The Magic of Watercolour

Irina Shumanova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2008 (20)

The Tretyakov Gallery expresses sincere gratitude to Anatoly Novikov for financial support of the exibition.

The exhibition of watercolours from the 18th to early 20th centuries from the Tretyakov Gallery’s Department of graphic art.

Watercolour is one of the most complex and mysterious art techniques. It seems at first glance that its secret is relatively simple - pigments very finely ground and dissolved in water form a translucent layer of paint colour penetrable for sun beams which, reflecting from the white surface of paper, enhance the intensity of colour. However, the mystery of the charm and lasting allure of the watercolour technique, its eternal freshness and relevance remains intractable. Interactions of hues, a softness of colour transitions and an intensity of the clusters of colours, with the high profile of paper, its colour and texture - all this imparts to the artistic language of watercolour paintings an unmatched charm and elegance. Works in watercolour hardly allow alterations and corrections in the course of their creation, and this technique requires from artists a special sensitivity, precision of eye and hand, and a consummate mastery of colour and form. For an accomplished painter, watercolour affords the opportunity of endless diversity of effects, subtlest shading and decorative colour contrasts.

The history of the technique has been complex — it was not a straightforward linear evolution, although the general trend towards an awareness of the individual features of visual language, and the formation of a distinct aesthetic different from other kinds of painting can be traced fairly clearly. Watercolour lays completely open the artist’s temperament, revealing the very core of a creative individuality, in particular the sense of colour, the degree and nature of one’s gift for colour. This is why the history of watercolour embraces a variety of trends, and an astonishing richness of distinctive modes of expression, styles and patterns, each more original than another.

Along with the best achievements of the prominent watercolour artists — Karl Briullov, Alexander Ivanov, Vasily Surikov, Valentin Serov, and Mikhail Vrubel — who represent the highest points in the realization of the potential of watercolour, just as important is the general culture of watercolour art which has been shaped by the efforts of a wide range of professionals, and sometimes just amateurs, and reflects the mentality of a generation.

The “Magic of Watercolour” exhibition from the graphic art department of the Tretyakov Gallery features more than 350 works of Russian watercolour art from the 18th to 20th centuries which include both well-known pieces and others that are unknown to the general public.

Watercolour as a medium appeared in Russia in the 18 th century — the technique was used for “illuminating” prints and architectural drafts. The exhibition features several rare, earliest pieces of that kind made by unknown masters. By the late 18th century watercolour already was an autonomous art with some distinct means of expression and artistic language.

Russia, like many other European countries, borrowed the watercolour technique from England. The English watercolour artists developed a special set of techniques termed “wet in wet”. A dash of paint was applied to a wide area of the paper. The general tonality determined the rest of the colours, and the impression was shaped by gradual, barely perceptible colour shadings. The most interesting examples of this “English style” include Mikhail Ivanov’s watercolour landscapes (“View of Three Churches on Mount Ararat”, 1783) and Gavriil Skorodumov’s “Portrait of Ivan Skorodumov”, which, unusual for its time in terms of genre, is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that the artist lived in England for a long time and learned the technique of the English watercolour school in its purest form.

Another type of watercolour, which came into its own a little while later, originated in Italy. In Italian watercolour, the artist applies a drybrush technique whereby one shade of colour is applied over another gradually, after the preceding layer has dried, touch by touch, intensifying the shades of colour from light to dark. Italian watercolours were marked by their diversity of rich colours, plasticity, contrasts of light, brightness and intensity of colour scheme. The “Italian style” was imported to Russia by the members of the large Russian artistic community in Rome, holders of Academy of Arts fellowships, first of all Karl Briullov.

The genre of landscape was very important for the development of the watercolour in Russia. Along with pictures made using watercolour only, other characteristic pieces include those made with watercolor and gouache, such as “View of a Park in Tsarskoye Selo” by Ferdinand de Meys, “A Mill and Pil Tower in Pavlovsk” (1797 or later) by Sylvestr Shchedrin, and gouache paintings “with watercolour effect” such as “Pond in a Park in Tsarskoye Selo” (early 1810s) by Andrei Martynov.

These pieces show how the differences in the properties of watercolour paints and their interaction with paper were being explored at the turn of the centuries. Views of architectural landmarks and fantasias (so called “vedutas”) created by architects were very important in the formation of the genre of watercolour landscape. Such works include the gems of the Tretyakov Gallery: Vasily Bazhenov’s “Italian Landscape. Rome” (1762-1764), Andrei Voronikhin’s “Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg” (1800), and Giacomo
Quarenghi’s “Landscape with Ruins” (from the 1800s).

Fyodor Alexeyev was a master of veduta and the founder of the genre of the cityscape in Russia. His works “View of Mikhailovsky Castle in St. Petersburg” (1799-1800) and “View of Kazan Cathedral” (1810s) are distinguished by the particular elegance of their craft. The translucent pearly shades of colour, the perfection of the shapes of buildings, the masterfully arranged colour highlights on little staffage figures lend to the pictures of the city views charm and harmony of an ideal. Fyodor Alexeyev’s traditions were carried on by his student Maxim Vorobyev, who, in his watercolour painting “The Neva View from the Mining Institute” (1834 or earlier), created one of the most soulful images of St. Petersburg in Russian art.

In Vorobyev’s paintings, made, during a journey, for the purpose of “recording the surroundings”, the topographic precision is combined with astonishing freedom, and the affectivity of style goes together with an extreme conventionality of artistic language. Maxim Vorobyev started a whole school of “recorders of surroundings” who worked in the genre of “topographic landscape”. The works of Sokrat Vorobyev, the brothers Nikanor and Grigory Chernetsov, and Karl Rabus are distinguished by a consummate mastery, but lack that reverence for technique, that magic of formal perfection which elevated Maxim Vorobyev’s pieces to the plane of high art.

Both professional and amateur artists en masse turned to watercolour landscape. The exhibition for the first time introduces a still little known culture of album watercolour — pieces by Karl Kolman, Karl Hampeln, Nicolas de Courteille, Nikolai Tikhobrazov and others. Amateurs’ paintings on the whole and amateurs’ watercolours in particular are an essential part of the art of the early 19th century. The circle of amateur painters produced such prominent artists as Pavel Fedotov and Fyodor Tolstoy. A flavour of spontaneity and candidness demonstrating the artist’s “selfeducation” lends a special charm to Fedotov’s early watercolours, such as the twin portraits of Maria and Apollon Kolesnikov (1837), “A Stroll” (1837), “Gamekeepers Ford during Martial Exercise” (1844). In his famous sepia drawings the impeccable craft elevates these “scenes from everyday life” from the plane of an amateur’s pastime to the level of important genres of visual art.

Tolstoy’s works represent an unexpected turn in the development of watercolour art. They can be called watercolours only by some stretch of imagination — the artist ground and prepared the paints with his own hands, so the paints were something in between gouache and watercolour. Individually preparing the paints, the artist could use the advantages of both media,applying dense non-transparent paint colours and alternating them with the finest glaze coat.

The intensity and fruitfulness of the development of watercolour depended on the demand for the technique existing at the time, and on how well its language fitted in with the aesthetic categories of the time. In the age of Romanticism watercolour art for the first time became aware of its autonomy. Romanticism made the watercolour portrait a leading genre of the era. Sometimes it seems that the images created by the prominent artists of the first half of the 19th century not only embodied but also shaped the idea of the ideal of the age — the sitter's mindset, and her or his appearance and manners.

Watercolour portraits of the first half of the 19th century are presented at a separate section of the exhibition, introducing the viewer to the history of the genre and featuring a large range of works. The early works of the founder of the genre, Pyotr Sokolov, demonstrate that the genre originated from the genre of the miniature portrait — the same small size, oval composition of the picture, and distinct treatment of the space of a sheet.

Over time this link gradually disappeared — the image slowly claimed the space of an entire paper sheet, the brushstrokes became wide, unrestrained and versatile, and the paint colours — translucent and lightsome. Each created quickly, at one sitting, Sokolov’s pictures from the 1820s-early 1830s are full of refined charm of a friendly dialogue between the artist and his model. Sokolov’s achievements inspired followers in considerable numbers (including his son Alexander Sokolov) — the show features many of their works, including the pieces of Vladimir Gau, Afanasii Nadezhdin, Mikhail Alexeyev, Ivan Alexeyev, Alexander Vorobyev, Konstantin Osokin and others. Learning and diversifying Sokolov’s techniques, these artists created a range of portraits of their contemporaries which have such a strong stylistic kinship that, taken together, they appear as a portrait of the beautiful classic era within whose cultural environment the art of watercolour portrait came about, blossomed, and then vanished forever together with the generation whose image it preserved so carefully.

Another distinct trend in watercolour portraiture is represented by the brothers Alexander and Karl Briullov. The modest charm of Sokolov’s reticent sitters presents a sharp contrast to the flamboyancy and artistic posture of the theatrical and flashy portraits by Briullov which are always representative, even when the artist’s goals are modest in scope. In Briullov’s portraits the sitters’ characterization is bolstered by a variety of accessories — the patterns of the iridescent creases of the fabric, the openwork lace, and the interplay of different textures. The Tretyakov Gallery’s treasured gems include Karl Briullov’s masterpieces such as big ceremonial portraits — “Portrait of Grigory and Varvara Olenin” (1827) and “Portrait of Maria Buteneva with Her Daughter Maria” (1835).

A past master of genre scenes and landscapes, Briullov masterfully introduced elements of those fields into his portraits. Such form made the artistic challenge more difficult and at the same time enabled the artist to display fully his great gift for colours, unbounding his “ardent artistic temperament and exuberant imagination”. ’ Any show of Briullov’s watercolour artwork would not have been complete without his Italian scenes, so much favoured by the artist’s contemporaries, — “the gems of his imagination and phenomenal brush”.[2]

The exhibition features a whole “suite” of Briullov’s small Italian genre scenes: working on these happy and carefree pictures, he enjoyed freedom from the academic canons. The artist achieved in these pieces an elegant “Mediterranean” colouristic richness and masterfully harmonized the complex polychrome clusters of colours, achieving a strong intensity and a nearly ostentatious precision and perfection. The gift of Briullov the watercolourist also showed off in sepia, a monochrome variety of the technique. The sepia pieces “invite a new understanding of aesthetic perfection of an oeuvre”,[3] giving the artist a special freedom of breathing and causing him to anticipate, to a certain extent, new techniques and new trends in watercolour painting.

The watercolours by Alexander Ivanov are an absolutely unique legacy, an unsurpassed achievement in terms of mastery of the media and an ultimate expression of its essence. The artist turned to watercolour when he was already an experienced and accomplished oil painter, and even his first watercolour paintings (“A Bridegroom Choosing Earrings for His Bride”, 1838, and “October Festivities in Rome”,1842) are astonishing for their daring and perfection. In the way the artist treated the media one clearly feels his delight at the new opportunities opened up for him. For Ivanov, watercolour was a technique of artistic quest, a technique affording novel treatment of space in terms of light and colour. Made quickly, “in one breath”, his plein-air landscapes of the mid-1840s and 1850s (“Italian Landscape. Nettuno”, “Seashore in Naples”, “Boats”, “Water and Rocks”) offer the viewer an opportunity to experience the development of a picture from the first to the last brushstrokes.

Sunlight is the theme of many of Ivanov’s watercolours. As if aware of the uniqueness of the artistic challenge, Ivanov supplied such pieces with an explanatory note “made in the sunshine”. His “Terrace with Grape Vines” belongs to the most famous among Ivanov’s “experimental” albums which consists of nearly monochrome plein-air sketches. In these pictures, a dazzling sunlight embodied in the shining whiteness of a paper sheet capriciously changes the form and colour of the objects, blends silhouettes, and creates an effect of mercurial light and air and vibrant opalescent matter.

Ivanov’s “biblical sketches” are undoubtedly the artist’s major accomplishment. In the conventions of the watercolour technique, in the conceptual incompleteness of statement peculiar to a sketch, Ivanov achieved congruity with his creative intent. The techniques of the biblical sketches are diverse — they vary, blend together and are reborn in response to a specific artistic goal.

In some pictures the paints are transparent almost to the point of immateriality, in others, the watercolours are multi-layered, dense and solid. In the pictures on dark paper the effect of an enthralling inner glow was achieved through the use of white pigments. As it turned out, Ivanov’s watercolour pieces practically had no impact on the art of his contemporaries and immediate successors. His watercolours, known only to a few people, remained in the safekeeping of the artist’s brother Sergei Ivanov and Mikhail Botkin “until the time would come”, as was willed by the artist himself, who was aware that his discoveries “were ahead of the times”. Some of them were printed in the 1870s-1880s[4], but it was not before these watercolours were transferred to the Rumyantsev Museum that they started to play an important role in the life of art exerting a great influence on the generation of artists of the late 19th-early 20th centuries.

After the deaths, very close to one another in time, of the prominent watercolour artists Sokolov, Karl Briullov and Ivanov, this kind of art experienced a difficult period. The demise of such masters of the genre marked a change of epochs and coincided with the beginning of major shifts in the way that the goals and mission of art were perceived by society. The refined aesthetics and exquisite culture of watercolour art, with the conventionality and artistry of its language, in the 1860s did not quite correspond with the social challenges of the new artistic epoch. The position of watercolour remained secure only in such traditional areas for this art as landscape, the “Italian genre”, and costumed portraiture. In these subgenres the traditions and professionalism of execution were carefully maintained. The elaborate works of Fyodor Bronnikov, Alexander Rizzoni, Karlis Huns, Luigi Premazzi, Ivan Raulov, and Lev Lagorio treated watercolour as a technical variety of oil painting. The works of the artists who carried on this tradition demonstrate a very naturally occurring and smooth change between generations of “conservative” watercolour artists.

Meanwhile, the hierarchy and patterns of the main genres of watercolour were undergoing major changes. Watercolour portraits and home interior pieces as indispensable attributes of the everyday life of the nobility and household decoration were faced with a fashionable rival such as the daguerreotype, and then photography, which gradually replaced them as a “documenting” medium. The artists no longer received commissions for intimate watercolour portraits; now, they had new sitters — friends and relatives. This sort of portraiture was now one of the “utility” genres used as a platform for the quest for new means of expression and formation of a new language of watercolour.

In the middle of the century watercolour made inroads into other genres as well, such as the plein-air sketch, illustrations, scenes from everyday life with social critical messages, and satirical sketches. Each of these genres modestly enriched the watercolour technique with new features. Pyotr Shmelkov in his scenes from everyday life worked on improving the interaction between watercolour and pencil drawing applied over an as yet wet layer of paint: “two elements fuse — painting and drawing”.[5] In the sketches and drafts of the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) Exhibition Society artists the natural and even unavoidable effect of incompleteness started to be treated as a special advantage of the watercolour painting method, and an important aesthetic technique.

In the 1870s the young generation of artists, it seemed, discovered for themselves anew the potential of watercolour. Their pieces were not public, but an art technique “for oneself” affording an absolute freedom of self-expression. So, Ivan Kramskoy’s watercolour landscapes such as “Gate in a Garden” (1874), “Courtyard in a Village in France” (1876), “In Meudon Grove Near Paris” (1876), “Hapsal” (1878) reveal to us a completely novel, “unknown” Kramskoy. It is hard to believe that these cheerful, multicolour pictures made with inspiration and artistry were created by a painter whose paintings are marked by level-headedness, emotional restraint and an austere, nearly ascetic colour design. It is not so much the “inopportunity” of these small masterpieces, their incongruity with the style of Kramskoy the artist and the views of Kramskoy the theoritician of art and the public figure, that is astonishing but the very vigour of his gift for colours which remained unused in the artist’s work as a painter.

The genre of sepia landscape, presented at the exhibition by the artwork of Lev Lagorio, Alexei Bogolyubov, Fyodor Vasiliev and Isaac Levitan, had followed an interesting course since the 1860s. These works share in common a nobleness and artistry of execution based on an infinite diversity of brushwork techniques and modes of application of the brush, and on different degrees of elaborateness of treatment of the surface and density of the paint layer.

Many “Peredvizhniki” artists turned to watercolour only occasionally. However, in their watercolour pieces the results of their artistic quest were revealed earlier, or could be seen more clearly. Thus, comparison of Isaac Levitan’s and Valentin Serov’s landscapes of the 1890s-1900s point to the the instance in the history of landscape art when watercolour gave rise to “psychological” landscape conveying a state and mood of the nature — “...the tender, gossamer allure of Russian nature, its elegiac charm”.

When watercolour technique was introduced in the curriculum of art colleges, this gave a huge impetus to exploration of the potential and aesthetic opportunities of the language of watercolour. In many aspects the new high point in watercolour art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries came about thanks to Pavel Chistyakov and was maintained by his students — Vasily Surikov, Valentin Serov and Mikhail Vrubel. What is peculiar about “Chistyakov’s school” is that the artists schooled in it were very different from each other — as a teacher Chistyakov had a special gift for identifying and cultivating the individual traits and distinct styles of each of his students, for “showing the way”, as Surikov put it.

In Surikov’s art, and maybe in his life as well, watercolour occupied a special place. Abram Efros’s somewhat jocose remark is astonishingly accurate in its essence, “There were two creatures: one was Surikov, another, Vasily Ivanovich. Surikov was a national treasure and created ‘Boyarina Morozova’; Vasily Ivanovich lived for himself and produced watercolours. We did not know him until very recently, and we only begin to know him now. ”

Watercolour was not an episode in Surikov’s life — he was painting watercolours for nearly 50 years. The evolution of his style in watercolour is obvious. A Siberian series from the summer of 1873, before Chistyakov’s classes began, marked the beginning of the road, with watercolour landscape pieces that share in common the austerity of the colour scheme based on bluish-green, “unfamiliar with the sun”, hues that “seem to have been suggested to the artist by the harsh Siberian nature”.[9]

The Italian watercolours from a series created in 1883-1884 are the gems of Surikov’s art in this technique. He masterfully conveyed the pearl-coloured heat haze of the morning sunlight reflected on the white walls of the cathedrals, the dazzling brightness of Pompeian frescos, and the exuberance of colours of the carnival. He would use an “ethereal, gossamer brush”, producing translucent tints of colour, barely touching the paper; or he would use the technique of the layered glaze, applying swift and “daring” bright brushstrokes or producing wide opalescent mottles.

Another famous collection of watercolours is the Spanish series created in 1910 when Surikov and Pyotr Konchalovsky traveled in Europe. The rivalry that naturally arose between them was not just a contest of the two excellent colourists and artists from two different generations — it was an encounter of two artistic mindsets, and useful for each other. A very sensitive instrument of the artist, Surikov’s watercolour absorbed the features of the art of the new time. The expressiveness and emotional charge of the colour design, the sharpness of discordant juxtapositions, a cult of incompleteness changed Surikov’s style — he used sweeping brushstrokes, liberally applied paint over wide areas on wet paper, sharpened “the colour intensity almost to a paradoxical level, to overstrain...” Such are his works “Seville” and “Bullfight in Seville”.

In the art of Chistyakov’s younger students, Mikhail Vrubel and Valentin Serov, watercolour is nearly as important as their paintings. Working literally side by side, “arm in arm”, each one of them pursued his own course in this artform. Equally gift
ed as a draughtsman and a colourist, Serov developed a watercolour style where line and colour were inseparable. He saw and perceived the shapes of objects in a generalized manner, committing them to paper in a form of terse figurative formulas.

In a single brushstroke, he would paint, construct and model the form and give it colour. In its very nature Serov’s watercolour style has a likeness with drawing — the same treatment of the paper surface, the same principles of construction of space and form, the same level of conventionality of language. His colour design is discreet and based on a wide variety of the subtlest hues and diversity of tints and tones. His noble grey colour can express the entire colour diversity of the world.

Serov’s sketches such as “On the Road” (1900s) and “Greece. The Island of Crete”(1907), never previously displayed, are astonishing. In these pieces, the outlines of the real world are not so much represented as suggested. Real-life objects, and the real-life world are not reproduced, but rather are born again within the conventional space of a paper sheet. While Serov in these works came close to a certain frontier of the world of objects, the threshold of conventionality of language affordable within the limits of the artistic parameters of his time, he was confronted with the challenges of the future generation of artists, and the backbone of their experiment with a more abstract form.

Vrubel was exceptionally disposed to the technique of watercolour. Amazingly, even his first pieces, such as “Head of a Girl” (1882), “Yfelizaveta Bem Sitting in a Chair” (1882), and “Over a Mug of Beer” (1883), which he made as a student at the Academy, are mature and speak of the craft of a natural-born watercolour artist, an inborn watercolourist. Characteristically, Vrubel was quick to grasp all the vast potential offered up by the watercolour technique, which suited his specific artistic needs; in a letter to his sister, he wrote about work in watercolour as one of the most important events in his life.

Vrubel’s style is infinitely diverse. For instance, in his “Persian Prince” (1886) he layered the surface of the paper sheet with miniscule, carefully nuanced strokes of paint colour rigorously adhering to the form; in the “Portrait of the Actress Tatyana Lyubatovich” (1890s) he created the image with big colour spots and liberally diffused paints, letting his brush be guided by the capricious course of the paint. Sometimes he would thoughtfully construct the form of objects, as if trying to penetrate the mysteries of the anatomy of things. An example of this is his famous “Rose” (1904), where the image of a rose seems to be bursting with the energy of taut petals of a burgeoning flower.

In the monochrome, nearly colourfree illustrations to Mikhail Lermontov’s “Demon” (1891) Vrubel, using an infinite variety of techniques of application of paint, condensing the rhythms of areas of different hues, creates a distinct vibrant mercurial atmosphere — the counterpart to the very essence of the poetic texture of Lermontov’s verse. In Vrubel’s art, the choice of techniques, selection of a “style” were not linked to the evolution of his watercolour style over time, but were determined on every individual occasion by the demands of a specific concept and imagery.

The art of Viktor Borisov-Musatov, whose technique was highly original, occupies a special place in the history of watercolour. Interestingly, the artist turned to this technique only in the last years of his life — when he had completely mastered the figurative aspect of painting. The richness of colour and tangibility of texture characteristic of his oil and distemper pieces, in his late watercolours such as “Balcony in Autumn” and “Requiem” (1905) turn into translucent, “immaterial” colour, an interplay of half-shades, subdued blurred colours, melting shadows, all of which match very well the poetic images of his ghostlike world balancing on the subtle line between the real and the imagined.

The last decades of the 19th centure saw a revival of universal interest in watercolour. The creation of the Society of Russian Watercolour Artists in 1887, and regular watercolour exhibitions (from 1880) contributed to further dissemination of this technique, ensuring that more and more artists took it up and, at the same time, enhanced its status among the public. Its agenda free of any political message, the Society of Russian Watercolour Artists was an association of peacefully co-existing exponents of different trends united in their enthusiasm for the art of watercolour. The current show features works by Mikhail Villie, Emily Vilie De Lille-Adan, Pyotr Sokolov, Rudolf Frentz, Ivan Alexandrov, Alexander Yegornov, Richard Berggoltz, and Albert Benois.

Some of these artists specialized solely in watercolour and perhaps because of that they have remained almost unnoticed in the grand scheme of the “general” history of art; nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Society of Russian Watercolour Artists accomplished its mission of preserving and passing on the traditions of the watercolour school of the early 19th century, and preparing the ground for the new rise of watercolour, which again started to be perceived as an autonomous area of visual art with its own distinct language.

Many of the Society members became mentors for the subsequent generation of artists. Thus, such a master of watercolour as Albert Benois taught and advised many future members of the “World of Art” group — Leon Bakst, Alexander Benois, Konstantin Somov and others.

The creators of the finest culture of drawing — the elder members of the “World of Art” — did not often turn to pure watercolour technique. In the “graphic paintings”, historical fantasias they preferred thick, dense paint colours and favoured gouache and distemper, but the techniques often were the same as in watercolour. The plein-air landscapes of the “World of Art” painters demonstrate that they were not only skilful at graphic pastiche, but also subtle observers of the nature.

Almost every watercolour by Alexander Benois, Mikhail Dobuzhinsky or Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva has a subdued and elegant colour scheme and combines a liberal application of the spots with an assertive drawing which lends a graphic accuracy to the structure of the space of the paper sheet. Konstantin Somov’s works are especially noteworthy. In life as in art he was forever overshadowed by his more energetic colleagues from the “World of Art” movement. In the history of visual art, which is mostly focused on oil paintings, he is known as the author of several pictures and a dozen gouache compositions focused on courtiers’ life and pastime, but these are just a small portion of his artistic legacy.

The real Somov was a superb watercolourist — indeed, rather in service to this art form until the end of his life. In his art the two trends in the development of watercolour converged, reconciling the traditionalists and the champions of quest for new forms. Moreover, his watercolour pieces, astonishingly, bring together all trends anywhere near significant for the development of this technique in Russia — he “digested” all genres that had ever existed and explored and tested all styles. A son of the custodian of the Tsarist Hermitage Museum, he was a great connoisseur of Russian graphic art and an interpreter of its traditions. An exacting critic of his own works, he experimented much with paints and never stopped working on his watercolour skills, creating his own distinct impeccable style and ephemerally refined language.

The most interesting and least appreciated portion of Somov’s artwork is his plein-air landscapes where he succeeded in capturing the nearly uncapturable — barely perceptible effects of the change of the state and mood of the nature — wind, rain, twilight, white nights, a rainbow (the last being Somov’s favourite subject); in his small 1908 sketch it is imaged in such a way that looks like an original metaphor of watercolour — a visible embodiment of the nascence of colour and form in the air imbued with moisture and light.

The “Magic of Watercolour” exhibition draws on the reserves of the graphic art deparment of the Tretyakov Gallery, spanning the period up to the 1910s, when one of the cycles in the evolution of the technique came to an end. However, that was not an end of the history of watercolour — the art of such masters as Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Aristarkh Lentulov marked a new and equally interesting period of the watercolour evolution in the 20th century. Wassily Kandinsky and Pavel Filonov created new fantastic worlds in watercolour — resplendent and scary. But this is a completely different story. One only has to hope that the Tretyakov Gallery will host an exhibition of 20th-century watercolours sometime soon. The forthcoming projects in the graphic art section of the Lavrushinsky campus of the Tretyakov Gallery will be focused on drawing techniques in the art of the 18th-early 20th centuries; they are expected ultimately to form a series of shows encompassing the entire range of the techniques and media used in graphic art.


  1. Apollon Mokritsky. Recollections about Karl Briullov. Quoted from: Karl Briullov in letters, documents and reminiscences of his contemporaries. Moscow, 1961. p. 148.
  2. Op.cit., p. 148.
  3. Eugenia Plotnikova. Exhibition of Russian watercolours from the late 18th - early 20th centuries from the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow, 1966, p. 16.
  4. Sketches from Ivanov's Divine History. I-XIV. Berlin, 1879-1887.
  5. Eugenia Plotnikova. Op.cit. p. 20.
  6. Alexander Golovin. Memoirs. Quoted from: Encounters and impressions. Letters. Reminiscences about Golovin. Leningrad-Moscow, 1960, p. 27.
  7. Abram Efros. Surikov's drawings and watercolours. Quoted from: Vasily Surikov. For the 150th anniversary of his birth. Watercolour. Catalogue of the exhibition. Moscow, 1998,p.5.
  8. Op.cit., p. 6.
  9. Lidiya Torstensen. Vasily Surikov's watercolours. Op. cit., p. 9.
Pyotr SOKOLOV. Flowers and Fruits. 1840-е
Pyotr SOKOLOV. Flowers and Fruits. 1840s
Watercolour on paper. 26.5×19.2 cm
Ivan IVANOV. Count Andrei Razumovskyʼs House – A View from the Park. Early 1800s
Ivan IVANOV. Count Andrei Razumovskyʼs House – A View from the Park. Early 1800s
Watercolour, ink, brush, quill on paper. 35.2×51.5 cm
Ivan KRAMSKOY. Courtyard in a Village in France. 1876
Ivan KRAMSKOY. Courtyard in a Village in France. 1876
Watercolour on coloured paper, white. 24×31.5 cm
Pavel FEDOTOV. A Stroll. 1837
Pavel FEDOTOV. A Stroll. 1837
Watercolour on paper. 26.5×21.4
Fyodor VASILIEV. After Heavy Rain. 1870
Fyodor VASILIEV. After Heavy Rain. 1870
Watercolour on paper, white. 17.3×36.1 cm
Vasily POLENOV. Among the Teachers 1894
Vasily POLENOV. Among the Teachers. 1894
Study for the painting “The Young Jesus in the Synagogue” (1896. Tretyakov Gallery). Watercolour, pencil on paper. 22.4×40.5 cm
Vladimir MAKOVSKY. Waiting for Pension at a Treasurerʼs Office. 1879
Vladimir MAKOVSKY. Waiting for Pension at a Treasurerʼs Office. 1879
Watercolour, pencil on paper. 17.3×25.7 cm
Vasily SURIKOV. Portrait of Olga Vasilievna Surikova (1878-1958), the Artistʼs Daughter. 1883–1884
Vasily SURIKOV. Portrait of Olga Vasilievna Surikova (1878-1958), the Artistʼs Daughter. 1883-1884
Watercolour, pencil on paper. 27×21 cm
Valentin SEROV. Royal Garden in Athens. 1907
Valentin SEROV. Royal Garden in Athens. 1907
Watercolour, pencil on paper. 22.6×35.3 cm
Isaac LEVITAN. Autumn. 1890s
Isaac LEVITAN. Autumn. 1890s
Watercolour, pencil on paper. 31.5×44 cm
Anna OSTROUMOVA-LEBEDEVA. Amsterdam. 1913
Anna OSTROUMOVA-LEBEDEVA. Amsterdam. 1913
Watercolourl, charcoal on paper mounted on cardboard. 34.5×50 cm
Yelena POLENOVA. Enclosure Around a Village Dwelling in Winter. 1890s
Yelena POLENOVA. Enclosure Around a Village Dwelling in Winter. 1890s
Watercolour on paper. 50×32.1 cm
Konstantin SOMOV. Bathing Women. 1904
Konstantin SOMOV. Bathing Women. 1904
Watercolour, black pencil on paper. 28.8×38 cm
Mikhail VRUBEL. Rose. 1904
Mikhail VRUBEL. Rose. 1904
Watercolour, pencil on paper mounted on cardboard. 29.8×18.5 cm
Konstantin SOMOV. Rainbow. 1908
Konstantin SOMOV. Konstantin SOMOV. Rainbow.. 1908
Study. Watercolour on paper. 25.2×26.3 cm
Konstantin YUON. Tverskoi Boulevard at Night. 1909
Konstantin YUON. Tverskoi Boulevard at Night. 1909
Watercolour, white on paper mounted on cardboard. 60.5×73 cm





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