"In my mind, I live more in Okhotino..."
"We all come from our childhood," believed Fyodor Dostoevsky, and his statement is very applicable to the life story of Konstantin Korovin. The artist was born into a merchant family, once prosperous but completely ruined after his grandfather's death and therefore downgraded to the middle class. As a child, he did not immediately realise this and felt the family's tragedy, and was very glad when his parents had to move from a comfortable town house to a Moscow suburb where his father had found a job. Left to his own devices, he would spend the whole day hunting with his new friend Dubinin, his favourite dog Druzhok and a shot-gun offered to him by his father. Later, after returning to Moscow and joining his brother Sergei at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Korovin would continue to remember his life in the countryside, wishing to return there one day.
That wish came true only in early 1897 when he bought some land at the Ratukhino wasteland in the Vladimir region, by the river Nerl1, from his friend and patron Savva Mamontov. From that moment, the hamlet of Okhotino, the name of the place where the artist settled down, became the hub of his universe, and his personal "Cape of Good Hope" and childhood dream.
"The river Nerlya," he wrote in one of his short stories, "was small as a creek and flowed in a meadow close to my home, wriggling in bullrush and bushes and overflowing into large reaches at the bottom of the meadow, by the woods. Its cosy banks and crystal-clear stream were beauty itself. Golden nerflings splattered in the water; green dragon-flies flew over the bullrushes; swallows swooshed over the river and touched the water with their sharp little wings. The beautiful woods were full of bird song and a million other wonderful sounds. The meadow was covered with flowers, and it all looked like paradise to me."2
By the mid-1890s Korovin could already afford such a serious purchase. In 1896, the artist was the designer for a whole range of large-scale performances at Mamontov's Russian Private Opera, including the operas "Rogneda" by Alexander Serov, "Prince Igor" by Alexander Borodin (together with Sergei Malyutin), and "The Maid of Pskov" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (together with Appolinary Vasnetsov). The artist grew famous in Russia as an accomplished scene-painter, and in the same year Korovin came to be acknowledged as an architect, an exhibition designer and a creator of monumental panels. Implementing a grand project for Mamontov, the artist created the unique-looking Pavilion of the Far North at the All-Russia Industry and Arts Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod. His exhibiting career was also successful: he took part in the 24th exhibition of the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) group and in the 16th exhibition of the Moscow Society of Art Lovers, where he showed several of his works, including "Chinese Lanterns" (1896, in the Tretyakov Gallery)3. The painting represents the 23-year-old Anna Fidler (1872 (1873?)-1947), a choir singer of the Russian Private Opera, whom the artist married in 1897. At the end of June of that year their son Alexei (1897-1950) was born.
Korovin did not have his own dwelling in Okhotino right away. At first, he rented an izba, or hut, from a Yaroslavl peasant, Ivan Blokhin, in the picturesque village of Starovo located on the Nerl's opposite high bank. Later, his friends, who loved coming here to hunt and fish, would stay in the same house. Judging by a remaining photograph, that izba is commemorated on Korovin's canvas which was wrongly titled "A Countryside View. A Street in Pereslavl" (1905, in the Russian Museum).
Only the following year, according to Sergei Vinogradov's memoirs, "carpenters came and started hammering, a large beautiful fireplace was brought from Moscow, and around mid-summer a spacious studio and two rooms were ready... And the year after that, a small winter house was built nearby."4
A small pine-wood house, noticeably rebuilt, remains there today. One of its fagades, less touched by alterations, calls to mind the Larins' mansion depicted by Korovin in his sketch of the stage set for Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin". On its other side, the house was bordered by a large terrace which at first was open and looked similar to a roomy terrace at the country cottage of Vasily Polenov in Zhukovka, where Korovin painted his famous canvas "At the Tea Table" (1888, held in the Polenov Museum Reserve). The artist used to create similar paintings in mixed genres at Okhotino too. "Sometimes, in summer," wrote Nadezhda Komarovskaya, "our large company would sit on the terrace, around the tea table, a lamp burning under its yellow lampshade, somebody holding a guitar, somebody else singing, and Korovin would paint on one side."5 That is how his paintings were born, commemorating moments of lively evening leisure in the company of close friends. However, more often, the artist would paint anonymous characters sitting in thought on a terrace, with vast beautiful landscapes in the background. Later, Korovin had his terrace enclosed with glass but continued painting on it. That is where "The Terrace" (1914, Taganrog Arts Museum), one of Korovin's best works, was made. Irina Chaliapina, a daughter of the famous singer, remembered: "Two female characters — me and my sister, in empire-style dresses, and behind the terrace's windows — Korovin's divine blue night. He is painting by the light of a kerosene lantern and keeps on praising our dresses. 'See, girls, that is how one should dress — instead of those silly short skirts and hats over one's eyes'. And then he would start a fantastic story. We, enchanted, would listen and sit, and he would talk and paint with strokes so vigorous that they made his easel quiver."6 With equal love, he painted the house interior, its modest furnishings with simple furniture and scattered hunting tackle, as in his work "Interior. Okhotino" (1913, Russian Museum). At night, by the light of candles and wood burning in the fireplace which made the walls gleam with gold, contrasting with the mysterious outlines of the woods frozen in winter twilight behind the window, the room in his paintings would be miraculously transformed. Quite often, with a gesture of his brush, some beautiful, thoughtful lady, often singing to a guitar, would appear in his studio — as in "Woman with a Guitar" (1911, Kostroma Historical, Architectural and Arts Museum Reserve) or "Girl with a Guitar" (1916, Vologda Regional Picture Gallery). It was in Okhotino that a new special genre of "nocturne" appeared in the artist's oeuvre.
At the end of the 1890s, according to Yelena Polenova, Korovin started giving some serious thought to the question of "how to paint sheer music"7. The artist's sensual, epicurean nature required an appropriate mood, and a striving to fill his works with rich emotional content. It was musicality, poetic spirit and romantic emotion that Korovin tried to express in a series of similar nocturne compositions. His short stories tell us about his perception of the process: "Brushwood is burning bright in the fireplace; the flames are cheering my village studio walls with light. And how beautiful the shining of gold-and-blue china vases on the window is, with the dark contours of tall firs behind it. All around — one symphony of a spring night: vases against the window turned blue, dark firs, the silhouette of a young female stranger — everything is merging into one: the night. And the colours that I'm putting on the canvas make a variety of sounds, and the essence is in my fascination with the surrounding silence of the night."8
Feodor Chaliapin, Valentin Serov, Sergei Vinogradov, Maxim Gorky, Nikolai Kurov, the music critic, and Y.S. Sakhanovsky, the composer, who later became the main characters of Korovin's hunting short stories, used to come to Okhotino to rest and to work. Some of the master's paintings also tell us about their carefree hunting and fishing life. Such works as "Morning. The Hunting Tent" (1914, Tretyakov Gallery) or "Fishermen" (1914, private collection), painted with unconcealed humour and mischief, bear the following inscriptions by the artist: Pike, 22 pounds 1 arshin and 7 vershoks, or But you won't catch a bream, Blumenthal!
A few miles from the artist's house on the river Nerl, there was an old watermill called "Novy" (New). It stood in a remote, isolated, and very picturesque place, "among ripe yellow rye with blue cornflowers," as Korovin later described it. The artists loved to go there to fish, taking a camping tent, two cot beds, folding chairs and a table and staying there for a few days. Korovin described such an outing in one of his short stories: "Going to the New mill, we took a camping tent, snacks, paints and canvases; all of it in a separate cart. And we went in a long cart, accompanied by my pal, the fisherman and servant Vasily Knyazhev, a remarkable man . We drove past a village churchyard, overgrown with birches, with blue domes on a wooden church; Chaliapin went to a local grocery and bought plenty of bagels, poppy scones, mint honeycakes and nuts, stuffed the pockets his caftan with them and all the way to the mill he and Serov kept on nibbling on them. The New mill stood by a large wood. We went towards it, going down an enormous sand hillock; the wheels creaked merrily, glistening with water splashes... Serov and I sat and painted the evening and the mill on canvas. And Nikon Ossipovich and Chaliapin sat at the table by the tent, drank vodka and sang 'Luchinushka'."9
This excerpt mentions Korovin's frequent companions: Valentin Serov, Feodor Chaliapin and an unknown peasant Vasily Knyazhev. The last was the one mentioned by Komarovskaya in her memoirs: "he had a pal Vasily, a hopeless drunkard but a great fishing expert. In winter, Vasily would wander from one night shelter to another, but in spring he would come back to life."10
What Korovin had in common with that man was a love of nature and a great passion for fishing. In winter, Vasily often visited the artist in his Moscow apartment, where they used to make fishing tackle together. "Skilfully shaped and brighly coloured floats, bottom fishing lines covered in goldish-brown varnish, with bronze bells, and elegant intricate landing nets," Komarovskaya wrote, "used to be admired by expert fishermen"11. Sergei Vinogradov also mentioned this passion of Korovin: "Korovin and I are painting and varnishing floats, and nearly 100 of them are hanging on strings along the walls, drying. The floats were painted in an amazingly beautiful way, with all their ranges of matching tones, one could not take one's eyes off them, but in summer they turned out to be impractical — they were not visible on the water. So we had to go back to the most banal colours, red-and-green and red-and-white floats"12.
The artists used to take turns to make fish soup with their catch, keeping their recipes secret from each other. Serov used to make the best one — at least, Korovin thought so. A simple fisherman's meal, the romantic setting of a night campfire, fragrances of wormwood and rotting autumn leaves, grasshoppers chirping and endless conversations on all sorts of topics used to create a special atmosphere that Korovin was unable to forget until the end of his days. The artist Larissa Golova remembered: "the most intimate thoughts, the most cherished secrets happened to be voiced here. That campfire, and that beautiful night gave the artists rest and strength for their new works."13
It is not surprising that Korovin's appearance would change in Okhotino, where he would put on his simple and practical hunting outfits and "seemed to become one with the surrounding silent firs and pines, to merge with them"14. That is how Serov painted Korovin in one of his works15.
In 1905, after lengthy attempts at persuasion by Chaliapin, Korovin sold the singer a considerable part of his estate, keeping for himself the right to use his little house for life, according to Vladimir Telyakovsky, "since he had got used to that place, loved it very much and did not want to part with it"16. A large Russian-style wooden house, based on a plan and drawings by Korovin, was built for Chaliapin. Later the artist wrote: "The place where a house was built for Chaliapin, based on my plan, was called Ratukhino. It was built by an architect Mazyrin, also known as Anchutka. Chaliapin participated keenly in the construction process, and he and Mazyrin, on their own, had the idea of adding stables, cowpens and haylofts — huge boring buildings that Serov called elephant houses."17
Thanks to Okhotino, the country landscape theme, first introduced in one of his most poignant works "In Winter" (1894, Tretyakov Gallery), rings clearly and distinctively throughout Korovin's work. Later, small canvases with izbas, high sheds covered in snow, leaning fences and wood-stacks nearby become a permanent feature of the exhibitions of the Union of Russian Artists. Sometimes, Korovin would enliven a country landscape with a simple scene of everyday life. Those paintings were born in a spontaneous and easy way, just like his prose. The artist described the creative process in his painting: "And I had the idea of painting a winter landscape from the house porch; took the easel, a canvas and paints and started working. Tall birches cast blue shades on the snowy roof of the barn, and the log walls are lit with sunshine. A wide sleigh by the gate, a wisp of greenish hay, an old man, shabby, in a faded hat, with a white beard and a red knitted scarf. And endless woods in the distance. Such beauty." 18
If Korovin's works of the 1890s were painted in a quiet and smooth manner, by the 1910s his style has changed — he was now painting in a more generalized way, using bright colours and temperamental textured brushes. Only at a distance would the colours merge into a single, harmonious whole, revealing its volume and composition. This is especially noticeable in the paintings such as "Okhotino. Children" from 1913, and "Okhotino. A Sunny Day" from 1915 (both in a private collection).
His love of simple village life and peasants is reflected in the artist's work. This love would warm his heart abroad when, remembering a former Russia, he wrote his remarkable short stories. Many of them start with a sentence: "It is nice. in the village", and end with "I always feel like going to the village: that is where my pals the hunter-peasants are."
Telyakovsky, who knew Korovin very well, mentioned that the latter adored talking to peasants for hours, especially to fishermen. "Those conversations," he wrote, "were full of sincere humour, deep knowledge of the Russian character and very fine observations of a peculiar Russian mind."19 This could be the reason why Korovin's paintings show so much love for human beings, his country and his motherland.
The Russian revolution and his subsequent emigration caused the artist profound grief. In one of his short stories he frankly confessed that "it was hard to part with... the village house and the garden, even though it had by then been considerably plundered" 20.
In 1918, Korovin was put on the list of landlords, private owners and non-working users of Vladimir province's Pereyaslavl district. The inventory of his estate, sealed after his departure abroad, and kept in the Vladimir regional archives together with other important documents, lists the artist's then remaining property: "a wooden house, a coach-house and a stable, both covered with wood, a cellar, an iron bed with a mattress, 3 tables, 5 chairs, a light copper samovar, a small clock of an alarm-clock type, a copper kettle and a skiff" 21 . Some objects from this simple home, in particular, the chairs and a kerosene lamp, are now kept in the Pereyaslavl Arts Museum.
However, in 1918 living in Okhotino was not safe, and Korovin and his family moved to the Tver province where they first settled down by Lake Udomlya and then at the Ushakovs' estate in Ostrovnya in the Vyshnevolotsky district. There, in conditions of extreme poverty and lack of food and painting materials, the artist stayed until summer 1921. In the following year, he started thinking seriously about the possibility of emigrating to Europe. As an excuse for his trip, he said he was going there to organise his solo exhibition and for his son's medical treatment.
The artist's decision was reflected in the papers in the same archives. There remains a copy of a memorandum of the Central Commission for fighting the famine's consequences at the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, dated 29 November 1922; it confirms that the Special Committee for artistic tours and art exhibitions abroad at the People's Commissariat for Enlightment, sends K. Korovin abroad "to organize an exhibition of works of his brush, with an interest deduction from its income with the purpose of fighting the famine's consequences in the RSFSR, for a period of six months". During this trip, all his property in Okhotino had to stay untouched until his return22. By a special order of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, Chaliapin and Korovin were granted sole right to use the land and the buildings until 192423. It was only on 10 February 1925 that Korovin was declared subject to eviction from the Okhotino estate, as a user "of a farm not maintaining working husbandry due to hired labour, and having not legalized his land ownership in accordance with the relevant circular" 24.
Officially going abroad only temporarily, the artist would stay there forever. Having settled in Paris, in his thoughts he kept on returning to what was dear to him in Russia. "Of course, although I paint Paris too and I am in Paris, in my mind, I live more in Okhotino rather than here," the artist wrote, "and I see how now leaves have fallen, the air smells of damp, soil and autumn leaves, and chopped cabbage is being put in a barrel, and milk mushrooms are being preserved, and I seem to eat saffron milk cups in sour cream. By the barn, chickens lift their feathers in the rain. The road is muddy and, in the air, there is a fragrance of smoke from a drying-house and clattering of flails threshing rye."25
A particular feeling of sadness and nostalgia penetrate Korovin's last letters to Feodor Feodorovich Chaliapin, the famous singer's son. "I keep remembering Okhotino. Such nature, woods, and the river. Do you remember the river <...>. I used to go there for a swim. Green dragon-flies flew above it, and the air smelled of the meadow, water and woods. Was it not paradise? And how could one say that peasants were bad people? Good people. Oh, Russia has been slandered. Theatre has taken much of my time. I should have painted pictures instead — the infinite poetry of Russian nature. But the great ideas of the 'justice seekers' have put an end to life. I do not really know or understand what I was guilty of. I have worked a lot and have not sinned towards the people. I cannot understand people living in our beautiful and mysterious land"26
Nevertheless, until his last days, Korovin kept his optimism and hope for the future. It sounds so much like him with his characteristic cheerfulness when he writes: "Life can be hard, and bitter, with misery and bad luck, and lies live among people. But there is Christmas, there is hope, and the Light of the mind. All these evil, dishonest, deceiving, mundane and vile things will pass; and truth will come and shine, human amity and friendship will return, the human soul will relent, and a feeling of love will embrace souls, and people will love each other."27
- A document confirming the receipt of money for an estate sold by Savva Mamontov to Konstantin Korovin reads: "The Ratukhino wasteland in Pereyaslavl district of Vladimir province, with a total surface of 50 dessiatines and 1563 sazhens, owned by me, has been sold by me to Konstantin Alexeevich Korovin at a price of 2,000 rubles. As a payment towards that amount, I have received 1,750 rubles. / Savva Iv. Mamontov / 14 January 1897 / Moscow The remaining amount due to me, i.e. 250 rubles, has been received by Savva Mamontov"// Archives and Manuscript Section of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, F120. Unit 18. Sheet 1.
- Konstantin Korovin Recalls. Moscow, 1990. P. 452.
- The catalogue of the 16th Exhibition of the Moscow Society of Art Lovers (1896) mentions that the painting "In the Country House" (Chinese Lanterns) is for sale at 300 rubles. The painting is reproduced in the illustrated catalogue-album of the exhibition.
- Vinogradov, Sergei. The Former Moscow. Memoirs. Riga. 2001. P. 86
- Komarovskaya, Nadezhda. On Konstantin Korovin. Leningrad, 1961. P. 21.
- Moleva, Nina. Konstantin Korovin. Moscow. 1963. P. 382.
- From a letter of Ye.D. Polenova to M.Y Yakunchikova [Moscow]. May 1889// Quoted from: Ye.D. Sakharova. Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A chronicle of the artists' lives. Moscow. 1964. P. 423.
- Konstantin Korovin. Op. cit. Vol. 2. P.69.
- Moleva. Op. cit. P. 333-334.
- Komarovskaya. Op. cit. P. 35
- Komarovskaya. Op. cit. P. 36.
- Vinogradov, Sergei. Op. cit. P.88.
- Golova, Larissa. On the Theatre's Artists. Memoirs. Leningrad, 1972. P. 29.
- Ibid. P. 26.
- Valentin Serov's painting "The Artist Konstantin Korovin at the Bank of the River" is referred to.
- Telyakovsky, Vladimir. "Memoirs". Moscow-Leningrad. 1965. P. 381.
- Korovin. Op. cit. Vol. 2. P. 656. Vinogradov also mentioned the construction. He wrote: "Feodor Ivanovich started a large-scale construction, based on Korovin's drawings: halls such as those in 'Sadko', and premises in the same style: high log houses with little windows somewhere under the roof. Later, Korovin himself mockingly said: 'What, these are some kind of elephant houses that Feodor had built'. During this construction, our architect acquaintance V.A. Mazyrin happened to come to Okhotino, and Feodor Ivanovich commissioned him to build the estate. // Sergei Vinogradov. Op. cit. P. 91.
- Korovin. Op. cit. Vol. 2. P. 39.
- Moleva. Op. cit. P. 341.
- Korovin. Op. cit. Vol. 2. P. 660.
- Vladimir Region Archives. P-968. Inv. 1. Doc.8. Sheet 28. The archive documents were kindly provided by T.N. Merkulova, Head of the Fine and Applied Arts Department of the Vladimir-Suzdal Arts Museum Reserve.
- Vladimir Region Archives. P-968. Inv. 8. Doc. 464. Sheet 1-1 reverse.
- Vladimir Region Archives. P-968 Inv. 1. Doc. 1168. Sheet 7 reverse, 8, 19, 91, 91 reverse, 92.
- Vladimir Region Archives. P-968. Inv. 8. Doc. 464. Sheet 2.
- Archives and Manuscript Section of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, F. 303. Unit 445. Sheet 1 reverse. From a letter by K.A. Korovin to F.F. Chaliapin, dated 27 October 1938, Paris.
- Archives and Manuscript Section of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, F. 303. Unit 441. Sheet 1. From a letter by K.A. Korovin to F.F. Chaliapin, dated 13 April 1938, Paris.
- Korovin. Op. cit. Vol. 2. P. 17.