Valentin Serov. The Line of Life

Maria Ivanova

Magazine issue: 
#1 2012 (34)

Valentin Alexandrovich Serov (1865-1911) is a key figure in Russian art of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The general public knows him first of all as a painter, although his graphic talent was appreciated even by his contemporaries. " Serov the graphic artist may be even more powerful than Serov the painter," wrote Igor Grabar. The exhibition "Valentin Serov. The Line of Life," on view at the Tretyakov Gallery from December 2011 until May 2012, traces the great artist's trajectory through his works held at the Tretyakov Gallery's graphic art department — many of which have not been publicly displayed before.

Valentin Serov is a special figure in the history of the Tretyakov Gallery. The artist was a friend of Pavel Tretyakov's heirs, sat on the gallery's board in 1899-1911, and did much to expand its collection. However, in Serov's lifetime the museum held only a few of his works. As a member of the board, Serov considered it unethical for the gallery to buy his artwork. Most of his pieces were acquired by the museum after 1911, from the artist's heirs as well as from the Ostroukhov Museum of Icons and Painting, the Tsvetkov Gallery, the Museum of New Western Art and the State Museum Fund. Today the Tretyakov Gallery has the most comprehensive and valuable collection of the artist's graphic and watercolour pieces (more than 750 individual sheets, 45 albums).

The diversity of Serov's talent and his wide-ranging artistic explorations, which reflected the evolution of visual art in the "Silver Century", are the core of the show's conception. It reflects the dynamics of the evolution of the work of the artist who, while being an heir to the 19th-century realist tradition, anticipated the discoveries of 20th-century painters.

This evolution can be traced particularly well through his numerous portraits. Serov's earlier works (the portraits of Tatyana Mamontova (1879) and Maria Simonovich (1879)) are distinguished by their use of painterly techniques in drawing, the softness of their pencil modelling, and their faithfulness to nature. These pieces were apparently influenced by the work of Ilya Repin, from whom Serov took private lessons at the time.

In 1880, despite his young age — he was not yet 16, the mandated admission age for the institution — Serov joined the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and began to study in Pavel Chistyakov's workshop. The academic style did not come naturally to the young artist accustomed to liberal brushwork in Repin's vein, but Chistyakov immediately singled out his new student. Many years later, already a recognized artist, Serov confided to his mentor: "I remember you as the teacher and consider you the only (in Russia) true teacher of the eternal sacrosanct rules of forms — the only thing that can be taught.."1 When he studied under Chistyakov, Serov created a drawing depicting a sleeping Monsieur Tagnon (1884), a friend of the Mamontovs who had previously tutored their children. The principles set down by Chistyakov — careful study of nature, and learning from the great masters of the past — would forever remain pivotal to Serov's artistic methods. He spent many hours at the Hermitage copying Rembrandt, Velazquez and Veronese. Often he would not slavishly copy the pieces but freely improvise on their themes. One such work is the water-colour "Venus at Her Mirror" (from the 1890s), a variation on the Titian painting2.

From his student years onwards, sketching from nature was an important exercise through which Serov honed his graphic skills. His watercolour images of female sitters accomplished at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture when he was already teaching there are of considerable value, and not just dry academic compositions. The Tretyakov Gallery's collection boasts several images of "Serov's favourite female sitter" (according to Mikhail Shemyakin), Vera Ivanovna3. The pieces vary in style depending on the artistic objective. One piece evokes the portraits of Henrietta Girshman (in the turn of the head, the puffy coiffure, and the elegant shoes), another is distinguished by economy of form and of the palette, bringing to mind the artist's antiquity-themed pieces ("The Rape of Europa", 1910). Until his last years Serov worked to improve his command of line and form by painting from nature. In 1910-1911 he attended the workshops of the Academie Julian and Academie Colarossi in Paris on equal terms with artists who were only beginning their careers. A rich experience in painting from nature and the ability to carry on through the long hours of anatomical drawing sessions were at the core of the craftsmanship of Serov the portraitist.

In the 1900s Serov began to enjoy wide recognition and the resulting numerous portrait commissions. Always anxious to master new forms and style, the artist did not "waste" his talent working on an endless series of fashionable portraits. In each new work Serov set for himself a different goal, that of trying to capture the essence of his model's character and to commit it to the canvas.

Serov created a portrait of Sofia Lukomskaya, commissioned by the prominent industrialist Alexander Ratkov-Rozhnov, in 1900. "The image is so compelling," wrote Igor Grabar, "that one of the most notable French psychiatrists, seeing a photograph of the watercolour, accurately diagnosed the mental state of the model, who by then had fallen prey to a serious disease."4

Serov's portraits were always distinguished by their insightful characterisation, sometimes unflattering for the sitter. In 1905, on a commission from the "Zolotoe Runo" (Golden Fleece) magazine, the artist created a portrait of the Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. "The twitchy, monkeyish figure of the poet confident of his genius is extremely expressive,"5 Grabar commented.

From 1904 Serov's favourite model was Henrietta Girshman, the hostess of a famous Moscow salon and the wife of the prominent industrialist and collector Vladimir Girshman. The story behind the creation of her portraits is the story of the search for a "grand style" grounded in the accomplishments of the masters of the past and measuring up to the demands of the new times. A gouache sketch on cardboard features the subject sitting (1904), its flowing lines in tune with modernist style. Yet Serov was not satisfied with this drawing and attempted to destroy it. In 1906 he set about working on an image of Girshman in her boudoir. A watercolour study for the portrait, on view at the exhibition, conveys the artist's idea — to evoke Velazquez's "Las Meninas" through the diversity of associations generated by the piece and the play on the reflections in the mirror. Grabar ranked this portrait among Serov's best works. The artist himself was particularly fond of his final portrait of Girshman, the oval image of 1911. Serov felt that in terms of nobleness and purity of line he was finally approaching the work of masters such as Ingres and Raphael. Simultaneously with the Girshman portrait Serov was working on the portrait of Princess Paulina Shcherbatova. Different in format and purpose — a monumental and typically ceremonial portrait — it also corresponds with Serov's stylistic explorations along neoclassical lines.

Serov's artistic quest reached far beyond the genre of the portrait. "You know, I'm a bit of a landscapist anyhow," he wrote6. A special sensitivity to nature is felt already in the works accomplished by the artist at the age of 14 — "Mutovki Village. Near Abramtsevo" (1879), and "Akhtyrka. A House with Garden" (1879). The youth who worked by Repin's side in those years adopted his mentor's style, but the affectionate attitude to certain individual areas in natural environment and attention to detail make his sketches resemble not so much Repin's work as Ivan Shishkin's pencilled drafts. Interestingly, Serov chose seemingly mundane narratives which many other artists of the time would have overlooked. Such is the drawing of a burned-down house that he saw shortly before Christmas from a window of Repin's aparment ("After a Fire", 1890).

Abramtsevo, the Mamontovs' estate, as well as Domotkanovo, bought by Vladimir Derviz, who was a friend of Serov and the husband of his sister, were not just retreats for emotional rest. In these hideouts Serov created such landscapes as "A Village" (1898), "A Grey Day" (1898), and "Colts by a Watering Hole" (1904), whose lyricism and unpretentious beauty place them in the same category as Isaac Levitan's works.

Serov's landscapes invariably feature people and animals. One of his most compelling and unusual pieces is a chalk drawing "Percherons" (1909), the result of an argument with his sister Nina Simonovich-Yefimova about who would better draw a horse by memory. The outcome of this "duel" was pre-determined: Serov finely captured the singular shapes and motions of the French draft horses.

Serov, who never abandoned his artistic quest, was equally versatile when he tackled landscapes, and the evolution of his style is traceable in his watercolours. Starting out with naturalist and detailed landscapes, over the years the artist evolved toward a more generalized approach and to neat colour spots ("Landscape. Near the Fence Round a Village", 1900s; "A Carriage", 1908). Already in the 1890s Serov came up with a remarkably impressive drawing of a coachman disappearing in a snowstorm ("A Coachman", from the 1890s) — an ephemeral one-tone water-colour image. Serov was able with just a few strokes of the brush to create the forms of the landscapes of Greece that enthralled him, as in the crest of a cliff or an overrunning wave ("Greece. A Landscape", "Greece. The Island of Crete", both from 1907).

Sometimes the artist made variations on a single composition using different media. It is interesting to compare his famed pastel "A Peasant Woman with a Horse" (1898) and an etching of the same title from 1899, commissioned by the "Mir Isskustvo" (World of Art) magazine. Taking in consideration the characteristics of etching as a medium, the artist replaced the pastel softness of lines with energetic black strokes contrasting with the white surface of the sheet.

Serov's landscapes created in the open air are closely linked with his compositions on themes from Russian history. Accurate in historical details, the artist was eager to bring to life images of the past using landscape as a way to introduce elements of reality into his paintings.

Serov first engaged with a historical subject in the 1900s when preparing illustrations to Nikolai Kutepov's book "How Tsars and Emperors Hunted in Rus. Late-17th and 18th Centuries". This commission inspired paintings the drafts of which — "Going Out On a Hunt (Peter II and Tsarevna Yelizaveta Petrovna Hunting with Dogs)" (1900), and "Catherine II Going Out On a Hunting Excursion with Falcons" (1900-1902) — are held at the Tretyakov Gallery. Interestingly, in each case the artist in search of a suitable narrative chose not the distinctive moment when the hunt for animals was in progress but the preceding episode when the hunters had arrived at the scene. Serov, who was not an enthusiastic hunter himself, was interested most of all in realist depiction of life in the 18th century.

Serov was especially interested in the personality of Peter I. Together with Alexander Benois, another enthusiast of the "Petrine era", he visited the palaces outside St. Petersburg built in the 18th century and the era's museums (at the Hermitage the artist made drawings of all of the Emperor's surviving clothes and studied his death mask).

The perfectly preserved interior setting of Peter I's little home "Monplaisir", in Peterhof, inspired Serov for the creation of " Peter I in Monplaisir" (1910-1911), the first draft of which was created in 1903. By then the artist already had the idea to represent the Tsar at the moment when, just awakened from sleep, he has walked up to the window. "He just rose from the bed, didn't sleep well, he's ill, the face is green,"7 as the artist explained his vision. This naturalist detail was needed to elevate the image to the level of painting made from nature, to add the veracity of a portrait.

In 1906 Iosif Knebel invited Serov to create an image of Peter I at the time of the construction of St. Petersburg for a book called "Images of Russian History" (Moscow, 1908). The artist became fascinated with the subject and until late in his life returned to it again and again, producing new versions, the most famous among them a gouache "Peter I" (1907). Serov wanted to show a real person, not the embellished image of a monarch. "It's a pity," he said, "that this person, who had nothing pretentious or sickeningly sweet about him, has always been portrayed as the hero of an opera and physically attractive. But he was ugly: a spindling... who also walked in huge strides, and all his companions had to run in order to keep pace with him."8 In 1910-1911 the artist worked on a new version of the image. The key idea remained the same — to show the ever-hurrying and awe-inspiring Peter who is impatient of his slothful subjects. In this composition the Tsar was depicted heading to a construction site on a cart and threateningly brandishing his huge fist in the face of an idly strolling peasant.

Serov reached his zenith as an artist at the time when the "World of Art" group was being established, and he was a friend to, and worked in cooperation with, many of its members. The artist's engagement with the historical theme corresponded with the fascination with the past felt by the "World of Art" artists. But an even stronger tie between Serov and the group was formed by their shared interest in theatre. The artist had mixed with theatre people since his childhood: the Moscow home of his parents, the famous composer and music critic Alexander Serov and his mother, the talented piano player Valentina Bergman- Serova, was visited by musicians, actors and artists. Later, befriending the Mamontov family and establishing close rapport with the members of the Abramtsevo colony, Serov, too, could not resist theatre, which was Savva Mamontov's passion. Together with Vasily Polenov and Mikhail Vrubel, Serov painted backdrops for amateur productions in Abramtsevo and participated in them himself, displaying a remarkable acting talent.

In 1900 Serov helped Vrubel to paint a gigantic curtain for Mamontov's private opera house. His first large theatre project was designing sets for a production of Alexander Serov's opera "Judith" at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1908-1909 (it premiered on November 10 1908). Initially Konstantin Korovin had been recruited for the job but Serov was dissatisfied with what he did, believing that the sets were "stripped of that modest degree of nobleness"9 which had been present in his sketches. The next, and the last, production which Valentin Serov designed was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's ballet "Scheherazade" for Sergei Diaghilev's "Ballets Russes" season in Paris. The artist himself offered his services in painting the curtain for a production which had already premiered. The curtain, in the style of Iranian miniatures, was completed in Paris between late May and early June 1911, together with the sculptor Ivan Yefimov and his wife, the artist Nina Simonovich-Yefimova. Serov wrote to Ilya Ostroukhov: "I had two weeks to finish my Persian curtain, which I did. I had to work from 8 in the morning till 8 at night (I have never before worked at such pace). Both our gentlemen artists and some French colleagues say the curtain came out fairly well. Dryish, but not ignoble, unlike Bakst's saccharine sumptuousness."10 Interestingly, in this period he was again especially concerned about the "nobleness" of the production.

Serov's achievements as a stage designer are modest, but his close ties with this art form found expression in a series of portraits of prominent theatre personalities. In 1909-1910 he produced several drawings distinguished by the amazing clarity of their forms, featuring female dancers of the Diaghilev company (Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova), and created distinctive studies for the famous portrait of Ida Rubinstein.

Serov had known Konstantin Stanislavsky personally from an early age, and they participated in the same amateur productions in the Mamontovs' home and later would come to share many views on the mission of art. Two tenets of the Stanislavsky system — "stimulating emotions through physical actions" and "living the part one is playing"11 — can be easily applied to Serov's oeuvre as well. In 1911 he created a portrait of the great director: the artist looks up at his model from below, as if this person is on a stage and slightly towers over the viewer. The same technique was used in the monumental portrait of Feodor Chaliapin from 1905. Serov reconsidered the principles of the ceremonial portrait, applying them not to the image of an aristocrat, as had been standard practice before, but to that of a prominent actor.

Another example of the use of neat graphic lines in a monumental piece was a poster for a production of "Les Sylphides" with Anna Pavlova (1909, Russian State Library). "Pavlova's portrait by Serov received more reviews in the press than Pavlova herself," 12 the critic Lavrenty Novikov wrote in his memoirs.

Such explorations in monumental genres were one of the artist's main preoccupations in his last years. Often these projects featured the myths and themes from the art, of Ancient Greece. Serov's plans for designing the Greek rooms at the Museum of Fine Art (now the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts) in 1902, and then his travel to Greece together with Bakst in 1907, inspired him for the creation of images rich with references to Greek antiquity.

"The Rape of Europa" (1910) is a painting themed on one of the pivotal myths of Aegean civilizations. In the same way as he did working on images from Russian history, the artist was eager to combine naturalist drawing and symbolic imagery. He created a decorative mural but at the same time sparked life in the mysterious Kore, depicting her as a creature moving and gesturing like a real woman. The artist looked everywhere for an animal on which to model the bull, which, according to the legend, was a reincarnation of Zeus, and only in Italy, on a farm in Orvieto did he find what he needed.

At the same time the artist was working on another image related to Greek mythology, "Odysseus and Nausicaa"13. Already in 1903 he had told Benois that he was interested in painting Nausicaa, although "not in the manner she's usually represented, but the way she really was"14.

As in the case of "The Rape of Europa", Serov came up with several versions of "Odysseus and Nausicaa". The current exhibition features a horizontal sketch imaging a procession traced in ink. A more developed draft, in gouache, is distinguished by its warm palette and the frame with a herringbone motif that Serov borrowed directly from Aegean art. Yet another version was made using gouache and distemper. Whereas the previous version resembles a monumental frieze, the distemper picture is an independent work of art with balanced proportions, featuring the procession against a high sky of pearly and grey hues. The artist's daughter reminisced that these pieces had different colour schemes because Serov worked on some of them in Finland, this creating the soft greyish-blue colours.

The artist never completed his innovative pieces, which he envisioned as themed on Greek antiquity but grounded in modernity. "The work on the paintings fairly exhausted Serov, and in 1911 he did not touch them, as if abandoning them altogether"15. Perhaps Serov put "Odysseus and Nausicaa" and "The Rape of Europe" on the shelf with a view of continuing them later, and only for a commission that agreed well with Serov's interest in exploring ancient Greek themes in monumental art. In 1910 a mansion of the Nosov family in Moscow was being renovated in "a classical style" after a design of Ivan Zholtovsky. Artists such as Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Konstantin Somov and Alexander Benois were enlisted to design the interior. Serov was commissioned for murals for the dining room referencing Ovid's "Metamorphoses". In his habitual manner, the artist worked on this subject conscientiously, creating many sketches and studies for the mural. The idea was to produce a composition consisting of three sections ingeniously separated by caryatids in the form of fauns, as architectural partitions. With some variations, the composition was to be centred around such subjects as "Diana and Actaeon", "Eros, Apollo and Daphne", and "Venus". It is hard to say what sort of decision Serov would finally have made, but all of his sketches evidence "that dedication to simplification of lines and forms which was characteristic for Serov's explorations in his last year"16.

His work on illustrations for Ivan Krylov's fables became for Serov a "laboratory of exploration"17 of that sought-after line, ideal in its neatness and sharpness of characterisation. The artist worked on this project from 1895 until the last days of his life. As Vsevolod Dmitriev keenly observed, "only in his drawings and favourite fables could Serov move on to his cherished ideals so boldly and without deviation, because his contemporaries did not control him here and because they considered these pieces peripheral, marginal to his art" 18. The show presents 12 main themes which the artist selected for the publication titled "12 Drawings of Valentin Serov for the Fables of Ivan Krylov" which he planned, as well as drawings for other fables and numerous sketches from nature revealing Serov as a brilliant painter of animal life.

The exhibition "Valentin Serov. The Line of Life" covers many subjects, as the artist did in his work. Contrary to all mathematical rules, the short line of his life is analogous to the line of his artwork which goes on to infinity, and traverses every main artistic trend of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.


  1. Valentin Serov "Correspondence, Documents, Interviews. In two volumes". Leningrad: 1989. (Hereinafter referred to as "Serov: Correspondence, Documents, Interviews"). Vol. 2. P. 151.
  2. The painting of Titian, first held at the Hermitage and in 1931 sold to the USA, is now in possession of the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
  3. Valentin Serov. "Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries. In two volumes. Leningrad: 1971. (Hereinafter referred to as "Serov: Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries"). Vol. 2. P. 230.
  4. Grabar, Igor. "Valentin Alexandrovich Serov: His Life and Art. 1865-1911". Moscow: 1965. (Hereinafter referred to as "Grabar, 1965".) P. 336.
  5. Ibid., p. 174.
  6. Grabar, Igor. "Serov". Moscow: 1914. (Hereinafter referred to as "Grabar, 1914"). P. 82.
  7. Serov. Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries. Vol. 1. P. 438.
  8. Grabar, 1914. P. 248.
  9. Serov. Correspondence, Documents, Interviews. P. 152.
  10. Ibid., pp. 298—299.
  11. Grabar, 1965. P. 282.
  12. Serov. Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries. Vol. 2. P. 473.
  13. Themed on Book 6 of Homer's "Odyssey".
  14. Ernst, Sergei. "V[alentin].A[lexandrovich].Serov". Petrograd: 1921. P. 67.
  15. Grabar, 1965. P. 231.
  16. Ibid., p. 286.
  17. Kruglov, Vladimir. 'Serov's art as reflected in the collection of the Russian Museum'. Online at:
  18. Dmitriev, Vsevolod. "Valentin Serov". Petrograd, 1916. Pp. 43-44.





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