"Your Work is Somehow True..." Alexander Golovin and Yelena Polenova

Yelena Terkel

Magazine issue: 
#3 2014 (44)


Konstantin Korovin called him "a man hidden within himself"2. Indeed, all that we know about Golovin is connected to his success as an artist. As a rule, his contemporaries only testified to his artistic methods and the results of his work in the theatre at the time when Golovin was already a mature and successful artist. As to what kind of person he was, what his emotional life was like, and what his creative goals were - all that was hardly mentioned. Reserved and private, he never opened up to talk about himself and did not like socializing - that was how many who knew him at the height of his fame remembered him. What was he like before that? We only have snippets of information regarding some of his works, with no general idea about his artistic quest or his personal life; nevertheless, Golovin's earlier years were the time when his talent was being formed.

Fortunately, more than 50 of Golovin's letters3 to Yelena Polenova have survived, and are published for the first time in the catalogue of the current exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery. Written in the 1890s, these letters provide rare evidence of a sincere friendship and lively communication between the two artists, and abound with such expressions as, "I am waiting for you", "It is very sad here without you", "Please come soon", and, "Let me know when you are coming". This is not just politeness or a desire to plan his time - it speaks of a need to share his hopes, doubts, and plans for the future, of the desire to work side-by-side with someone who understood art.

Golovin was a young man, a student finishing his studies at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, when he met the Polenov family at the end of the 1880s. Yelena Polenova's brother Vasily, the famous artist, was teaching at the school at the time; Golovin, like many other students, was an admirer of Polenov's art. Later Golovin wrote: "His paintings delighted us with their bright colours, with the abundance of sunlight and air. After the gloomy paintings of the 'Peredvizhniki' [the Wanderers], they were a real revelation... Polenov's influence on young artists in the 1880s and 1890s was very strong. Aspiring artists flocked to him and his sister Yelena, who was also an artist. Their opinions were valued, and their praise treasured."4

A shared passion for pastel drawing brought Polenova and Golovin together - it was Polenova's support that helped him to master the medium. In February 1890 Polenova wrote to her like-minded friend Yelizaveta Mamontova, the wife of the well-known patron of the arts Savva Mamontov, that she was planning to organize a "club of pastel artists". Polenova, for whom pastel was a favourite medium, tried to help Golovin, and wrote to her brother about him: "[He] is also in love with pastel, and I liked how he painted a study of a head. I believe this portrait is so good that it would probably get this year's award."5 Polenova, who was kind-hearted and sympathetic to the pursuits of young artists, was understanding of Golovin's request to work together. In February 1890 she wrote to Natalya, her brother's wife: "Yesterday night Golovin came to see me. It is obvious that the young man is terribly lonely and very weighed down by it. He begged me to work on pastel techniques together. I promised..."6 They both loved pastel drawing, and Golovin took every opportunity to be of service to Polenova. In one letter he offered to share some drawing supplies with her when he received "pastels from Lefranc", the French firm of "Lefranc & Bourgeois", whose supplies he would continue using all his life.

They worked together on pastel techniques for several years, which allowed Golovin to master the medium. In 1895 Pavel Tretyakov bought Golovin's pastel "At an Icon-painting Workshop", news that Polenova was proud to give to her sister-in-law: "It is true that Tretyakov bought one of Golovin's pieces, that very pastel on which we worked together in the basement last summer."7 As for Golovin, in his letters to Polenova he jokingly referred to this work as"The Plagiarism", referring to Polenova's 1887 painting "Icon-painting Workshop in the 16th Century", which was also acquired by Tretyakov.

Polenova's friendship was very important for Golovin's evolution as an artist. Organized and hardworking, she sought to teach the young man to take his work seriously; sometimes she even reproached him for being lazy. He recognized the need for criticism: "I was given a good dressing-down, for which I am very thankful to you."8 The tone of Golovin's letters tells us that the young artist seemed to be apologizing to his more mature friend and colleague, whose opinion he valued so much, and strove to live up to his mentor's high expectations. Golovin saw in both Polenova's personality and life the very qualities that he seemed to lack, so he wanted to learn "what is true in life" from her: "Indeed, I see, only too well, that your work is somehow true, and mine just isn't; the more I look, the more I am convinced that I see honest truth in your paintings, but not in mine. Consider it and you will see that I am right; I have been thinking a lot about it recently; maybe my work lacks substance, something is missing from it, and will never be there - this is the truth, and it is truly awful."9

Thanks to Polenova's influence, Golovin never lost his need to seek perfection and sincerity, the "real truth" in his art. Many of his contemporaries, including Erich Gollerbakh, Sergei Shcherbatov and Vladimir Piast, mentioned that fact. In Piast's words, "Golovin was a rare combination of boundless imagination and strict discipline, dedication to the truth, and scientific precision." 10

Polenova loved and had a deep appreciation of nature; she tried to support Golovin's interest in painting en plein air. Golovin, who was busy making a living during the day, frequently informed Polenova about his evening painting sessions outdoors: "I went to the Razumovsky [park] several times and did only one study of the dew - it never happened again quite the same way"; "I've absorbed quite a bit during these evenings."11 Later in life, as a famous stage designer, Golovin did not give up painting from nature; on the contrary, he made a point of doing his studies en plein air. Vladimir Telyakovsky, director of the Imperial Theatres, wrote that it was indeed real-life landscapes that inspired the artist's stage designs: "Golovin has come back from the Caucasus. He had taken the trip to see the Caucasus before he started painting for 'Demon'."12

Many of Golovin's contemporaries admired his landscapes. Sergei Makovsky compared the artist's landscapes to his stage designs: "His landscapes were not as well-known; with their subtle palette and leaf patterns (they were acquired by Ivan Morozov straight from the artist's studio), they were evocative of Vuillard's manner. In Golovin's works, nature is charmingly colourful and romanticized; with all those ponds in deep forests, park corners, and wavy birch groves, its lines and colours gravitate towards an almost graphic precision... Some would ask: did a designer paint those landscapes? Maybe so. But then we should say that all Golovin's stage designs are created by a most refined landscape artist. Every time I came to Moscow I would admire Golovin's works in the Morozov collection - the beautiful quiet landscapes next to his magical Spanish women, painted with both tempera and pastel. Something from Levitan's dreams seems to have wandered into Golovin's quiet scenes of nature, which were inspired by the artist's memories of the old park at [the] Petrovsko-Razumovskoye [estate]. Despite all the time he spent searching for impressions and ideas in his beloved divine gardens of southern Europe, our rural north was closer to him than Seville and Venice."13

The artist did indeed spend his childhood at the Petrovsko-Razumovskoye estate near Moscow, where his father worked at the Petrovsky Agricultural Academy, and the years of his life there left a lasting impression. The highly poetic account by Gollerbakh, who knew Golovin well, reads: "The old manor house and the picturesque park surrounding it were very romantic and hauntingly beautiful. The future artist was growing up in constant closeness with nature, enchanted by its enduring loveliness. Starryeyed, he admired the old park's rebirth, the blooming and the withering, the freshness of springtime and summer's exuberant opulence, autumn's golden brocade and winter's sky-blue carpets. Shadows of the past lived in the secluded alleys, among the chipped marble columns, under the rooftops of decrepit gazebos. Silence and sunny laziness enveloped glades, groves, and ponds overgrowing with waterweeds."14

As an adult, Golovin kept returning to the favourite park of his childhood. It is likely that it was those very places that gave him inspiration for his 1894 painting "Sadness. Crescent Moon", which he called "The Fog" in his correspondence. In summer 1894 Golovin wrote to Polenova: "I think I will go straight to the swamp at Razumovsky to look for the [right] grass and fog. The [fog at the] pond is still not exactly what is needed; I will have to combine the two in the painting."15 However, before he could realize his concept for the painting in its entirety, the artist waited for Polenova's arrival - to work together, to share his doubts, to listen to the advice of the accomplished master. "It is better to go to Razumovskoye and use the moments of good light... Still, I have painted very little so far. You are mistaken if you think that I am working on the painting ('The Fog'). No, I am waiting for you... In nature, the hues of the grass, the pond, the flowers are so [beautiful] that I wish I could grab them all with both hands, but somehow they elude me; it is so vexing that there is still some weakness there, that I am unable to capture it all, put it on canvas and transfer bit by bit into 'The Fog'; and there is also the dew - I do not know what to reach for, there is so much."16

The letter quoted shows Golovin as a fine master of the landscape genre who feels and understands nature, who strives to convey all the colours, loveliness and mood of the summer landscape. In later years the artist would try to transfer all these nuances and emotions onto the theatrical stage - it was no coincidence that Golovin's contemporaries often compared his stage designs to his landscapes. Perhaps the night landscape with a waning crescent moon that the artist began painting in Petrovsko-Razumovskoye later provided inspiration for his stage designs. Critics have often pointed to the connection between Golovin's decorations for "The Storm" by Alexander Ostrovsky and his achievements in the landscape genre, especially in the stage design for the second scene of the third act, titled "The Ravine": the intertwined tree roots and trunks, a crescent moon, and lush greenery create a strange, unreal world. The crescent moon is present in the artist's other works for the theatre, such as his 1908 stage designs for the third act of Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen". The painting "Birch Trees at Night" (1908-1910) stayed with the subject, but the moon is now round. One can assume that Golovin's first significant painting with its twilight view of the park that he had known since he was a child helped to develop his great talent as a landscape painter. Boris Almedingen, Golovin's longterm assistant in his work for the theatre, commented interestingly: "He painted nature having studied it for a long time, and always added something from his imagination. His every landscape is a synthesis of his observations, sometimes incorporating a whole phase in his life."17

It is noteworthy that for Golovin, images of nature, even the image of a certain park, often had almost mystical significance. On June 15 1916 the artist Konstantin Somov wrote in his diary: "We came across Golovin at the park... [he] said to me that, as it always happens to him, he had a premonition about seeing me that day. That he thought about my paintings before this chance meeting, and connected them to this park."18

Having painted en plein air in the park at Petrovsko-Razumovskoye since he was a child, Golovin never failed to notice how changeable and diverse nature could be. In summer 1894 he wrote to Polenova: "The flowers are amazing this year - they are as tall as I am, I have never seen anything like that; these are not flowers, these are fur hats, and there are great numbers of them in places where there were none last year."19 For Golovin, the true-to-life depiction of flowers, appropriate to the context of a work of art, was an important part of his job. There was an incident when Golovin got angry with the critic Sergei Makovsky when the latter confused bell-flowers with lilacs on his "Portrait of Alexandra Luts" (1909). Gollerbakh admired the artist's skill at rendering the beauty of flowers on canvas, and considered the use of the French term nature morte20 (still-life; literally, "dead nature" in French) for Golovin's works ill-chosen: "Flowers are especially lovely in Golovin's still-lifes, and calling them 'dead nature' is not fitting at all. They breathe and rustle, they delight in the sun and air. Indeed, it is not only the graceful shapes and vivid colours that we find attractive in Golovin's flowers - we feel the intelligence des fleurs21 that Maeterlinck was talking about, the voiceless and mysterious plant life that flows through every petal. The deceptively calm and quiet flowers tell us about the mystery of growing, speechless and obedient."22

Many of Golovin's contemporaries noted how poetic his artistic idiom was. Sergei Makovsky wrote that Golovin "poeticized" nature in his art. Andrei Levinson, a well-known theatre critic at the beginning of the 20th century who called the artist "a poet and a dandy", gave this clarification: "Golovin combines a dignified palette, which occasionally disintegrates into mere affectation, with a rare poetic feeling."23 Indeed, the artist's early works are replete with a marvelous lyricism - fine, decorative and rhythmical. Golovin had a deep appreciation and love for poetry; he particularly admired Mikhail Kuzmin's early poetry and singled out for special attention such poets as Anton Delvig, Afanasy Fet, Mikhail Lermontov and Fyodor Tyutchev.

Yelena Polenova was also fond of poetry. In her correspondence with Golovin, they mention a study she was working on based on Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven". It is possible that it was this very work that Golovin wrote about in this letter to Polenova:"! was so happy to learn that you found the right spot where you could paint your melancolie des souvenirs24 - it may well be fortunate, which would be excellent; for some reason I think that you will soon work on this theme."25 Indeed, Polenova worked on this idea for several years. In October 1895 she wrote to her sister-in-law: "I was working on a study (maybe the tenth one) for a theme that could best be expressed in the worlds 'late autumn's sobbing'; I would like to express the anguish of loneliness ['late autumn's sobbing' is a quotation, translated here into English, from Konstantin Balmont's celebrated but rather free Russian translation of 'The Raven' by Poe; the words correspond to the original's 'bleak December']... No one has seen it yet, with the exception of Golovin, but he is not a good judge - he has been watching all the changes that this subject has undergone from the moment I conceived of it two years ago."26 In the same letter Polenova quotes "The Raven" (Russian translation by Konstantin Balmont): "Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,/And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor." On one of those same stormy days of 1895 Golovin wrote to her: "Can you paint the way you would like? It is autumn now; it says it all - how much I would like to be in this autumn, how full of energy I am, how many things paralyze all my impulses; it is like a wall, an awful state of mind."27

This correspondence testifies to the strong emotional connection between the two artists, to their shared understanding of matters that are almost impossible to put into words. For Polenova, Golovin became one of the very few people whose taste and honesty she always trusted, and whose advice she could use. Yegishe Tadevosyan remembered: "She used to say: 'I do not show my works to anyone until I am satisfied with it.' E.D. [Elena Dmitrievna] only showed her works to Golovin, as she trusted his taste. Otherwise, she kept them under wraps."28

It is not difficult to understand why Polenova was like this - she was, in no small measure, "feeling her way" as an artist, and she often tried to express complex and overwhelming feelings. Only a close and sensitive person could understand her ideas and give necessary advice. According to Gollerbakh, Golovin had one more important quality: "As a person of the most refined, perfect taste, he valued this quality in others. He would say with admiration: 'He has such good taste!.. What great taste he has!..' or, with a rueful face, 'You know, he really has no taste...'"29 Konstantin Korovin also called Golovin "a man of perfect taste". A complete rejection of insincerity, the quest for an unattainable beauty, the occasional feeling of being unable to express one's feeling on a canvas - all these made Golovin and Polenova kindred spirits; both of them were more concerned with the nature of things than their appearances, and considered this highly important to a true artist.

Wrapped up in his inner world, Golovin was not concerned with formal success and did not seek to exhibit his works. Polenova tried to change this, and eventually succeeded. She was happy to tell her family about Golovin's plans to show his works: "At the current exhibition of Moscow artists, he will show a fairly large landscape (a summer night, fog, the (crescent) moon peeking from behind the forest) and a pastel, his last-year's 'Sleeping Girl'; as for the Travelling Art Exhibition, he will be showing a large painting he calls 'Canvas with a Genre Painting'."30 Polenova involved him in the Moscow Society of Artists' project to organize historically themed exhibitions for the general public. The participating artists submitted paintings on Biblical and other historical subjects that would be easy to understand for the general Russian population and thus promote a knowledge of Russian history. Golovin's canvas "Yaroslavna's Lament" was purchased by Maria Yakunchikova, and when the artist wrote to Polenova about it, he expressed surprise and asked how much he should ask for it.

Golovin lacked business acumen. It was not uncommon for the Polenovs to find commissions for him, as they did in the case of designing the interior of the Chizhov Agricultural Vocational School in Kologriv. A prominent industrialist, Fyodor Chizhov had known various generations of the Polenov family. As Ivan Mamontov's business partner in building railways, after Ivan's death Chizhov became the de facto mentor of Ivan's son Savva Mamontov, who would become a famous patron of the arts and a personal friend of many Russian artists. Ivan Mamontov, a native of Kostroma, left his entire estate (an estimated six million rubles) for the establishment of five new vocational schools in his native province - two in Kostroma and three others in Kologriv, Chukhloma and Makariev respectively. Chizhov appointed Alexei Polenov and Savva Mamontov executors of his will.

The vocational school in Kologriv was opened in 1892; close to 160 boys studied there at any one time. Its enormous territory housed numerous buildings, including the main one with classrooms, woodwork and mechanics workshops, instructors' apartments, a hospital, and a chemical laboratory. The school was still under construction after it was officially opened. The plan also included the construction of a large church for the students to attend. Savva Mamontov came up with a creative idea to combine the students' dining-hall with the church, and commissioned Vasily Polenov to paint the walls of the dining-hall and the icons for the church. On April 27 1893 Yelena Polenova wrote to Mamontov's wife Yelizaveta: "For an artist, this is a very interesting project. They came up with quite an ingenious solution. Instead of building the church separately, they are planning a large building, a dining-hall that would end in the altar space, with all the church attributes. On weekdays the church space will be closed off with partitions, and the building will serve as a dining-hall, and for the church services the partitions will be removed and the hall will be turned into a very spacious church. They are also thinking of having large panel Gospel-themed paintings on the walls, based on designs by Alexander Andreievich Ivanov - he was Chizhov's friend, and Chizhov had great respect for Ivanov's artistic vision."31

Vasily Polenov decided to involve his students Alexander Golovin, Sergei Malutin, Vasily Meshkov, Nikolai Rozanov and Yegishe Tadevosyan in this project. They were all to submit a composition based on Ivanov's sketches. According to Polenov's written cost-estimate of art-related expenses32, Golovin was appointed to paint "Christ and the Samaritan Woman" and the "Transfiguration of Jesus". Additionally, along with Yelena and Vasily Polenov, he was to paint icons for the iconostasis. Golovin and Polenova were also going to execute the decorative wall-paintings. Unfortunately, the church building was never finished, but sketches for the icons, decorative patterns and the architectural designs survive.33 The Gospel-themed panels were painted; they were probably hanging on the walls of the workshops in the main building, which was finished in 1895. Polenova paid special attention to this commission, because she had some first-hand knowledge of the locality - in 1889 she had come to Kologriv during her visit to the country estate of her friend Praskovia Antipova. Golovin wrote in his "Encounters and Impressions" that he was captivated by the project - Alexander Ivanov was one of his favourite artists. Golovin's correspondence is a testament to how hard he worked on the compositions for the Kologriv Vocational School. Waiting to learn Polenova's opinion of his efforts, he wrote: "I am painting, painting, and painting some more - you will be the judge when you come back; I will be finishing 'Transfiguration' today and starting the image of Our Lady tomorrow... We will keep working, and eventually we will accomplish something. And still, it would be so nice if you came sooner."34

There was yet another reason why Golovin was always impatient for Polenova to come back - she made a point of taking care of the young artists who worked with her. Golovin, lonely and not good at making friends, benefitted more than most from her attention. His contemporaries often mentioned that he was eccentric, distant and edgy. In the words of the artist Konstantin Korovin, "A.Ya. Golovin was a solitary man. He did not talk about his life. But somewhere deep inside of him, there was sadness, and his bright beautiful eyes were often full of anxiety and suppressed trepidation."35 Sergei Shcherbatov wrote: "Golovin was neurotic, he always felt persecuted and very lonely."36 Leon Bakst noticed the same character traits: "Golovin walks around with his head hung down, cries, and acts like a nervous woman."37 In Polenova, Golovin found a dedicated fellow artist, a mentor, and a good friend. Yegishe Tadevosyan recalled the warm atmosphere of their shared work sessions: "When I was invited to Yelena Dmitrievna's first apartment... I made friends with the artist A. Golovin, who was a regular, and worked there. I joined them, and we shared the workshop; we worked together, drank tea, attended concerts, and went to the Zoo gardens together. In short, E.D. [Elena Dmitrievna] was like a nanny to us..."38 At that time, Golovin had a bad bout of kidney disease, and occasionally was not only unable to work, but could not get out of bed; he sent Polenova short notes informing her of that. Polenova did her best to support him: she sent him money for medical treatments and recommended her doctor. When Golovin recovered, they joined other friends on a trip to Italy and France. In September 1896 Polenova wrote to her brother several times about her concern for the young man's health, which caused her sister-in-law to wonder if Yelena was actually flirting with Golovin. Polenova did not care what others thought: a person of strong will and high morality, she saw her mission in supporting young and talented artists. She once made a confession in a letter: "Mostly, I would like to retain these two abilities: to help, encourage, support and push other artists to work. I am sure that I have this quality..."39 This was Polenova's way to prevent artists from vanishing in the whirlpool of everyday cares and support their self-realization.

Tadevosyan remembered: "E.D. [Elena Dmitrievna] told me about Golovin: 'He is so weak-willed, and he does not know how to handle his money - he spends it the day after he gets it. I tried saving his money for him; it did not work, he would still come and take it. I feel sorry for him. He is a very talented artist - painting is easy for him, much easier than for most; for him, it is living that is so hard. I care for him so much because he is so talented; however, if he is not guided by good advice, I am afraid he will be lost. I get angry at his indifference to his own shortcomings.'"40 In his memoirs, the director of the Imperial Theatres Vladimir Telyakovsky, who worked closely with Golovin, commented on the same "lack of will".

However, people who knew the artist well, such as Polenova and Telyakovsky, forgave him a multitude of faults for his amazingly beautiful paintings, stage designs, and costumes - as well as for his innocence, honesty and friendliness. Feodor Chaliapin called Golovin "sweet and loved". Gollerbakh wrote that the artist's unique charm was imperceptibly linked to his art: "Golovin's masterful style was original, flawless and enchanting. As a person, he was equally original, flawless and enchanting... A wizard with regard to art, Golovin was a wizard in life, too - he had the rare ability to win people over."41

That was certainly the case with Polenova. She wrote soon after their first meeting: "At Golovin's request, I went to see him and came away with a very good impression. His painting ('The Descent from the Cross') is a very poor piece, juvenile, and immature; he does, however, have some studies that I like a lot. Of all of those that were exhibited, I told him honestly that I only liked the one with a winter scene; I said it in all innocence, but he gave it to me right there. Oh well, what can you do, it is always a pleasure to be given the gift of a nice study. He made a good impression on me because, first, he worked and improved quite a bit, and second, he has grown very poor. He makes his living by taking commissions to paint flowers on sateen screens. This circumstance has really humbled him, and a true human being is now emerging from behind the little poseur that he was before."42

"A man with a heart both big and sensible, always friendly and tactful (for tact is nothing other than 'a sensible heart'), extremely gentle, indecisive, almost shy, Golovin was nevertheless firm and direct in his opinions about art,"43 Gollerbakh wrote. Telyakovsky also remembered these qualities. Polenova, always genuinely friendly to everyone, was equally principled when it came to issues of art. Honesty in regard to their calling united these artists. There is an interesting reference to Golovin's principled attitude towards art in the correspondence between Pavel Tretyakov's daughters. Vera Siloti, the daughter of the Tretyakov Galley founder and wife of a famous musician, wrote to her sister: "Golovin has finished working on 'Orpheus' [Siloti refers to the production of Gluck's opera 'Orpheus and Eurydice'] a long time ago; he would not allow Zbrueva to sing because she has no 'lines'; Petrenko would not work either, because she has almost no 'lines' left; he demands that Sobinov is in the production - is it really the stage designer who should run the musical part of the show?"44 On the face of it, the rebuke is not without logic; however, the episode is indicative of the artist's uncompromising good taste with regard to beauty. It was important for Golovin that opera was a harmonious synthesis of various art forms, not just their sum total. For him, any breach of harmony amounted to failure.

Gollerbakh wrote that it was only his "unfailing goodness" that helped Golovin see the best in life and people, without focusing on the hardships that were a common occurrence in the life of an artist. Thus, part of the public was critical about "Mir Iskusstva" (The World of Art), another project that brought Golovin and Polenova together. The idea for the magazine was conceived in St. Petersburg, but the decision was made to involve the Muscovites, and the organizers made a special trip to Moscow for that purpose. Later Golovin wrote: "Diaghilev and Filosofov invited Moscow artists to Polenova's studio and shared their plans with them. the guests from St. Petersburg were given a most warm welcome at Polenova's studio; their vision received wholehearted support."45

Polenova supported the publication and was planning to participate in it. Both she and Golovin received letters from Diaghilev with the offer to join the new society (in a letter of May 20 1897) , and take part in the competition for the best design for the cover page of the first issue of "Mir Iskusstva" (a letter of June 20 1898) . Golovin's correspondence with Polenova in August 1898 reflects his close communications with Diaghilev during that summer - they were discussing the groundwork for the new publication."I showed him my decorative patterns, and he chose the ones that you do not like, from the old batch; he rejected all the windows and doors - I don't know what to even do for him."46 During the first year of the magazine's existence a number of Golovin's works were published in it, such as "Bartholomew as a Young Boy", "Carpet", "Decorative Pattern", "Armchair", "Cover Design". Yelena Polenova died in November 1898, and in 1899 the magazine dedicated a special double issue to her memory (Nos. 18-19). Along with an article by Natalya Polenova (with a headpiece by Golovin) and Yelena Polenova's fairy tale "Little Philipko", there were many illustrations, including the designs for the "Russian dining-room" commissioned by Maria Yakunchikova, the project that Polenova and Golovin had started together.

It was this work that they were discussing in 1897, during their final visit to Paris and Spain together - Polenova was ill and was urged by her doctors to seek medical treatment there. Almost unable to draw, she still did not lose hope. Golovin, who had married not long before the trip, went back home, and Polenova stayed behind to complete her treatment in Paris; she continued to make plans and met with her client: "I was able to find out a lot regarding her last commission for a dining-room in Nara."47 Golovin wrote to Polenova about discussing the project with Yakunchikova and the details of the forthcoming work. Unfortunately, he was to finish the project alone - Polenova's life was cut short.

Polenova was ill for a long time. Golovin was quick to understand her state of mind, when infirmity stood in the way of her need to create art. Gollerbakh wrote about Golovin: "Many a time his absolute desire to create art overcame his severe illness..."48 The same was true of Polenova. The last year of her life was truly agonizing, yet sometimes she found the strength to work. Her untimely death was a shock to everyone. Having returned home from Paris, Golovin expected that she would follow a couple of weeks later. They were making plans for the future, and were definitely planning on working together. Sadly, Polenova's condition quickly deteriorated. Vasily Polenov took his sister to his country estate on the Oka River (her doctors prescribed a stay in the country and swimming). Golovin did not anticipate anything terrible when he wrote to her on August 18: "Why did you leave without leaving a note for me? How long will you be away?"49

Upon arrival at the estate, Polenova took a turn for the worse; sometimes she would fall into unconsciousness. When she was taken to a hospital in Moscow, Golovin was devastated. On September 9 Vasily Polenov wrote to his wife: "He is remarkably attentive and warm; he met me at the railway station. We went to the hospital together, and he talked calmly and reasonably about everything: that the doctors did not expect such developments and were at a loss, that they would not have admitted Yelena Dmitrievna had they anticipated all this. [He] was very sorry that she had not listened to him and had refused flat out to consult a prominent doctor abroad."50 The English journalist Netta Peacock, who was close to both Polenova and Golovin at that time, wrote about their relationship and the attempts to convince Polenova to seek medical treatment in Paris. Anticipating the artist's imminent death, Peacock wrote to Natalya Polenova: "Golovin will also feel how awful it all is - they have been so close for more than six years, a significant challenge for any friendship!"51

It was hard for Golovin to lose someone to whom he was so close. On top of that, they had just started working together on the interior decorations for the dining-room in Yakunchikova's house in Nara. They used to work in the same studio, and he had to clean it up. Natalya Polenova wrote to her husband: "It is good that Golovin asked you to sort through Lili's [Yelena's family nickname] artistic possessions... he was so close to her these last few years."52 Their spiritual connection and artistic collaboration were, in different ways, crucial for both of them - mutual understanding and support is evident in many of their letters to each other. Golovin's relationship with Polenova was an essential part of his life which surreptitiously helped him in his artistic development. He wrote in the autumn of 1898: "Yelena Dmitrievna is very ill... She has taken to her bed and almost lost her memory, but she is fully conscious. All of this is very hard."53

Then she died. There was no one left to share the most closely held artistic visions, and the support of a close friend and mentor that he had become used to was no longer there. However, the years of friendship and cooperation were not lost - they were instrumental in determining the extraordinary achievements of Alexander Golovin's career.


  1. A.Ya. Golovin,"Encounters and Impressions. An Artist's Memoir". Editing and comments by E.F. Gollerbakh. Leningrad-Moscow, 1940.
  2. K.A. Korovin, A.Ya. Golovin// "Konstantin Korovin Remembers". Moscow, 1990. P. 140.
  3. These letters were purchased by the Tretyakov Gallery from the artist Vasily Polenov's daughter Ye.D. Sakharova in 1967 and are kept at the gallery's Manuscripts Department.
  4. A.Ya. Golovin,"Encounters and Impressions. Letters. Remembering Golovin". Leningrad-Moscow, 1960. P. 22.
  5. Ye. Polenova to V. Polenov, February 1890 // Ye.V. Sakharova, "Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A Chronicle of a Family of Artists". Moscow, 1964. P. 449.
  6. Ye. Polenova to N. Polenova, February 1890 // Ibid. P.448.
  7. Ye. Polenova to N. Polenova, January 25, 1895 // Ibid. P. 520.
  8. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, 1896. Manuscripts Department, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 54, item 7689, sheet 1.
  9. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, September 14 1894. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 54, item 7686, back of sheet 2 & sheet 3.
  10. V. Piast,"Encounters". Moscow, 1997. P. 67.
  11. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, June 27 1894. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7684, back of sheet 1; item 7685, back of sheet 2.
  12. V. Telyakovsky, "Diaries of the Director of Imperial Theatres. 1901-1903. Petersburg". Moscow, 2002. P. 104.
  13. S. Makovsky, "Silhouettes of Russian Artists". Moscow, 1999. P. 61-62.
  14. A. Gollerbakh,"A.Ya. Golovin. Life and Oeuvre". Leningrad, 1928. P. 14.
  15. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, January 27 1894. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7684, back of sheet 1 & sheet 2.
  16. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, July 7 1894. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7685, sheet 2 & back of sheet 4.
  17. B. Almedingen,'Memories of Golovin's Theatre Work' // A.Ya. Golovin. "Encounters and Impressions. Letters. Remembering Golovin". Leningrad-Moscow, 1960. P. 279.
  18. K. Somov. "Letters. Diaries. Contemporary Opinions". Moscow, 1970. P. 160.
  19. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, July 7 1894. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7685, sheet 2 & back of sheet 2.
  20. French for "dead nature".
  21. French for "intelligence of flowers". The reference is to Maurice Maeterlinck's essay "The Intelligence of Flowers" (1907).
  22. E. Gollerbakh,"A.Ya. Golovin. Life and Oeuvre". Leningrad, 1928. P. 59.
  23. A. Levinson,'Russian Set Designers' // "The Capital and Country Estate", 1916, #57. P. 16.
  24. French for "melancholy of memories".
  25. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, 1893. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7689, front & back of sheet 1.
  26. Ye. Polenova to N. Polenova, October 30 1895 // Ye.V. Sakharova, "Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A Chronicle of a Family of Artists". Moscow, 1964. P. 538.
  27. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, 1895. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7696, front & back of sheet 1.
  28. Y. Tadevosyan,"My Memories of Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova // Yelena Polenova. 160th Anniversary". Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow, 2011. P. 357.
  29. E. Gollerbakh,'Golovin's Image. Remembering A.Y. Golovin' // E.F. Gollerbakh,"Encounters and Impressions". St. Petersburg, 1998. P. 165.
  30. Ye. Polenova to N. Polenova, January 24, 1895 // Ye.V. Sakharova, "Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A Chronicle of a Family of Artists". Moscow, 1964. P. 520.
  31. Ye. Polenova to Ye. Mamontova, April 27 1893 // Ibid. P. 490.
  32. Cost-estimate of Art-related Expenses for the Dining-hall and Church at the Chizhov Vocational School in Kologriv. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 37.
  33. For more information, see: O. D. Atroschenko, "Vasily Polenov and Alexander Ivanov. The Story of the Church at the Vocational School in Kologriv // A Collection". 2004, #1. Pp. 104-115.
  34. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, 1893. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7689, back of sheet 1, front and back of sheet 2.
  35. K. Korovin,"A.Ya. Golovin // Konstantin Korovin Remembers". Moscow, 1990. P. 140.
  36. S. Shcherbatov,"Artists in Russia That Is No More". Moscow, 2000. P. 156.
  37. L. Bakst to L. Gritsenko, February 1903. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 111, item 25, back of sheet 3.
  38. Y. Tadevosyan, "My Memories of Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova // Yelena Polenova. 160th Anniversary". Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow, 2011. P. 358.
  39. Ye. Polenova to N. Polenova, February 1895 // Ye.V. Sakharova,"Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A Chronicle of a Family of Artists". Moscow, 1964. P. 522.
  40. Y. Tadevosyan, "My Memories of Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova // Yelena Polenova. 160th Anniversary". Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow, 2011. P. 364.
  41. E. Gollerbakh,'Golovin's Image. Remembering A.Ya. Golovin' // E.F. Gollerbakh, "Encounters and Impressions". St. Petersburg, 1998. Pp. 160, 171.
  42. Ye. Polenova to V. Polenov, February 1890 // Ye.V. Sakharova, "Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A Chronicle of a Family of Artists". Moscow, 1964. P. 449.
  43. E. Gollerbakh,'Golovin's Image. Remembering A.Ya. Golovin' // E.F. Gollerbakh,"Encounters and Impressions". St. Petersburg, 1998. P. 163.
  44. V. Siloti to A. Botkina, December 28 1910. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 125, item 3021, back of sheet 1.
  45. A.Ya. Golovin,"Encounters and Impressions. Letters. Remembering Golovin". Leningrad-Moscow, 1960. Pp. 62, 64.
  46. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, August 24 1898. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7715, sheet 1.
  47. Ye. Polenova to N. Polenova, March 16 (28) 1898. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7315, back of sheet 1.
  48. E. Gollerbakh,'Golovin's Image. Remembering A.Ya. Golovin' // E.F. Gollerbakh,"Encounters and Impressions". St. Petersburg, 1998. P. 160.
  49. A. Golovin to Ye. Polenova, August 18 1898. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 7714, sheet 1.
  50. V. Polenov to N. Polenova, September 9 1898. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 643, front and back of sheet 2.
  51. N. Peacock to N. Polenova, October 1 1898. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 11334, sheet 2 (translated from English).
  52. N. Polenova to V. Polenov, September 13 1898. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, F. 54, item 4466, back of sheet 1 and sheet 2.
  53. A. Golovin to M. Durnov, September 7 1898 // A.Ya. Golovin, "Encounters and Impressions. Letters. Remembering Golovin". Leningrad-Moscow, 1960. P. 173.





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