“A Most Curious Place”. VASILY POLENOV AND ILYA REPIN’S 1875 VISIT TO LONDON
Struck by the differences between the Victorian metropolis and Paris, the two Russian artists also encountered important Oriental motifs that would influence their work.
“What a most curious place is this London! So much smoke!... Everything is without taste, commonplace, gloomy, industrial, but also rather original and restrained." In this way Vasily Polenov described the English capital in a long letter to his family, as he undertook an eight-day trip to London with Ilya Repin and two other artist friends in May 1875.
However, very little attention has been paid to their experiences on that journey, which left a lasting impression on both artists. According to Polenov's correspondence, his decision to visit the English capital was completely spontaneous and unplanned: “One day in Paris I dropped in on an American friend, [who is] also an artist. He mentioned in a matter-of-fact way that he was going to London and asked whether I would be interested in accompanying him? ‘With great pleasure, when?'. ‘In two days'. ‘Wonderful'. I persuaded Repin and another Polish friend to join us... On the agreed day, we were at the Gare [du Nord] at seven o'clock and off we went to the Pas-de- Calais...’’
Upon arriving at their final destination, Repin and Polenov were immediately struck by the size, arrangement and technological advances of London and the fast pace of its life. In a letter to Vladimir Stasov, Repin enthused that: “Everything here is so original, unlike anything [I have] seen elsewhere in Europe. London itself is devilishly striking upon initial encounter: yellow-grey houses with dark-grey roofs, which resemble Japanese cities; then there is the audacity of the railway, which is not in the least bit intimidated by these monotonous houses, flying instantly above their rooftops and onwards all the way to Charing Cross. [We] travelled in the tunnel under the Thames (I opened my mouth in astonishment, I could hardly believe this miracle)."
Polenov likewise noted the “unfamiliarity" and “otherness’ of England, London and the English. Like Repin, he also compared the architecture and scenery in London to that of Japan, even though neither he nor Repin had ever travelled to that country: “We sped across England, it has a very different aspect to that of France. Everything in England is somehow on a grander scale. Once we finally arrived in London, we raced above the rooftops. What a strange view, just like a city made of cards, or Japan. This is the first country in which I find myself without knowledge of the language. Here nothing other than English has any value. An Englishman, even if he knows French, will not answer a single word to a question [posed] in French."
In just a week, Repin and Polenov managed to visit an extraordinary number of historical sites, architectural monuments, music halls, museums and art galleries - among the highlights were the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Royal Albert Hall, St. Paul's Cathedral, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the South Kensington Museum, the Crystal Palace, the Royal Academy, the London Zoo, Temple Church, the Tower of London, the Alexandra Palace and Windsor. They also took a ferry ride along the River Thames and visited the Bank of England and the General Post Office & Central Telegraph Office. Repin was especially enthralled by the latter, describing it as a “remarkable" technological achievement and “one of the most astounding phenomena of our times". Both he and Polenov were deeply impressed by the centuries-old antiquities in the British Museum, which at the time of their visit contained thousands of artefacts from across the globe spanning millennia, including the remains of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, imposing stone sculptures from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, and the bust of King Rameses II. In their respective correspondence both artists also mention the various architectural courts of the Crystal Palace, in particular the Egyptian, Pompeiian and Alhambran courts, which they found to be extremely well-executed, “intelligently, rigorously, and seriously" designed, in the words of Polenov.6 In fact, some of Polenov's works of the time, including his studies on Ancient Egyptian subjects such as “Egyptian Girl" (1876) and “The Prodigal Son" (1875), as well as his later set designs for the play “Joseph" (1880), were likely informed by this experience.
One of the key purposes of the London trip was to attend the Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (known variously as the Annual or Summer Exhibition), where Edwin Long's “The Babylonian Marriage Market" (1875) had attracted large crowds and garnered widespread praise, later selling at auction for the highest price achieved by a living artist in England in the 19th century.7 Based on a description of Babylonian customs in Herodotus' “Histories", the painting is set in ancient Mesopotamia and depicts the auction of eligible females of marriageable age to the highest male bidder. Representing different racial and ethnic types, the women are portrayed seated in the immediate foreground of the painting, patiently awaiting their turn on the podium. Their braided hair is fashioned into elaborate hairstyles and they wear resplendent jewellery. Long modelled both the male and female figures on Assyrian reliefs, consciously historicizing the setting and basing the headwear and patterned garments, as well as the wall and floor decorations on ancient Near Eastern sources. In a letter to Stasov, Repin described Long's painting as highly “original in composition" and an “expressively" rendered “wonderful picture", and claimed that it was one of the favourite works of art that he had seen on the entire trip, alongside the Rembrandts in the National Gallery and the Parthenon Frieze in the British Museum. (Although falling outside the scope of the article, it is instructive to consider how Long's painting might have informed Repin's subsequent work on “Sadko", where a throng of beautiful maidens is similarly presented to a dominant male gaze.) In addition to the “The Babylonian Marriage Market", other notable contemporary artworks at the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition that captured the Russian artists' imagination included Hubert von Herkomer's “The Last Muster" (1875) and Henry Moore's “Outside the Harbour" (1872), which Repin maintained was the “best rendering of water that [he] had ever seen".
It is worth taking a moment to discuss the aesthetic pursuits and tastes of Repin and Polenov's travelling companions: the American artists, Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) and Charles Sprague Pearce (18511914), and the Polish artists, Pantaleon Jozef Szyndler (1846-1905) and Wladyslaw Szerner (1836-1915). All four were interested in the Orientalist genre and had produced paintings on exotic themes and subjects. Bridgman was a student of the celebrated French Orientalist artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), and had made several trips to North Africa between 1872 and 1874, dividing his time between Algeria and Egypt. While there, he executed approximately 300 sketches, which became the source material for various later oil paintings that attracted immediate public attention and critical acclaim, earning Bridgman the epithet “the American Gerome". Pearce had likewise studied under the prominent French Orientalist Leon Bonnat (1833-1922), and would later produce multiple Eastern-themed paintings, such as “Mourzouk" (1876) and “The Arab Jeweler" (1882). Finally, Szyndler and Szerner also created a number of artworks on the subject of the Orient - a topic that must have surely been at the centre of numerous conversations and debates during the trip.
It is therefore not surprising that shortly after their return to Paris, Repin and Polenov produced a series of unusual works on exotic subjects.15 While both artists would have certainly had ample exposure to Egyptian and Near Eastern antiquities and contemporary French Orientalist paintings in the vast collections of the Louvre and the annual Parisian Salons before their London trip, it appears that the latter served as a more immediate stimulus for their shared interest in, and experimentation with Orientalia in the second half of 1875 and early 1876.
In fact, a few of their Eastern-themed paintings, such as Polenov's “Odalisque" and “Egyptian Girl" and Repin's “Portrait of a Negress", have several pictorial elements in common and it is probable that the two artists used some of the same props and possibly even the same black model, as suggested by the critic of the period Apollon Matushinskii in his review of the Autumn 1876 Imperial Academy of Arts Exhibition, where both “Egyptian Girl" and “Portrait of a Negress" were shown: “[Polenov's] ‘Negress' is pictured sitting on the ground, with her back against the wall of some Egyptian building. She is surrounded with various painted vessels, which are probably displayed for sale. Nearby an ibis stands thoughtfully, like a guard. If I am not mistaken, we have already been fortunate enough to acquaint ourselves with this very Negress in the painting by Mr. Repin... A more interesting question perhaps is why these talented artists have chosen to depict this black creature in their paintings? Which aesthetic thoughts led them to decide to paint an African beauty?"
Other commentators of the period such as Fyodor Chizhov and Adrian Prakhov also noted the “masterly execution" of these two works and emphasized the elusive “sensuousness", “richness of costume" and enticing “fantasy" that they conjured up. Indeed, in their exquisite rendition of the women's glistening earrings, bracelets and necklaces, their brightly patterned and intricately embroidered garments, and finally the different textures and reflective surfaces of the surrounding vessels and furnishings, Repin and Polenov had produced a tour de force of seductive tactility - a visual feast of colour and painterly facture, all of which tantalize the viewer both thematically and stylistically.
Around the same time that Polenov and Repin were beginning to adopt exotic themes and motifs in their paintings, they also took an interest in the applied arts and started to experiment with the medium of ceramics, taking an active part in the Paris Ceramic Workshop of Russian Artists. Organized and led by Alexei Bogolyubov (1824-96) and Yegor Yegorov (1832-91), the workshop was financed by the railway magnate Samuel Polyakov, who had advanced 1,000 francs towards studio and production costs. Repin enthusiastically described the venture in a letter to Stasov: “At the moment, we are all preoccupied with ceramics; painting on lava and on plates; very fascinating, things can turn out beautifully, and most importantly, they are so durable after firing in the kiln; it would be wonderful to apply this method in outdoor settings and in places where painting quickly deteriorates and where it is typically replaced with mosaic. After all, a good artist can paint on lava vividly, readily, and gracefully. A most delectable method!"
Repin and Polenov created a series of decorative plates on Slavic, medieval and exotic subjects. One such surviving plate, titled “Persian Princess" (1876), depicts a dark-haired, Eastern-looking woman against a patterned maroon background. She wears a colourful, brocaded garment and a gold, metallic headdress with pearl accoutrements. Black and maroon arabesques decorate the white border of the plate, while an Arabic inscription at the top of the border completes the piece. Taken from the Quran, the script reads: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger." Repin used the same model in another work, the oil study titled “Woman with a Dagger", which shows a half-length bust of the same female figure holding a dagger. With her fiery, dark features, arched nose and emphatic eyebrows, the “Persian" woman depicted both in the painting and on the ceramic plate recalls some of the women in Long's “Babylonian Marriage Market", suggesting that Repin actively incorporated some of his London impressions into his later works.
Other than their friendship with Bogolyubov, it is not immediately clear what had inspired Repin and Polenov to take up ceramics. However, it is tempting to speculate whether they might have encountered William Morris's decorative arts firm, Morris & Co., during their time in London. In Morris's enterprise, fine artists such as Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti experimented with the applied arts, producing hand-crafted wallpaper, textiles, carpets, embroideries, furniture, jewellery, and metal and glass wares for domestic interiors. Moreover, Repin and Polenov would have also seen the elaborate Ceramic Court at the Crystal Palace, as well as the Ceramic Staircase, the columns decorated with Minton majolica reliefs, and the extensive ceramic collections in the South Kensington Museum. In his correspondence, Polenov specifically mentions that he was astounded by the sheer number of showrooms and decorative art objects on display at the latter institution: “There are so many different things at the Kensington Museum that at first you become dumbfounded and stupefied, and only after you have become accustomed to it do you regain your senses and begin to understand a thing or two... You can stay [in the museum] until ten o'clock at night. Everything is lit by gas and all kinds of people wander about. looking, contemplating, and ultimately learning something. The goal of this institution is to train visual literacy in all kinds of objects."
To conclude, in addition to Repin and Polenov's well-known experiences and activities in Paris, the paintings, monuments and decorative art objects that the two artists saw in London also played a significant role in expanding their “visual literacy" and in stimulating novel directions and unusual “aesthetic thoughts" - as Mat- ushinskii called them - in their art in the mid-1870s. From the “flying", fast trains, to the vast collections of antiquities in the British Museum and the colonial treasures in the Crystal Palace, amassed from around the world, Repin and Polenov familiarized themselves with the art and culture of yet another global capital of the 19h century - an international metropolis, whose visual and material riches surely widened both their aesthetic and intellectual horizons, further enhancing and expanding their respective artistic repertoires. In the case of Polenov, the exotic and Oriental themes, which he had initially encountered in Paris and London, continued to play an important role in shaping his oeuvre throughout the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s. His unique combination of meticulously rendered Middle Eastern scenes with large- scale religious subject matter constitutes one of the most original and extraordinary bodies of work in Russian 19th century painting.
- Vasily Polenov letter to his family, May 22/June 3 1875, Paris. Reproduced in Sakharova, Ye.V. “Vasily Polenov. Yelena Polenov. An Artists’ Family Chronicle". Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1964. P. 180. Hereinafter -Sakharova.
- Vasily Polenov letter to his family, May, 22/June 3 1875, Paris. Sakharova. P. 180.
- Ilya Repin letter to Vladimir Stasov, May 26 1875, Paris. Reproduced in “Ilya Repin- Vladimir Stasov: Correspondence 1871-1906". Vol. 1, ed. Lebedev, Andrei. Moscow, Isk- usstvo, 1948. Pp.115-117. Hereinafter-Repin-Stasov
- Vasily Polenov letter to his family, May 22/June 3 1875, Paris. Sakharova. P. 181
- Ilya Repin letter to Vladimir Stasov. Repin-Stasov. P.116
- Ibid. P. 182.
- Bohrer, Frederick N. “Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth- Century Europe". Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003. P. 196.
- Ilya Repin letter to Vladimir Stasov. Repin-Stasov. P. 116.
- Matushinskii, Apollon. ‘Artistic Chronicle: The Academy of Arts Exhibition [II]’// “Golos" (Voice). No. 358, December 29, 1876. P. 2.
- Fyodor Chizhov diary entry for September 12 1876, St. Petersburg. Sakharova. Pp.209-210; Profan [Adrian Prakhov], ‘Graduation Exhibition at the Academy of Arts’// “Pchela" (Bee) Magazine. 1877, No. 46. P.15.
- For more on the Paris Ceramic Workshop of Russian Artists, see Paston, Eleonora. ‘The Paris Ceramic Workshop of Russian Art- ists’//“Tretyakov Gallery Magazine. Special Issue: Ivan Pokhitonov. The Artist Sorcerer". Moscow, 2012. Pp. 24-27; Mojenok, Tatiana. ‘L’Atelier de céramique russe’//“Les peintres réalistes russes en France (18601900)". Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2003. Pp. 129-134.
- In the 1870s, the word “lava" was used by Russian artists to describe a type of ceramics; it became characteristic of hard, baked pieces on which they painted subjects, covering the painting layer with a brilliant vitreous glaze. It also gave its name to “The Society of Painters on Lava".
- Ilya Repin letter to Vladimir Stasov, January 27/February 8 1876. Sakharova. P. 728, note 57.
- A number of these ceramic works can be found in the Radishchev Art Museum, Saratov, the Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve and in the Nizhny Tagil Municipal Museum of Fine Arts. However, the vast majority are either lost or in private collections.
- The company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals", was jointly created by William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Charles Faulkner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, P.P. Marshall and Philip Webb in 1861 to create and sell medieval- inspired handcraft items for the home. In August 1874, Morris restructured the partnership, generating a dispute with Marshall, Rossetti, and Madox Brown over the return on their shares. The company was dissolved and reorganized under Morris’s sole ownership as Morris & Co. on 31 March 1875.
- Eleonora Paston suggests that both Polenov and Repin were already familiar with William Morris’s Arts and Crafts ideas as early as the late 1860s, so it is plausible to consider that they may have visited the Morris & Co. showroom in London in 1875. See Paston, Eleonora. “Abramtsevo: Art and Life". Moscow, Iskusstvo, 2003. Pp. 353-54.
- Vasily Polenov letter to his family, May 22/June 3 1875, Paris. Sakharova. P. 181.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Oil on canvas. 148 × 250 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Oil on canvas. 172.6 × 304.6 cm
© Royal Holloway, University of London
Ink on paper. 23.3 × 28 cm
© Abramtsevo Museum-Reserve
Oil on canvas. 100.5 × 54 cm. Private collection
Oil on canvas. 40.64 × 32.39 cm. Private collection
Oil on canvas. 115 x 93 cm
© Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 88.5 × 118 cm. Private collection
Painting on porcelain
© Nizhny Tagil Municipal Museum of Fine Arts
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Painting on porcelain
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London