The Artist’s Wife: Olga Serova

Natalya Ilyina, Olga Kovaleva

Magazine issue: 
#3 2015 (48)

"Await me not with impatience, but with patience''1
(Valentin Serov, in a letter to his wife, Olga)

The Department of Manuscripts of the Tretyakov Gallery has about one hundred letters written by the Russian artist Valentin Alexandrovich Serov to his wife Olga Fyodorovna Serova. Purchased from the couple’s daughter Olga Valentinovna Serova in the 1930s, they form a key part of the great artist’s documentary heritage, and although his wife’s letters have not survived, the collection is testimony to the huge affection Serov felt towards his life companion.

"In appearance and in character alike, Olga Fyodorovna] was precisely the woman for Serov. Upon meeting her, one was not immediately struck by her looks; yet, upon closer inspection, everyone ended up concluding that she was extremely pretty," Maria Lvova (Simonovich), the closest friend of Olga Serova in her youth, wrote in her memoirs.2 "Petite, with small features and big grey eyes beside a tiny, slightly pointed nose, she resembled a Dutch woman - as her husband would often tell her. With few expectations as for herself, she dedicated her life to serving Serov, attempting to meet all his creative needs and to furnish him with everything in a way that would be suited to his taste."3

The couple met in the home of Serov's aunt, the warm and hospitable Adelaida Simonovich. Sister to the artist's mother Valentina Serova, Adelaida was married to the well-known doctor and public figure Yakov Simonovich, and the young Serov was a frequent guest in their home, often living there for some time. His future wife Olga Trubnikova had been adopted by the family in 1879 following the death of her terminally ill mother, whom Yakov Simonovich had treated as a patient.

Little is known about Olga Trubnikova's early life and family history. In a later letter to Igor Grabar, who published a book on her husband's life and work, she wrote: "One of my father's ancestors was a military commander, Nikita. According to our family archives, in 1517 he served in Smolensk under Tsar Vasily Ivanovich III. My mother also came from a very old and aristocratic family... she was born a Novikova."4

Maria Lvova wrote: "My parents' adoptive daughter Olga F[yodorovna] Trubnikova was raised with us from the age of ten. She was, I think, her parents' 13th child! They had once been extremely wealthy landowners in the Tambov district, yet following her father's death the estate was mortgaged and remortgaged, ceasing to bring in any income. Olga and her mother moved to St. Petersburg, where her mother earned a meagre living by making undergarments. Following her death from tuberculosis, Olga was to be placed in an orphanage. My father made sure she got a place, but there was to be a wait, so in the meantime the little girl came to live with us. At that time, we were already five children. When, several months later, the orphanage announced it could take Olga in, we children could no longer bear to part with her, and she went on to live with us for good."5

Further details about the Trubnikov family can be found in Maria Lvova's article, "Dr. Yakov Mironovich Simonovich". The friend of Olga's youth writes there of Trubnikova's father Fyodor, who squandered his wealth, of her brother, who was placed in an orphanage for boys, and of her sister, who was married and living in some distant region, "perhaps near Ufa".6 After finishing her studies at the gymnasium in 1882, Lyolya, as Olga was affectionately called by her adoptive family, remained living with them. Whilst helping out with raising the younger children, she also took on a position at the local kindergarten and elementary school established by Adelaida, who was well-known as a social activist and teacher.

Every Saturday, the Simonovich household on Kirochnaya Street would be abuzz with excitement waiting for the young Serov to visit with his fellow-students from the Academy of Arts. Valentin and his friends Mikhail Vrubel and Vladimir von Derviz were doubtless drawn there by the charm and wit of the three young ladies of the household: Lyolya Trubnikova, Maria Simonovich and her sister Nadya. "The free, light and easy gaiety of those Saturdays... was based, as I now see, on the romance around the three couples in the making: Nadya and Vladimir von Derviz, Lyolya and Serov, Maria and Mikhail Vrubel. The first two ended up marrying,"7 Nina Simonovich-Efimova wrote. In 1885, Nadya Simonovich married Vladimir von Derviz and the couple settled at his well-known Domotkanovo estate near Tver.

Lyolya and Serov, however, were less fortunate. Early in 1885 Maria and Olga fell ill, and it was decided that the young ladies should visit Crimea with Serov's mother Valentina to recuperate. From Crimea, the group travelled on to Odessa, where relatives of Maria's father lived. Thus, the young lovers Olga and Valentin were separated for some time.

Olga gradually made Odessa her home. Through Yakov Simonovich's sister Fanny Mironovna she met the doctor and well-known public figure Isaak Chatskin, becoming a governess in his home. She also taught a course of music run by the head of the Odessa Musical Society, the composer and teacher Anna Charnova. "Naturally, they may all be extremely pleasant people, yet it is as always: those who do not shun work are given huge loads to carry. And in your case, you encourage this sort of situation with your readiness to take on so many new tasks and undertakings... This causes me much concern,"8 a disgruntled Serov wrote to his beloved on 29 September 1885. Clearly increasingly anxious at Olga's unexpected and prolonged absence, on 5 January 1887 the artist enquired: "You know, I often find myself wondering. What if Chatskin [the 55-year-old doctor Chatskin was a widower - all annotations, N.I, O.K.] were to ask you to be his wife? You have become indispensable to his children, and he himself might well by now have fallen in love with you. Perhaps even you love him too?.. I am serious, this thought worries me greatly."9

Olga's life in Odessa appeared full and financially secure. Nevertheless, she seemed attached to her beloved, waiting patiently for him to give her a tangible sign of his devotion. At times, she appears to doubt the possibility of their future together. "Dear Lyolya, I beg you, please cease such morbid thoughts! Be content, and do not even think of leaving me - do you hear me? Forget my previous doubts: indeed, I am a man inclined to doubt in everything. With time, however, I am becoming more firm, and I feel that our relations also will now become more established."10

Gradually, the artist realized that his beloved did not have a home of her own to return to, and was waiting for him to take a decision. He began to think about marriage, forming various plans in his attempt to overcome the obstacles inherent in his somewhat disorganized life. He considered moving to Odessa, where "a decent circle [had formed], with the artists Kuznetsov, Kostandi,11 etc. etc."12, or to Kiev, where Adrian Prakhov13 was gathering the best artists for the decoration of the Cathedral of St. Vladimir (Volodymyr). "I would be extremely interested to find out whether I will be considered for the work on that 19-foot wall, which is meant to depict the Nativity,'14 Serov wrote to the artist Viktor Vasnetsov. He also visited Olga in Odessa. "Tosha [Valentin] has gone to visit Lyolya. He promises to return, a married man. Joking aside, this could well happen! And if it does? Well, I shall be most happy,"15 the artist's mother Valentina wrote to her niece Maria Lvova.

"Several years passed, which Olga spent in Odessa as the governess of two children," Maria Lvova wrote, recollecting her friend's life. "The children became so attached to her that they attempted to force her to renounce her adoptive family and to stay with them for good. Olga, however, was attached to Serov, who had long been fond of her. So in the end, she left Odessa and joined him in Moscow."16

Valentin Serov and Olga Trubnikova were married on 29 January 1889 in St. Petersburg's Vvedensky Church of the Semyonov Regiment Guards. It was a modest wedding, as Sergei (Savvich) Mamontov17, whom Serov had asked to be his best man, remembered: "I got there, thinking it was to be a grand affair. But when I entered the church, I saw there had been no preparation, nothing. The priest came up to me and I asked, was there to be a wedding that day? Yes, he replied, they will be getting married here. Soon after that, the bride arrived. She came in a carriage, with her relatives. No sign of the groom. People began to worry: where, indeed, was the groom? I remember I came out into the porch of the church to look out for him, but still no Serov. Finally, he arrived: alone, in a cab, in coat and hat. Paying the cabbie a quarter [of a ruble], he walked into the church: 'Well then, let the wedding proceed!' After the ceremony we went to Serov's furnished rooms where he lived, and took tea - such was the wedding feast."18

"My way of life has changed little after marriage. I am working on a portrait," Serov wrote on 4 February 1889 to his friend Ilya Ostroukhov, who was himself also soon to be married.19 Not long afterwards, Ostroukhov wrote to Yelizaveta Mamontova: "Now, about Anton [Valentin]. Marriage has not changed him one bit. He is exactly as he was before. I liked his wife. She is a sweet, small blonde woman with lovely eyes, simple and very modest. She seemed too shy to talk much with me, so I was not able to discover much about her emotional make-up. It seems her character is still very much unformed, she is very young, fragile, and thus, unlikely to exert much influence on her husband."20

Serov's young wife, it seems, made a good impression on many of the artist's contemporaries as well as the exacting aesthete Ostroukhov. The artist Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva wrote of her: "Olga Fyodorovna's big blue eyes shone brightly. Her hair, with its soft cascading waves, formed a halo of light around her beautiful, friendly face."21 "Serov's wife Olga Fyodorovna would appear here and there among the guests, a fragile figure constantly filled with care and concern, radiating a kind of inner tenderness and light,"22 Serov's pupil Nikolai Ulyanov recalled. And Serov himself noted to his wife, "Yesterday I saw the Ratkovs... Both of them, he and she, told me that I had the most charming wife, that they are quite smitten with you, and that I am no good as a portrait painter: before meeting you, they had liked your portrait at Tretyakov's; now, they see no good in it."23 Pavel Chistyakov24, whom Serov also introduced to his young wife, maintained that "such a face is heaven-sent for painting angels from".25

Indeed, Olga could be seen as something of an angel. Tender, kind and considerate, she gave all her time and care to her talented husband and six children. Appearing "always careworn", due to Serov's frequent absences she was forced to take on the majority of chores in raising their children, a task that required huge dedication, effort and courage. Olga Serova, the couple's first child, recalled: "Father had little time to spend on raising us, and we were six, with me the eldest. I was followed by four brothers and a baby sister, Natasha, who was only three when father died. Thus, we were mainly raised by our mother."26 "The atmosphere in our home could hardly be called bohemian. Everyone was kept busy, learning. studying music. My brothers also studied carpentry. Mother was joyful and optimistic by nature. She always hoped for the best, facing any dangers with ease, lightness and energy and attempting if not to eradicate them, at least to make them as small as possible."27

Olga succeeded, it appears, in combining successfully the roles of loving mother, strict tutor, caring nurse in times of her children's sickness, and even that of foreman during the construction of the family dacha. The country house by the sea in the Finnish region of Eno was the family's only permanent residence. Built largely thanks to her efforts, it was the most popular meeting place for the whole family, where the Serovs enjoyed bathing, horse-riding and sailing the yacht built by their eldest son Alexander. "So, have the caulkers got to work yet? Very good. Is the timber being transported? Is Pyotr [the contractor hired to supervise the building of the Eno dacha] hard at work? Has he sent the workmen over? Are they making the frames yet? Very good, I see. And what about the boat - how is the boat? Are the boys using it much? Are they having fun? Do they listen to you though? That is good, if they do."28 Despite the half-joking tone of Serov's letter to his wife, it is immediately clear who was really the master (or rather, mistress) of the household, and what enormous responsibility lay on Olga's shoulders.

Serov's wife, it seems, struggled somewhat with these tasks. Her husband was constantly imploring her: "Lyolya dear, you should not worry so about the repairs or about our expenses. These are nothing out of the ordinary. Just look after your health and our children, that's what matters. Everything else is unimportant."29 "How is the construction going, and how are you getting on? Please, do not worry. When I arrive, we can sort everything out."30

Unfortunately, as already mentioned, Olga Fyodorovna's letters to her husband have not survived. Yet Serov's letters are ample proof of the tenderness the artist felt throughout their married life for his wife, whom he lovingly addressed as "Lyolyushka", "my little one", "my little girl". For Serov, Olga was his best friend, his helper, his adviser and stalwart supporter. No wonder then that the great artist's sudden death proved such a terrible blow to his loving wife.

In his memoirs, the artist Ilya Repin wrote: "Her letter to Maria Samoilovna Zetlin,31 dated 24 December 1911 - around a month after Valentin Alexandrovich's death - shows exactly what he meant to her: 'I still cannot come to my senses, it all happened so fast. I feel such emptiness and loneliness, even though I am surrounded by our six children. I feel pity for them, yet right now, they bring me no joy. Life is so dull without him, so dull! And not just for me, but for many, many others, as well. I was accustomed to his frequent absence, and so I keep thinking he is about to return... In reality though, I will never again be able to greet him upon his return. Perhaps with time I will regain some interest in life, but right now I do not feel any interest in anything. I have to force myself to undertake any task. One thing only gives me pleasure, and that is to visit his grave - despite the fact that when I am there, my soul is even heavier from the knowledge that he is there, right beside me, yet I cannot speak to him or see him. But I must try to maintain my health, to continue to live... What a dreadful sense this is, 'I must!'"32 The couple's daughter Olga wrote that, "several months after my father's death, mother contracted an acute form of goitre that almost killed her."33

Olga Serova died in 1927, having outlived her husband by 16 years. The remainder of her life was spent caring for their children and grandchildren, and looking after his artistic legacy: thus, she devoted herself to her husband until the very last.


  1. "Valentin Serov: Correspondence, Documents, Interviews". Edited and compiled by Zilbershtein, Ilya, and Samkov, Vladimir. Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR (Artist of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic). In two volumes, 1985, 1989. V. 1. P 224. Hereinafter - Correspondence.
  2. Maria Yakovlevna Lvova (1864-1955, nee Simonovich) was Valentin Serov's cousin and the model for his famous painting "Girl in the Sunlight" (1888, Tretyakov Gallery).
  3. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Archive 153. Item 2801. Sheet 1.
  4. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Archive 106. Item 10698. Sheet 2 rev.
  5. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Archive 153. Item 2801. Sheet 1.
  6. Lvova (Simonovich), Maria. "I Would Like to Die in Russia: Memoirs, Diaries and Correspondence". Moscow, 2010. P 34.
  7. Simonovich-Efimova, Nina. "Saturdays at Kirochnaya". Ibid, p. 98.
  8. Correspondence. V. 1. Pp. 70-71.
  9. Ibid, pp. 82-83.
  10. Ibid, p. 80.
  11. Nikolai Kuznetsov (1850-1929) was a genre and portrait painter. The painter Kiriak Kostandi (1852-1921) was one of the leaders of the Odessa School of Drawing.
  12. Correspondence. V. l. P 66.
  13. Adrian Prakhov (1846-1916) was an art historian, art critic and archaeologist. Between 1884 and 1896 he managed the decoration of Kiev's Cathedral of St. Vladimir (Volodymyr).
  14. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Archive 66, item 192, sheet 2.
  15. From Valentina Serova's letter to Maria Simonovich dated 30 October 1887, in Maria Lvova (Simonovich), "I Would Like to Die in Russia: Memoirs, Diaries and Correspondence". Moscow, 2010. P 355.
  16. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Archive 153, item 2801, sheet 1 rev.
  17. Sergei Savvich Mamontov (1867-1915) was the eldest son of Yelizaveta Grigorievna and Savva Ivanovich Mamontov.
  18. "Valentin Serov. Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries". In two volumes. Editors, compilers, and authors of the preface, essays about the memoir-writers, and annotations: Zilbershtein, Ilya, and Samkov, Vladimir. Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR (Artist of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic), 1971. V. 1. P. 167. Hereinafter - Memoirs.
  19. Correspondence. V. 1. P. 149. Ilya Ostroukhov was married later that year.
  20. Memoirs. V. 1. Pp. 256-257.
  21. Ibid, p. 646.
  22. Ibid, p. 172.
  23. Correspondence. V. 1. Pp. 278-279. Alexander Ratkov-Rozhnov and his wife Zinaida Vladimirovna, nee Filosofova: the painting in question is "In Summer" (1895, Tretyakov Gallery).
  24. The painter and teacher Pavel Chistyakov (1832-1919) was Serov's favourite tutor at the Academy of Arts.
  25. Olga Serova, "Memoirs of My Father Valentin Alexandrovich Serov". Moscow, Leningrad, 1947. P 17.
  26. Ibid, p. 8.
  27. Ibid, p. 14.
  28. Correspondence. V. 1. Pp. 425-426.
  29. Ibid, p. 431.
  30. Ibid, p. 435.
  31. The publisher and public figure Maria Samoilovna Zetlin (1882-1976) was also one of the last of Serov's models.
  32. Memoirs. V 1. Pp. 82-83.
  33. Serova, Olga. "Memoirs of my Father Valentin Alexandrovich Serov". Moscow, Leningrad, 1947. P. 99.





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