In Memory of Nikolai Meshcherin

Nikolai Gagman

Article: 
ART COLLECTORS AND PATRONS
Magazine issue: 
#2 2007 (15)

In 2006, the year of its 150th jubilee, the Tretyakov Gallery acquired a significant number of works by the artist Nikolai Meshcherin (1864-1916). Presented as a gift by Nikolai Gagman, art restorer and long-standing member of the Igor Grabar All-Union Centre for Art Research and Restoration, the donation included 17 oil and tempera paintings and six pastels by Meshcherin, as well as archive documents and photographs shedding light on the artist’s life and work. Many years ago, these were purchased from Meshcherin’s widow Lydia Goriacheva-Meshcherina by Gagman’s father Alexander Nikolaevich, a Doctor of Medicine and one of the founders of surgical urology.

For many decades, this small treasure remained in the Gagman family. Nikolai Gagman took the best possible care of his father’s collection, doing everything within his means to make Meshcherin better known as an artist. In 1987, Nikolai Gagman organised an exhibition of Meshcherin’s work and published a catalogue to accompany the event, writing the introduction and selecting some fascinating archive material for the catalogue himself. The catalogue included all of Meshcherin’s works from museums and private collections in Russia which Gagman had succeeded in locating.

 

Nikolai Vasilievich Meshcherin. Late 19th century
Nikolai Vasilievich Meshcherin
Photograph. Late 19th century

The well-known early 20th-century art collector and connoisseur Ivan Troyanovsky refers to Nikolai Meshcherin as a humble, modest, retiring soul. According to Troyanovsky, the artist "disliked large gatherings, rowdy debates and loud discussions - neither did he like to show his work at exhibitions, although he always put his very soul into his paintings, planning them carefully and observing his chosen spots with loving attention at different times of day and night, and in different seasons. He made masses of sketches, yet had to be implored for hours to take part in this or that exhibition - and, when he did finally agree, he invariably only showed a very small number of works.”[1] As Igor Grabar wrote, "His [Meshcherin's] name is little known to the public at large. Two small paintings in the Tretyakov Gallery, three or four in private collections in Moscow, and one or two a year - and not every year at that - shown at exhibitions: this is all that regular museum and exhibition visitors have seen of his works. Furthermore, not many visitors are capable of separating the wheat from the chaff when faced with hundreds of canvases by dozens of artists. Few singled out his works at exhibitions, few realised his true worth as an artist, and only his closest, most intimate friends were able to experience the charm of his artistic gift.”[2]

Nikolai Meshcherin, notwithstanding, took part in regular exhibitions of the Moscow Art Lovers' Society, Fellowship of Wanderer Artists, the "World of Art” magazine and Union of Russian Artists. In 1906, he showed twelve large new works at the Third and Fourth Exhibitions of the Union of Russian Artists, and five paintings at Diaghilev's "Russian Art” exhibition in Paris and Berlin. Two of his paintings, in 1903 and 1907, were purchased for the Tretyakov Gallery, yet in 1910, for the Eighth Union of Russian Artists' Exhibition, Meshcherin submitted only one painting. In the three years that followed, the artist did not exhibit a single work, concerned that his success might threaten those around him. His father, the founder of the Danilov textile mill, coowned this enterprise with Sergei Shchukin - the Moscow-based collector of new French painting.[3] An exceptionally wealthy man, Meshcherin showed his concern for painters who relied on their art to make a living, by keeping his work from the public.[4]

There was, however, another factor behind the artist's reluctance to exhibit his work. The split of the Union of Russian Artists, caused by Alexander Benois and resulting in the emergence of two hostile groups, the new St. Petersburg-based "World of Art” and a Moscow unit which continued to work under the old name, shocked Meshcherin, who refused to become involved in the conflict.[5] Only with the First World War, and consequent need to take part in the charitable campaign launched at its outset, did he begin, once more, to exhibit his paintings.

Possessing a considerable fortune and having no need for additional income, Nikolai Mescherin preferred not to part with his works. As his widow Lydia Goriacheva notes, when asked to sell one of his paintings, Meshcherin would usually reply that he was in the business of selling canvas, not canvases.[6] Finding herself without the means to make a living after her husband's death, however, Lydia Ivanovna was forced to sell Meshcherin's canvases. It seems she frequently accepted offers from unknown chance buyers: even of the 30 paintings shown at the Fifteenth Union of Russian Artists Exhibition in late 1917, only 13 have been traced. A review published after Meshcherin's death reads: "The works of Nikolai Vasilievich Meshcherin, who died in 1916, have been brought together by the Union to form a small posthumous exhibition. A skillful landscape artist who seldom took part in exhibitions, Meshcherin began to paint as a mature adult: his compositions are exceptionally well planned and meticulously executed. For a short while he created landscapes which put one in mind of the Levitan school; then open air painting engulfed him totally, and he produced a series of excellent paintings totally in keeping with the open air tradition.”[7] The modest exhibition catalogue lists three of Meshcherin's paintings as purchased by the Tretyakov Gallery, and one as purchased by the Russian Museum. Both institutions, however, actually received the artist's works as a gift - evidently, by the time the exhibition had closed it was impossible to contemplate paying the widow of a "former millionaire” the sums agreed.

In the 1920s my father, Alexander Gagman, who had never previously indulged in collecting of any kind, purchased a number of Meshcherin's works from the artist's widow. Together, these provide an accurate impression of his work. Take, for instance, the small study which Meshcherin never named: high up above the slow, dark waters of a river, a distant church glows white against an inky storm cloud. The study was made near Dugino, Meshcherin's estate in the environs of Moscow, where, as Grabar noted, "beginning with Levitan, so many Russian artists worked”[8]. Despite the evident impossibility of serious comparison, this little painting puts one in mind of Levitan's "Lake”, a work considered unfinished, which likewise shows a white church soaring over water on a windy day. One might, indeed, be tempted to dismiss Meshcherin's work as an awkward imitation - were it not for Troyanovsky's assurance that the artist only met Levitan much later, in 1898.

Moving on to a second small study, dated "1896” by the painter himself, we note Meshcherin's increased professionalism in portraying his subject. A lone pine rises from a thin strip of land, whilst high above, a large, airy cloud floats in an open sky. The artist's composition unwittingly reveals his thoughts on the majesty of creation, and the earth's puny insignificance compared to the heavens.

Of his larger works, which are executed in broad, thick brushstrokes, one immediately notices a finished landscape in a cherry-coloured lacquered frame chosen by Meshcherin himself. The study shows the view from the gates of Meshcherin's estate: a broad sweep of fields glowing a gentle green in the early morning shadows, the distant outline of Kolychevo village church. The sky occupies a large part of the canvas: although the sun has not yet risen, the heavens are lit by the first few golden rays. Meshcherin's landscape shows his budding interest in Impressionism. It bears neither signature nor date, yet the bottom right-hand corner is marked in ink with the number 122: the artist numbered consecutively all his studies made between 1896 and 1903. Bearing in mind that Emmanuil Marshak's collection includes two studies by Meshcherin, numbered 63 and 351 and both dated 1898, we conclude that this view must have been painted in the same year.

Signed and dated 1903, the next canvas is larger still . Its name - "Spring” - can just be made out in pencil on the back. A typical country-side landscape, it shows a village street, rosy in the sun's dying rays. Central to the composition is the road itself, criss-crossed with sleigh marks. Executed in broad, temperamental brush strokes, this painting was created in the same year as Grabar's "September Snow”, proving yet again that Meshcherin's impressionist approach to nature was not borrowed from Grabar.

Among the later works, worthy of note is a small study dated 1907. Inscribed on the back by Meshcherin ("By the Gates. The Village in March”), this shows two peasant huts beneath a tall old birch. In the ditch nearby, the snow still lies melting, mysterious and bluish in the shade. To show the birch's mighty crown against the azure backdrop of the sky, the painter uses broken brushstrokes in blue on untouched white cardboard, whilst the startling brightness of the spring sunshine is skilfully conveyed through accurate combinations of bold, vivid tones.

Another example of Meshcherin's laconic, yet remarkably expressive rendition of form can be found in the 1913 study "The Harvest”. With a few rapid, yet precise strokes, the painter conjures up a golden field of waving rye and the colourful figures of women reaping. A finished work of art, the study conveys the atmosphere of the harvest perfectly.

A series of studies of sunrises made in May and June 1916 completes my father's wonderful find. A real hymn to the Sun, filled with sheer joy and exuberance, these glowing canvases were created by the artist not long before his death, when Meshcherin was already seriously ill.

Rather than illustrating the gradual evolution of his style, the diverse approaches favoured by the artist in his works tend to depend on the nature of the landscapes depicted. His album-sized pastels bear testimony to the sheer number of beautiful views sought out by the painter over the years.

In his search for new means of expression, Nikolai Meshcherin was not always consistent. An inspired poet, however, he conveyed the beauty of nature, showing exceptional mastery in his use of colour.

 

  1. "Nikolai Meshcherin. Ocherk" (An Essay on Nikolai Meshcherin), appended to Ivan Troyanovsky's letter to Petr Neradovsky. Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department, archive 31, unit 2044.
  2. Igor Grabar "Pamiati khudozhnika i druga" (In Memory of an Artist and a Friend), in "Russkiye Vedomosti" (The Russian Gazette), 11 October 1916, no. 234, p.4.
  3. Pavel Buryshkin: "Moskva kupecheskaya" (Merchant Moscow). Moscow, "Vyshshaya Shkola" publishers, 1991, p. 17.
  4. Such was the opinion of Vladimir Vladimirovich Domogatsky, whose father, the famous sculptor Vladimir Nikolaevich Domogatsky, knew Meshcherin well.
  5. Igor Grabar: "Pisma. 1891 - 1917" (Correspondence, 1891-1917). Moscow, 1974, pp. 242-243 and 416-417.
  6. According to Yu.G.Brandenburg, there is, in the possession of his heirs, a study by Nikolai Meshcherin bearing the inscription: "From Lydia Goriacheva-Meshcherina to Mr. Brandenburg, this study by Nikolai Meshcherin is presented with the greatest respect. 17 IX 23."
  7. Abram Efros. "Vystavki" (Exhibitions), in "Apollon" (Apollo), 1917, nos. 8-10, p.111.
  8. Igor Grabar "Pamiati khudozhnika i druga" (In Memory of an Artist and a Friend).

 

Nikolai Meshcherin: Archive Material from the Tretyakov Gallery

Compiled, with foreword and notes by Elena Terkel

The Tretyakov Gallery’s Manuscripts Department houses some fascinating material, which sheds light on the life and work of the artist Nikolai Vasilievich Meshcherin. The gallery boasts an album of Meshcherin’s sketches with detailed notes, his correspondence with Igor Grabar, Vladimir Domogatsky and Vyacheslav Bychkov, as well as a particularly interesting album bequeathed by Grabar in 1961.

Bound in simple canvas, the album contains 46 sheets of thick, rough watermarked paper measuring 30 by 47 centimetres. Working at irregular intervals, Meshcherin first made several drawings in coloured pencil, one of which bears the date: 27 November 1875. The remaining drawings are made in ordinary pencil. Rough sketches from nature, virtually each is accompanied by detailed notes on hues, light and shade, and general impressions. Meshcherin writes of rainbows, of the sky, of the different shades of grass and straw, of his experience sketching at night and at sunrise. The album cover bears the laconic inscription "No. 1, 905, drafts." The main body of the sketches were indeed made in 1905.

At that time, Nikolai Meshcherin was in close contact with Igor Grabar, who was a frequent guest at Meshcherin's estate of Dugino. The artists' correspondence is filled with references to Grabar's visits: "I expect you soon", "pray, come", "I shall be arriving on the following train", "I will send a carriage". Grabar often painted in Dugino. Meshcherin's album most probably came into his possession in the late 1900s, and, be it deliberately or by chance, Grabar kept this unique record of his friend's creative endeavours. Together with the recent gift from Nikolai Gagman, this album now forms the heart of a new personal archive established by the Tretyakov Gallery's Manuscripts Department: that of Nikolai Vasilievich Meshcherin.

Gagman's gift, presented to the Gallery in 2006, consisted of documentary material on Nikolai Meshcherin, and 48 original photographs taken by the artist in Dugino, Lopasna and neighbouring areas in 1886-1887. As well as landscapes and hunting scenes, these included a number of group portraits of the artist's family and friends. The images of the forest and fields by the Pakhra river are particularly fine. Like Meshcherin's paintings, they show his subtle understanding of the states of nature and his love for his native countryside.

The archive materials by Nikolai Meshcherin presented below are, perhaps, somewhat fragmentary; nevertheless, we hope they will convey to the reader an impression of the artist's personality. We feel that in these lines, the creative search and interests of Nikolai Meshcherin are reflected, as well as the warmth he displayed towards his fellow artists and their work.

 

Excerpt from Nikolai Meshcherin’s album.
4 October [1905]

The moon - a dark blue colour, the stars a lighter blue, and dim (at times the moon cannot be seen). A bluish pearly radiance emanates from the moon, a bright halo. The moon's tones are irregular... The clouds, a grey mass against a pearly blue screen. Lower down, the hues grow colder, more grey. Towards the horizon, the clouds lighten. Dimmer, as they approach the horizon; warmer than rosy clouds. In the distance, pinks, violets, greens. In the foreground, the grass is lighter, or, perhaps, these are other tones. Further away - a pinkish violet, closer up - a warm green. The huts are violet outlines. The roofs pink (violet), lighter, more airy - the sky lightens from them, so there is more light. Beneath the roofs, however, there are still dark patches on the walls, and particularly on the gates. The first house has an ochre roof, the moonlight touches its corner, turning it a greenish, violet, pinkish colour, especially where it approaches the jutting roof, but only there; it is a dark roof, a violet, raspberry colour. The wall of this shed is a blue-grey-violet (now brown). The shadow from the first house almost merges with the wall, yet is a touch greener, and the grass by the wall is lighter in the shadows, violet, green. Then, immediately, much lighter and warmer - a light violet patch. By the path it is thicker, a pinkish violet - it merges and disappears.

There is no yellow ring around the moon. Its diffused shining emanates outwards. Behind the layers of clouds there shows a single veil - then, the night is clear.

As the moon rises higher, it is encircled by a bluish round, with no yellow ring. The moon and stars are a veil, spread out. There are no clouds. Nearer the moon there is a warmer patch, more light.

The moon can always be discerned. At times it is obscured by clouds, but its light still shines through, diffused.

It is the fourth day of the new moon, 4 October, 11 o'clock at night, quiet, cloudy, with a veil.

 

Telegram from Nikolai Meshcherin to Igor Grabar. 26 May 1907.

The lilac is blossoming. It is warm. The blooms will most likely soon fade.
Meshcherin.

 

Letter from Nikolai Meshcherin to Igor Grabar. 11 June [1907]

Dugino
Monday, 11 July
My dear Igor Emmanuilovich!

I received your letter of the 6th yesterday - my kindest thanks. I also received the first letter, from 21 May, and, as soon as that lilac faded, I sent you a telegram. I did not write, expecting you to arrive in Dugino at any moment. So now, we will expect you around the 15th. I am so happy that your work is progressing well.[1] Do not concern yourself about the lilac - you will have ample opportunity to paint it yet, whereas the task on which you are currently working is, indubitably, of far greater importance. Who else save you could do it, after all? I just hope that your work will not be in vain (I am, of course, referring to Knebel[2]). Think not about the lilac - it has faded totally, it is of no consequence. The cornflowers, however, are a pleasure to behold - they are already here, and, I think, will hold for some time.

Together with yours, I received also a letter from Vasily Vasilievich[3]. He is in Arkhangelsk (Pskovskaya St., Spiridonova's house, no. 32, Berezin's apartment). He asked for your address - apparently, he has some business he would like to discuss with you. I replied to him. He is stuck in Arkhangelsk; he is not well, it seems. He feels it would be a shame, were you not to come to an agreement with the gallery in Venice[4]. Ivan Ivanovich Troyanovsky[5] was so kind as to send me his greetings from Venice. Unfortunately, I have not his address, so cannot reply to thank him. He sent his best to you also and mentioned, I think, that he wrote to you in Moscow.

As far as I am concerned, I am afraid that I might be altogether taken over by the gramophone. I have become so fascinated with the thing, it simply will not do. It used to be the sunrises, the moonlit nights and such; now, it is also the gramophone. What enthrals me the most is the possibility of purchasing new records, which I enjoy listening to greatly. And there are so many records! A month has not yet passed, and I already possess around 70. So, for your visit, we have several concertos in stock. Whatever next! I must surely tire of the thing eventually... I started to work on some lilac, from nature, but it did not last long - I failed to grasp the essence of it, even. I have also been working at home on compositions like the ones I showed you. Lydia Ivanovna[6] and the rest send thanks for your greetings, and pass on their best to you. The children in Dugino are unwell. Valya is better, but Manya and Pasya are still ill. Influenza, I think. The nights are still cold, no warmth as yet, but this suits me. Sasha's health concerns me greatly, however. She is still not able to travel abroad. She is so terribly weak. The gramophone does cheer us up, I have to admit. My nights have become truly absorbing. I observe a lot, although the gramophone prevents me from doing much. I have also become enthralled by the sunrise. So, the night + the sunrise + looking at catalogues of musical pieces for the gramophone, and so on until 6 in the morning; after which I rise at around 2 p.m., then spend most of the day by the gramophone! Andriusha says he has the impression that I am doing the gramophone some sort of favour.

If you are indeed free after the 15th, we shall see you soon. You will have read, or heard, about the continuing success of Russian music in Paris. "The Snow Maiden’’ and "Sadko" are to be staged there, I hear. Is this so?

I embrace you and look forward to seeing you soon.
Your devoted
N. Meshcherin.

 

Letter from Nikolai Meshcherin to Vladimir Domogatsky. 26 May 1914

26 May 1914
Dear Vladimir Nikolaevich[7]!

Firstly, allow me to apologise for failing to reply to your letter immediately. Much has happened lately, and I have been quite caught up in a whirl. I used to hope that old age would bring peace and calm, yet this is not the case: indeed, life seems to grow harder, the longer one lives. Things have, indeed, been difficult at times. Forgive me for my whinings. It is best that I confess to you - and it brings some relief. I will be very glad to see you in Dugino. Please come. As soon as you decide when you will be able to visit, please telephone Petr Sergeyevich Vlasov[8] to let him know the day and train, so he can inform me on the carriage to be sent to the station well in advance.

I am deeply grateful to you for the album containing photographs of your work. You say the photographs do not do your works justice, but I had hardly seen any of your compositions before. Once again, I thank you. I truly hope that you will call on us here in Dugino. Please let me know. My greetings to Ekaterina Lvovna.[9]

I embrace you.
Your devoted
N. Meshcherin.

I have been painting from nature a little, although I have not been able to work much. I have been forced to ponder my situation thoroughly. Will I be able to work properly in the future.

Please come to Dugino!

 

  1. At that time, Igor Grabar was working on his "History of Russian Art" - an opus in many volumes, to be published by Joseph Knebel.
  2. Joseph Nikolaevich Knebel (1854-1926) - a Moscow publisher.
  3. Vasily Vasilievich Perepletchikov (1863-1918) - a landscape artist and friend of Nikolai Meshcherin and Igor Grabar.
  4. Grabar's paintings were shown at an exhibition of two centuries of Russian painting and sculpture, organised by Sergei Diaghilev in 1906. After showing in Paris, the exhibition was taken to Berlin, then, in April 1907, it opened in Venice, where only some of the works were shown.
  5. Ivan Ivanovich Troyanovsky (1855-1928) - a doctor and collector of art.
  6. Lydia Ivanovna Goriacheva-Meshcherina - the wife of Nikolai Meshcherin.
  7. Vladimir Nikolaevich Domogatsky (1876-1939) - a sculptor and teacher.
  8. Petr Sergeyevich Vlasov - Nikolai Meshcherin's steward.
  9. Ekaterina Lvovna Domogatskaya - Vladimir Domogatsky's wife.

Illustrations

Autumn Morning
Autumn Morning
Tempera on canvas mounted on fiberboard. 66.5 by 79 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Spring. 1903
Spring. 1903
Oil on canvas. 43 by 59 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Willow-herb. 1912
Willow-herb. 1912
Tempera on cardboard. 67.3 by 85.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Fields of Rye. View towards Kolychevo Village from Dugino Estate. 1906
Fields of Rye. View towards Kolychevo Village from Dugino Estate. 1906
Tempera on canvas mounted on cardboard. 60 by 100.8 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai Meshcherin. 1886
Nikolai Meshcherin. 1886
Main House of Dugino Estate. 1900-е
Main House of Dugino Estate. 1900s
Nikolai Meshcherin in his studio at Dugino. 1900s
Nikolai Meshcherin in his studio at Dugino. 1900s
Igor Grabar, Mikhail and Nikolai Meshcherin. Dugino. 1900s
Igor Grabar, Mikhail and Nikolai Meshcherin. Dugino. 1900s
Before Sunrise. 1915
Before Sunrise. 1915
Pastel on paper mounted on cardboard. 29.5 by 36 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery

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