Constantin Kousnetzoff. DISCOVERING AN ARTIST’S HERITAGE
The French critic Francois Thiebault-Sisson once called the artist Constantin Kouznetzoff (1863-1936) “a Russian who has been one of us already for a quarter of a century”: it was in 1925, on the occasion of Kousnetzoff’s participation (for the 23rd year running) in the Salon d’Automne, at which he showed works from his “Bridges of Paris” series. In a similar vein the Louvre curator Michel Florisoone wrote about Kousnetzoff in the catalogue of the artist's posthumous retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1937, a year after his death: “He made his art truly French... [he] infused Impressionism with his deeply personal poetics.” These two statements illustrate the particular quality of Constantin Kousnetzoff’s art, the way he managed to capture the essence of French Impressionism, to adopt its artistry and its liberal approach to brushwork and colour. He was able to become a European painter, while remaining all the time a truly Russian artist, his Russianness enriching his vision of the French tradition.
One could find something typical of the early 20th century in Constantin Kousnetzoff's emergence as an artist, distinctive though his particular path to his chosen profession would prove. The artist-to-be came to Paris, then a hotbed of new artistic trends, from the Russian provinces - he was the son of a wealthy merchant, born in the village of Zhyolnino in the Nizhegorodskaya Governorate, who before coming to Paris had taken private painting lessons for several years. In 1896, Kousnetzoff embarked on an extensive journey through Europe, after which he enrolled in the Paris studio of the French historical painter Fernand Cormon, where he refined his mastery of the academic drawing style over the course of some years. It was there that Kousnetzoff became friends with Viktor Borisov-Musatov: the two artists shared a love for French Symbolism and for Puvis de Chavannes, in particular. Kousnetzoff settled permanently in Paris in 1900 with his young wife Alexandra, living in an apartment (complete with studio) on Rue Clichy in Montmartre.
Whereas the Impressionists sought artistic inspiration on the Normandy coast, Kousnetzoff preferred Brittany. He first visited the region in 1900 when, on Cormon's advice, he explored its southern départements. “Concarneau is a big port, with too many people around," Zinaida Serebryakova would later write, with a degree of irritation, when she visited the place in 1934, “an unpleasant little town... with lots of sardine factories." But the atmosphere of Concarneau would inspire Kousnetzoff, enriching the palette of his pictures with various shades of green and pale blue. Contemplating the creation of a large composition, “Fishermen in Concarneau", the artist produced a number of sketches: its subject matter was simple, mainly boats and fishermen, although the focus was not on those elements but on the play of light and air that suffused the painting. The picture was displayed at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1902 and - rare for a novice! - met with acclaim from the jury and critics. From that year on, Kousnetzoff would regularly exhibit at the annual shows of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, then, from 1903, at the Salon d'Automne, and from 1905, at the Salon des Indépendants. Among those who singled him out for praise were Roger Marx, Guillaume Apollinaire and Thiébault-Sisson.
The artist's family life was happy, with his wife giving birth to four children between 1902 and 1913. The family remained in Paris for quite a while after the birth of their first child, but from 1906 the Kousnetzoffs started to visit Brittany again. The painter began to feel truly at home in the region, taking a particular fancy to its northern area, the Côtes-du-Nord, and the small towns, or communes, of Val-Andre, Saint-Cast, Binic and Saint-Lunaire: Kousnetzoff preferred places that had not previously featured in art. Even in the early years of his creative career the artist was clearly gravitating towards Impressionism, a fact that was confirmed by contemporary critics and reviewers. “Constantin Kousnetzoff's impressionist, talented and significant works... are very good publicity for Impressionism", the critic Alexander Rostislavov noted in 1905, while Thiébault-Sisson wrote, “Kousnetzoff is an Impressionist who never departs from the formula of this school." Indeed, the artist's works are focused on fleeting impressions and sensitive to atmosphere, lighting effects, purity of colours and plein-airism and share such qualities with compositions by Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir or Camille Pissarro. Although far less apparent, it is the differences that make the artist's style distinct, distinguishing his works from those of his predecessors. His pictures show not continuity from, but rather a dialogue with Impressionism, pursued with all the courage and individualism of an artist of the 20th century. “Although Impressionism is initially the realm of our best artists, Kousnetzoff's interpretations can by no means be called a repetition of their works. No, he's far from that. It is with genuine interest that I look at his ‘Plein Air' and ‘Aspects of Paris' - full of emotions and storm, and always delightful," Thiebault-Sisson wrote.
From 1903 to 1909 Kousnetzoff participated in exhibitions of the “Moskovskoe Tovarishchestvo Khudozhnikov" (Moscow Fellowship of Artists, MTKh), which he joined on the invitation of Borisov-Musatov. In the 1900s this society of avant-garde artists was the first to introduce the work of Wassily Kandinsky, David Burliuk, Mikhail Larionov and Martiros Saryan to the general public. Kousnetzoff was assigned a special role - translating, as it were, the experience of the French school for the Russian artistic community. Alexandre Benois, always receptive to the subtleties of artistic interpretations, compared Kousnetzoff to artists of the “Durand-Ruel group" such as Monet, Alfred Sisley and Armand Guillaumin in his review of a Moscow Fellowship of Artists exhibition in the “Slovo" (Word) newspaper in 1905: “The Parisian Constantin Kousnetzoff is the best... One of his sketches, ‘The Seine near Bougival', is quite charming. The mood of a muddy-grey, rainy summer day drenched through and through is captured with perfect simplicity and truthfulness."
Impressionist imagery was not itself new at the exhibitions of the Moscow Fellowship of Artists - the novelty was its purely French character. The Russian press viewed Kousnetzoff as the exponent of a decadent movement, just as it did other avant-garde artists who adopted the latest European trends: thus, St. Petersburg critics characterized the Fellowship as “some Munich-Paris-Russian colony, inexplicably swept into St. Petersburg".
As one well versed in the poetic French nature, Borisov-Musatov was particularly impressed by Kousnetzoff's works. “I always feel at rest amidst your landscapes, amidst their calm and the sadness of a melan cholic nature," he wrote to the artist after visiting the Fellowship exhibition. “I often sit in the room where your works are displayed, thinking of beloved France and pining for it."
In the Vicinity of Saint-Lunaire. c. 1906
Oil on canvas. 79.3 × 99.3 cm
In 1907, Kousnetzoff moved to Montparnasse, where he settled in an apartment with a spacious studio that had previously belonged to the painter Lucien Simon. He was now living in the heart of the city's artistic bohemian community, but he did not become integrated into the specific artistic milieu at the core of the School of Paris, those who frequented the Café du Dôme or the Café de la Rotonde. Neither romantic night walks nor scandalous fame appealed to him. According to the memoir of the artist's son-in-law, the French architect and public figure Rene Vivier, Kousnetzoff was not very sociable by nature and his studio was closed even to his closest relatives.
The experience of World War I and the Russian revolution proved dramatic for the Kousnetzoffs. In 1914, the artist gave almost his entire fortune, some 5,000 rubles, to the municipal council of Nizhny Novgorod to help the Russian army, while his wife Alexandra's family jewels were donated for the support of the army of France, Russia's ally. The Kousnetzoffs themselves, meanwhile, had nowhere to turn for support: quite the opposite, when Russia, to the detriment of her allies, signed a separate peace with Germany, the couple was subjected to derision and criticism from the French with whom they had been socializing and had to leave Brittany in 1918.
Despite such difficulties, the time from 1911 to 1918 that the artist spent working in Val-Andre was one of the most productive periods in his life: his artistic vocabulary became bold and unrestrained, he worked in pure, bright colours and sweeping brushstrokes, his special type of composition with a high horizon often creating the impression of a bird's-eye view. The artist used painting to convey what can be barely expressed with words, a reverence for the boundlessness of the Earth, an almost cosmological approach to its land scape. His works from that period cannot be called impressionist, rather Kousnetzoff was creating his own vocabulary, drawing on, and adapting the experience of Impressionism, Cézannism, Symbolism, Fauvism and Expressionism. But more than anything, he was listening to himself, as he developed his personal rapport with nature. The quickness of his brush and the brilliance of his craftsmanship were conditioned not only by the characteristics of his style but also by his desire to capture emotions at the very moment of his perception of nature.
Kousnetzoff stopped visiting Brittany in the early 1920s: he was so short of funds that he could barely provide for his family. Meanwhile a new chapter of his life was opening in Paris and, although it was not by choice that the subject matter of his art changed, this development encouraged him to change his artistic vocabulary. The pure colours were gone, and he spent several years capturing the barely perceptible effects of the ambience of Paris, preferring to work in the mornings and evenings. The artist took a special liking to the Pont des Arts, resembling as it did a delicate pattern of lace, and he would submerge it in clouds of damp fog. The characteristic Parisian colour scheme in Kousnetzoff's pictures is created by their special gradations of grey, ranging from pearly-grey to almost black, “the smoky colour of old houses; in the plenitude of finest ashy, graphite, pearly tones...’’ Such tones help to capture the inexpressible - the city's special, poetic look, its “depersonalized glamour", its restrained luxury lightly bedecked with history.
Pont des Arts. c. 1921-1924
Oil on canvas. 81 × 100.5 cm
Having begun as a professional artist at the mature age of 36, Kousnetzoff remained eager to experiment and to change, just like a young artist, right up to his death. In the second half of the 1920s he discovered for himself an artistic idiom similar to the language of Expressionism. When he visited Val-Andre for the last time in 1926, he produced compositions utilizing hues of black and grey and contrast highlights. Abandoning an idiom of harmony, he was now crafting his compositions with contrasts of brushstrokes, forms and colours. Enthusiastically, he filled images of the place that had once been like a paradise for him with notes of discord, channelling through his pictures a disquietude caused perhaps by his awareness that this journey would be one of his final trips; with his children growing up, he felt more acutely a sense of his own approaching mortality. Back in Paris, Kousnetzoff continued to work within this new style, its long and almost chaotic brushstrokes, its paint running freely down the canvas, becoming the painter's distinctive maestria vocabulary. The emotional charge of his work was intensifying and the artist arrived at what might be called a version of Expressionism in painting.
At the very end of his artistic career Kousnetzoff, despite all the difficulties with which he had to contend, was able to move on to yet another new stage: in the early 1930s he began creating astonishingly bright, colourful and decoratively harmonious compositions. Like Monet, in the last years of his life Kousnetzoff achieved a stylistic freedom that was guided only by the subjective vision of its creator. In compositions such as “Fishermen on the Quai des Tuileries’’, “Pont d'Austerlitz and Fishermen" and “By the Seine" - all from the early 1930s - the artist made use of unusually bright effects of light, intense colours and decorative combinations of orange, green and turquoise. At the same time Kousnetzoff began to depict individualized figures, “little men" from within the great womb of Paris, of the kind so vividly described by Ernest Hemingway in his memoir “A Moveable Feast" - fishermen, stevedores, labourers, the bouquinistes, the clochards and the cabmen.
Quai des Tuileries. Early 1930s
Oil on canvas. 80.5 × 99.5 cm
Kousnetzoff spent his final years struggling with poverty, his old age and the circumstances of his life, but he continued working, as well as participating in the annual salons. In 1934, in dire financial straits, the artist had to leave his studio in Montparnasse and move to smaller rooms on the Rue Boissonade, giving up his more luxurious furnishings but taking with him all his paintings. He died two months after he had exhibited for the last time at the Salon d'Automne, on December 30 1936, aged 73.
His wife Alexandra survived her husband by 25 years and died in 1961. The couple's elder daughter Helene joined the Resistance during World War II; captured by the Germans, she escaped and later worked for General de Gaulle in Algeria. Their son, Michel, joined the French army in 1933 and served until 1945 as an air force engineer, while their younger daughter Olga never married and stayed with her mother until the latter's death. In 1963, she gifted five graphic works by her father to the Tretyakov Gallery.
Constantin Kousnetzoff seems a unique personality - not only because of the nature of his talent but also for the circumstances in which it developed. Essentially, this Russian artist became the sole follower of the French Impressionists who adopted their school, then developed his original variant on it, in Europe itself. This was both because of the painter's professional qualities - his artistry, his inclination to capture immediate emotional responses to a motif - and to the circumstances of his life: from the very outset, from the time that he started studying at Cormon's studio in the 1890s and right through the period when he was exhibiting, his artistic vocabulary was formed within the French cultural environment.
There were very few adepts and followers of “pure" Impressionism among Russian artists. Researchers such as Dmitry Sarabyanov, Mikhail Gherman and others have argued repeatedly that the Russian method of painting was somehow not “organic", especially so among its major figures, when issues of artistry were concerned. In such a way, Konstantin Korovin is almost the only artist recognized as an exclusively impressionist painter, his profound receptiveness to the plein air style and the artistry with which he tackled the surface of a painting comprising a unique parallel to the new French painting. However, the breadth of his talent and his sensitivity to Russian nature, which made Korovin an almost cosmic figure of Russian Impressionism, prevented him from integrating into the European environment, even following his emigration from Russia in 1923. Kousnetzoff, on the contrary, managed to adapt easily to the new artistic environment, in large measure thanks to the fact that he started out professionally in France, not back home in Russia.
Kousnetzoff was seeking in art the same power of impression as the Impressionists could master but wanted to replace immediacy of visual perception with an intensity of emotional responses to nature. “His brushwork conveys his inner vision of the world, he expresses the beats of his heart that are caused by responses to nature at a particular hour in a particular weather. His blessing as an artist lies in his ability to do this," his fellow artist André Marchand once wrote about him. Kousnetzoff began to build his art on what Monet's late oeuvre had revealed to him - on an understanding of life as a seamless pictorial tissue and an appreciation of the real potential of a free approach to brushwork and individual interpretation of the visual world - and developed all this in his own original manner. He made the method of Impressionism deeply personal and infused it with his individual poetic feeling, based on the freedom and emotional responsiveness typical for the painters of the 20th century.
Constantin Kousnetzoff's works are held at some of the major museums in Russia and Europe, including the Tretyakov Gallery, the Russian Museum, the Musée d'Orsay and Carnavalet Museum in Paris, the Eugene Boudin Museum in Honfleur in Normandy, and the Musée des Beaux Arts de Pont-Aven, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper and the Musée de Morlaix in Brittany, and the Gemeentemuseum den Haag, as well as in private collections around the world. The cornerstone of Kousnetzoff's legacy, however, has a very particular story behind it: his work from the first decade or so of the 20th century has survived in its entirety, almost as if “fresh" from his studio. Since he came from a wealthy merchant family and for a long time had sufficient money at his disposal to live on, he did not need to sell his works. He turned down offers from famous galleries and, as his daughter recalled, refused to sign a deal even with so eminent a gallerist as Ambroise Vollard.
When Kousnetzoff died, almost all of his surviving works were stored in his studio on Rue Boissonade in Paris, where several hundred compositions, both on stretchers and rolled up, as well as his sketchbooks and studies, were kept in a number of small rooms. They were left virtually without attention for many years, until the artist's granddaughter Monique Vivier-Branthomme wrote a dissertation about Kousnetzoff and his oeuvre which she defended at the £cole du Louvre in 1972. She assembled information about all the works of her grandfather of which she was aware - by then they were beginning to be sold to different museums and collectors - and compiled a card index. In 1992 Vivi er- Branthomme published her book, “Constantin Kousnetzoff, 1863-1936: un peintre russe en France".
Several years ago a group of Russian art scholars was fortunate to be introduced to the artist's descendants, who were then keeping Kousnetzoff's paintings and drawings in their Paris apartment - the family had by then moved from Rue Boissonade to more spacious surroundings - together with the artist's photographs, letters and archive. In 2015, the Constantin Kousnetzoff Foundation was launched by the entrepreneur and collector Andrei Shcherbinin to look after the artist's legacy, its mission being to preserve, restore and study the artist's oeuvre.
Constantin Kousnetzoff with his granddaughter, Monique. Photograph. c. 1925
Paris. Archive of the artist’s family
The Foundation has received more than 300 paintings and over 100 drawings, and the documents kept by the artist's heirs have now been digitized and catalogued by scholars. Its researchers work in Russian and foreign archives, gradually gathering more information about the artist: records and documents relating to Kousnetzoff and his family have been found in the Nizhny Novgorod and Astrakhan Region archives, the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, the Departments of Manuscripts of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum, the Russian State Historical Archive, and the Archives Nationales in France. A particular treasure among such discoveries was the correspondence between Kousnetzoff and Borisov-Musatov, held in the Department of Manuscripts of the Russian Museum. Researchers continue to pursue other lines of enquiry, including issues less directly related to Kousnetzoff himself, such as the activities of the Moscow Fellowship of Artists, of which he was a member, and Fernand Cormon's Paris studio, where Kousnetzoff studied together with Borisov-Musatov.
Published in December 2018, the first monograph about the artist in Russian (written by the author
of this brief article) painstakingly and comprehensively explored the evolution of Kousnetzoff's art. The publishing project was headed by the Foundation's head Konstantin Eshcherkin, an art scholar, collector and expert on 19th-20th century Russian painting. The use of the illustrations in the volume was made possible thanks to the extensive renovation of the artwork concerned.
Currently the Foundation continues the study, renovation and cataloguing of the artist's paintings and graphic pieces and hopes that its first step in popularizing the artist's heritage - the publication of the monograph - will be followed by his exhibitions, which would afford Russian viewers their first true opportunity to see the artist's “always delightful" works.
Photographs by Daria Popova, Vladimir Sigal, Ksenia Ivshina.
The paintings are the property of the founder of the Kousnetzoff Foundation, Andrei Shcherbinin, unless otherwise indicated.
- Thiébault-Sisson, F. ‘Le Salon d’Automne’ // “Le Temps”. 3 October 1925. P. 3.
- Florisoone’s article was printed in, Vivier-Branthomme, M. “Constantin Kousnetzoff, 1863-1936: un peintre russe en France”. Saint-Brieuc, Les Presses Bretonnes, 1992. Pp. 3-6.
- The correspondence of Constantin Kouznetsoff and Viktor Borisov-Musatov is held at the Department of Manuscripts, Russian Museum. Fund 27, item 23.
- Serebryakova, Zinaida. “Letters. Memoirs About the Artist”. Moscow, 1987. P. 117.
- Rostislavov, A. ‘Ultra-Decadence’ // “Theatre and Art”. 1905. No. 7. P. 108.
- Thiébault-Sisson, F. ‘Le Salon d’Automne’ // “Temps”, 3 October 1930. P.3.
- For more detailed information about Kouznetsoff’s participation in the MTKh exhibitions, see, Usova, Ye.A. ‘A Munich-Paris-Russian Colony: Notes on the Activities of the Moscow Fellowship of Artists in the 1900s’ // “Study of Art”. 2018. No. 2. Pp. 142-173.
- Benois, Alexandre. ‘The Exhibition of the Moscow Fellowship of Artists’ // “Slovo”. 1905. No. 40. January 18. Pp. 5-6.
- Bazankur, O. ‘Opening of a Show of a New Society of Artists’ // “St. Petersburg News”. 1908. 14 (27) February. No. 37. P. 2.
- Viktor Borisov-Musatov’s letter to Constantin Kouznetsoff, October 9 1905. // Department of Manuscripts, Russian Museum. Fund 27. Item 23. Sheet 5.
- Viktor Borisov-Musatov’s letter to Constantin Kouznetsoff, April 20 1904 // Department of Manuscripts, Russian Museum. Fund 27. Item 23. Sheet 1.
- Gherman, M.Yu. “Albert Marquet”. Moscow, 1972. P. 18.
- The couple’s daughter Elena married in 1924; their elder son, Alexander, enrolled in the army in 1925, and his younger brother, Mikhail, followed him in that career several years later.
- Usova, Ye. “Constantin Kouznetsoff. The Russian Who Is One of Us”. Moscow, 2018. Foreword written by Alexei Petukhov, senior researcher at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
Sketch. Oil, mixed media on canvas. Detail
Oil on canvas. 99 × 80 cm
Archive of the artist’s family
Archive of the artist’s family
Oil on canvas. 79.7 × 64.2 cm
Oil on canvas. 79.7 × 64.2 cm
Sketch. Oil, mixed media on canvas. 74.2 × 91.3 cm
Oil on canvas. 99.7 × 81 cm
Oil on canvas. 97.5 × 130 cm
Oil on canvas. 81 × 100 cm
Left to right: the family’s nanny holding Mikhail Kousnetzoff, Alexander Kousnetzoff
(sitting on the steps), Olga Kousnetzoff, Mademoiselle Vailly, Elena Kousnetzoff, Pyotr Kousnetzoff (brother of Constantin), his wife Lydia, Polina Kousnetzoff (sister of Сonstantin). Glass negative photograph (digitized). 1913. Archive of the artist’s family
Charcoal, whitewash on grey paper. 48.1 × 26.3 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 81.5 × 100 cm
Oil on canvas. 80.9 × 100.5 cm. Private collection
Oil on canvas. 65.5 × 81.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 81 × 100 cm
Oil on canvas. 77.5 × 97.5 cm
Watercolour, whitewash, gouache on paper. 47.8 × 61.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 81 × 100 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) Stéphane Maréchalle
Oil on canvas. 81 × 99 cm
Oil on canvas. 81.2 × 100 cm
Oil on canvas. 78.7 × 92 cm
Pastel on paper. 48 × 62 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Glass negative photograph (digitized). Late 1920s. Paris. Archive of the artist’s family
Archive of the artist’s family
Archive of the artist’s family