Ksenia Matsegora

Magazine issue: 
#3 2018 (60)

Born into a peasant family in the Arkhangelsk governorate, Alexander Alexeyevich Borisov (1866-1934) received an excellent academic training at the Imperial Academy of Arts under the tutelage of Ivan Shishkin and Arkhip Kuindzhi. He travelled to the Arctic several times with artistic missions and, as a token of gratitude to his teachers, patrons and colleagues, Borisov gave their names to the glaciers and capes of the region. Thus new sites appeared on the map of Novaya Zemlya: Cape Shishkin and Cape Kuindzhi, the Tretyakov Glacier, and the capes of Kramskoi and Repin, Vasnetsov and Vereshchagin...

Known as the “painter of eternal ice”, the “Russian Nansen", a “poet of the North", and the “bard of ice and the midnight sun", Borisov pioneered the subject of the Arctic in Russian visual art. In his book “In the Land of Cold and Death", the artist wrote: “We laid open the mysteries of the Arctic world and captured its enigmatic beauty, and this sweet awareness has been our generous reward for all that we endured during all those long days when it seemed that there was absolutely no hope to break free from the icy clutches of death in that dead land."[1]

Borisov was born on November 2 (14) 1866 into a peasant family living in a small village on the Northern Dvina River, but in his childhood fate would intervene to cardinally change his life. When he was ten, Alexander was working alongside his father when a load of logs fell on him, injuring his legs. For a long time he was unable to walk, and his parents, as was the custom at that time, vowed to God that if their son's condition improved they would send him to the Solovetsky Monastery to work for a year for the benefit of the Church.

The boy recovered, and his parents duly fulfilled their promise. In 1881, the 15-year-old Borisov visited the Solovetsky Islands, or “Solovki", for the first time, where he was set to work with a fishing crew. He was fascinated by the beauty of the White Sea and its shores, and engrossed by the tales of the old monks about the valour of Russia's first White Sea settlers, the Pomors, who explored deep into the vast ice-bound expanse of the Arctic Ocean in their wooden vessels, known as kochi. As Borisov recalled: “The landscape that produced the greatest impression on me, after my native woodlands in the Vologda governorate, was the ice and white nights of the Solovki, and perhaps that was the reason why I've always felt the attraction of the North, while even before that accounts and descriptions of Arctic expeditions always haunted me..."[2]

Borisov returned home a year later, determined to go back to the Solovki when he reached 18, but already by the autumn of that same year he had become a student in the monastery's icon-painting studio. The Solovetsky Monastery had a distinctive history and culture which, with the unique natural beauty of the islands themselves, and especially the spiritual life of the friaries - whose monks had always been engaged in seafaring, trade and, when necessary, battle - created the special atmosphere in which the future artist studied.

To continue his education, in 1886 Borisov came to St. Petersburg and entered a painting school run by the Society for Encouragement of the Arts, which also taught general subjects. He successfully completed the painting school's curriculum in one year instead of three, thanks to his unwavering self-discipline and selfless commitment. On July 19 1888, Borisov submitted a request to be allowed to take a test in drawing that, if successful, would secure him a place at the Academy of Fine Arts; later that same year he was granted the status of non-matriculated student at the Academy's “gypsum busts" class, followed in 1889 by his transfer to the “gypsum figures" class.

The fledgling artist's achievements in 1888-1892 were rewarded with one large and two small commendation silver medals. In 1893, Borisov became a student at Ivan Shishkin's workshop: the prominent artist greatly influenced his young pupil, teaching him precision and patience in drawing. “Ivan Shishkin put me on the right foundation, forcing me to study drawing with the persistency and concentration that characterize the work of this great master,’’ Borisov later wrote.[3]

After Shishkin's resignation from the Academy in October 1895, Borisov joined the landscape studio headed by Arkhip Kuindzhi, who educated a number of talented and originally minded artists in the period from 1894 to 1897. “The advice of my second teacher, dear Arkhip Kuindzhi, opened up new horizons for me in terms of colour, making me ever more responsive to the appeal of the extraordinary loveliness that is the singular feature of the northern summer nights: the sky, sometimes forbidding, sometimes warmly inviting, and those perennial wanderers of the Arctic Ocean - the mighty masses of Arctic ice."[4] It was precisely that landscape of the Arctic that would become for the young artist the source of his philosophical insights into nature.

In the spring of 1896 Borisov visited the Murman Coast and Kola Peninsula, and reached Novaya Zemlya for the first time, as a member of an expedition organized by the Academy of Sciences for the purpose of studying the solar eclipse. The works that resulted from these trips, “Midnight Sun on the Arctic Ocean" and “An Arctic Night in Spring", were shown at the Spring Academic Exhibition in 1897. They brought success to the artist: Pavel Tretyakov, who never missed a single noteworthy piece of art, immediately noticed some of the painter's sketches and finished compositions, and acquired them for his city gallery (comprising 65 pieces in all, the collection was exhibited in Hall 22). In September 1897, Borisov met Tretyakov again, when the collector came to St. Petersburg from Moscow and visited the artist in his studio. After studying his new works, Pavel Tretyakov bought two large compositions, “In the Realm of Eternal Ice. Summer" and “An Arctic Night in Spring".

Borisov told the collector about his immediate plans: he was setting off that December for the Bolshezemelskaya tundra and Vaygach Island, where he would stay for about a year. Tretyakov showed great interest in the artist's plans, judging by a draft of Borisov's letter to a newspaper: “Pavel Mikhailovich earnestly asked me not to show my works to anyone when I'm back from Vaygach but to go directly to him, and he would buy all of them. But that was not to be." Pavel Tretyakov died at the end of 1898.[5] The collector's support had been very important for Borisov, building his self-confidence and making him appreciate the importance of his artistic ideas. In addition, he put all proceeds from the sale of the paintings towards the preparation of his subsequent explorations.

Borisov spent several years pondering plans for an artistic expedition. He undertook a trip that enabled him to prepare for a prolonged stay in the Arctic region, travelling by sledge across the Bolshezemelskaya tundra to Vaygach Island. An entry in his diary for April 12 1898 reads: “The wind chilled terribly, although the sky in the North-East was all rainbow and looked to you like a warm summer evening in the South. And only the snow, completely in contrast to the sky, shattered this illusion. The snow looked so pale blue that if it was depicted by an artist on a canvas, people would say, ‘The colour of this is unnatural!' Our shoddy yurt (a kind of a tent) stood out dramatically against this pale blue snow. To the right stretched a line of Bolvanski hillocks, disappearing into the boundless wilderness. This scenery had something implacably unwelcoming and infinitely beautiful about it. Staring into it, I wanted to run on and on deeper into the mysterious, wondrous distance. A strange, pleasant feeling filled my soul: affection, and sadness, and humility, and love, and unbending determination and strength - all were blending together into a single emotion!!!"[6]

This spiritual exaltation later found an outlet in many of Borisov's sketches. By the middle of May he had reached the Yugorsky Strait (Nikolskoe village), with Vaygach Island the next stop on the expedition's route. The artist worked there for three days, literally without a moment's sleep. He was in the grip of some manic delight! Even today Arctic explorers talk about the wonderful impact of the Arctic day: how when May comes, the sun shines all night long, and one feels wondrously revitalized and able to stay up for several nights running, without a hint of tiredness. It was exactly like that for Borisov: taking advantage of the marvellous weather, he produced many sketches there. “I was looking at everything and rejoicing, my soul enjoying respite. I was telling myself: you've been dreaming all along about Vaygach, Novaya Zemlya, about the Arctic lands. Now look, enjoy, take them in - it's no dream now, but reality!"[7] On Vaygach Island Borisov was able to visit a holy site of the Samoyed people - he left behind a description of it - a place where they used to come to worship their idols. Few outsiders were able to visit it since the Samoyeds guarded their shrine zealously, but Borisov won them over.

This “trial of a painting excursion", as Borisov referred to it, ended late in August 1898. He used his diary to produce a book of travel notes, “Visiting the Samoyed People", that was issued by the publisher Alexander Devrien in 1907.

In 1898, Borisov began preparing for an expedition to Novaya Zemlya. He had a house complete with studio built for the forthcoming long winter, and had it brought to Novaya Zemlya; at the same time he had a sailing boat constructed, which he named The Dream. The total amount of baggage bound for Novaya Zemlya was enormous, coming in at some 40,000 puds (approximately 655,000 kilograms). Borisov was especially careful in choosing his companions for the future journey: he wanted most of all to recruit scientists, including a zoologist and an astronomer. In the history of Russian art, no other expedition undertaken for artistic purposes would ever involve such huge preparation.

But the Arctic is loath to admit humankind to its domains: despite all such careful preparatory work, the members of Borisov's company only narrowly escaped with their lives. While crossing the Kara Sea on the way to the Matochkin Strait, their vessel became trapped in ice and was pressed towards the shore. The pack ice with the boat frozen tight in it drifted slowly towards the strait, but a little more than six kilometers short of its eastern mouth, the expedition changed course; the speed of the drifting ice with the boat trapped in it accelerated significantly, and it began moving southwards. On September 27, seeing that the position was hopeless, Borisov decided to abandon The Dream. The crew members, taking only their most essential belongings, transferred to the lifeboats and set their course, breaking the ice with boat hooks.

But the ice was thickening: to move ahead at all, the travellers now had to proceed on foot over the icebergs. On more than one occasion they nearly perished. On the next day, their stocks of food, as well as the sled dogs that they had taken with them from their vessel, were lost. “Our situation is desperate. We see how the ground splits apart and disappears beneath our feet," Borisov wrote in his book “In the Land of Cold and Death". “We clawed at the large icebergs, climbing onto them, lying down in order to increase their bearing area, but the swell was growing bigger, tearing the ice around us apart, the gaps between the icebergs widening. There was no jumping over them, and we began to lose the things we had unloaded in different places - first the deerskin topcoats, our only protection against the frost and foul weather, were swept away, then the fur-lined sleeping bags, too. Soaking wet and barely alive now, we risked freezing to death that very first night."[8] The travellers on the drifting icebergs were swept 200 kilometers to the south, to the mouth of the Savina River, where they were spotted by a group of hunting Nenets. On October 3 the Nenets rescued Borisov and his crew- mates from the ice in lifeboats and took them to dry land.

That disaster of Autumn 1900 nearly proved the end of the crew of The Dream, and was followed by a prolonged, hard winter spent on the island. Then Borisov and his zoologist T. Timofeev started on a long and significant expedition by sledge to the north of Novaya Zemlya: another daring attempt to reach one of the least accessible places on Earth, it took them a total of 106 days.

The sketches and finished pieces that Borisov created on these journeys were shown all over Europe, enjoying huge success in Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Cologne. In 1906, an exhibition of Borisov's work opened in Paris, and was so well received that the French government awarded the artist the Order of the Legion of Honour; in February 1907, it transferred to London. On the recommendation of the Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, Borisov was awarded Norway's Order of St. Olav, 2nd Class. “Borisov conquers Europe," the headlines of the European newspapers read, describing the success enjoyed by his exhibitions. Borisov showed his compositions in America, too: in May 1908 he arrived in New York, where the artist and traveller paid a visit to President Theodore Roosevelt and was warmly welcomed by the American media. In Russia, his solo show was held at the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg in 1914.

While these exhibitions were certainly successful, visitors to them were generally limited to a certain class of society: Borisov wanted to inform as many people as possible about his beloved distant northern territories, and to reveal their full beauty in colour. To achieve this, the artist began a series of public lectures aimed at ordinary people, in which he showed his images using a magic lantern. During these presentations, which he titled “In the Land of Cold and Death", Borisov would exploit the full resources of emotion to tell the story about his expedition to Novaya Zemlya, illustrating it with a series of 40 compositions that he had specially chosen, and printed himself.

But all this time he retained his interest in his home region, too. At the end of the 19th century, Borisov had set about building himself a house on a plot that he had acquired for that purpose not far from Krasnoborsk, in the area that he knew best. It was a natural phenomenon for the period: throughout the second half of the 19th century, prosperous Russians, whether from the country's merchant classes or from its artistic communities, began to build out-of-town homes for themselves, where they could enjoy their relaxation and entertain friends away from the hustle of the city. Such dwellings were often designed by famous architects, guided by the artistic ideas that were popular at the turn of the 20th century.

Borisov's wooden house was built to his own Art Nouveau design, and featured elements and techniques drawn from many architectural manners, their combination creating a wonderful building with windows, turrets and roofs of different styles and sizes.[9] Like Kuindzhi's home in Crimea, Borisov's house was crowned by a polygonal, glassed-in turret with a tented top. Working in this turret or on the balcony that ran round it, the artist could paint any part of his park below as it led down towards the river.[10] From this turret, Borisov created a series of forest landscapes which are among the high- points of the Russian landscape school.

Borisov has gone down in history not only as a talented artist and traveller. At his home in Krasnoborsk he worked on a railway construction project to connect the Russian North with Siberia and Central Russia. His knowledge of the mineral springs in the vicinity of his hometown saw him found the Solonikha spa, which opened on July 27 1922 (Borisov would assist in running the facility until his death in 1934; it continues as a spa to this day).

Today the art of this visual pioneer of the Arctic can be found in museums across Russia, with streets in Arkhangelsk and Krasnoborsk, as well as a peninsula in Novaya Zemlya, named in his honour. The home the artist built to his own design still stands in his native Krasnoborsk, today housing the Borisov Museum (“Manor House of the Painter Alexander Borisov" Museum-Cultural Centre”), while Arkhangelsk's museum dedicated to the history of artistic exploration in the Arctic is named after him.


  1. Borisov, Alexander. “In the Land of Cold and Death”. St. Petersburg, 1909. Pp. 50-51. Hereinafter - Land.
  2. Borisov, Alexander. “Visiting the Samoyed People. From Pinega to the Kara Sea”. St. Petersburg, 1907. P. 1. Hereinafter - Samoyed.
  3. Samoyed. P. 3.
  4. Samoyed. P. 3.
  5. Borisov, N.P. “The Painter of Eternal Ice”. Leningrad, 1983. P. 64.
  6. Samoyed. P. 33.
  7. Samoyed. P. 81-92.
  8. Land. P. 22
  9. Gorchakova, N.V. ‘The Borisov Museum: History, Architecture, Life’. In: “Papers and Presentations from the Russian National Conference ‘Alexander Borisov: Artist and Citizen’”. Arkhangelsk, 2018.
  10. Nazimova, I.V. “The Life and the Art of Alexander Borisov”. Arkhangelsk, 1959.
Bay. 1896. Detail
Bay. 1896
Oil on canvas. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk. Detail
Alexander BORISOV. An Arctic Night in Spring. 1897. Detail
Alexander BORISOV. An Arctic Night in Spring. 1897
Oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery. Detail
Alexander Borisov at the exhibition of his paintings in London. 1907
Alexander Borisov at the exhibition of his paintings in London. 1907. Photograph
Borisov's house, built to his own design
Borisov's house, built to his own design, is currently the “Manor House of the Painter Alexander Borisov”. Museum-Cultural Centre, a branch of the Museum Association, Arkhangelsk. Photograph. 2016
Alexander BORISOV. Vilchiki Hills at Sunset in Mid-September. 1896
Alexander BORISOV. Vilchiki Hills at Sunset in Mid-September. 1896
The painting originally belonged to the Tretyakov Gallery. It later disappeared from the Soviet Trade Delegation in Berlin during World War II. It appeared in October 2006 on the Russian antiques market and returned to the Gallery by an order of the First Deputy Chairman of the Russian Government, Dmitry Medvedev.
Samoyed Camp in the Settlement of Nikolskoye (Yugorsky Strait). Fog. 1898
Samoyed Camp in the Settlement of Nikolskoye (Yugorsky Strait). Fog. 1898
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 27.3 × 44.3 cm. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk
Alexander BORISOV. Murman, Close to the Harbour. 1896
Alexander BORISOV. Murman, Close to the Harbour. 1896
Oil on canvas and cardboard. 25 × 41.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
A Sailing Ship in Ice. (“The Dream” Sailing Ship). 1899
A Sailing Ship in Ice. (“The Dream” Sailing Ship). 1899
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 32.5 × 50.5 cm. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk
Alexander BORISOV. A Nenets Yurt in Malye Karmakuly. Novaya Zemlya. 1896
Alexander BORISOV. A Nenets Yurt in Malye Karmakuly. Novaya Zemlya. 1896
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 33 × 50 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Alexander BORISOV. An Arctic Night in Spring. 1897
Alexander BORISOV. An Arctic Night in Spring. 1897
Oil on canvas. 78 × 131 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Winter Sunny Day on the Northern Dvina. 1910s
Winter Sunny Day on the Northern Dvina. 1910s
Oil on canvas. 62.5 × 94.3 cm. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk
Night in the Bolshezemelskaya Tundra in April. 1898
Night in the Bolshezemelskaya Tundra in April. 1898
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 34 × 51 cm. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk
The Pavel Tretyakov Glacier. 1899
The Pavel Tretyakov Glacier. 1899
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 33.5 × 51 cm. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk
In the Ice of Novaya Zemlya. 1901
In the Ice of Novaya Zemlya. 1901
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 33.5 × 52 cm. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk
The Sergei Witte Glacier. 1901
The Sergei Witte Glacier. 1901
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 34 × 51.5 cm. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk
Bay. 1896
Bay. 1896
Oil on canvas. 33.5 × 54 cm. Museum Association, Arkhangelsk





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