"A Duty to My People..."

Eleonora Paston

Article: 
MASTERPIECES OF RUSSIAN ART
Magazine issue: 
#3 2006 (12)

In June 1898 an important event occurred at the Tretyakov Gallery, already then donated by Pavel Tretyakov to the city of Moscow. Pavel Mikhailovich acquired for the gallery the paintings by Viktor Vasnetsov, "Warrior Knights" (1898) and "Tsar Ivan the Terrible" (1897). At the same time Tretyakov had the pictures on display re-arranged: the exhibition rooms were closed until early November and Vasnetsov received the opportunity to make new amendments to his recent pieces. "In the ‘Warrior Knights’ everything that needed touching up was touched up," the artist wrote to Tretyakov on October 5 1898, "for the better, I believe."[1] Amazingly, this was said after the artist had been working on the painting for 30 years!

From the early 1870s, when the artist pencilled the first sketches outlining the composition for his future picture, the project remained always on his mind. He reminisced later: "Maybe I was not always duly applying myself to the task ... but the 'Warrior Knights' were always haunting me, with my heart and my hand always drawn to them! They ... were my duty, my obligation as an artist to my people."[2] Saying this, the son of a village priest from the Vyatka region who absorbed in his childhood the beauty and poetry of folk belief and ancient songs and fairy tales, Vasnetsov was not just paying lip service to the trends prevailing at the time, but expressed his true attitude to the common people.

He made his first illustrations to fairy tales and first sketches for the "Warrior Knights" as coursework at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he enrolled in 1868, and at the same period he created a number of pictures focused on the life of peasants and the poorer dwellers of the Russian capital. Starting from 1874 his genre paintings were shown and enjoyed success at the "Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) Society exhibitions. Later the artist would recall about this period: "The only thing I am sure of is that when the passion for genre painting, during the Academic period in St. Petersburg, was at its highest, reveries revolving around history and fairy tales never stopped haunting me."[3] The upsurge of interest in national antiquity and Russian history and folklore that Russian society experienced at that time nourished such reveries, as did readings of the Russian sagas at Ilya Repin's apartment and inspiring speeches about the Russian epic delivered by Mstislav Prakhov - a philologist, linguist and translator of "The Lay of the Host of Igor" - who visited the students' meetings. Vasnetsov's thorough and sustained study of the works of Old Russian literature and folk epic met with whole-hearted support from his friends from the Academy.

However, when he came to Paris in 1876 on Repin's invitation and made, in Polenov's Parisian studio, the first painted sketch for the "Warrior Knights", well- rounded and with a carefully crafted composition, his friends were utterly surprised. Vasnetsov gave the draft to Polenov, but Polenov agreed to accept the gift only when the painting itself was finished, receiving the draft 22 years later, in May 1898.

In 1878 the artist moved to Moscow, where his art, to quote his own words, took a "definite and deliberate turn from genre painting" towards folklore subjects. He recalled later: "When I came to Moscow, I felt at home, I felt that was the ultimate destination - the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral nearly put me to tears, so dear and so memorable all this seemed to me."[4]

The collections of the Historical Museum and the collections of Moscow art collectors were important for Vasnetsov's exploration of the artistic heritage in Moscow as well. He was especially impressed by Pavel Tretyakov's gallery. Soon he was introduced to the great collector and became a frequent guest at the musical soirees at the Tretyakovs', where he listened intently to the musical works of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

"Without music I would probably never have created the 'Battlefield' or other pictures, least of all 'Alyonushka' and the 'Warrior Knights'. They all were conceived and created by inspiration from the music,"[5] the artist would write later.

In Moscow Vasnetsov made another important acquaintance, with the family of the high-profile industrialist and entrepreneur Savva Mamontov, who was a renowned patron of the arts and established a fellowship called the "Abramtsevo Art Circle". Its member artists, such as Vasily Polenov and Ilya Repin, Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin and Mikhail Vrubel, Mikhail Nesterov, Apollinary Vasnetsov and Yelena Polenova saw it as their mission to create an art based on national traditions. In the Abramtsevo community, Vasnetsov came to feel ever more deeply the aesthetic value of the ancient culture, its vitality, its necessity for real life, as well as new incitements for making real his artistic visions. Meanwhile, the circle members said that they were gaining "insights into the Russian national spirit" from the artist, and all the circle's activities were in one way or another connected with Vasnetsov. Theatrical performances staged at private homes and the performances at the Russian Private Opera House of Savva Mamontov between 1885 and 1900, work done at the Abramtsevo joinery (from 1885) and pottery (from 1890), the construction of the Vernicle Church with a chapel in Abramtsevo (1881-1882, 1892) and the construction of a park pavilion "Hut on the Chicken Legs" (1884) - Vasnetsov participated eagerly in all of the group's activities. The casual and inspiring atmosphere of the Abramtsevo community nourished the most daring artistic ideas, which materialized thanks to the practical support of Savva Mamontov, who was responsive to innovation. When in 1881 Vasnetsov resumed work on his "Knights" and was looking for a space that could accommodate the 3 by 4.5 m painting, Mamontov was quick to lend a hand. He overhauled a shed near the "Yashkin house", a summer cottage 500 meters away from the Abramtsevo estate, where Vasnetsov lived with his family during summers, and made it into a spacious artist's studio with skylight. "I remember," wrote Vsevolod Mamontov, the patron's son, "that in the mornings they would bring to the Yashkin house, by turn, either a heavy draught horse or my father's riding horse called 'Dog Fox', on which Vasnetsov modeled the horses for his knights. I remember how we envied my brother Andrei, whom Alyosha Popovich in the painting resem- bled."[6]

At that stage in his project of working on the "Warrior Knights", Vasnetsov wrote to Pavel Chistyakov: "My piece is about the knights Dobrynya, Ilya and Alyoshka Popovich, who are mounted on horses, out in the field, on the lookout - there is no one attacking, no one being hurt, is there? The figures are nearly real human size - Ilya turned out best of all, I believe ... Working on such a piece is no picnic! I really want to put my nose to the grindstone, but shall I pull it off?"[7] The task of conveying the people's idea of the knights from Russian folklore required from Vasnetsov considerable imaginative effort and careful research into the poetic material he found in the sagas.

The representation of the painting's main characters is based on the sagas. Ilya Muromets is in the centre: as a sitter for Ilya, the artist used a peasant from the Vladimir province, Ivan Petrov. He is plain and powerfully built, with an aura of quiet confident strength and worldly wisdom. Lusty and full-bodied, Ilya, notwithstanding his forbidding look - a club in one hand, alertly raised to his eyes, a spear in the other - is full of "kindness, magnanimity and good humour". Ilya Muromets is the only character in the Russian epic to be canonized in the popular imagination: the Eastern Orthodox calendar still marks December 19 as the feast day of Reverend Ilya Muromets, who lived in the 12th century and is popularly identified with the knight from the sagas. Indubitably linked with his lusty black horse, Ilya Muromets is highlighted with a large colour patch. His figure at the centre of the composition "organizes" the group of knights, which corresponds with the spirit of the saga: "Be our senior brother, you old Cossack, Ilya Muromets!"

Dobrynya Nikitich is one of the most likeable and profound characters of the Russian epic. Personable and imposing, in accord with the sagas, he is always ready for an act of bravery. There is a legend that the artist modeled Dobrynya on himself. Indeed, there is a certain resemblance between the knight's appearance and Vasnetsov's face, although the Tretyakov Gallery has the sketch of a peasant's portrait, made as a model for Dobrynya, which Vasnetsov apparently used considerably while working on the painting. The fine features of the face emphasize Dobrynya's "courteousness", his intelligence and sense of delicacy, thoughtfulness and prudence. He can carry out the most difficult assignments, those requiring a nimble mind and the tact of a diplomat. He is the only character carrying a golden cross, recalling the connection between the Dobrynya of the sagas and the Dobrynya from the annals, a real person who actively participated in Rus adopting Christianity.

The third knight, the youngest one, "dizzily brave", is Alyosha Popovich. Quickwitted and enterprising, he is willing to try any trick, even to bluff in order to gain his ends. A young handsome lad, full of bravery and courage, he is very sociable, a big merrymaker, singer and gusli-player. He holds a bow with a spear, and a gusli is attached to his horse's saddle.

Although the knights' main characteristics are sufficiently generic - an austere and restrained manliness, and a true- to-type regularity of facial traits - the detailed elaboration of the knights' appearances, their historically accurate dress, combat outfits, chain armour and stirrups, individuated their images, maybe even more than is needed for mythical folklore characters. But this approach was dictated by the artist's desire to conform to the popular idea of the knights, as expressed in the sagas and especially in the historical songs. Working on the "Knights" at Abramtsevo, the artist also tackled the picture's landscape. For Vasnetsov, who viewed the Abramtsevo scenery as a visual epic, an image of the Motherland appeared in the Abramtsevo landscape, with its knolls grown with small trees, the ravines and hillside slopes, the rivulet with high winding banks, and oak and birch groves. Not without reason, the artist said later that he learned how to paint the knights from the oaks in Abramtsevo. His sketches, such as "The Voria River Valley near the Village of Mutovka" (1880), "Scenery near Abramtsevo" (1881), and "Oak Grove in Abramtsevo" (1883) were part of the artist's quest for a landscape fit for the knights' picture.

In spring 1882 Vasnetsov wrote to Chistyakov about the "Knights": "It would be nice to display my piece, but it's not finished yet - I shall not hurry."[8] The fact that the artist mentioned his wish to have the picture displayed proves that the major part of the job was accomplished by then. Vasnetsov did not hurry, and in autumn 1882 he received an offer from Count Alexei Uvarov to create a panel-painting "The Stone Age" (1884) for a frieze in one of the rooms of the Historical Museum, then under construction, and this commission consumed much of the artist's time and energy, and he had to lay aside the "Knights". After "The Stone Age," in 1885 Vasnetsov was invited to work at a long-running project painting the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, a project that would consume him entirely for 10 years. The artist took the "Warrior Knights" with him to Kiev, but although time and again he "felt a pull" in his hand egging him on to return to the painting, he had to concentrate all his energies on the cathedral.

During the last years of his "Kievan sojourn" Vasnetsov, however, resumed his work on the painting, finishing the landscape. But when Ivan Shishkin, of the "Peredvizhniki” society, in 1896 asked Vasnetsov to lend his picture for its 25th anniversary exhibition, Vasnetsov refused, believing the painting was not completely finished yet. He offered the painting "Tsar Ivan the Terrible" instead. Although while in Kiev, the artist created "Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf (1889), "Portrait of Yelena Adrianovna Prakhova" (1884), "Sirin and Alkonost. Song of Joy and Sorrow" (1896), nevertheless his sense of responsibility to the "Knights" was probably so great that he would not tackle the painting without being duly focused.

During the period when Vasnetsov was working on the painting in such fits and starts, his artistic techniques somewhat changed. The images of knights and horses were mainly finished in the early 1880s, soon after the completion of the painting "After Battle", concurrently with "Alyonushka", the stage and costumes design drafts for Alexander Ostrovsky's "The Snow Maiden", and the construction of the church in Abramtsevo. As for the landscape, although Vasnetsov was drafting it at the same period, in the 1880s, he rounded it off only after 1892, when his monumental and decorative style matured while he was working on the murals of the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev.

The landscape in the painting acquired a monumental and epic sweep due to its smooth lineaments echoing the rhythm of the silhouettes of the knights (with Rus behind them), and the solid masses of dark-green hills. The heath with a scorched grass and wizened feather grass sets off the endless steely grey sky with light, dense billowing clouds. The tall grass echoing the delineation of the horses' manes, along with the small conifers and pines in the foreground appear to be curbing the forward thrust of the overlapping close-ups. The landscape is painted with sweeping brush-strokes, and a sprinkling of delicate field flowers, painted in tiny detail, introduces a lyrical overtone into its majestic atmosphere.

The knights' figures and the landscape are unified by the composition of the painting, austere in its simplicity and solidity. The impression of strength and stateliness is produced by a frontal representation of the three large figures on the big canvas. The knights are placed close to the viewer, who sees them from below and to whom they appear as if standing on a pedestal. The peaked helmets on their heads seem to be "buttressing" the sky. The hills and the dense dark forest in the background are painted in proximity to the knights' figures, which flattens the composition, devoiding it to some extent of an airy perspective.

The "Warrior Knights", like "After Battle" (1880) or "Three Tsarevnas of the Underworld"(1879), betray the artist's desire to make the paintings in the style of a mural. Ultimately, this quest produced a new genre of mural-like painting. This transformation demonstrates Vasnetsov's decorativist talent and his experience in working on murals; the character of the composition and its symbolism allowed the artist to express most clearly the ideas inherent in the contents and the theme of the painting. Although historically specific, Vasnetsov's knights "live" in an epic time, and this is what accounts for the feeling of solidity and monumentality that the painting evokes. The "Warrior Knights" thus epitomize the idea of knighthood in general.

When the painting was completed, it was decided that Vasnetsov's solo exhibition should be arranged, and it was held in March and April of 1899 at St. Petersburg's Academy of Fine Arts, featuring 38 paintings. The "Warrior Knights" - Vasnetsov's "pivotal" oeuvre, to use Vladimir Stasov's words - was the centrepiece. It was the first and last time that the painting was lent for an exhibition by the Tretyakov Gallery.

In June 1898 Pavel Tretyakov, on Vasily Polenov's advice,[9] marked out for Vasnetsov's paintings a large room upstairs, which previously had housed the international art collection of Sergei Tretyakov, and the "Knights" were mounted permanently on the wall that ends up the enfilade of the floor's exhibition rooms. The painting was one of the last acquisitions made by Tretyakov, who, to quote Ilya Repin, "shored up and gave a vital sustenance to a whole trend in the Russian art". But the "Warrior Knights" also summed up in a way the creative career of Vasnetsov himself. Better than any other of Vasnetsov's masterpieces, the "Knights" translated the "most essential thesis" of his "artistic credo": "We shall place ourselves on record in the treasury of the world art only when we concentrate all our efforts on developing our national Russian art, that is when, with all possible excellence and completeness we limn and convey the beauty, the vigour and the meaning of our national images - our Russian landscape and man - our real life, our past ... our reveries and dreams, our belief, and when we can reflect in things truly national things eternal, things timeless."[10]

 

  1. Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov. The Artist's World. Letters. Journals. Memoir. Documents. Recollections by contemporaries. Moscow, 1987, p.153.
  2. Viktor Lobanov. Viktor Vasnetsov in Moscow. Moscow, 1961, p. 124.
  3. Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov. Op.cit., p. 150.
  4. Ibid, p. 151.
  5. Viktor Lobanov. Op.cit., p. 59.
  6. Vsevolod Mamontov. Memoir about the Russian Artists (Abramtsevo Art Circle). Moscow, 1950, p. 27.
  7. Viktor Vasnetsov. The Artist's World. Op. cit., p. 59.
  8. Ibid.
  9. V.D.Polenov to PM.Tretyakov. In a letter dated May 14 1989. Manuscript Dept. of the Tretyakov Gallery. F. 1, item 2717.
  10. Viktor Vasnetsov. The Artist's World. Op. cit., p. 154

Illustrations

Viktor Vasnetsov. Photograph, 1895
Viktor Vasnetsov. Photograph, 1895
Viktor VASNETSOV. Warrior Knights. 1895
Viktor VASNETSOV. Warrior Knights. 1898
Oil on canvas. 295.3 by 446 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Halls of the Tretyakov Gallery. 1898
Halls of the Tretyakov Gallery. 1898
Vasily Polenov to Pavel Tretyakov. 14.05.1898
Vasily Polenov to Pavel Tretyakov. 14.05.1898
Viktor Vasnetsov with “Warrior Knights” in the background. Photograph, 1898
Viktor Vasnetsov with “Warrior Knights” in the background. Photograph, 1898
Scenery near Abramtsevo. 1881
Scenery near Abramtsevo. 1881
Oil on canvas. 34.7 by 49.3 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oak in Akhtyrka. Early 1880s
Oak in Akhtyrka. Early 1880s
Oil on canvas. 33.5 by 47.6 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai KUZNETSOV. Portrait of Viktor Vasnetsov. 1891
Nikolai KUZNETSOV. Portrait of Viktor Vasnetsov. 1891
Oil on canvas. 142.5 by 88.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery (Gift of the artist to Pavel Tretyakov)
Oak Grove in Abramtsevo. 1883
Oak Grove in Abramtsevo. 1883
Oil on canvas, mounted on cardboard. 36 by 60 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
“Warrior Knights” among exhibits of the Vasnetsov Hall
“Warrior Knights” among exhibits of the Vasnetsov Hall
The Voria River Valley near the Village of Mutovka. 1880
The Voria River Valley near the Village of Mutovka. 1880
Oil on canvas. 33 by 46.8 cm. Abramtsevo Museum-Reserve
Ivan Petrov, a Peasant from Vladimir Province. 1883
Ivan Petrov, a Peasant from Vladimir Province. 1883
Study for Ilya Muromets in the "Warrior Knights". Oil on canvas. 87.5 by 67.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery

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