Vasily Khudyakov in the Ulyanovsk Regional Arts Museum

Louisa Bayura

Magazine issue: 
#3 2005 (08)

Vasily Khudyakov (1826-1871) was famous in the 1860s as a genre painter, the author of excellent portraits and historical paintings, and a brilliant graphic artist. A former serf, he became the only painter from the small Volga merchant town of Simbirsk to be awarded the honorary titles of Academician and Professor of St. Petersburg's Academy of Arts in the mid-19th century.

Today, the Ulyanovsk Regional Arts Museum has a small - 13 works in all - but nevertheless impressive collection of his paintings, which reflects various periods of the artist's career. Eleven works were presented to the museum by the Polivanov family in 1918. Khudyakov was a serf in the household of Ivan Polivanov (1773-1848), a landowner, senator, and member of the Privy Council. Both Ivan Polivanov and his son[1], had a taste for the arts and were themselves endowed with artistic talent.

They quickly recognised the remarkable talent of their serf and by mid-1842 Vasily Khudyakov was sent to the Moscow Art School of Drawing, set up by Count Stroganoff in 1825.

Young artists aged from 10 to 16 were admitted to the school, including serfs, who demonstrated an outstanding talent in drawing and various arts and crafts, a talent, "without which a craftsman cannot achieve perfection in his creations".[2]

Several early drawings by Khudyakov from 1842-43 were included in an album of drawings by Stroganoff pupils, which can be found in the Russian Museum reserves in St. Petersburg. This album was a present to Count Stroganoff. Almost all of Khudyakov's drawings included in it bear a tutor's mark "without corrections".

As a graduate of the Stroganoff Art School, Khudyakov achieved a thorough knowledge of perspective and anatomy. In the autumn of 1 843 Khudyakov enrolled as an external student in the Moscow Art Class, which later became the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

His level of skills was outstanding even among students selected by a strict board. His portraits, landscapes and copies of famous paintings from the past reveal just how far Khudyakov had progressed over the four years of his studies in the Stroganoff Art School. Nine paintings from 1844-45 testify to the remarkable creative enthusiasm Khudyakov experienced during his early period at the school.

Khudyakov's copies of Rembrandt's portrait of Hetman Sobeski and Claude- Joseph Vernet's "View of Chitta Nova Surroundings in Illiria in Moonlight" are in the Ulyanovsk Art Museum.

The artist also painted a great deal from life at that time. The Ulyanovsk museum has several of Khudyakov's portraits from the period, which have a strong tinge of genre painting about them. These are "Girl in Russian National Dress" from 1844, "Old Beggar with a Glass", and "Old Man with a Stick".

Khudyakov's early paintings bear the traces of the school's general democratic tendency, as well as the influence of such outstanding painters as Venetsianov and especially Tropinin, who would often give classes there as a freelance tutor.

In the Ulyanovsk Museum "Old Man with a Stick" is displayed next to Tropinin's "Pilgrim", thus emphasising a certain likeness between the work of the famous master (who was 47 when he was freed from serfdom), and the beginner, a serf. Both the artists are full of compassion for their protagonists.

"Old Beggar with a Glass" is most closely associated with the so-called "natural school of painting", shaped by the literary trends of the time and coloured by a certain physiological inclination. The followers of this trend devoted their art to a reflection on the darker sides of life and the social contradictions of everyday urban and serf peasant reality.[3]

The artist's depiction of a degraded old man has no trace of the "positive" characteristics of Tropinin; Tropinin's subjects always preserve a sense of dignity despite circumstances.

Khudyakov's "Old Beggar" could hardly have been painted during a lesson of "painting from life", where plain but attractive faces were usually selected. Khudyakov portrays the type of Russian man who is aware of the pernicious effect of drinking, but lacks the power and will to resist it.

There are many such types in Russian fiction of the 1840s - simple people who turned into drunks as soon as they had a spare kopeck in their pocket[4]. Yet another work of 1844 is "Girl in Russian National Dress": the girl is depicted against a conventional background, which recalls not only Tropinin but also Venetsianov. However, Khudyakov's "Girl" lacks the relaxed natural simplicity of Venetsianov's characters who are placed harmoniously in rural landscape. She looks more like a peasant-lady from a classical novel by Alexander Pushkin. Despite its sincerity and artlessness, the portrait betrays a shade of academicism and is closer to salon painting.

Already during his first year at the Moscow school Khudyakov's progess was marked with an honorary award. On September 30 1844, the Board of the Moscow Art Society sent his "Old Beggar with a Glass" for consideration to the Imperial Art Academy together with other students' works. The Board found it proper to comment on Khudyakov's extraordinary progress achieved over a very short time. [5]

During his first year in the Moscow school Khudyakov was experimenting in different directions. Moving ahead of the programme, he studied the laws of perspective and drew several landscapes ("The Moscow Kremlin", 1844; "Sukharev Tower During the Storm", 1845; "In the Bay. Zhiguli on the Volga", 1845 - all in the Ulyanovsk Museum).

Khudyakov was the only student in the school awarded a Silver Medal of the First Degree in the 1840s. His master Ivan Polivanov, who promised to give Khudyakov freedom if he succeeded, signed a permission to release him from serfdom. Thus, in 1847, together with a medal, Khudyakov received a Diploma and the title of a painter "with the rights of a 14th degree official. [6]

In 1848, Khudyakov enrolled as an external student and a painter in the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, where he studied with Alexei Markov (1802-1878), a popular tutor in the Academy. Khudyakov graduated from the Academy in 1851 to become a perfect figure in the nascent academic style. In the 1850s-1 860s he was already a mature artist; and it was just then that academism was taking shape as a trend which would become fully established in the late 19th century.[7]

Khudyakov's genre painting of 1853 "An Armed Clash with Finnish Smugglers" became a real event in his artistic career.

The purchase of the picture was a good reason for Tretyakov to meet the artist as well, and their meeting went so easily and pleasantly for both of them that afterwards they would cherish a mutual affection over two decades, despite misunderstandings that arose between them occasionally. Right after the meeting, and preparing for one of his usual foreign trips, Khudyakov wrote to Tretyakov that he would always enjoy correspondence with a young connoisseur, so sensitive to beauty and all things refined.[8] When Tretyakov started collecting art, he always took Khudyakov's advice with respect and attention, since the latter was the most mature and experienced artist among his friends and acquaintances. Khudyakov was an unquestionable authority for Tretyakov, according to his daughter. Tretyakov shared all his most challenging ideas and plans with the artist.[9]

Khudyakov was one of the few figures who knew about Tretyakov's most cherished dream, expressed in his will of 1860 - to set up a public art gallery in Moscow. On Tretyakov's request, and in line with his plans of creating a gallery of the Russian national school of painting, Khudyakov posed as an expert in deals involving the purchase of pictures and entire collections. Having visited the Pryanishnikov gallery with its works of Russian painters from the 18th and early 19th centuries, Khudyakov wrote to Pavel Tretyakov that he at least would not object against the deal, and that probably the collection could become the cornerstone of the Russian art gallery, to which others would likely willingly contribute as well.[10]

In the spring of 1856 Khudyakov managed to collect modest enough funds that would allow him to undertake yet another foreign journey to continue his education. He visited Germany and France, and then spent about four years in Italy. The Mediterranean climate and landscape, as well as Italian museum towns, had inspired numerous Russian painters for about more than two centuries. Khudyakov, far from an exception, became probably the most ardent admirer of Italy. At the very least, the Italian period is a most vivid and fruitful one in his art.

Away from the Academy, he became more open to outside impressions, his colours becoming richer, with dark tones replaced by happier and lighter ones. His numerous landscape studies of the period attest to the influence of the powerful talent of Ivanov. In the late 1850s Ivanov liked to go drawing sketches together with his lodgers, of whom Khudyakov was one.[11] However, the viewer should not look for the profound philosophical ideas characteristic of the Ivanov paintings: Khudyakov's landscapes are simpler and less ambitious. They are closer to the lyrical talent of S.F. Schedrin. Khudyakov managed to catch Schedrin's unhurried intonation, telling us about the flow of time and allowing us to feel at one with nature. This quality constitutes a special charm of Khudyakov's Italian sketches of the period. Some of them can be found in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

In his landscape sketches Khudyakov was gradually moving towards a large-scale work. Around 1857 he started looking for an appropriate subject more closely.

The Ulyanovsk Art Museum includes Khudyakov's study "Carnival in Rome", one of his best Italian studies; it catches the viewer's eye with its free brush sweep and boldness of colours. It is difficult to believe that such freedom of artistic expression could be reached in the mid-19th century. There are reasons to believe that Khudyakov was planning a major piece "Russian Painters at the Rome Carnival". There is a watercolour study of 1858 of the same name in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. This composition, in an oval frame, has all the features of a complete work; however, artistically it is much weaker than the sketch in the Ulyanovsk Museum.

Unfortunately, as soon as Khudyakov was about to start a large-scale piece, he was overcome by a strong desire for a grand style, and artistic freedom and lightness usually suffered. His "Travelling Musicians" of 1858 (in the Ulyanovsk Museum) is a case in point. It is difficult to recognise the artless characters of his numerous Italian studies from life in the idealized figures of the "Travelling Musicians".

Overall "Travelling Musicians" may be called an excellent example of a complete and perfect work of academic art of late 1850s with its inclination towards stories from the life of the "people in the street". It seems, however, that Khudyakov was not entirely pleased with either the topic or the artistic result. In 1859 he continued his search for a narrative element which would give him a chance to express his observations and reflections on the special features and unique beauty of Italy and its people, so different from the life of Russian peasant serfs.

By 1859 Khudyakov had developed the idea of a painting to be called "Playing Stone Balls". After his return to Russia, the picture was shown at the academic exhibition of 1860. A review of it mentioned Khudyakov as one of the most eminent artists of the time. PM. Kovalevsky, an authority among art critics of the time, wrote that Khudyakov's picture was the best at the exhibition, and that there was much to be learned from it. The painting made a name for its creator. His perfect graphic technique, powerful colour scheme, vivid style, typical images and the completeness of the story "return us to the happy early days of creative activity of the first Russian teacher of pictorial art", Kovalevsky wrote.[12] In 1860 Khudyakov was awarded the title of Professor of the Academy of Arts for this painting.

In the 1860s he produced several historical paintings, which shared certain elements: they were a mixture of historical and everyday stories, a genre developed in academic painting under the impact of genre painting itself. This form was highly stimulated by the rise of historical science, archaeology and ethnography. It became vital for every academic painter to know historical facts and small but truthful details.[13] Thus, Khudyakov chose a plot from Nikolai Karamzin's "History of the Russian state"[14] and its chapters about the Kazan Queen Suumbike, who was forced to leave Kazan together with her infant son Utemish-Girei on the order of the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible. This work by Khudyakov is poetic, vivid and expressive, which makes its historical story both truthful and touching[15], one evidently very important to the artist. Contemporaries could have blamed Khudyakov for excessive sentimentalism, but he did not force any conclusions on the viewers, nor did he intend to pronounce any judgement. It is quite clear today that in this picture he was consistently following the line along which Russian historical genre of painting was moving in the 1860s; he also demonstrates a thorough knowledge of 16th-century everyday life, visible in the meticulously painted details of decoration, wood- carved ornament of boats and the armament of the Russian warriors. Kazan Tartar national dress is also depicted with impressive knowledge: Khudyakov had studied it specially on a trip to the Volga.

As for the issue of the painting's protagonist, Khudyakov also treats it in line with contemporary ideas. Russian historical painting of the 1860s viewed such subjects quite critically, with a prevailing tendency to bring the protagonist down to earth.[16] Thus, Khudyakov depicts the Queen as an ordinary woman who suffers and resigns herself to her fate.

Another issue Russian painters of mid-19th century were trying to tackle was the depiction of common people: painters of the romantic trend started placing popular masses next to the protagonist.

Artists devoted to the historical genre started studying the everyday life of ordinary people in order to portray the past more truthfully. The most eminent art critic of the times Vasily Stassov remarked that this tendency would probably not yet lead to a genuine historical truth, but at least it was the right approach. It was seen as a first attempt to research and revive the lifestyle of ancient Rus, its human types, episodes and characters on the basis of the tradition that survived among common people; they were looking for an indigenous natural way of life not yet formalised by academic knowledge.[17]

In such a way, in his last large-scale painting Khudyakov set himself the task of coping with the issues facing historical painting at that time; in doing so, he confirmed with his entire art the idea of an integrity of creative work.

Brought up among the best examples of Russian historical painting, Khudyakov went further and created a new variety of the genre - a combination of historical and genre painting. He also excelled in portrait painting; in his early works Khudyakov created images of "people in the street", commoners, while in his mature years he paid his tribute to salon portraits, reflecting society's need for self-identification and the representation of a distinct personality of the time. His Italian period deserves special mention: Khudyakov both knew and loved Italy and its common people, and adored the eternal beauty of Italian landscapes. His art constitutes an inalienable part of the Russian "artistic 'cosmos'[18] of the mid-19th century.


  1. Nikolai Ivanovich Polivanov (1814-1874) - a connoisseur painter See: L. Bayura. "Polivanovski albom" (Russian Monuments. An illustrated almanach of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of historical and cultural monuments ? 41 (5-6/1998). Simbirsk-Ulyanovsk-Simbirsk. 350 years). "Veka nad ventsom" (Centuries Passed Over the Crown) Part 1, pp. 155-168.
  2. Shulgina E.N., Pronina I.A. "Istoria Stroganovskogo uchilischa" (History of the Stroganoff School of Drawing, 1825-1918). Moscow, Russkoye Slovo Publishers, 2002, p. 28.
  3. Sarabyanov D.P "Fedotov i russkaya khudozhestvennaya kultura 40-kh godov 19-go veka" (Fedotov and Russian Art and Culture of the 1840s.) Moscow, 1973.
  4. Grigorovich D. "Izbrannoye" (Selected Works). Moscow, 1984, p. 101
  5. RGIA. F. 789. Cited from: Oskarova N.P, "Vasily Grigorievich Khudyakov. 1826-1871. Exhibition catalogue. In commemoration of the 150th anniversary. Ulyanovsk" 1976. p. 4. [Manuscript. In possession of the Ulyanovsk Regional Museum of Arts. Archives].
  6. RGIA. F.-789, list 1, part 2, item 3209. 1847; Ibid., list 14, item 16х, p. 1 (Application of March 27, 1851)
  7. Gordon Ye. "Russkaya akademicheskaya zhivopis 50-60-kh godov 19-go veka. Zhanrovaya struktura, ikonographia, osobennosti stilya" (Russian Academic Painting from 1850s-60s. Its Genre structure, iconography, style). Iskusstvo Magazine, 1983, ? 9.
  8. The Russian State Tretyakov Gallery. "Pisma Khudozhnikov Pavlu Tretyakovu" ("Artists' Letters to Pavel Tretyakov"). 1856-1869. Moscow, 1960, p. 5
  9. Botkina A.P "Pavel Tretyakov v zhizni i v iskusstve" (Pavel Tretyakov. Life and Art). Moscow, 1993. p. 51.
  10. "Pisma Khudozhnikov Pavlu Tretyakovu" (Artists' Letters to Pavel Tretyakov.) Ibid., p. 119.
  11. Alpatov M. "Alexander Andreevich Ivanov. Zhizn i tvorchestvo" (Life and Art). Vol.2, Moscow, 1956, p. 238.
  12. Kovalevsky PM. "О khudozhestvakh i khudozhnikakh v Rossii" (On Russian Painting and Painters. Re the Exhibition in the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts). Sovremennik, 1860, ? 10. p. 379-380.
  13. Vereschagina AG. "Istoricheskaya kartina v russkom iskusstve .Shestidesyatye gody 19-go veka" (Historical Painting in Russian Art. 1860s.) Moscow, 1990, p. 38.
  14. Kisunko VO. "O nekotorykh chertakh stanovleniya istorizma v russkoi kulture vtoroi poloviny 19 veka. Vzaimosvyaz iskusstv v khudozhestvennom razvitii Rossii vtoroi poloviny 19-go veka" Vzaimosvayaz iskusstv v khudozhestvennom razvitii Rossii vtoroy poloviny 19-go veka.(On Certain Features of the Establishment of the Genre of Historical Painting in Russian Art in the late-19th century. Links between Various Arts in Russia's Artistic Development in Late 19th-century). Moscow, 1982. p. 36.
  15. Ibid. p. 49.
  16. Vereschagina A.G. Ibid., p. 91
  17. Stassov V.V. "Sobraniye Sochinenii" (Collected Works), Vol. 1, Section 2, St.P, 1894. Columns 34-36. Cited from: Vereschagina A.G. Ibid., p. 144.
  18. Sternin G.Yu. "Russkoye iskusstvo devyatnadtsatogo veka" (Russian 19th-Century Art). "Tselostnost i protsess" (Integrity and Evolution). Vzaimovliyanie iskusstv (Arts' Interaction). The Russian State Arts Research Institute. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2002, p. 14.
Portrait of Architect Alexander Stepanovich Kaminsky. 1850
Portrait of Architect Alexander Stepanovich Kaminsky. 1850
Oil on canvas. 81.6 by 68.8 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of an Unknown Woman. 1852
Portrait of an Unknown Woman. 1852
Oil on canvas. 72.6 by 58.4 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Old Man with a Stick. 1844
Old Man with a Stick. 1844
Oil on canvas. 66.5 by 53.5 cm
Travelling Musicians. 1858
Travelling Musicians. 1858
Oil on canvas. 114.8 by 99.8 cm
Queen Suyumbike Leaving Kazan 1870
Queen Suyumbike Leaving Kazan. 1870
Oil on canvas. 140 by 226.5 cm
Playing Stone Balls. 1860
Playing Stone Balls. 1860
Oil on canvas. 149 by 198 cm
Kiev Museum of Russian Art





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