The "Poetic Truth" of Moscow

Eleonora Paston

Magazine issue: 
#3 2013 (40)


The artist's friends and acquaintances were divided as to the advisability of the move: Savva Mamontov, future founder of the Abram-tsevo group, was insistent that Repin and Polenov should return to Moscow after their foreign travels. Having met the pair in Rome in the early 1870s, he and his wife Elizaveta became active members of the "Russian club" in the Italian capital. "In all seriousness, you and the entire 'club' would do well to move to Moscow for a while for work," he wrote to Polenov in 1873. "...Moscow, after all, has a lot of original, fresh material to offer the artist."1 The critic Vladimir Stasov, however, was of the opposite opinion. After viewing Polenov's paintings at an exhibition of students' work held by the Russian Academy of Arts in the autumn of 1876, he fell upon Polenov, accusing him of imitation and excessive "Frenchiness": "You plan to move to Moscow," Stasov wrote to the artist, "...and yet you have no need for Moscow - no need, in fact, for Russia herself. In your soul, you are not a bit Russian - not in matters historical, or even ethnographic. As I see it, you would be better off settling in Paris, or perhaps in Germany. That is, of course, failing some unexpected turnabout, should hidden caskets open within you and unknown treasures and tidings begin to flow... Naturally, I am no prophet!"2 Upset and angered at the critic's opinion, Polenov expressed his frustration to Ilya Repin. "Nay, old friend," Repin wrote in reply, "just you wait - and you will see our Russian reality unfold and shine before your very eyes. Portrayed by no one, it will draw you in with its poetic truth, and as you begin to study it and to depict it lovingly, you'll be amazed at the result! You will be the first to savour the fruits of your labours, and others will follow suit, mark my words!"3 Not long after this, Repin was indeed proved right.

Besides working on "The Tsar's Unworthy Daughter Takes the Veil", Polenov planned to make a trip to eastern Russia and the Volga. First, however, he had to find lodgings. After three weeks of searching, his new home was found: on 23 June, Polenov wrote to Fyodor Chiz-hov, a friend of his father's with whom he had been staying: "My new abode is not far away, in Durnovsky Pereulok [side street], between

Novinsky Boulevard and Sobachya Ploshchadka... For now, my intention is to stay in Moscow and work, I have postponed my trip to eastern Russia and the Volga... My address is Moscow, Durnovsky Pereulok, near the Church of Our Saviour on the Sands, Baumgarten residence."4

What caused the artist to change his plans for the summer? Most likely, in the three weeks it took him to find a new home, Polenov saw that Savva Mamontov was right: for the painter, Moscow had much to offer. In his first year in the city, Polenov created a number of masterpieces which show how impressed he was with the local views. These are his well-known studies of the Moscow Kremlin (1877, Tretyakov Gallery) as well as the famous "A Moscow Courtyard" and "Grandmother's Garden" (both dated 1878 and now in the Tretyakov Gallery).

Painted as a view from the window of his new lodgings, the very first version of "A Moscow Courtyard" (1877, Tretyakov Gallery) reveals how taken the artist was with this charming spot. We see a grassy space with several low buildings; in the background, a white stone church with hipped bell-tower stands bathed in the early summer sunlight. Later, the artist would reminisce: "I was looking for a flat, when I saw a notice on the door. I popped in to look, and immediately saw this view from the window. I sat down and painted it there and then."5 In the list of Polenov's works compiled by the artist himself, this painting (no. 123) is entitled "A Spot Near the Arbat"6. In order to understand precisely whence Polenov painted his "Moscow Courtyard", and how he chose the view depicted in "Grandmother's Garden", which shows the same house, wecanconsult the "Atlas of Moscow" with alphabetical index compiled by A. Khotiev in 1852-1853. On the map showing Arbat street, situated on the corner of Durnovsky Pereulok and Trubnikovsky Pereulok we find residence no. 148. Belonging to Lieutenant-Colonel A.N.Yuriev7, this estate comprises the main house with a garden and two outbuildings. Just as in Polenov's painting, the side of the main building juts out into a small courtyard, and the water-pump, well, next-door house and back shed, behind which one could see the Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour "On the Sands", are all marked in the locations shown by the artist. In a directory published nearer the time of Polenov's painting, in 1882, residence no. 148 is already listed as belonging to Cornet N.L.Baumgarten.8 In his memoirs, Prince Georgy Lvov, who lived at this address around the same time as Polenov, writes: "Our house, belonging first to Yuriev, and subsequently to Baumgarten, was immortalised by Polenov, who also lived there, in his painting 'Grandmother's Garden'. The old woman in the painting is Yurieva, and the lady leading her across the garden is her daughter, Mrs. Baumgarten..."9 Thus, we have established the precise location whence Polenov, living as he did in one of the outbuildings, viewed the courtyard and Church of Our Saviour on the Sands.

From these lodgings, in July and early August 1877, the artist made a number of trips to the Kremlin, where he worked on studies of the cathedrals and interiors. Making the journey by foot, Polenov would walk down Spasopeskovsky Pereulok. Here, to his left, he would pass the residence of Princess Vera Lobanova-Rostovskaya with its extensive gardens.10 The next house belonged to the architect Nikolai Alexandrovich Lvov (1834-1887), grandson of the well-known architect, musician, historian, translator, botanist and geologist N.A.Lvov (1751-1803), Polenov's great-grandfather - grandfather of the painter's mother Maria Polenova, nee Voyeykova. In 1871, Nikolai Lvov, an enthusiastic admirer of Pushkin, established the "Pushkin Public Gardens" in Staropeskovskaya Square. Funding the creation of these gardens himself, Lvov paid tribute to the poet, who had frequently visited houses in the neighbouring area. Thus, on his way to the Kremlin, Polenov would pass the gardens created by his relative.

The gardens were flanked by the railings of the Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour on the Sands. Built around 1711, with railings dating from 1849, this five-domed church was a typical example of mid-yth to early 18th-century architecture. Constructed without the use of internal columns, it included a refectory, chapel of St. Nicholas and a tall, hipped bell-tower, and was decorated with ornamental shells, nalichniki window frames and kokoshniki arches.

Following his path to the Kremlin, Polenov would then walk down the Arbat, glimpsing the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker in Nikolsky Pereulok, now Plotnikov Pereulok. After the quiet, rural peace of the neighbouring side streets, the Arbat teemed with life. Passing Arbat Square, the painter would follow Znamenka Street down to the Borovitsky Gates of the Kremlin.

Working in the Kremlin evidently brought Polenov pleasure. In a short space of time, he produced a great number of studies of terems and cathedrals, which showed him to be not only a highly proficient open-air artist - his travel scholarship doubtless playing an important role here - but also a skilled painter of architectural monuments. Polenov's interest in architecture was already evident in his "Master's Privilege" (1874, Tretyakov Gallery) and "Arrest of a Huguenot Woman" (1875, Russian Museum), painted in Paris. For "The Tsar's Unworthy Daughter Takes the Veil", the artist created a series of impressive studies, although the painting itself never materialised. In 1885, Pavel Tretyakov purchased 18 of the studies for his gallery.

The studies "Cathedral of the Dormition. South Gate", "Terem Palace Exterior", "The Top Golden Porch", "Exit from the Chambers to the Golden Porch" and "Window in the Tsarina's Golden Chamber" offer a remarkably accurate portrayal of old Russian architecture. Polenov's precision and meticulous attention to detail do not, however, overshadow his delight and reverence in the face of such beauty. Surrounded by a bright blue sky, the ancient terems and cathedrals come alive, breathing with light and colour. The sun's glowing rays accentuate the jubilant tones of Polenov's palette. Gleaming like ornamental, multi-coloured jewels against an azure sky, the buildings appear airy and full of light.

"A Moscow Courtyard" (1878) offers a similar interpretation of old Russian architecture. As the "Spot Near the Arbat" evolved into "A Moscow Courtyard", the importance of architectural detail in the painting grew. The painting itself became longer, including an additional church with bell-tower on the right - that of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker. A further church in the Prechistenka area is discernable in the distance. The church nearest the viewer, however - Our Saviour on the Sands - moves towards the centre of the painting, whereas the house, which previously obscured the church, is now situated with its portico clearly in view. The buildings in next door's courtyard become clearer, and a certain pattern emerges between the houses and churches. This is reinforced by the subtle interplay of colours and absence of marked contrast in tone, the only bright spots being the golden domes of Our Saviour's Church, gleaming boldly amidst the transparent sky and echoed faintly by the dome of St. Nicholas's in the background. All other objects are bathed in the soft, hazy light of a sunny July morning, enveloped in delicate swathes of rosy or bluish air. This evident rhythm seems to assure us that the neighbouring courtyards and countryside around are equally calm, quiet and peaceful - that, elsewhere, children are also playing on the grass and chickens are strutting hither and thither as drying laundry billows, women busy themselves with household chores and a little horse stands in harness, ready for a new journey.

Polenov's superb technique, as well as the beauty of the architecture, bring out the "poetry of everyday life" in this simple view, filling it with a certain elation. Portrayed with the direct, innocent approach of a child, "A Moscow Courtyard" is filled with wonder at the world with all its joys, sorrows, poetry and mystery. Growing up surrounded by the beauty of Tsarskoye Selo, the family estate Imochentsy in Olonet-sky region and his grandmother Vera Voyeykova's estate Olshanka in the Tambov province, Polenov was always highly sensitive towards nature and its powerful charm. Even in a clear, open and simple painting like "A Moscow Courtyard" his feeling for nature is clearly evident. The detail in the grass, the bushes, the boughs overhanging the fence, which lead the eye towards the shady depths of next door's garden, the closed well - everything is seen through the eyes of a child. In their memoirs, many 19th- and 20th-century writers, poets, artists and public figures who lived in that unique part of Moscow returned time and time again to its magical courtyards with their special sounds and smells, which so captured the childish imagination. In "A Moscow Courtyard", Vasily Polenov's well-chosen subject, excellent composition and successful use of colour and light allowed him to create a coherent and powerful image of historical Moscow. At the same time, the painting conveys the freshness of a first impression - the spontaneity of the artist's delight at encountering such a wonderful view. "A Moscow Courtyard" shows the "truth of vision" so highly valued and pursued by a number of the artist's pupils including Levitan, Svetoslavsky and Vinogradov. Polenov's landscape became a firm favourite for many generations of art lovers - a symbol of Moscow in all its good-hearted simplicity.
"Grandmother's Garden" was, it would appear, painted by Polenov around the same time, in July-August 1877. Although both paintings are dated "1878", there is reason to believe they were in fact created the previous year. In April 1878, preparing to send "A Moscow Courtyard" to St. Petersburg for an exhibition of the 'Peredvizhniki' (Wanderers) artists, Polenov wrote to Kramskoi from Moscow: ". my little painting is ready for the Peredvizhniki exhibition (actually, the painting was ready long ago [my italics - E.P.], but the frame has just been fitted). Unfortunately, I did not have time to prepare anything more significant - I had wanted to contribute... something impressive to the 'Peredvizhniki' exhibition. I hope to make up for lost time in the future. My painting shows a little Moscow courtyard at the beginning of summer."11 The painting arrived too late to be shown in St. Petersburg, but was exhibited in Moscow without being included in the catalogue. The following year, Polenov submitted his "Grandmother's Garden" for the Wanderers' exhibition. On 1 February 1879, he wrote to Ivan Kramskoi: "The 'Garden' is painted straight from life [my italics - E.P.], so it is a little dark. It loses out alongside the other two paintings ["Summer" and "Fisherwomen" -E.P.], so it should be hung separately from them."12 So, "Moscow Courtyard" was "long ready" in April 1878, and "Grandmother's Garden" was supposedly painted from nature at a time when the nature was long gone: in late June 1878, Polenov moved to different lodgings. It follows that both works must have been created in July-early August 1877. Polenov, it is well known, would often date previously completed works when touching them up before an exhibition or sale. Let us look a little more closely into the artist's life between late June 1877 and July 1878, when Polenov was forced to leave the Baumgarten residence. On 5 July 1877, his parents invited the artist to their dacha in Petrushki village, near Kiev. Most likely, Polenov spent August 1877 with them, producing several studies which he would subsequently use for the paintings "Overgrown Pond" (1879, Tretyakov Gallery) and "Summer" (shown at the seventh Wanderers' Artists' Exhibition). One of these recently found studies, "The Pond", now in a private collection, was not long ago sent for tests to the Tretyakov Gallery. The similarity between this study and Polenov's "Overgrown Pond" is evident not only in the manner of execution, but also in the artist's approach to the subject and very image of the overgrown pond on an old estate, in the fine elegiac mood which pervades these charming landscapes.

On 31 August 1877, returning to Moscow, Polenov met Maria Kli-mentova. In a letter to the singer dated 4 September, he claimed he was forced to leave for Olshanka on the following day. On 1 October, he returned due to a request by the Crown Prince to join him in his military headquarters: the artist was to record the events of the Russian-Turkish war. In mid-February 1878, Polenov was in St. Petersburg, and in March he was again back in Moscow. In April, as we already know, he send his "long ready" "Moscow Courtyard" to the Wanderers' exhibition, and in May he received the artist Pavel Chistiakov, who was visiting Moscow, in his lodgings in Durnovsky Pereulok. In mid-June, Polenov wrote to his parents that he had failed to come to an agreement with the Baumgartens concerning the rent, and so was moving to a new flat in Devichye Pole, which was already being renovated. All this, once more, confirms that the main work on "A Moscow Courtyard" and "Grandmother's Garden" must have been carried out in July and early August 1877.

The view depicted in "Grandmother's Garden" puts one in mind of Alexander Pushkin's impressions of Moscow from the early 1830s: "Moscow is quieter now. The enormous houses of the boyars stand forlorn between spacious, overgrown courtyards, and wild, neglected gardens..."13 Polenov's painting, however, exudes a certain poetic quality - a fine elegiac mood. Actually, besides the "fall" of aristocratic Moscow, in the late 1820s-early 1830s Pushkin himself also noted the rapid development of industry and merchant activity in the city. The poet's conclusion is more optimistic: ".On the other hand, enlightenment looks favourably upon the city where Shuvalov founded the university, as planned by Lomonosov... Talent, learning and love of art are, indubitably, on Moscow's side."14 Lodging on and around the Arbat, Pushkin appeared to foresee a new stage in this remarkable street's history: from the middle of the 19th century, the first members of the Russian intelligentsia came to settle here. Coming largely from noble families, these poets and publishers, writers and academics, artists and public educators moved to the Arbat, where numerous bookshops, publishing houses and charitable institutions sprung up. All this gave rise to the saying: "Go to Zamoskvorechye for money, to Petersburg for rank, and to the Arbat for knowledge and memories."

In "Grandmother's Garden", the negative emotional tension associated with the end of an era, with decay and decline is resolved through artistic expression. There is a unity in the mood of the two women in the painting, the elderly woman, who appears to represent Time, and her young companion, who holds a book, deep in thought. At one with each other and nature, the figures blend harmoniously into the surrounding landscape.

Viewers studying Polenov's works at the Wanderers exhibitions of the late 1870s often associated them with the writing of Ivan Turgenev. Recalling his impressions from these exhibitions, the artist and collector Ilya Ostroukhov wrote: "I was most struck by 'A Moscow Courtyard', 'Grandmother's Garden', 'Overgrown Pond', 'By the Mill' and 'A Grey Day'. These, and other intimate subjects 'from Turgenev' suddenly rose up before me, fresh, new, full of truth, a fine musical lyricism and subtle technique."15

Motifs "from Turgenev" are a special theme in Polenov's oeuvre. The work of both masters is imbued with a certain romanticism; the bond between man and nature, the "poetry of everyday life" and elegiac moods play an important role in the manner, style and imagery of both. The old park in "Grandmother's Garden" is haunted by the beauty of bygone days, the "melody of past sorrows" pervades the air - as in many of Turgenev's works, the past here assumes a highly poetic quality. With Polenov, as with Turgenev, the present is alive with historical facts and events. The link between the ages is asserted in "Grandmother's Garden" with poetic force. The 18th century lives on in the 19th through elderly matrons, cosy old-fashioned estates and leafy gardens. The image created by the artist is reinforced by ancient trees and young shoots in the overgrown park.

Vasily Polenov was extremely fond of Turgenev's writings, particularly the "Notes of a Hunter", which he liked to call a "gem of Russian literature". In 1880, on one of his visits to Russia, the writer had presented him with a copy of this book, bearing an inscription penned in response to a gift by Polenov: the artist had previously given him a later version of his 1877 "Spot Near the Arbat", entitled "A Moscow Courtyard". For many years, this painting would have pride of place in Turgenev's study in Bougival. During Polenov's stay in Paris for his scholarship, Turgenev had already singled him out as a talented painter, visiting his studio and praising his landscapes. Finally, one should not forget that Turgenev's characters were often based around the Arbat: in "Smoke", Prince Osin's family lives near Sobachya Ploshchadka ("Dogs' Square"), Pokorsky, in "Rudin", lodges on Bolshoi Afanasievsky Pereulok, Yelena's mother Anna Vasilievna ("On the Eve") abides near Prechistenka, and Varvara Pavlovna's father ("A Nest of the Gentry") inhabits Staraya Koniushennaya. Thus, the associations with Turgenev are well-founded. Polenov's pupils, as their memoirs will testify, saw not only "Turgenevian motifs" in the artist's work, but even a certain visual resemblance between the two masters. For these young people, their teacher was a truly unique man - an artist who epitomised the intelligentsia with his noble, refined and sensitive soul. "He was the only European gentleman and aristocrat - in the fullest and best sense,"16 wrote Leonid Pasternak. Speaking of Polenov's "aristocratism", Pasternak presumably also had in mind his resemblance to Turgenev.

Another painting with clear "Turgenevian" notes is "Overgrown Pond" (1879, Tretyakov Gallery), painted in Moscow from studies made in Petrushki village in 1877. From 20 July 1878 until the autumn of 1881, Polenov lodged at the Olsufiev estate in Devichye Pole, in the Khamov-niki district of Moscow. The estate had a large garden: "an old, overgrown manor garden with greenhouses, chapels, grottoes, ponds and hills - in a word, a magical dream of a garden," wrote the artist. Descending towards the river Moscow, this fairytale spot was an excellent place to paint. "Overgrown Pond" was, most likely, created in July-August 1878. Capturing the artist's elevated, dreamy mood, the painting shows an old park, solemn and majestic. A solitary, pensive figure - a woman in a white dress - is framed by dark, whispering boughs: the ancient, solid trees surround the fragile visitor, providing a safe and comforting haven, a living tent. The lyricism of the painting is heightened by the silent dialogue and understanding between the natural world and the female soul, their shared mood.

Thus, in his first few years in Moscow, Polenov created a number of important works, three of which - "A Moscow Courtyard", "Grandmother's Garden" and "Overgrown Pond" - could be said to form a lyrical and philosophical trilogy. All three can be admired in the Polenov room at the Tretyakov Gallery. Besides the excellent painting technique, which is immediately noticeable in all three works, this trio shows Polenov's original manner as a landscape painter: an artist with remarkably precise vision, he excelled at open air work whilst preserving his innate subtle, romantic qualities "to the extent that any Russian artist can be capable of romanticism in his paintings and images of Russian life," as one critic wrote. Nature in Polenov's canvases is full of soul -and speaks to us. All three works were to become landmarks in the development of Russian landscape painting. Ten years after their creation, Polenov wrote to Viktor Vasnetsov: "I feel that art should bring joy and happiness - otherwise, it is worthless."17 Stated clearly in his letter, this aesthetic credo was already evident in his very first Moscow works.

1 E.V.Paston, "Abramtsevo. Iskusstvo i zhizn" (Abramtsevo. Art and Life). Moscow, 2003, pp.38 - 39.
2 E.V.Sakharova, "Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Elena Dmitrievna Polenova. Khronika semyi khu-dozhnikov" (Vasily Polenov. Elena Polenova. An Artists' Family Chronicle). Moscow, 1964,
pp. 230-231.
3 Ibid, p. 237.
4 Ibid, p. 248. Polenov spent a year lodging in N.L.Baumganten's residence on the corner of Durnovsky Pereulok (now Kompositorskaya Ulitsa, 17) and Trubnikovsky Pereulok. The artist left this house in July 1878.
5 Ibid, p. 733.
6 The State Tretyakov Gallery acquired this painting in 1929 from the Ostroukhov museum. Most likely, the collector was responsible for its becoming known as "A Moscow Courtyard", like Polenov's painting from 1878.
7 Alphabetical Index to the Map of the Capital City of Moscow, drawn up by A. Khotiev. Moscow, 1852-1853, p. 62. In 1852- 1853, there were 11,283 "estates belonging to private owners and various departments" in Moscow in total.
8 Directory of Streets and Houses in the Capital City of Moscow, compiled by Major-General Ko-zlov. Moscow, 1882, p. 196.
9 Prince G.E.Lvov, "Vospominaniya" (Memoirs). Compiled by N.V.Vyrubov and E.Yu.Lvova, with introduction by N.V.Vyrubov. Moscow, 2002, p. 132. At the time of our story, Prince Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov (1861-1925), a prominent public figure and politician, and subsequently the first chairman of the Temporary Government (1917), was still a pupil at the Polivanov Gim-naziya (High School).
10 In 1913, Princess Vera Lobanova-Rostovskaya sold the part of the estate which fronted onto Spasopeskovsky Pereulok to the millionaire N.A.Vtorov. In 1913-1914, a New Empire mansion was built here, designed by the architects Vladimir Adamovich and Vladimir Mayat. Today, this is known as Spaso House, and is the residence of the American Ambassador.
11 Sakharova, 1964, pp. 264-265.
12 Ibid, p. 270.
13 A.S.Pushkin, "Puteshestviye iz Moskvy v Peterburg" (A Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg). Collected works in 10 vols, vol. 6. Moscow, 1964, p. 273.
14 Ibid, pp. 275, 276.
15 E.V.Sakharova, "Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Pisma, dnevniki, vospominaniya" (Vasily Polenov: Letters, Diaries and Memoirs). Moscow, 1950, p. 448.
16 "V.D.Polenov. "K 150-letiyu so dnia rozhdeniya. Katalog vystavki"
(Vasily Polenov: 150th Anniversary Exhibition Catalogue). Moscow, 1994, p. 20.
17 Sakharova, 1964, p. 393.





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