Serov’s Women: two portraits, two lives

Irina Mironova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2015 (48)

Behind the images of women in portraits by Valentin Serov, as well as Mikhail Vrubel, Boris Kustodiev and Konstantin Somov, are lasting notions of a certain look, disposition and character typical of “the fair sex”. Both Cleopatra Obninskaya and Yelena Balina belonged to the type called a “Serov woman”, whose beauty was equal to their soulfulness, dignity and grace.

"Nowadays we still see very few portraits of women; naturally, we are talking about the true 'female portrait' genre, not the bonbonniere-like 'pretty little heads,' but an art form that is distinguished by both superb understanding of the modern woman and cultured painterly manner," Sergei Makovsky wrote in 1910.1 The critic had already noted the small number of images of women at Diaghilev's portrait show at the Tavrichesky Palace. Makovsky thought that, unlike those of earlier times, the artists of the beginning of the 20th century did not give this genre its due. The critic's reproach may have been fair to other figures, but not in Serov's case: the value of his contribution to the female portrait gallery of his time has never been in doubt.

Indeed, it was at the Tavrichesky Palace exhibition that the public first saw his "Portrait of Cleopatra Obninskaya with a Rabbit". This charcoal drawing, with some subtle colour added with pastel and sanguine, easily stands its ground next to the artist's best paintings. The portrait's distinct allure is difficult to put into words, just as it is impossible to describe someone's charm: it is a perfect example of Serov's superb technique and his amazingly tender and concise manner. The young woman with lovely, somewhat sad eyes is gently holding a rabbit: completely trusting, the animal is clinging to her chest. There is nothing artificial or posed in this image; however, what looks like a simple, easily executed work clearly reveals the strict deliberation and extreme care that is at the core of the composition. The image is the result of extensive examination and meticulous analysis of form and movement.

At the time Igor Grabar spoke highly of this work and praised it as the most moving of Russian portraits. Grabar put the drawing on the same level as the portraits of Dr. Botkin's daughters, the Kasyanov girls, and anna Troyanovskaya: all were painted with the same love for their subjects. This happened when the artist was "especially fond of" the model for a portrait and had "tender feelings towards her".2

Serov met Cleopatra Obninskaya (1880-1928) and her husband Viktor Obninsky (1867-1916), a well-known figure in Russian public life, at the beginning of the 1900s. in 1904 the artist received an invitation to visit their estate. Grabar remembered the time: "He [Serov] went to Italy in the spring... At the beginning of autumn he went to stay with the Obninskys at their estate in Belkino, in the Maloyaroslavetz region, and drew a charming portrait of Cleopatra Obninskaya with a tame rabbit. Of the several studies that he painted in Belkino only the one of the main hall of the old house was a success; this study belongs to Ivan Morozov. The rest did not really turn out well, and i remember that for a while Serov was quite depressed about it. However, soon enough his work picked up again."3 The name Grabar gave to the portrait stuck, and the work came to be known as "Portrait of Cleopatra Obninskaya with a Rabbit".

In 1906 Viktor Obninsky, a district Marshal of Nobility and Chairman of the Kaluga municipal council, was elected to the 1st State Duma (the Russian Parliament) from the Constitutional Democratic Party. Obninsky's reputation was that of a man of rare virtues and a progressive politician, "a dedicated federalist and proponent of sweeping national self-determination".4 He wrote popular books on the first Russian revolution and the last Russian sovereign. it is possible that Serov conceived of the idea to create Obninsky's portrait at about the same time, in 1906, as the result of the vigorous public discussion of politics and economics, in which the latter was an active participant.

Serov chose the same medium - pastel - for the portrait of the husband as he had used for that of the wife, but it would be difficult to call the two images "companion portraits". While Cleopatra is the embodiment of femininity, tenderness and kindness, Viktor, with his intense gaze and resolute expression, comes across as a man in the public eye, an accomplished public speaker who awed his contemporaries with his energy. in 1908, as one of those who drafted the Vyborg proclamation against the dissolution of the Duma, Obninsky was sentenced to three months in prison. Serov, who was not in the habit of talking openly about his political views, wrote on this occasion to his friend Troyanovsky, the doctor and collector who was married to Obninsky's sister: "Please give my warmest regards to Viktor Petrovich [Obninsky]. I think he must be at ease now, unlike those who are enjoying their freedom; it is harder for them because they have much on their conscience."5

Even though after his imprisonment Obninsky could no longer continue as a public servant, he remained active, and during World War One contributed his considerable efforts to organizing relief for Russian prisoners of war in Germany and Austria. His many interests included the arts: he was among the founders of the "Free aesthetics" society, whose goal was to unite the Russian artistic intelligentsia. Serov, who was also a participant in "Free Aesthetics", often saw Obninsky at the society's meetings in 1908-1911.

Viktor Obninsky, a second-generation political essayist, was of Polish descent. According to family tradition, the stress in their surname fell on the second syllable, Obn-i-nsky, in contrast to the town of O-bninsk, the first Russian "city of scientists", which would later retain the name of the former owners of the Belkino estate, a rare occurrence in Soviet toponymy.

While the history of the Obninsky family, in which Viktor is considered the most prominent member, has been well-researched,6 the same is not true about his wife's lineage. Cleopatra came from a family of wealthy landowners, the Salovs. Her father, who served in the army as a young man, rescued a 14-year-old Tatar princess who had been captured by a gang of soldiers during the Crimean war. A few years later Alexander Salov married his young ward and had three children with her. However, family history tells us neither her name nor what happened to her afterwards. Cleopatra, who inherited her mother's beauty, married her brother's friend Viktor Obninsky. They settled in Lzi, a large estate in the Novgorod province that was part of her dowry.

In 1902 Obninsky and his wife moved to his father's country estate at Belkino, the family's ancestral home since 1840. Upon receiving the land that constituted his share of the inheritance, Viktor invested some of his wife's capital in building a small but architecturally noteworthy manor that they called Turliki, and Cleopatra became the lady of the house. Vasily Polenov visited as early as May 1902, and it was there that Serov painted Obninskaya. it is interesting that Grabar, who had previously mentioned Belkino, later made a correction in his list of Serov's works and stated that the portrait was painted in Turliki. Even though the two estates were literally two kilometers away from each other, this fact is still significant.

At the time of Serov's visit Cleopatra was expecting her first child. She was in the last weeks of her pregnancy when she modelled for the artist, dressed in a loose, light blouse. That may well explain the special warmth that the artist feels towards his model, evident in his soft and gentle technique. It may be that her condition was the reason that Serov drew her with the tame rabbit, in order to cover up some of her body. However, he loved drawing animals and perhaps could not resist the opportunity to include the family pet in the portrait or make his favourite comparisons: the beautiful young woman is hugging the animal as if it were her unborn child.

We are reminded of another of Serov's works, the portrait of his wife expecting their third child that he painted in summer 1895 at Domotkanovo - both give us the impression of an inimitable female beauty. Obninskaya is indeed particularly lovely in Serov's portrait, although it would not be fair to accuse the artist of idealizing his model. None of the photographs from the Obninsk History Museum seem to convey her true appearance as well as Serov did in his portrait.

During that same autumn Serov painted one of his best interiors, the main hall of the old manor house, which I. Vorontsov, the original owner of the land, had built at the end of the 18th century. By the early 20th century, the magnificent three-storey stone house, an example of early classicism, was quite dilapidated: its walls were covered in cracks and the decorative parquet floors needed restoration. The artist painted the deep crack that was visible on one of the walls in the large double-height hall that occupied half of the second floor, after which it was referred to as "Serov's crack". Nevertheless, the house remained the way Serov painted it, the same comfortable "nest of gentlefolk" with sundrenched rooms. The fact that the house was shabby did not prevent the numerous Obninsky clan from gathering at the old estate during summer, taking walks and stopping to rest under a tree - the enormous "Godunovsky" elm. Sometimes they met in Bugry, where the Troyanovskys lived - the estate was part of the dowry received by Viktor's older sister Anna, whom Serov respected and painted on numerous occasions.

It would seem that Cleopatra led a charmed and happy life - a hospitable hostess, the lady of a house open to many remarkable guests, including renowned artists and men of letters. Serov was not the only artist friend of the obninskys: Vasily Polenov, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Nikolai Ulyanov, Alexander Sredin, and Konstantin Somov were also close to them. Obninsky chose Somov to design the bookplate for his private library, which was significantly expanded after its owner received an inheritance. The artist created an elegant ex libris, entirely true both to the spirit of the times and to his own aesthetic preferences. The final design of the bookplate was exhibited at the "Mir Iskusstva" (World of Art) show in 1911, and later became part of Alexei Sidorov's private collection.7 Whether by a stroke of fate or by chance, Somov's design for the bookplate included a vase covered with garlands of flowers against a starry night sky, reminiscent of a funerary urn.

On March 21 1916, at the age of 49, Obninsky shot himself. The note he left for publication in the newspapers stated that the only reason for his suicide was disappointment in politics. Eventually his contemporaries learned otherwise: it seemed that his fatal decision was the result of a "tragic romantic love".8 The aging Obninsky had fallen for the young Countess Vera Urusova, but his feelings were unreciprocated. Whether this was true or not, he did not see any other way out of his exhausting inner turmoil, his "anguish of the heart". Everyone was deeply saddened by the loss.

in his farewell letter to his wife Obninsky asked for her forgiveness. Their relationship had been flawed for a while, not unlike the cracked wall in the Belkino house. One can only guess what Cleopatra went through in these new circumstances, left alone with two children and, by then, in a straightened financial situation. The Turliki estate had been long sold to Margarita Morozova, and Belkino was nationalized in 1918, with much lost forever. The family did not have the means to rent an apartment, so they moved to their dacha in Petrovsky Park. Cleopatra made a living by exchanging her possessions for food and letting rooms to pilots from the nearby airfield.

It took considerable effort for her son Pyotr, the child whom Cleopatra had been expecting when Serov had painted her portrait in 1904, to leave the country for America and join his mother's sister there. In 1923 Cleopatra and her younger daughter Liya also received permission to emigrate and join her son, but at the very last moment, when they were already in Riga, Liya refused to travel further. So it happened that her family was divided in two branches, the Russian and the American ones.9

As fate would have it, Cleopatra Obninskaya died at 48, about the same age as her late husband, succumbing to an incurable illness. All her son's efforts, as well as the operation she underwent in France, proved in vain; she is buried in Paris. Serov's portrait of her remained in Russia; for a long time it was owned by the artist and collector Daniil Cherkes, from whom the Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) Art Museum purchased it in 1972. After the show at the Tavrichesky Palace, the portrait was exhibited at the posthumous exhibition of Serov's works, as well as at several solo shows. a remarkable photograph captures a moment from an exhibition in 1952, with Liya and her son Dmitry Terekhov, a future graphic artist and student of Robert Falk, looking at Cleopatra's portrait.

The young woman who is tenderly holding the tame rabbit seems rather defenceless herself. There is anguish concealed deep in her dark brown eyes; perhaps she was anxious about her unborn child, or maybe she was looking into the future. it is possible that Serov, who was called "a witness of the human soul", could see into it too.

Another of the notable portraits of "Serov's women" is that of Yelena Balina (1877-1945). Unlike the portrait of Obninskaya, this work was commissioned and painted during the last year of Serov's life; in contrast to the other portrait, Grabar did not like it, and in his list of the 1950s called it "not very interesting".10 it is easy to understand: it was a late work of Serov's, and Grabar made very few exceptions for art that approached modernism in style. Nevertheless, the first reproduction of the portrait was in Grabar's very selectively illustrated monograph, just as it had been among the carefully chosen works included in Serov's posthumous exhibition, where the "Portrait of Yelena Balina" was shown among "first-rate works only".11

it is an oil painting on canvas, like most of Serov's commissioned works. Priority was given to the durability of the painting and the artist's responsibility to the client. However, the portrait does not look like an "oil on canvas"; rather, it appears to be a tempera work. Upon close inspection, its surface seems matte and velvety, completely devoid of the glossy shine that irritated the artist.

The painting's striking palette, which is built around large patches of almost local colour, attracts the viewer's attention. The importance the artist gives to his model's attire and the graceful harmony of the cold blue, white and black tones that stand out against the ochre and brown background are not accidental. The model's face is painted painstakingly, as if smoothed over with a brush. The pose is serene and dignified: she is resting her slightly bowed head on one hand, with the slender wrist and bare upper arm visible. The other hand is hidden in the folds of her clothing, as in the oval portrait of Yelena Oliv.

This beautiful pensive woman is sitting in an armchair, unusually dressed and wearing no jewellery. It is hard to guess her identity from the image in the painting - actress, singer, or society lady? The model was in fact a remarkable and talented individual, born into a wealthy and conservative Moscow family, whose grandfather Andrei Postnikov is now best remembered by antique jewellery experts. An honorary citizen of Moscow, whose work was commissioned by the imperial court, Postnikov founded one of the major Moscow factories that manufactured gold, silver and bronze objects and fulfilled important commissions for decorating church interiors, including that of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In her time, Yelena's mother was considered the most beautiful woman in Moscow, and her three daughters took after her.

Yelena, the middle daughter, was married in 1898 to the young, exciting and energetic millionaire, Valentin Balin (1869/70-1934). Valentin came from a family of renowned textile industrialists, which at different times owned up to ten factories in the Vladimir province. His father Asigkrit, the founder of the "Manufacturing Partnership of A.Y. Balin", in 1885 bequeathed to his heirs vast capital assets and well-organized, competently managed production facilities, which continue working today. With the elder brother, Nikolai, at the helm of the family enterprise, his sons expanded the business, and Valentin served as the third director of the partnership and managed their Yuzhskaya manufacturing facility, now the Yuzhnaya Textile Factory in the ivanovo region. Valentin owned Achkasovo, an ample estate near Moscow, and a two-storey house on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street in the city, built in 1902.

This house is one of the few private residencies of pre-revolutionary Russia that has been preserved, its original interior decorations and furnishings intact. Today it serves as the Turkish ambassador's residence, and we can judge its opulent and varied interior design only from photographs and descriptions. Every room is decorated in the style of a certain epoch, from Gothic motifs to Art Nouveau. Paintings by acknowledged masters of the Silver age hung on the walls; the Balins' collection was so large that they periodically rotated the pieces on display.

While the house remains authentic, the legends that have circulated regarding its owner, allegedly a merchant who shot himself in the manner of Dostoevsky's Rogozhin, have nothing to do with reality.12 In fact, the true history proves more thrilling than fiction. In real life, the house on Nikitskaya was home to a regular family, two loving parents who raised three children. Valentin was very busy with his work and often travelled on business, while Yelena took care of their two daughters and son and performed her duties as a society lady, while remaining dedicated to the development of her talents. She had a natural ability for acting and singing and insisted on studying the performing arts. She took acting classes from the famous Maly Theatre actress Glikeria Fedotova and remained in close contact with her for many years afterwards; she also studied with Yevgeny Vakhtangov and Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin. She studied theatrical dance with Adelina Djuri, a former dancer at the Bolshoi Theatre who was a teacher of choreography. She was a singer too, receiving instruction from the famous opera singer Vera Petrova-Zvantseva: Yelena's achievements were so evident that the opera prima suggested that they tour the Baltics together. In Riga - her high social status did not allow her to perform in Moscow - Yelena was quite a success in the part of Lyubasha in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "The Tsar's Bride".

At the same time, Yelena was learning Yoga breathing techniques with Olga Lobanova, the first Russian instructor in the system of three-stage breathing. She did so not to strengthen her voice, but for a much more serious reason, the tuberculosis that ran in the Balin family. Such abilities would help her later in life (Lobanova, incidentally, continued teaching breathing techniques after the revolution, to the new inhabitants of the Kremlin). Philosophy was another of Yelena's serious interests, and in summer university professors came to Achkasovo to teach that subject to their hostess (among them Ivan Ilyin, with whom her path would cross again later). Such a social circle would inevitably influence Yelena's character.

She met Serov through Nadezhda Lamanova, who was known to everyone in Moscow as the best dress-maker in the city and a talented designer. Lamanova had a long-standing connection to the Serov family: she was a friend of Valentin's mother and, in 1911, asked the artist to paint her portrait to mark her 50th birthday. Yelena Balina was one of her regular clients, as was Yevfimia Nosova and Henrietta Girshman. Yelena wanted to commission her portrait from Serov as a gift to her husband, and Lamanova acted as an intermediary, even offering her atelier on Tverskaya Street for Yelena to sit for the portrait, which explains its rather generic background. We know that Serov, in the absence of his own studio, painted his commissioned portraits in the homes of his clients, but if he was to do so in this case, Yelena's gift would hardly be a surprise for her husband.

Lamanova and Serov together came up with Balina's unusual costume. Very few of Lamanova's dress designs have survived, which makes this portrait of equal interest to couturiers and fashion historians alike. Nothing similar can be found among Lamanova's designs that we know today. it is, indeed, not really a dress, but rather a costume constructed out of blue, white and black fabrics gathered at the waist and decorated with a pattern of grey and white; it was convenient that there was always an abundance of different materials in Lamanova's atelier from which the colours that the artist required could be selected.

Balina's costume has elements of the oriental, but not reminiscent of the style of Bakst. it is rather an allusion to the traditional Japanese white and blue colour scheme, its cut somewhat like that of a kimono. At the same time, this "created" dress has clear elements of the European Art Nouveau, a fact that makes the portrait itself more modernist.

It has been noted more than once that Serov paid great attention to, and had strong opinions about his models' choice of clothes. He was also interested in fashion: it is quite possible that while he was working on Balina's portrait, on or around October 20, he attended a lecture by the French fashion designer Paul Poiret at Lamanova's atelier, as well as visiting shows of the latest Paris fashions.

We know nothing else about how Serov painted Balina, with only one, quite significant exception: when the portrait was almost finished, Yelena voiced her surprise that she looked much older than her 33 years in the portrait, perhaps anticipating her husband's reaction. Responding to her bewilderment, Serov replied: "You will look like this later." it was not the first time that this happened with his models. His female clientele were frequently unhappy with such circumstances, but the wise artist usually answered their concerns in a similar way - and life would usually prove him right.

As with many others at the turn of the 20th century, that time of dramatic historical shifts, Yelena Balina's life was divided into a "before" and an "after". However, even "after" she supported her family and those close to her to the best of her ability. She held "philosophical Fridays" at her house in Moscow - it was being taken away from her in stages - that gathered a small circle of the intellectual elite. Ivan Ilyin gave his lectures there: at the time, all other doors were shut in his face.

However, in 1925 the house was handed over to the Turkish Embassy, while the Balin family received two tiny adjacent rooms on Vtoraya Meschanskaya Street. Remarkably, they were allowed to keep all their paintings, which they gave for safekeeping to Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya, the daughter of the Balins' former estate manager at Achkasovo who was married to an artist. Her own portrait by Serov, as an especially prized possession, Balina voluntarily entrusted to the Rumyantsev Museum - she did not know what life had in store for her. According to her family, that transfer happened in late 1920s;13 later the portrait ended up at the Tretyakov Gallery for a short time, only to be transferred to the collection of the Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum in 1929.
Yelena Balina was arrested on April 14 1931. She was charged as a member of an organization called "The True Orthodox Church". Together with its leaders Mikhail Novoselov and Alexei Losev, a number of Moscow priests and intellectuals were also arrested, including Yelena, who sang in the church choir at the Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker on Ilyinka Street, where Father Valentin Sventsitsky served as the dean. She was kept at the Butyrka prison for two months during the investigation. The charges were political: Balina was convicted by a Special Session of the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate) for her "membership in a counter-revolutionary monarchist organization" and for "anti-Soviet propaganda and helping exiled persons". Her sentence was exile to Kazakhstan.14

In 1933 her sentence was partially commuted and she was allowed to take up residence in Kostroma, where her husband was sent to die from the Butyrka prison. He had been arrested after her and tortured: it was demanded that he surrender valuables. Almost all the large family assembled in Kostroma, the only member absent Yelena's son who worked at a Moscow factory. Her older daughter, Vera, came from Tomsk with her children - Vera's husband, the remarkable scientist Rostislav ilyin, was arrested and executed in 1937. At first, the family rented a room, and later they used the proceeds from selling their paintings - the works were not worth much back then - to buy a cottage with a garden that would save their lives during the War.

Yelena Balina's granddaughter, Olga Ilyina, remembered that her grandmother remained beautiful into her old age, always poised, introspective, very quiet, and deeply devout: "We, the children, did not receive much affection from her; her gifts were the proper way of speaking Russian, breathing exercises that gave us quiet confidence in the fact that our health was in our own hands and that we could help other people, and a wonderful image of a wise old age... She found much-needed words of encouragement and consolation for those she loved; she was our rock, the embodiment of femininity and dignity, perseverance and courage. Always well-groomed and elegant, she wore a bright white linen blouse and a necklace of large amber beads."

That is exactly how Yelena Balina looked in the last photograph, from the time of her exile, that survives of her - so much like the image in the portrait! Once again, the artist had proved right. Makovsky, too, was right when he wrote that Serov's portraits, as "records" of contemporary woman, "deserved to be studied most carefully".15

The author thanks the Head of the Research Department at the Obninsk History Museum Z.N. Vassilieva and Olga Ilyina, the granddaughter of Yelena Balina, for their permission to publish the photographs they kindly made available.


  1. Makovsky, Sergei. 'Female Portraits by Contemporary Russian Artists'. // "Apollon". 1910. #5. P 14.
  2. Grabar, Igor. "Serov as a Drawing Artist". Moscow, 1961. Pp. 26-27.
  3. Grabar, Igor. "V.A. Serov in Life and Art". Moscow, Knebel Publishing House, 1914. P 158.
  4. "Valentin Serov: Correspondence, interviews, Documents". Edited and compiled by Zilbershtein, Ilya, and Samkov, Vladimir. Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR (Artist of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic). Leningrad, 1989. P. 139.
  5. Ibid. P. 145.
  6. Vassilieva, Z.V., Kascheeva, A.A. "Three Estates. Belkino, Turliki, Bugry". Kaluga, 2002; Chistyakova, E.S. 'Belkino: Past and Present in the Life of This Old Russian Estate' // "Moscow Journal", 2011. #2; Larina, Tatiana. "Obninsk Region at the End of the 19th-Beginning of the 20th Century".
  7. Sidorov, A.A. "Notes of a Collector". Leningrad, 1969. Pp. 162-163.
  8. Ibid. P. 162.
  9. Larina, Tatiana. "At the Time of Civil War".
  10. Grabar, Igor. "V.A. Serov in Life and Art". Moscow, 1965. P 343.
  11. Lapshin, V.P. "Valentin Serov. The Last Year of His Life". Moscow, Galart, 1995. P 361.
  12. "A Mansion with a Past. The Turkish Ambassador's Residence in Moscow."
  13. According to "The Rumyantsev Museum: Virtual Reconstruction", the portrait was transferred to the museum as part of the nationalized collections in 1919.
  14. "The New Martyrs and Confessors Who Suffered for Christ During the Persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th Century". [Online document].
  15. Makovsky, Sergei. 'Female Portraits by Contemporary Russian Artists'. // "Apollon". 1910. #5. P 15.





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