Valentin Serov: experimenting with sculpture

Irina Krasnikova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2015 (48)

Serov’s contribution to the art of sculpture should not be seen as the result of any serious professional application, being instead a kind of “intermission” in his hard work as a painter. Most of his “non-painterly” works seem to have appeared spontaneously: they had nothing to do with the general direction that his artistic career was taking at any point, were confined to separate periods of his career, and may be characterized as “trying his hand at sculpting”.

Serov sculpted in clay at a time when he was close to the Abramtsevo artistic circle, again when he lacked a model to resolve complex compositional challenges, and only once to work as a portraitist. In that last case, it was watching the sculptor Paolo (Pavel) Troubetzkoy at work that sparked Serov's decision to turn to clay as his medium.

Mention of the young artist's first real experiment with sculpture can be found in the memoirs of his mother.1 He worked on a bust of Ivan Uglanov, the Serovs' landlord in the village of Syabrintzy, and although the work itself is lost, Valentina Serova left behind a detailed description of it: "There he is, in front of me, modelled in clay by a 16-year-old youth. What intensity! What powerful expressiveness in this image of the old peasant, a man of tough, severe disposition, who had lived through serfdom and saw its end, and who ruled his own family with an iron fist and extreme despotism. I would not go as far as to say that the bust is well executed (the tip of the nose has broken off, which makes it especially hard to judge its likeness to the model); however, the stern gaze, the low, thick eyebrows, the stubborn brow of the former village elder are all there, rendered absolutely accurately and with power. One can see Repin-like 'brushstrokes' here, even though the medium is different."2

Serov created this sculpture around 1881, when he was still very much beginning as an artist, drawing sketches and painting studies to work out how to render the world around him. This seems to be the only sculpture by the young painter that his mother mentioned in her memoirs, and when describing her son's style, she gives special attention to the "Repin-like brushstrokes". It is noteworthy that she thinks it important to emphasize the vivid and original modelling of the face, not simply the likeness and accuracy of depiction.

Serov made most of his ceramic work at the Abramtsevo Ceramics Workshop. For Serov, the medium was never as important as it was for Mikhail Vrubel, who created a whole style in decorative majolica. First and foremost, Valentin Serov the artist identified himself with painting; sincere, honest and extremely hardworking, he could not afford to spend his time on something that was not at the core of his life and, most likely, did not captivate, absorb, or give him significant artistic satisfaction.

Serov's early experiments are a tribute to the fascination with ceramics shared by most of the inhabitants and guests of Abramtsevo, alongside their amateur theatrical productions which were another of Serov's favourite activities. A small ceramics studio was built at the estate in 1889-90, with the owners hoping to restore the stoves and fireplaces in the old house and adorn them with decorative coloured tiles. At this time, too, Savva Mamontov's son Andrei was a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (MSPSA), and was keenly interested in the form, which fascinated the members of Savva Mamontov's large family and their many guests equally. They both created their own original pieces, and also worked with ready-made ones by adding decorative patterns or elements to them; Pyotr Vaulin, a technician in manufacturing majolica, helped with the choice of glaze colours. After that the works were fired in the kiln, and the guests could see the final results on their next visit to Abramtsevo.

Serov contributed to the work of the ceramics studio in Abramtsevo from its inception until it was moved to Butyrskaya Zastava in Moscow in 1896. Among other works by the Abramtsevo craftsmen shown at the 1896 All-Russia Industrial and Art Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod, one of the reviews mentioned several pieces of barbotine3 pottery executed at the Abramtsevo studio by a number of artists, among them Valentin Serov.4

There is no mention of Serov's participation in the ceramics workshop or the works he executed there either in his correspondence or in other surviving documents, although some information can be found in periodicals of the time and in recollections by the artist's contemporaries. Thus, the famous 1915-16 exhibition at the Le Mercier Gallery (the only show dedicated exclusively to Abramtsevo ceramics held in Savva Mamontov's lifetime) included three works by Serov: "St. George", "Vase" and "Ophelia"5. A list of several works by Serov is to be found in the Abramtsevo Ceramics Workshop inventory records of finished pieces, manufactured products and moulds.6 Typically, Serov made decorative panels, inserts and tiles; he was not that interested in three-dimensional forms, and preferred to work with flat surfaces like tiles, with a large and smooth surface. There were plenty of unfinished tiles stocked at the Abramtsevo studio, since the estate owners were looking to fit out and embellish the estate house.

Serov used clay to create low reliefs, and from that point on Vaulin, the majolica specialist, would take over the production process. An expert professional, he channelled his inspiration into creating combinations of coloured glaze of varying thickness and transparency, and became a true collaborator of all the Abramtsevo ceramicists. He was responsible for the painting of the works: the artists would perhaps provide a watercolour sketch or, occasionally, the colour scheme would be decided in informal discussion.

For an artist, creating sculpture and decorative objects has the clear advantage that it is possible to produce a mould and make several copies. Serov's panel "Drowned Maiden" (c.1896, St. Petersburg, private collection, 31 x 26 x 10 cm), which was discovered relatively recently, appears on numerous inventories and is sometimes described as a decorative tile, sometimes as a panel.7 The fact that several pieces with the same motif are registered probably means that a mould existed. In his "Drowned Maiden", Serov was both a sculptor and a painter: as an artist, he was accustomed to using light and shade to create form, while here he had to switch to sculpting the real three-dimensional form in clay. Working with this particular medium, Serov could not use light and colour to create form, so he tried the purely painterly technique of introducing landscape, something that did not go well with the distinctive nature of decorative art. His works are more painterly than they are sculptural, even though his decorative ceramics do not benefit from the strongest aspect of his artistic talent, his gift for colour. Another circumstance worked against Serov as he created his "Drowned Maiden", namely his preference to paint real people. The maiden on the panel resembles two young women, Maria Yakunchikova and Olga Trubnikova, a fact that reveals quite clearly Serov's affinity with realism.

Serov created "Drowned Maiden" at the same time as he was painting his "Mermaid" (1896, Tretyakov Gallery). Serov did not choose this subject by accident, it seems: he kept returning to it, as did the Abramtsevo artistic community for whom the motif, like other similar ones such as Ophelia, mermaids and Orpheus, was always popular. His memory may also have retained associations with his father's unfinished opera "May Night", based on Nikolai Gogol's novella of the same name: the Mamontovs cherished the memory of Gogol, who had visited the area.

By that time Serov had already painted his masterpieces like "Girl in the Sunlight" and "Girl with Peaches", and he could clearly see the shortcomings of his ceramic panels. (He also executed one titled "St. George", although only a black and white photographic reproduction survives today.8) It is obvious that Serov was moving away from using light to model his figures; the relief is low, and the colour localized.

One of Serov's best decorative works is "Demon Climbing Out of a Wine Jar" (1890s. Height: 29.3 cm. Abramtsevo Museum-Reserve, Tretyakov Gallery, private collection). It is a composition that is hard to define by style: it is most often referred to as a vase, although the majority of pieces produced by the Abramtsevo Ceramics Workshop were purely decorative, and not for household use. A potter had made the jar, which resembles those typically found in peasant households, to be used by the visiting artists, but the figure of the demon is deliberately flattened and made slightly comical, like a character from a folk tale, almost a satyr. We can tell that the sculptor's approach to the subject is a humorous one, his aim being to make viewers laugh. Konstantin Korovin remembered one occasion when Serov and Mamontov were taking turns to make funny-looking clay figures of a “shishiga", the mischievous female wood-goblin of Russian folklore, and laughing at their spur-of-the-moment creations. Both let their imaginations take over as they assigned character traits, interests and favourite pursuits to their shishiga. Naturally, the wine jar was finished in one evening, and required neither complicated nor painstaking work: all it took was virtuoso improvisational energy and a sense of joy.

Serov, with his spectacular sense and gift for colour, could not have taken seriously the results of work over which he had so little control; in addition, his ever-increasing number of portrait commissions did not leave him much time to pursue ceramics, a factor that largely explains the small number of ceramic pieces in Serov's oeuvre.

For Savva Mamontov, however, something else was more important: any object made by Valentin Serov was touched by his talent. Mamontov had a very high opinion of Serov as a painter and an individual who left an important mark on the life of the art patron's family. The fact that other pieces matching the “Demon Climbing Out of a Wine Jar" and “Drowned Maiden" exist - they survive in museums today, and are also mentioned in archive documents - must mean that a mould was made, and the colour schemes therefore determined without Serov's involvement.

Serov's portrait sculpture of Paolo Troubetzkoy (1898, plaster, Tretyakov Gallery) was a milestone in both the artist's career and life. In 1898, at the invitation of Prince Lvov, the MSPSA director, Troubetzkoy travelled from Italy to Moscow to teach sculpture. Arrangements were made for him there in advance: a year or so before Troubetzkoy's arrival, a new studio was built for him in the courtyard of the school, and a bronze-founder called Carlo Robecchi brought from Italy. The studio quickly became famous, and Troubetzkoy did not lack for models; even Leo Tolstoy, who acknowledged the sculptor's great talent, came to sit for him. Moscow gave Troubetzkoy the warmest of welcomes: every door was open to him, not only because he came from an ancient noble family and his uncle, the philosopher Prince Sergei Troubetzkoy, was the rector of Moscow University, but because the gifted sculptor was a charming, independent and artistic individual. He found himself at the very centre of Moscow's cultural life, his name on everyone's lips as well as in the press; he was one of the most discussed artists of the early 20th century, widely expected to bring new life to the faded art of sculpture. Forty students enlisted in his classes in only the first year of his work in Moscow.

Like many others, Serov was enchanted with Troubetzkoy, as his sculptural portrait of the master reveals. Serov not only painted Troubetzkoy, but was so taken by the sculptor's personality and work that he also sculpted a large half-figure portrait of him. Serov, who was insecure and often doubted himself as an artist, was known for his hard work, and Troubetzkoy seemed to have come from another world: with his self-confidence, the sculptor had no regard for the conventions of polite society, and let no-one question his ability as an artist. The most amazing thing about Troubetzkoy was how confidently and effortlessly he worked, with an ease that attracted both young artists and established masters. Serov, who worked slowly and with much effort, wished he could learn the technique of such quick portrait-painting. He had never worked on such a large-scale clay sculpture before, so he must have benefitted from the advice of his celebrated sitter. Serov emulated Trubetzkoy's wide “brushstrokes" and modelled the clay with his fingers to give an impressionistic fluidity to his solid medium. The luminous, tremulous surface of the sculptural portrait echoes its inner intensity - a brilliant portrait painter, Serov easily captured the sculptor's image, with his characteristic pose and gaze. The novelty and liveliness of this sculpture fully met the art form's requirements for a new era.

Serov did not return to sculpture or the decorative arts in the decade that followed. His life was entirely dedicated to painting, his family, teaching, public life and art exhibitions, leaving no time to pursue anything outside these fields. He was so busy that it was understandable that the next time he turned to sculpture was when it was required for a new painting, his “The Rape of Europa".

Serov created this sculpture when he was working on the painting; like Vrubel's “Demon" (plaster, Russian Museum), the three-dimensional figure was meant to help the artist with the complex composition and foreshortening in the painting. Serov was profoundly tied to nature and produced numerous sketches, always needing an immediate contact with his real-life “original", so he sculpted the powerful figurative form with wide strokes. We can see how Serov's sketch of an Orvieto ox transformed itself into this sculpture. In contrast, the graceful little figure of the youthful Europa is an entirely different image, borrowed from Greek antiquity and reminiscent of a gentle Kore (“the maiden", the name of the goddess Persephone in her youth) with a smiling mask of a face. At that time, this combination of antiquity and modernity, the attempt to fuse ancient myths and bring them to life, was found only in the work of Sergei Konenkov. A few details betray the fact that this sculpture was created as a model for a painting: Serov was interested really in the outline, not the details, and leaves the clay unfinished in those areas where it does not affect the shape and integrity of the composition as a whole (under the right arm, between the young woman's figure and the neck of the ox). Since the sculpture was a means to an end, it did not matter to him if the composition was unfinished: from the back, it appears quite schematic, clearly meant to be seen only from the front, just like a painting. The composition is elevated over the structural base by three to seven centimeters, its entire lower part purely functional, to hold the sculpture over the surface of the imaginary water. To balance the ox's massive head that outweighs the rest of the composition, Serov uses a buttress in a purely architectural form, without any attempt to disguise it. This purely utilitarian solution allows us to conclude that the sculptural version of "The Rape of Europa" was executed as a model for the painting. In Serov's lifetime, it was made only in plaster.

Although Serov's oeuvre does not include many sculptures, they are diverse in genre, from portraits to narrative and decorative compositions, each clearly marked with Serov's talent, ideas and tastes. Even though it seems that the artist did not much value his decorative works, his talent and technical skill make them important and valuable elements of his oeuvre when analyzed as a whole. There is no doubt that the artist kept improving his technique as a sculptor and left behind a sense of his personal experiences in each of his works, which were in turn marked with his growing mastery of the medium and understanding of its unique possibilities. Both the shape and the "roughness" of the little demon on the wine jar are akin to the figures of villagers in Serov's illustrations to Ivan Krylov's fables. The artist's taste and sense of proportion is impeccable - the peasant's wine jar, simple, unpretentious and rough, is finished with an equally laconic and angular figure: its shape could only be matched with so fitting an image.

At the other extreme, his sculptural portrait of Troubetzkoy provided Serov with an opportunity to focus on revealing the complex personality of a talented artist, in this case a combination of diligence and a touch of arrogance. This is, indeed, how Troubetzkoy comes across in the many photographs of him from the period, as well as in the recollections of his contemporaries.

To some degree, Serov's sculptural portraits survive today due to the efforts of his friends and admirers. When Serov died, the need to assure his family's future became apparent and funds were raised to provide them with financial assistance, with artists associated with the MSPSA proposing the idea of casting Serov's plaster "Europa" in bronze. The plaster version (1914) owned by Serov's9 widow Olga was exhibited at the posthumous show of the artist's work, and Emilio and Carlo Robecchi cast it in bronze around 1916, while in 1915 porcelain copies were produced by the Imperial Porcelain Factory, and a ceramic model also executed. Some decades later, thanks to the efforts of Valentina Shalimova, the head of the Sculpture Department at the Tretyakov Gallery, the sculptural portrait of Troubetzkoy was also cast in bronze in 1955 by the renowned Soviet bronze founder Vladimir Lukyanov.


  1. Serova, V. "How My Son Grew". Leningrad, 1968.
  2. Ibid. P. 116.
  3. "Barbotine" refers here to ceramics with added three-dimensional slipcast decoration made of a mixture of white clay, sand and pigment, the so-called "clay dough".
  4. Ogloblin, V.N. "Ceramics at the 1896 All-Russian Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod". Moscow, 1897. Pp. 14, 20.
  5. Exhibition of Decorative Arts Catalogue. December 1915-January 1916. Le Mercier Gallery. Savva Mamontov's Abramtsevo Majolica.
  6. Arzumanova, O.I., Lubartovich, V.A., Nashchokina, M.V. "Abramtsevo Ceramics in the Collection of the Moscow State University of Engineering Ecology". Moscow. "Zhiraf" Publishing House, 2000. Pp. 179-193.
  7. Krasnikova, I. "The Unknown Serov in Yakunchikova's Swiss Collection." "Russkoye Iskusstvo" (Russian Art) Magazine. 2005. #3. Pp. 54-57.
  8. "Iskry" (Sparks) Magazine. 1916. #1.
  9. Catalogue of the Serov posthumous exhibition. St Petersburg. 1914, # 295. P. 24.





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