently at an age so young by modern standards. Maybe the artist’s youth accounts for uneven skills displayed in his 1770s portraits.

Although there is nothing to show that the Ostrovsky from Ustug was related to Cherevin, the hypothesis about the two being one person seems solid, and close commercial and cultural ties existing then between Soligalich and Veliky Ustug can be seen as a supportive evidence.

Also of interest is a piece of research by Yelena Saprygina, who speculated that the artist was an offspring of a noble family. According to her, the artist could be Grigory Ostrovsky, a descendant of Ivan Iovich Ostrovsky, who was recorded in the book of genealogy of the Yaroslavl gentry, but inherited estates in the Galich district, of which the Soligalich district was previously a part. True, we do not have complete genealogy records of the noble family of the Ostrovskys from Kostroma, which complicates the search. Yet, it should be noted that Ivan Iovich’s sister Mavra was married to Cherevin. These familial ties between the two noble families can be seen as an evidence in favour of this hypothesis.


Kostroma was not the only city on the Volga River scouted for unknown treasures of Russian culture by the enthusiastic researchers. The old city of Yaroslav held its own trove of treasures, little known to outsiders until then. Local artwork from Yaroslavl started to get increasingly more attention; back then already, in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the Yaroslavl art museum included into its exhibition works of the Yaroslavl artist Nikolai Mylnikov, and published in the catalogue its reproductions. But the museum researchers did not know anything about this portraitist, and next to nothing about his models. Such unknown artists were many — either because everyone was too busy to look into these portraits, or because the value of the pieces remained unappreciated due to the bad shape of most of them, or because the time was not ripe yet for such discoveries — whatever the reason, there was no progress.

Savva Yamshchikov eliminated all stereotypes, bringing a wind of change to the museums and inspiring a desire to rediscover pieces that were viewed as a routine fixture. The exhibition “Yaroslavl Portraits of the 18th-19th centuries”, which he organized drawing on the collections of the Yaroslavl, Rybinsk, Pereslavl, Rostov the Great and Uglich museums, made museum researchers actively explore the archives and libraries in search of all possible information about the works.

When the display was on in Yaroslavl in 1980 (in 1981 it moved to Leningrad and Moscow) many gaps of knowledge in the history of provincial culture were filled, and life stories of many artists and models were traced, and dates identified. But that was just the beginning. During the last two decades researchers have been scouting the museums, and studies relevant to the topic have been published by Russia’s leading academics. Now we have a better idea of what the provincial portrait is, including the Yaroslavl portrait.

In the late 18th-early 19th centuries Yaroslavl boasted an environment encouraging an art reflecting the cultural tastes and social interests of the local artisans and shopkeepers.

The portraits were created by people who, belonging to the same urban milieu as their models, shared with them both a social origin and a way of thinking. Glorifying their clients, the portraitists did not care about artistic self-actualization; unsurprisingly, many of the provincial portraits were left unsigned by their creators.

Usually the owners made inscriptions on the back of the canvas, indicating the model’s name, when (s)he was born or died or married, how many children (s)he had, etc. Sometimes touching phrases were added, for instance, “You are no longer with us, but you live in me, and in your memory I wrote on the portrait: oh, my parent, you will not die.” Or, occasionally, humorous ones, such as “... since I was 24 years old you find me sweet, and I am courteous, but not useful for young ladies.”

Probably much more than other regions of Russia, the Yaroslavl region produced artists who are famous and whose legacy represents a weighty aggregate of artwork. One of the most famous, most celebrated Yaroslavl artists of the late 18th century was Dmitry Mikhailovich Korenev (1742/1747-1826).

Apprenticed among the local artisans, Korenev, mentored by older workmates, learned the skills and traditions of the local craftsmen. But meanwhile he developed an original style, polishing his individual manner of painting. Painting proved a good source of income, and the artist registered his capital and was “promoted”, together with his wife, to the ranks of merchants. Now he was a third-guild merchant who specialized in “the craft of painting”. In 1810, “for the lack of capital” the old artist, no longer working, was demoted to the ranks of commoners.

Acquaintance with his art starts with a series of benefactors’ portraits made for an alms-house opened in April 1786 in Yaroslavl. The cornerstone of his artistic legacy, these portraits display his mature talent.

The series of portraits is unique. This was the first public portrait gallery to be opened in the provinces, and apart from it, no other similar gallery in Moscow or St. Petersburg has survived intact. The portraits were accomplished by one painter, and the work probably took two years to complete. The gallery opened concurrently with the alms-house and its social message was in line with the idea of transforming society through education upon which the alms-house operated. This gallery appears to equalize the rights and dignity, not only of the governor and the donor merchant, but of the artist as well. In the entire series the only signed piece is the portrait of a merchant Kuchumov, and the artist’s signature is on the face side of the canvas, which puts Korenev on an equal footing with the “grand gentlemen” of the city.

In the first half of the 19th century the venerable tradition of Yaroslav art was maintained by a gifted artist Nikolai Dmitrievich Mylnikov (1797-1842), who secured for himself a place in the history of art with several series of merchant family portraits. Due to his mastery and talent he created a yardstick of sorts for the provincial portrait against a backdrop of everyday life, within the boundaries of the canon formed in this milieu by then.

Mylnikov was born in Yaroslavl and received an initial professional training in his family. One is led to believe that he visited Moscow not only to work on portraits commissioned by Muscovites, but also to receive additional training — not at a particular school, but in a way peculiar to that group of artists, working in partnership with older colleagues.

Mylnikov was a master of twin portraits, and he was far superior to any other artist who portrayed Russian merchants in terms of his expressiveness in conveying the models’ individuality and the ability to create mutually reflective companion images. Such are the portraits of the Astapov and Sobolev families. They are distinguished by impartiality and a straightforwardness of characterization, simplicity of composition, and specificity, which lends to the images an aura of authenticity. The gestures, the details of the dress, the accessories — everything is terse and carefully selected. At the same time the imagery is filled with information — the accessories are meaningful, bespeaking the models’ status. Mylnikov’s works are distinguished by lucidly vibrant colors, a solemnity and special monumentality of the portraits defying their intimate character, as well as an astonishing combination of generic and individualized traits in every single image.

Ivan Vasilievich Tarkhanov (17801848), who worked in Uglich, was yet another brilliant provincial artist. As is the case with Mylnikov’s legacy, the bulk of Tarkhanov’s has survived to this day — itself not a typical destiny for the artwork of provincial artists from other regions.

Tarkhanov was born to an Uglich family of craftsmen and priests. He studied painting under local icon artists. In the 1820s-1840s he was registered as a “scribe”. Probably not without a sense of pride, he signed his pictures: “Painted by Uglich artist collegiate record-keeper Ivan Vasiliev Tarkhanov.” A series of portraits of the Surins, an Uglich family of merchants, showcases the painter’s singular gift most fully. Especially noteworthy are Tarkhanov’s female portraits: represented nearly down to the knees, the figures are depicted in natural and easy poses, while also looking solemn and elegant. Due to the beauty and vibrancy of the colour scheme, the images stand out as the most memorable artefacts of the Yaroslavl school of portraiture.

Last on the list of the famed Yaroslavl artists is the painter Pavel Kolendas; we are still unaware of the dates of his birth and death and the details of his life. But the portraits made by him survive, and that is what matters the most. Highly imaginative and original, bright and memorable, these paintings, while undoubtedly a part of Yaroslavl art, stand apart from other such works.

The artist’s contribution to the treasure trove of provincial art is his portraits of the Temerins, a family of Pereslavl industrialists. The wealth of information contained in the imagery in the numerous “telling” accessories of symbolic nature, together with the inscriptions on the reverse side, make this gallery of family portraits into a veritable family chronicle.

The innocent spontaneity and candour of the full-length and nearly life-sized images of the children, posed against the backdrop of landscape parks, is matched by the frankness and simple-hearted naivety of their father’s and uncle’s portraits.

Among the many fascinating pieces by unknown artists featured at the exhibition, the group portrait called “Portrait of a Merchant Family” stands out. Knowing as we do that portraiture in provincial art was a multi-functional and polysemic genre, we see in the image of a specific three-generation family much more than meets the eye. The portrait appears, especially now, with the distance of time, as an epitome of the main idea informing the social, moral and spiritual life of a person — a “family tree”. Because of the condensed imagery and extreme terseness of the visual language — one of the essential features of folk art — the portrait assumes a symbolic quality. It is an image of a “tree of life”. First of all it shows the hierarchy within the family, indicating the function of every member of the large clan.

The Yaroslavl museums owe their special charm not only to big collections of provincial art alone. The gems also include unique paintings of the 18th-century Russian portraitists whose surviving pieces are few, to be found only at a handful of museums.

Born in Moscow, Ivan Yakovlevich Vishnyakov (1699-1761) worked in St. Petersburg from 1714. His life and art in this city were linked to the Department of Construction, where he was assigned in 1727 as an apprentice to Andrei Matveev. In 1739 he was made a foreman of the artists’ team, to remain in office until his death.

The ceremonial twin portraits of the Tishinins, a landowner couple from Rybinsk — Vishnyakov’s only signed piece of work — are gems of Russian art, and one of the most charming and poetic portraits of the mid-18th century. The imagery of unsurpassed beauty, with cold silvery-black and warm red tones contrasted in the male and female images, highlights in the models their inner harmony and calm, state of enlightenment and refined spirituality.

The show also features the works of Yermolai Dementievich Kamezhenkov (1760-1818), another 18th-century artist. He was born to a family of serfs belonging to the diocese of Tver. For about five years he was apprenticed to an icon painter Kryzhov. As a follow-up to his education he was appointed a street cleaner at a St. Petersburg representation of the Tver diocese. Since 1778 he studied at Gavriil Kozlov’s private school. Probably he received artistic advice from Dmitry Levitsky. In 1786 he was emancipated, and in 1794 became an Academician. From 1794 through 1818 he lived and worked in Kashin and Moscow.

The portraits from the Rybinsk museum are the best part of Kamezhenkov’s legacy. They have an exquisite colour design based on the elegant combinations of green, golden-yellow and rosy hues in the male images and silvery-purple and ash-grey in the female ones. The array of cold colours highlights the innocence and expansiveness of the people portrayed.

Pyotr Semenovich Drozhdin (1745?-1805) was taught painting at an icon workshop at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra (monastery), then studied under a prominent portraitist Alexei Antropov in St. Petersburg, and later was mentored by Dmitry Levitsky. In 1785 he was awarded the rank of Academician.

His “Portrait of a Boy” expresses the ideas of educational humanism prevailing in the age of Catherine II. In Drozhdin’s interpretation the image of a child, “a clean slate” upon which life is to impress its writ, is far from the ideal popular at the time. For the first time in the history of Russian art, the artist attempted to convey in a child’s portrait a complex inner world and changes in emotional state, reflected in the earnest gaze of the child’s big eyes.


This is the title of yet another exhibition organized by Savva Yamshchikov with a team of associates, which was shown in Moscow in 1977 as a part of a major exhibition project “New Discoveries of Soviet Restorers” and later displayed in many other cities, gaining the lasting sympathy of wide audiences.

Yefim Chestnyakov’s life and art are well researched, and many articles and books about him have been published. And yet there remains an enigma — an enigma of the human soul, the world of reveries and fairy tale fantasies, which carry us off on mysterious and fascinating adventures. The pictures of this amazing master are naive, simple and so persuasive in their transformative reflection of life. No one who has seen Chestnyakov’s pictures can return to everyday life unchanged. Whether you are an adult or a child, the viewing experience will purify you, awaken you to a different life ruled by beauty, love and harmony.

In conclusion, it needs to be said that the new exhibition “Artwork from the Yaroslavl and Kostroma regions” is also a homage to the work and achievements of many people who contributed to the now acclaimed discoveries in the field of Russian artistic culture.

Dmitry KORENEV. Portrait of State Councilor Nikolai Ivanovich Kokovtsov (1754-1822). Mid-1780s
Dmitry KORENEV. Portrait of State Councilor Nikolai Ivanovich Kokovtsov (1754-1822). Mid-1780s
Oil on canvas. 63.5 × 50 cm. Yaroslavl Art Museum
Ivan VISHNYAKOV. Portrait of Xenia Ivanovna Tishinina (1736-1757). 1755
Ivan VISHNYAKOV. Portrait of Xenia Ivanovna Tishinina (1736-1757). 1755
Oil on canvas. 99 × 82 cm. Rybinsk Museum-Reserve of History, Architecture and Art
Pyotr DROZHDIN. Portrait of a Boy.. 1780-е
Pyotr DROZHDIN. Portrait of a Boy. 1780s
Oil on canvas. 53.5 × 44.5 cm. Yaroslavl Art Museum
Unknown artist. Portrait of a Merchant Family. Late 1830s-1840s
Unknown artist. Portrait of a Merchant Family. Late 1830s-1840s
Oil on canvas. 89.5 × 141.5 cm. Yaroslavl Museum-Reserve of History, Architecture and Art
Nikolai MYLNIKOV. Portrait of Nadezhda Ivanovna Soboleva, née Kozhevnikova (c. 1799–1861). 1830s
Nikolai MYLNIKOV. Portrait of Nadezhda Ivanovna Soboleva, née Kozhevnikova (c. 1799–1861). 1830s
Oil on canvas. 73.5 × 62.5 cm. Yaroslavl Art Museum
Nikolai MYLNIKOV. Portrait of Ivan Semenovich Sobolev (c. 1792–1873). 1830s
Nikolai MYLNIKOV. Portrait of Ivan Semenovich Sobolev (c. 1792–1873). 1830s
Oil on canvas. 73.5 × 62 cm. Yaroslavl Art Museum
Nikolai MYLNIKOV. Portrait of Praskovia Ivanovna Astapova (1783-1843), Merchantʼs Wife from Yaroslavl. 1827
Nikolai MYLNIKOV. Portrait of Praskovia Ivanovna Astapova (1783-1843), Merchantʼs Wife from Yaroslavl. 1827
Oil on canvas. 65 × 56.5 cm. Yaroslavl Art Museum
Pavel KOLENDAS (KALENDAS). Portrait of Alexandra Petrovna Temerina (1839-?), Daughter of the Pereslavl Merchant Pyotr Temerin. 1844
Pavel KOLENDAS (KALENDAS). Portrait of Alexandra Petrovna Temerina (1839-?), Daughter of the Pereslavl Merchant Pyotr Temerin. 1844
Oil on canvas. 110.5 × 66 cm. Pereslavl-Zalessky Museum-Reserve of History, Architecture and Art
Ivan TARKHANOV. Portrait of Yevdokia Dmitrievna Surina (1808-before 1845), First Wife of Pavel Matveyevich Surin. 1829
Ivan TARKHANOV. Portrait of Yevdokia Dmitrievna Surina (1808-before 1845), First Wife of Pavel Matveyevich Surin. 1829
Oil on canvas. 78.3 × 64 cm. Uglich Museum of History and Art
M.A. TIKHEEV. Portrait of a First Lieutenant of Naval Artillery Corps Alexander Artemievich Morozov (1827–?). 1849
M.A. TIKHEEV. Portrait of a First Lieutenant of Naval Artillery Corps Alexander Artemievich Morozov (1827–?). 1849
Oil on canvas. 56.5 × 46.8 cm. Yaroslavl Art Museum
Unknown artist (monogrammist “Ya.K.”). Portrait of St. Petersburg Industrialist Andrei Yegorovich Lenivov with His Wife. 1863
Unknown artist (monogrammist “Ya.K.”). Portrait of St. Petersburg Industrialist Andrei Yegorovich Lenivov with His Wife. 1863
Oil on canvas. 71.5 × 89.2 cm. Yaroslavl Art Museum
Yefim CHESTNYAKOV. King of Black Grouses
Yefim CHESTNYAKOV. King of Black Grouses
Oil on canvas. 71.5 × 88.5 cm. Kostroma Museum-Reserve of History, Architecture and Art
Yefim CHESTNYAKOV. Portrait of Galina Alexandrovna Smirnova, Chestnyakovʼs Niece
Yefim CHESTNYAKOV. Portrait of Galina Alexandrovna Smirnova, Chestnyakovʼs Niece
Oil on canvas. 50.5 × 37.5 cm. Kostroma Museum-Reserve of History, Architecture and Art
Yefim CHESTNYAKOV. Entry into the City of Universal Welfare
Yefim CHESTNYAKOV. Entry into the City of Universal Welfare
Oil on canvas. 64.5 × 98 cm. Kostroma Museum-Reserve of History, Architecture and Art





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