Portraits of the Friends of Konstantin Korovin

Lyudmila Polozova

Magazine issue: 
#1 2012 (34)

The genre of the portrait was not essential in Korovin's work, and most of his portraits are images of people who were important in his life, especially in his artistic life. Among them are Vladimir Arkadievich Telyakovsky, director of the Imperial Theatres, his wife Gurly Loginovna Telyakovskaya, the internationally famous singer Feodor Chaliapin, and the actress Nadezhda Ivanovna Komarovskaya — all were Korovin's close friends, and like him devoted many years of their lives to theatre.

Vladimir Telyakovsky (1860-1924) was the son of Arkady Telyakovsky, a theoretician of military fortification, a lieutenant-general who participated in several military campaigns, and a scholar of European renown. The young Vladimir received an upbringing which was excellent by the standards of the time, and his father's regular guests included artists, musicians and singers. Music had a special attraction for him: he played the piano from the age of six. Although he chose a military career, he did not give up on his musical ambitions and when he already was a cavalry officer, in 1885 he graduated from the piano class at the Behm Music School; while learning the piano, he also studied the theory of music and composition under Anatoly Lyadov. Vladimir was on friendly terms with Anton Rubinstein and performed with the latter's brother Nikolai Rubinstein, the head of the Moscow Conservatory, playing four-hand pieces and duets on two pianos. For all that, Telyakovsky graduated from the Academy of the General Staff in 1888 and when he became a colonel in a cavalry regiment in 1897, he would hardly have believed it if anyone had told him that in the next year, 1898, he would be appointed director of the Moscow Board of the Imperial Theatres, the Bolshoi and Maly. This astonishing and delightful turn in his fortunes had a remarkable impact on the future of theatre life in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Telyakovsky loved the theatre but knew little about this field of activity in which he was a novice. He realised that in addition to his enthusiasm and organisational capabilities he would need professional associates if he were to carry out reforms. It would be an exaggeration to say that his methods of recruiting talent and hiring staff were impeccably honest. For instance, in the spring of the following year he struck up an acquaintance with Konstantin Korovin and, after much cajoling, "lured" him away from Savva Mamontov's Private Opera company, where he worked as a stage designer. In the same fashion he "took hold" of Feodor Chaliapin.

He wrote in his diary: "A great future lies in store for Chaliapin... Chaliapin is not a singer of the Bolshoi or Mariinsky theatres, but a world-class singer... I'm awfully happy to smell a genius!" (September 26 1899)1. "Korovin's appearance alone, his conversations about art and theatre were enormously important for me — this benefit, which can be hardly measured in arshins, introduces certain ideas about modern art, its mission and aspirations — in short, gives that which only a talented individual can give." (February 12 1900)2

Vladimir Telyakovsky's portrait was created by Korovin in June 9-19 1901, on the Otradnoye estate not far from Yaroslavl, which Telyakovsky had inherited from his father ten years earlier. Korovin paid a visit to Telyakovsky to congratulate him on his promotion and appointment to the post of director of the Imperial Theatres.

The portrait is marked by the initial impression Telyakovsky produced on the artist when they first met in 1899: "I was visited by a very modest looking man wearing a grey military jacket. His face slightly resembled that of an ordinary Russian soldier. In his eyes of a light grey hue I saw attentiveness and intelligence."3 Over the years their friendship became so strong that Telyakovsky would say about the artist: "Professionally, he is my right hand"4.

Serving as director until the February 1917 Revolution, Telyakovsky for nearly 20 years kept a diary in which he wrote, on a daily basis, about events at the theatres in his charge. Even today experts make use of the information meticulously recorded in this unique document. Using these diaries as a basis, Telyakovsky wrote his "Memoirs" as well as books such as "The Imperial Theatres and the Year 1905" and "My Colleague Feodor Chaliapin".

There can be no doubt that when he agreed to embark on a completely new professional path in 1898, Telyakovsky first of all ensured that he had the support of his wife, Gurly Loginovna (1852-1922). He had married her in 1890, when, a widow with three children, she was called Baroness Feleizen (nee Miller). The age difference — she was several years older than him — did not matter to him. Their sons Vyacheslav and Vsevolod were born in 1891 and 1894 respectively, and in 1896, their daughter Irina. Telyakovsky was happy in his marriage. He admired his life partner, loved and felt respect for her as he saw in her an astonishing woman with a peculiar charm and great innate taste. Reluctant to follow any fashionable trends, she wore dresses made to her own design; an intelligent and well-read lady learned in history, she was an amateur painter, loved music and theatre, especially drama, and went deeply into every detail of both stage directing and stage design.

Many believed that Telyakovsky became interested in theatre reform under his wife's influence and that she held him under her sway. This often became the subject of spiteful gossip in society, in the press and backstage. Like her husband, Gurly admired the talents of Korovin and Alexander Golovin and enjoyed her friendship with them. Gradually her artistic faculties found an outlet in theatre. First she provided advice, and later began drawing sketches of costumes for productions at the Bolshoi and Maly theatres, although her name was not mentioned on posters.

Golovin wrote in 1922: "She not only contributed to the production of costume drawings for several of my and the artist Korovin's productions, but she also accomplished the entire array of costume drawings for the productions of the ballet 'Don Quixote', Berlioz's opera 'The Trojans', etc., and 'Romeo and Juliet' at Moscow's academic theatres. She created the finest dance costumes, which are an example to follow for designers of modern ballet productions."5

The portrait of Gurly Telyakovskaya was created on her husband's estate in June 1905, when Korovin and Chaliapin visited Otradnoye. Several days later, on July 1, in the same place, Feodor Chaliapin (18751938) was depicted against the interior of the country home. Painted at the same place within a short period of time the two portraits are different in mood and emotional characteristics. Perhaps the mood of Chaliapin's portrait can be best explained by this entry in Telyakovsky's diary: "Russia is living through an anxious time now. Every day you nervously wait for the newspaper — what sort of news awaits us. The revolution in Odessa and the uprising on the battleship 'Potemkin' are like nothing that we have experienced before. Everyone is upset and frustrated."6

Telyakovsky was a loyal friend to Chaliapin, felt proud of him, and rescued him from the difficult situations that the hot-tempered artist often found himself in at the theatre. At Telyakovsky's solicitation the singer was granted in 1910 the honorary title "Singer of His Majesty", a great distinction for someone who had only recently risen above his lowest class background. Chaliapin appreciated Korovin not only for his artistic faculties but also as a man whose wit, perceptiveness and big heart disposed people to trust him and confide in him. Chaliapin also appreciated his purely Russian keen sense of humour.

Korovin and Chaliapin were introduced to each other and became close friends in 1896 at the Russian National Fair of Industry and Arts in Nizhny Novgorod. "I have never before seen a more jovial and life-loving person," Korovin wrote about his friend. " Since the very beginning of his artistic career I have been nearly inseparable from him, both in theatre and in life. He became close to my artist friends — Serov, Vrubel, Polenov — as well as with my hunter friends, whom I often described in my stories."7

In 1911 Korovin, Komarovskaya and Chaliapin spent a part of the summer in Vichy, where they had a spa treatment from the end of June nearly until the end of July; Chaliapin also treated a leg injury incurred after he had stumbled on a stage in Paris. Often accompanying his artist friend when the latter went out sketching, he engaged in drawing himself, every now and then casting a glance in the direction of Korovin's croquis, to which the artist would reply with a merry laugh: "Stop poaching on me!"8

Korovin stayed in a hotel named after the writer Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sevigne, in the best room facing the garden. Perhaps the singer's portrait was created in that room. After Korovin's return to Russia the portrait was sold and displayed at the 9th exhibition of the Union of Russian Artists in 1911-1912 in Moscow and St. Petersburg as the property of the collector Mikhail Tereshchenko. This upset Chaliapin very much, and the newspapers even reported the temporary discord between the friends. But finally Chaliapin said in an interview: "My friendly ties with Korovin are the same as before. I indeed felt sad about the fact that it was another person, not me, who ultimately took hold of that very good portrait of myself. Do you remember the long hours I spent sitting for the piece and trying to affect a 'pleasant' expression?..."9

Over the years, Chaliapin sat on a number of occasions for Valentin Serov, Boris Kustodiev, Boris Grigoriev, Isaak Brodsky and other painters. Some of them were attracted by the singer's imposing and eye-catching appearance, others, including Alexander Golovin and Alexander Yakovlev, preferred to portray him in stage costume and make-up which altered the great performer's look beyond recognition. It is well known that Feodor Ivanovich himself was skilled in plying pencil, brush and quill. His legacy includes more than 20 surviving self-portraits: in addition to caricatures of himself, there are sketches scribbled as the actor was feeling his way towards a character he was to play, and once (in 1912) he even sculpted his own bust.

In 1921 the singer and the artist again met in Moscow after two years of separation: it happened, most likely, late in May or early in summer, when Korovin returned from Tver province, where he had lived with his family saving it from starvation, while Chaliapin came from St. Petersburg to the capital, to stay for more than a month. Most likely, it was during that interval that Chaliapin once again sat for his friend in his studio.

In August Chaliapin went on an international tour while the portrait was exhibited at Korovin's solo show arranged by the Glavpolitprosvet (Central Agency for Political Education), in K. Mikhailova's salon in December 1921 and January 1922. After Chaliapin's return to Russia in March 1922 the portrait was handed over to his family.

Teaching his students at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, cultivating in them a commitment to art, Korovin advised them to fall in love: "He who does not fall in love will never become an artist"10. As for Korovin himself, his wife Anna Yakovlevna (nee Fidler, born 1872/1873, died 1947) — according to Yevgeny Katsman, a real beauty11 — inspired him more than once. Again and again she sat for her husband.

He was 46 when he met the actress Nadezhda Ivanovna Komarovskaya (nee Sekevich, 1885-1967). Korovin never mentioned her in his autobiographical writings, delicately protecting their relationship both from curious onlookers and his future biographers. Yet, the love triangle could not but scar the souls of each of its participants. People close to the artist knew well that Korovin was sensitive and impressionable. It is quite within reason to suggest that his life, where the energies of his soul were split between his family, in which his beloved son Alexei (1897-1950) was raised, the woman he loved and the greatest possible devotion to art, was like a candle "lit at both ends", as Karl Briullov once said.

What sort of person was Nadezhda Komarovskaya? Her childhood dream had been to become an actress. Talented, full of charm, hard-working and stubborn, she graduated from her gymnasium school with honours, then from an institution of higher learning for women (where she studied Russian and world literature) in Moscow and, at the same time, studied at the Moscow Arts Theatre school from 1902 to 1905. Her teachers were the directors Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky, her friends included Vasily Kachalov and his wife Nina Litovtseva, as well as Maria Andreeva and Maxim Gorky, who significantly influenced her future life. Later, in 1916, Yevgeny Vakhtangov told her: "Your look — the appearance, the voice, the gestures — spells out for you a career in big-time acting"12.

Late in the autumn of 1907 the actress began playing so called "young heroines" at the Korsh Theatre in Moscow. She probably met Korovin in December at one of the actors' banquets. "Well-shaped, elegant, in a neat and clean tail-coat, looking more like a Frenchman than a Russian," Korovin approached her. "'Excuse me,' he said, 'for my staring at you so intently. Your face is unlike any other. I would be happy if you allow me to make your portrait'."13 After that meeting she sat for his genre paintings and portraits time and again.

In her book "About Konstantin Korovin" the actress recalled only three of her portraits. In Komarovskaya's recollections, one of the first images of her, in golden and brown hues, received a gold medal at an International Exhibition in Milan; other artists featured at that show included Valentin Serov, Boris Kustodiev, and Fyodor Malyavin. After Komarovskaya's death the portrait was acquired by a museum, and Valentina Verigina, a "Merited Actress" of Russia and Nadezhda's friend since their theatre school days, dated the piece to 1909-1910, confirming that it had been on view at an international exhibition.

In the spring of 1909 the actress left her previous employer to join the Maly Theatre, where she was part of the company from 1909 to 1916. There her first role was Sofia in Griboyedov's "Woe from Wit". "Miss Komarovskaya in her performance embodies all the charm, beauty and poetic soul which Sofia for so long was missing on the stage," wrote the famous critic Sergei Yablonsky in the "Russkoe slovo" (Russian Word) newspaper on April 26 1911. She acted frequently and was warmly received; one of her performances was alongside Maria Yermolova, in a 1910 production of Bjornstjerne Bjornson's "When the New Wine Blooms". Quite possibly, Savva Mamontov had this excellent portrait in mind when he wrote, in a review of the 7th exhibition of the Union of Russian Artists in 1909-1910, that "the woman's little head is colourful and has truly tasteful delineations"14.

But contrary to Komarovskaya's recollections, Milan at that period did not host any international art shows. Could it be that the portrait was displayed at the International Exhibition in Rome? Because that exhibition, held in 1911, featured 7,000 pieces reflecting the general level of art of the time. The participants from Russia included all groups of artists except two — the "Jack of Diamonds" and the "St. Petersburg Society". Korovin displayed his landscapes "Spring" and "Near a Quay" and his portrait "A Woman's Head"15. The artists mentioned by the actress brought their works as well. A fact to keep in mind is Valentin's Serov death, which occurred before the exhibition opened. It means that the year 1911 is the time period when the actress's portrait could have been exhibited.

Artists from different countries awaited the results of the jury's decision with understandable nervousness. But strange things were happening: even before the exhibition closed in December, Russia together with England, France, Germany and Austria intended to refuse to send its representatives to sit on the jury and to turn down awards for its national sections "because the conditions of evaluation do not correspond to the promises and the awards are ungenerous"16. France, England, America and Germany, disagreeing with the conditions of the contest, finally quit the competition and declared themselves hors concours. Russia meanwhile proved to be the only European nation whose artists remained without any awards.17 Thus, the exhibition history of the portrait needs further research.

As for the second portrait, Komarovskaya wrote: "I once saved from destruction my big portrait created in Zheleznovodsk — the figure of a woman sitting on a balcony, wearing a roseate dress and a big hat with roses. Korovin was dissatisfied with the portrait: 'The face lacks glow,' he said in his original language of an artist."18 The actress, reminiscing about the events that had taken place 50 years earlier, probably referred to the portrait depicting her in a white dress that is now held in Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum.

The portrait in the possession of the Regional Art Museum in Samara was created as World War I was breaking out, although Komarovskaya in her memoirs does not mention the dramatic developments in Europe. In 1914 they vacationed in Balaklava, whose attraction for Nadezhda, with her weak lungs, probably lay in the area's climate, which was similar to the Mediterranean. Korovin spent little time painting because he was not impressed by the city's surroundings, but he eagerly went out on fishing trips with fishermen at night.

The portrait was inspired by the artist's fascination with his beloved, who was mysteriously transformed in the dusk of a Southern night. The actress recalled: "It was the end of August. I was sitting on the sill of a wide open window. Carnations in a glass were glowing red by my side. The air was cool. I threw a fur jacket on my shoulders. In the light of a lamp inside the room, a woman's figure against the leafage of trees caught Konstantin Alexeevich's attention. He asked me to sit for him. He completed the piece in two evenings."19

Nadezhda Komarovskaya was to live a long life filled with work and love for the stage. Before the Bolshevik revolution she played at Tairov's Chamber Theatre. Accepting Maria Andreeva's invitation, in the beginning of February 1919 she joined the Bolshoi Drama Theatre in Petrograd, where she played main roles in works by Shakespeare, Schiller, Moliere and others. In 1920 she was able to travel to Moscow only once — to see her ailing father. All this time Korovin was living with his family in Tver province, returning to the capital only at the end of spring 1921.

The actress embraced the revolutionary changes in the country. In 1929 she was granted the title "Merited Actress" of Russia. She started teaching acting at a theatre school, even before she had retired from the stage; then for a while she worked as a director at a travelling theatre company headed by Pavel Gaideburov, and during World War II she was evacuated and directed productions in Irbit, Kirov, Nizhny Tagil, and Kuibyshev. Beginning from 1930, Nadezhda Komarovskaya frequently performed solo as a dramatic reader, and recitation performances became her principal occupation after her return to Leningrad.

Komarovskaya had the will to write about Korovin only at the end of her life. In the slim but in many aspects remarkable book of memoirs, looking back across the years, she sympathetically recalled her companion — his interests, traits of character, friends, the creative atmosphere in his studio, the germination of his paintings that she had witnessed, as well as their shared travels across Crimea, Italy and France.

The years have passed. Konstantin Korovin and his friends became historical icons forever, and so did these excellent portraits that live today in museums, bringing to us from the distant past the melodies inherent in the bonds of mutual trust and love — melodies that are already beyond decay.


  1. Telyakovsky, Vladimir. "Journals of the Director of the Imperial Theatres. 1898-1901". Tsvetaeva, Maria, ed. Moscow. 1998. P. 139.
  2. Ibid., p. 216.
  3. "Konstantin Korovin Looks Back at His Past..." Compiled, prefaced and annotated by Ilya Zilbershtein and Vladimir Samkov. Moscow. 1990. P. 194.
  4. Ibid., p. 506.
  5. Golovin, Alexander. "My Meetings and Feelings. Letters. Memoirs about Golovin". Leningrad-Moscow. 1960. P. 150.
  6. Telyakovsky, Vladimir. "Journals of the Director of the Imperial Theatres. 1903-1906". Tsvetaeva, Maria, ed. Moscow. 2006. P. 491.
  7. Korovin, Konstantin. "That Was Long Ago... There... in Russia... Memoirs, Writings, Letters in Two Volumes". Moscow, 2010. Vol. 2, p. 409.
  8. Komarovskaya, Nadezhda. "About Konstantin Korovin". Leningrad. 1961. P. 76.
  9. "Konstantin Korovin Looks Back at His Past... " Compiled, prefaced and annotated by Ilya Zilbershtein and Vladimir Samkov. Moscow: 1990. P. 558.
  10. "Konstantin Korovin. His Life and Art, Letters, Documents, Memoirs". The collection compiled and the biographical essay written by Nina Moleva. Moscow. 1963. P. 411.
  11. Ibid., p. 411.
  12. Komarovskaya, Nadezhda. "What I Saw and Felt. Selections from the Memoir of the Actress". Leningrad-Moscow. 1965. P. 179.
  13. Komarovskaya, Nadezhda. "About Konstantin Korovin". Leningrad. 1961. Pp. 7-8.
  14. "Konstantin Korovin Looks Back at His Past... " Compiled, prefaced and annotated by Ilya Zilbershtein and Vladimir Samkov. Moscow. 1990. P. 505.
  15. "Esposizione Internazionale di Roma. Catalogo della mostra di belle arti". Bergamo, 1911, P. 72, No. 148.
  16. "Russian Artistic Chronicle" (Russkaya hudozhestvennaya letopis' periodical). December, 1911, No. 19, p. 278.
  17. 'Artistic news from the West'. In: "Apollon" (Apollo), 1912, No. 1, p. 77.
  18. Komarovskaya, Nadezhda. "About Konstantin Korovin". Leningrad. 1961. P. 28.
  19. Ibid., pp. 42-43.





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