“The ‘Zemstvo’ on Lunch Break” in the Novosilsky County

Anatoly Khvorostov

Magazine issue: 
#3 2009 (24)

Marking the 175 th anniversary of Grigory Myasoedov’s birth “The ‘Zemstvo’ on Lunch Break” (the Russian word in its title refers to the local elective distinct councils that existed in Russia from 1864 to 1917) was and remains Grigory Grigoryevich Myasoedov’s most famous painting, though Myasoedov worked all the time, creating more and more new pieces (Pavel Tretyakov and other collectors bought many of them).

Grigory Myasoedov (1834-1911) was an outstanding Russian artist. The art critic Vladimir Stasov, Myasoedov’s contemporary, always placed him among the first five best Russian artists of the 19th century. Myasoedov became an Academician in painting in 1870, at the age of 36. Along with other major Russian painters Myasoedov participated in the World Exhibitions in Paris in 1867 and 1878.

In 1870, Myasoedov gathered the best Russian artists into the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) exhibitions. Myasoedov began forming the body, also known as the “Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions” together with his fellow Moscow artists Vasily Perov, Lev Kamenev, Alexei Savrasov, Vladimir Sherwood, and Illarion Pryanishnikov. After that, Myasoedov went to St. Petersburg and convinced a group of artists of the northern capital to join the Muscovites. Among the first to support Myasoedov in St. Petersburg were Nikolai Ge and Ivan Kramskoy.

Marking the 175th anniversary of Myasoedov’s birth, it is worth speaking about his most famous painting, since to this day little has been known about it.

There is practically no information about the history of the creation of the painting. In her monograph dedicated to Myasoedov, Irina Shuvalova writes’, “Unfortunately, the history of this work’s creation is unknown to us. Not a single initial sketch has been preserved. There are no written testimonies of the artist or his friends about how and where he worked on the painting...” Earlier, Natalya Masalina2, one of Myasoedov’s first biographers, wrote, “The history of ‘The ‘Zemstvo’ on Lunch Break’ remains unknown. The artist might have observed a similar scene in real life. It is no coincidence that under the influence of this painting, Garshin, a famous writer, wrote the history of N-sky Country Council.”

We have managed to some extent to unveil the issue of where the master might have seen a similar scene.

Grigory Myasoedov was not just an artist, but also the son of a small estate nobleman. That means that, from time to time, he had to visit the “zemstvo” at the district of his father’s estate. This was the direction in which we conducted our search.

In the second half of the 19th century, the village Pankovo, where Myasoedov was born and raised, and where his father’s estate was located, was part of the Novosilsky district of the Tula province. That is why I wrote a letter to the Novosilsky regional natural history museum. In that letter there was a request to identify the building, to compare the building in Grigory Myasoedov’s painting with the building of the former local district “zemstvo”. Maria Kaznacheeva, the museum’s director, informed me that the building of the district “zemstvo” was completely destroyed during the war, and after it was restored, it looked different. There are no surviving photographs of the old building. However, in the museum’s collection there is a written testimony of the village of Pankovo’s native Anany Semenovich Remnev, who worked in the building of the former “zemstvo” in the early post-revolutionary years. Remnev writes that this is that same building depicted in the painting of his famous fellow-villager. This testimony reads: “The porch and the fagade of the building in general, the arrangement of the windows remind me precisely of the building of the former Novosilsky ‘Zemstvo’. Evidently, Myasoedov saw it and put it on canvas.” As if persuading his future opponents, Remnev stresses once again: “The building of the Novosilsky ‘Zemstvo’ had exactly the same fagade and porch. On January 28 1918, the first District Congress took place, and afterwards the District’s Executive Committee was there. I was a secretary there, a member of the Presidium.”

This is how Maria Kaznacheeva comments on this information: “Anany Remnev was elected deputy of the District Executive Committee in 1920-1922. He visited our Museum. I knew him very well. He claimed that it is the Novosilsky ‘Zemstvo’’s building that is depicted in the painting. I do believe Anany Semenovich.”

Thanks to these testimonies, we may be fairly confident in saying that Myasoedov painted his famous piece based on local material, having depicted the scene of a meager peasant meal on the background of the Novosilsky District ‘Zemstvo’’s Council of the Tula province. This is easy to believe, because on his breaks from the Academy of Arts the young Grigory Myasoedov might have visited Novosil in place of his aging father, and he might have visited the “Zemstvo” as well. If you leave the village early, in the cool of the morning—it is about forty versts from Pankovo to Novosil — you may arrive right in time for lunch without any haste.

Of course, the sharp eye of the artist could not help being attracted to such a scene, full of special meaning. And thus the artist conceived of the work that was destined to become world famous.

So, what is it that draws us to this painting, which is so simple on the surface?

Nothing special, it seems. Against the light wall of the building, several peasants are resting and eating their meager lunch. They are the peasant participants of the “Zemstvo” meeting, who walked out of stuffy rooms to eat what simple food they had: some are chewing plain bread, some spice it up with a dash of salt, some — with a bunch of spring onions. They are all united by sad thought, they had little hope for a just decision of their painful issues.

The compositional arrangement of the people’s group in the form of a wave implies the limitless potential strength hidden in the seemingly submissive and taciturn peasantry. Such a wave may tear everything down on its way. But for now the peasants are thoughtful and calm. In Myasoedov’s painting we see the lively faces of working people. The figures and poses are convincing and natural — these are not posing models, but real people.

As for the purely painterly tasks, the artist used contrast as an expressive solution: the peasants’ figures are seen as solid forms against a light yellow wall. In the foreground, the cold shadow of the building is next to an illuminated sunny rhomboid section. There is fresh greenery in the lower right corner of the painting, where the artist places the figure of a peasant, creating the contrast of light and colour.

The painting was first shown at the second exhibition of the “Peredvizhniki” in 1872.3 As contemporaries of the artist testify, Myasoedov’s painting was the best among the genre pieces at the exhibition. At the time the painting was called: “The Disctrict Zemstvo’s Council on Lunch Break”. Ivan Kramskoy, one of the most demanding artists and critics, praised the painting highly. In his letter to Vasily Perov, analyzing the works exhibited at the “Peredvizhniki” exhibitions, he wrote, “The landscape department and the portrait department — a brilliant genre — is average and even positively good. But Myasoedov’s painting is wonderful”.

Like every work of art, “The ‘Zemstvo’ on Lunch Break” has its own history and destiny.

Thanks to the written testimony of Anany Remnev, we can say with enough confidence that Myasoedov’s conception was rooted in what he saw in the Tula-Orlov region.

Myasoedov received an offer from the Imperial Academy of Arts to sell the painting to the Academy Museum. The artist priced his work at 1,200 rubles. While the Academy was considering it, Pavel Tretyakov approached Myasoedov with the same offer: he wished to buy “The ‘Zemstvo’...” for his collection, but he asked to lower the price. As a true merchant, Tretyakov never bought a painting for the offered price; he always tried to bargain. And so he remained true to his habit. Myasoedov responded to Tretyakov’s suggestion: “Dear Sir, Pavel Mikhailovich!.. I am, of course, pleased by your desire to place my work in your gallery, and, considering it an honour to be part of your collection, I am ready to make a possible reduction of the named price; the price announced by me to the Academy of Arts for “The ‘Zemstvo’ on Lunch Break” is 1,200. But, as the Academy still has not said anything definite, and also as it pleases me much more to be in your collection, and not in the Academy’s..., I will lower the price to 1,000 rubles. I think, Pavel Mikhailovich, that upon considering the prices named by other artists, which you do not find excessive, I do not cross the border of fairness in my demand, and I will be very sorry if you do not want to go up for the same amount that I went down. Be kind, Pavel Mikhailovich, inform me of your final intention, so I can act freely, and not be perturbed by a fruitless desire to be in your collection.”4

Tretyakov did not appreciate the nobility of this offer from an artist who lived by the sale of his work. The 200 rubles by which Myasoedov had agreed to decrease the price was certainly no small amount. As Myasoedov himself remembered, in those days one could have a dinner of cabbage soup and porridge with butter for eight kopecks. But Pavel Mikhailovich would not be persuaded to pay more than what he himself had appointed. And, indeed, he suggested that Myasoedov should lower the price by another 100 rubles; he wished to pay no more than 900 rubles for the painting.

In response to another request to lower the price, Myasoedov wrote, “My dear Pavel Mikhailovich, I sincerely wish to make a possible adjustment in order to reach a mutual satisfaction. Even though 100 rubles means a lot more to me than it does to you, I agree to receive 900 rubles from you, but net, in other words, without deducting the 5% that I owe to the Society [of ‘Peredvizhniki’]. To put it more clearly, I am asking you to increase the price to 945 rubles, and I think you would not have a problem with that slight increase.”5

As the result of all the negotiations and letter writing, Pavel Tretyakov bought Myasoedov’s painting for 945 rubles.

But the story of the painting did not end with its purchase by Pavel Tretyakov. Having acquired “The ‘Zemstvo’.”, Tretyakov remained unsatisfied with something, and several years later he decided to part with the painting. Having heard about Tretyakov’s intentions, Myasoedov wrote to him: “I assure you, Pavel Mikhailovich, that I am very pleased that my painting is with you and not anybody else. I am sorry that you became disillusioned with ‘The “Zemstvo’.”6 Being a scrupulously honest man, Myasoedov offered Tretyakov to keep 500 rubles from the two thousand that Tretyakov had promised to pay for another painting by Myasoedov (“The Reading of the Manifesto on February 19 1861”). This deduction, Myasoedov wrote to Tretyakov, would “cover the possible loss that might be incurred from the sale of the. previous painting.”

After giving it some thought, Tretyakov changed his mind about selling “The ‘Zemstvo’...”. But he was still disconcerted by something about the painting, and he asked Myasoedov to make changes to “The ‘Zemstvo’.”. The artist, in the most civilized and calm manner, not only agreed to work on his previous canvas again, but gave precise instructions on how to ship the work to him (he lived in Kharkov at the time): “Dear Sir, Pavel Mikhailovich!... I am ready to make any corrections to the painting ‘The “Zemstvo” on Lunch Break’. If you could find it possible to send it to me now, I would start working on it with great pleasure, especially since I don’t have any urgent work right now, as I may only paint in the summer the piece which I am preparing for the exhibition [he is referring to his painting ‘The Draught. The Prayer on the Ploughland’ — A. Kh.]. If you find it possible to take ‘The “Zemstvo”.’ out of the frame for safety and ship it right away by train to the station, and deliver the receipt to the building of the Volzhsky-Kamsky Bank on Rybnaya Street, I will then do everything I can to remove the shortcomings that are noticed in it.”7. In his next letter to Tretyakov, Myasoedov assures him, “I have received the painting ‘The “Zemstvo” on Lunch Break’, sent by you for correction, it is perfectly intact. Upon correcting everything that is possible, I will send it to you right away”8.

The current image being the corrected result of the earlier version of the painting, I set a goal to find the original version of “The ‘Zemstvo’.”. A book by Irina Shuvalova9 helped. While becoming acquainted with the Shuvalova’s scrupulous list of Myasoedov’s works, I found on page 136 the long awaited lines: “Two etchings on one sheet: ‘The “Zemstvo” On Lunch Break’ and “In the Besieged City” 17.6 x 12.1; 31.2 x 21.6. In the edition: Illustrated catalogue of the second Traveling Art Exhibitions. SPb, 1873”.

This engraving was undoubtedly made from the initial version of “The ‘Zemstvo’.”, which was exhibited by Myasoedov in 1872 and which was yet untouched by the master’s paintbrush during the revision that followed. The catalogue was published in 1873, and the issue of revising certain things in the image arose only in the winter of1876. And so I needed to find that etched imprint.

The Russian State Library did not have it. Then I remembered that Vladimir Stasov, who was actively interested in Peredvizhniki’s work, and who wrote articles on the traveling art exhibitions, began working as a director of the art department of the St. Petersburg Public Library precisely during the years when the catalogue was being published (1872-1873). I thought that he, of all people, could not have missed the publication with the images of the Peredvizhniki’s works.

But the question was: had the catalogue survived the 135 turbulent years both for the country and for St. Petersburg?

After long searches the engraving was found in St. Petersburg, at the engraving department of the Russian National Library (the current name of the former Public Library) — it was fished out of an ocean of prints. Indeed, it was a tiny print of the engraving brown with time that had been etched from the original version of the painting, which was at the second Wanderers’ art exhibition, and which had not yet been touched by the artist’s paintbrush in the process of reworking it into the current image.

It should be remembered that while sending “The ‘Zemstvo’...” to Myasoedov, Tretyakov expressed some of his desires on how the painting might be reworked. In particular, he thought that having chickens in the foreground interfered with the serious concept of the piece. Myasoedov then answered: “... I think that it is not the chickens that get in the way, but some other minor shortcomings that you might want me to correct as well.” And Myasoedov turned out to be right. It was not the chickens, but, first of all ... the rooster: its playful walking around while courting the hens did not leave any doubt about its intentions. It distracted the viewer and did not let him concentrate on the seriousness of the painting’s concept. As soon as Myasoedov removed this offensive figure, everything else fell into place.

Myasoedov reworked the figures of the peasants as well. By the time in 1876, when he undertook the revising of “The ‘Zemstvo’.”, he had already had the experience of working on such pieces as “The Reading of the Manifesto on February 19 1861” and “The Ploughing”. He had worked on many studies, portraits, and sketches. He felt more confident than in 1871, when he had just begun working on “The ‘Zemstvo’.”. Now Myasoedov reconsidered and reinvented practically all of the characters. In the initial version the figures of the peasants, each and every one of them, conveyed a certain feeling of fatality and doom. But after the revision this impression disappeared — the peasant group acquired a calm thoughtfulness and internal strength that evoke respect and draw the viewer in. As for the figure, sitting on the steps of the porch, it became unrecognizable. Instead of a decrepit bewildered old man, bent by years, with a work-weary back, we see a strong man who knows his own worth. Myasoedov also somewhat changed the metal shelter over the porch, which allowed him to place the readable title of the Zemsky Council on the board above.

As we see, Myasoedov worked carefully on the half-forgotten painting that had been sent to him from Moscow. After the paint had dried, he returned the canvas to its owner.

The current appearance of “The ‘Zemstvo’.” is a revision done in 1876 to the piece painted by Myasoedov in 1871—1872. That is why in some editions the painting is dated 1876. Vladimir Stasov, who had the opportunity to see both the original version of the painting and the followed-up revision, also mentions this date.

Tretyakov was satisfied by Myasoedov’s work and never again had any desire to part with “The ‘Zemstvo’ on Lunch Break” again.


  1. Shuvalova IN. Myasoedov. Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1972. P. 55.
  2. Masalina N. The ‘Zemstvo’ on Lunch Break, painting by Grigory G. Myasoedov", Tretyakov Galley, Moscow. 1950.
  3. Myasoedov himself, in his letters to Pavel Tretyakov, who wished to obtain the painting, called it: “The ‘Zemstvo's Lunch". The piece acquired its current title (“The ‘Zemstvo' on Lunch Break") much later.
  4. Myasoedov Grigory Grigorievich: Letters, Papers, Memoires. Moscow, 1972. P. 58 (ref. below - Myasoedov, Letters).
  5. Ibid, pp. 58-59.
  6. Ibid. P. 75.
  7. Myasoedov. Letters. P. 75.
  8. Ibid. P. 76.
  9. Shuvalova IN. Myasoedov. Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1972.
Self-portrait. 1878
Self-portrait. 1878
Oil on canvas. 94 × 77.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
The “Zemstvo” on Lunch Break. 1872
The “Zemstvo” on Lunch Break. 1872
Oil on canvas. 74 × 125 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
The “Zemstvo” on Lunch Break. 1872
The “Zemstvo” on Lunch Break. 1872
Detail. Tretyakov Gallery
Greeting of the Newlyweds in the Landlordʼs House. 1860
Greeting of the Newlyweds in the Landlordʼs House. 1860
Oil on canvas. 36 × 43.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
The Reading of the Manifesto of February 19 1861. 1873
The Reading of the Manifesto of February 19 1861. 1873
Oil on canvas. 138.2 × 209 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Autumn in the Crimea. 1884
Autumn in the Crimea. 1884
Oil on canvas. 80 × 156.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 35.5 × 16.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
A Road in the Rye. 1881
A Road in the Rye. 1881
Oil on canvas. 65 × 145 cm. Tretyakov Gallery





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