Pedagogical Reformers. HOW VASILY POLENOV APPLIED THE TEACHING PRINCIPLES OF PAVEL CHISTYAKOV

Vera Bodunova

Article: 
TEACHERS AND DISCIPLES
Magazine issue: 
#3 2019 (64)

The pedagogical innovations of Pavel Chistyakov (1832-1919) played a key role in the development of realism in Russian art of the second half of the 19th century, in particular in helping it to overcome the inertia of academicism. Vasily Polenov was one of Chistyakov’s key followers in the field of artistic education, developing new models of teaching at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

In May 1924, at a ceremony marking Vasily Polenov's 80th birthday, Mikhail Nesterov made a congratulatory speech in which he talked of his deep respect for the great painter, emphasizing the particular importance of his contributions as a teacher. “One of the best students of Pavel Chistyakov, you passed on his artistic credo to your students. The young were able to take from your vast experience what they needed and could not find elsewhere," Nesterov said. “From my own early days, I have been an ardent admirer of ‘Grandmother's Garden', ‘Moscow Courtyard' and ‘A Swamp with Frogs'. In these images you highlighted with such youthful immediacy, with such colourful richness the poetry of the old native ways, the inexhaustible mysteries of our homeland. It is as if you rediscovered the magical allure of the very paints themselves."[1]

For those artists who had studied under Chistyakov, it felt that adopting his system and promoting its dissemination among the young was a noble mission, and he was an important formative influence on the creative development of many prominent artists of the second half of the 19th century, including Ilya Repin, Vasily Surikov, Viktor Vasnetsov, Valentin Serov and Mikhail Vrubel. Chistyakov's ideas, his strict “scientific" approach to the study of the foundations of painting skills became a model of art “schooling" for most of his students. Polenov, too, proved receptive to the influences of this “universal teacher of Russian artists" (as Chistyakov was called by the art critic Vladimir Stasov),[2] and the views of the older artist in large measure shaped Polenov's own teaching credo.

Chistyakov was himself still a student at the Academy of Arts when, in 1856-1861[3], he gave private lessons in drawing and painting to the young Polenov and his siblings. Their next meeting took place only in 1870, by which time Chistyakov had returned from travelling in Europe on his Academy grant and was showing his works at an academic exhibition. They had an immediate impact on Polenov and his friends, as the artist recorded in his memoirs: “We, the students, adored them, their astonishing draughtsmanship and compelling imagery: his ‘Muratore’ [Chistyakov’s 1870 painting, “An Italian Brick-layer (Muratore)”, Tretyakov Gallery] was for us an ideal in both aspects, and even Pavel Petrovich’s preaching about how one should work fascinated and motivated us. He took a vital interest in our Gold Medal projects and provided guidance for them, often dropping in on us in the studios.”[4] In 1872, Polenov was writing a letter to his old teacher to ask him for additional lessons, explaining his request by making reference to certain limitations of the academic system: “I have been thinking about teaching at the Academy, but in the first place it does not have mentors of the necessary calibre, and secondly, my fellow students and even the professors think my requests are bizarre: [it’s as if they are saying] now you’ve earned your medals, get out of the lime light, or you’ll become - a hindrance to some, a nuisance to others.”[5]

Polenov would soon become preoccupied with issues relating to the academic system and to artistic education and training in general. While travelling abroad, he was exposed to the variety of European schools and their teaching methods and articulated his view of the situation in a letter to Pyotr Iseev, the chief clerk of the Academy, in December 1873: “As in Russia, artificial classicism prevails here... At the Italian academies - in Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples - you can see counterparts of the Yegorovs, the Shebuevs, the Bryullovs and the like everywhere.”[6] The phrase “artificial classicism” itself, which the artist used to characterize academic art, reveals his attitude towards the type of centuries-old system of teaching that generated an impressive number of works, executed according to the classical canons but lacking any originality of style whatsoever.

Group of graduates of the Academy of Arts. 1871
Group of graduates of the Academy of Arts
From left to right, sitting: Pavel Kovalevsky, Ilya Repin, Johann-Georg-Christian Urlaub, Konstantin Savitsky, Yevgeny Makarov; standing: Vasily Polenov, Mikhail Kudryavtsev. 1871. Photograph
© Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery

In his next letter to Iseev, he shared his thoughts about the great benefits of “artistic workshops”. “In such workshops, schooling replaces method, again in the technical sense of the word,” Polenov wrote. “But since such a workshop is the product [and result] of history, it can hardly be applied in a setting where life itself has not prepared the ground to engage with it, where the need for it has not yet appeared in society itself; for if it is applied without such a need, it will achieve no success. The academy, on the contrary, is an artificial vehicle of education, so it can be applied anywhere, and nearly always with identical success. The academy has been very useful in places where, historically, a nation has not been given a chance for individual development and for creating an original art, but it usually has had as many positive aspects as negative ones. Here in Russia, unfortunately, we have not yet experienced the workshop in the form that it exists in Western Europe.”[7]

It is important to mention in this context that Chistyakov had made such arguments in favour of the artistic workshop as Polenov. “History shows, and experience convinces us that the best study of art is in such workshops directed by experienced artist-teachers,” Chistyakov had previously written in a letter of his own to Iseev. “That is the place where the master teaches his student, helps him with hands-on experience, with practice, and where, as he develops his student, he himself, the master, continually improves, too. This kind of teaching - a teaching between students and between teachers equally - would be most desirable at our Academy.”[8]

With Russian society changing rapidly in both cultural and socio-political spheres, the system of artistic education was profoundly in need of progressive ideas and methods of teaching. Polenov supported Chistyakov’s idea to turn the Academy into a “temple of art”, free from bureaucracy and antiquated teaching methods. From 1890 onwards, Polenov would travel to St. Petersburg regularly to participate in meetings of the Commission for the Reorganization of the Academy and Revision of Its Regulations, during which visits he met Chistyakov frequently, discussing the reforms with him. But no matter how much he wished to be of service to his alma mater, the existing system did not give him a chance to realize his teaching potential within it. One of the reasons was the fact that Chistyakov, despite the popularity of his drawing workshop, was allowed to play only a very insignificant role at the Academy. The long-awaited reform of the Academy, finally effected in 1893, disappointed Pole- nov because the institution's administration treated Chistyakov badly: “I was unspeakably hurt when the Academy set up workshops and appointed directors to them but discarded as a useless waste the very man [Chistyakov] who was our leader - and a leader in general...’’[9]

Polenov's teaching potential was fully realized at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where he was the head of the landscape and (optional) still-life classes from 1882 to 1895; this was considered a more progressive and democratic establishment, and Polenov became one of the first followers of Chistyakov to put into practice the idea of a liberal-minded artistic workshop. Using Chistyakov's teaching system as a foundation, he developed his own approach to tutoring the young, something which he had never had the chance to apply at the Academy.

However, it would be a mistake to think that Polenov adopted his teacher's ideas in their entirety - Chistyakov's system was in large measure designed to instruct artists in the fundamentals of the so-called “grand style". In addition to drawing skills, it included instruction in anatomy and the rules of composition - everything that was necessary for creating large-scale, epic paintings. Polenov, for his part, only adapted certain basic principles of this system for the landscape genre, which was regarded as of secondary importance not only at the Academy but even at the more progressive Moscow School as well. It was no surprise that Konstantin Korovin would later recall: “Genre painters used to say, smiling, that landscape was nonsense, when you paint a tree you can turn a bough on it this way or that, whichever you prefer, anything goes. But an eye on a person's head has to be in its proper place. This is more difficult. And as for colour scheme, it doesn't matter, you can create a work of art in black alone. A colour scheme is for idle eyes to enjoy. A landscape doesn't have a narrative. Any idiot can paint a landscape. Whereas a genre painting must have an idea. A landscape is nothing, tra-la-la. Whereas a genre painting requires thought. An argument between students and teachers ensued. There was a feeling of hostility that arose against Polenov, as it did, incidentally, against us, too: against Levitan, Golovin, myself and other landscapists."[10]

Polenov offered his students a study programme based on the artist's immediate experience of observing nature and focused on developing the ability to capture on canvas not just a landscape but the composition of a lyrical image that conveys a certain feeling to the viewer. In this respect Polenov's programme was close to the main idea that underpinned the teaching practices of his predecessor Alexei Savrasov. But methodologically Polenov was strongly influenced by Chistyakov's system, meaning that his methods were different from those of Savrasov and, according to researchers, there were significant changes in their teaching practice: “Savrasov's precept ‘do what you can, just make sure the feeling is expressed' is replaced with a clear vision of the goal and the means to achieve it. ‘I can, because I know' - Polenov brought this principle with him to the Moscow School and spread it among his students, as well as those of other teachers."11 The principle “I can, because I know" is essentially close to Chistyakov's method, which covers the basics of visual art. “Only those artists who rely on science can have a full command of the techniques of art," Chistyakov wrote, “that is, artists studying anatomy and perspective - the two sciences that help high art to rise and flourish. Whereas realism alone, based on the ability to look and simply daub an image of what you see... is ‘the beginning of decline, the corruption in art'."[12]

Like his mentor, Polenov based his teaching system on the principle that young artists had to study the main rules of visualization, paying special attention to perspective. He included into the curriculum a course on linear perspective, which he had created while still at the Academy, and prepared a special course of lectures for his students, as well as producing his “Linear Perspective Study Guide" with practical exercises: the rules he expounded in this treatise formed the basis of his teaching methods.13 The manuscript is interesting, for how it demonstrates Po- lenov's approach to the classical theory of perspective, while allowing certain departures from its rules, which Polenov himself formulated on the basis of his own experience. The basic tenets of Polenov's theory relied first of all on the mechanisms of human perception. Highlighting the speculative nature of a painting's space, he introduced the concept of “perspective-driven painting" (which he also called “imagined painting"), which is located directly in the imagination of an artist looking at nature: “Let's imagine that between us and the object we want to depict on a flat surface, applying perspective, there is a transparent plane - we call it an imagined painting."14 As for the plane of the painting itself, the artist called it “the actual plane" - onto which the artist was to transfer the perspectival image he already set in place in his head. In many respects these precepts from Polenov's instruction book reflect the essence of the recommendations given by Chistyakov, who disliked studying perspective “with a pair of compasses". “Emerging artists invariably face the very difficult challenge of discerning and understanding perspective in the world around them," Chistyakov had written. “It is as difficult as putting together muscles and bones from perceiving them in your model, having studied them previously only in theory."[15]

Thus it becomes clear that Chistyakov, and later Polenov, somehow intuitively, from their own experience, determined the difference between an “academic" theory of perspective and its practical aspect, related to the visual perception of nature. This approach can indeed be considered innovative, since in academic practice the standard was to rely on an exact theory based on strict geometric principles. As a rational and highly educated individual, Polenov succeeded in translating such “teacher's precepts" into a solid methodology. If his guide to perspective had been published during his lifetime, it would have brought a new understanding of how to construct a three-dimensional space on the surface of a painting.

As a true follower of Chistyakov, Polenov adhered to the “artistic workshop" principle in his teaching practice: he strove to organize the process of study in such a way as to allow maximum freedom to the younger generation, while ensuring that they did not feel intimidated either by their teacher's status or by the constraints imposed by a particular course of study. The eagerness of young artists to relentlessly hone their artistic skills accorded with Polenov's own approach to creativity. He established around him a relaxed atmosphere of lively creative interaction, which drew into its orbit at different periods not only his students but his friends and relatives, too. Polenov's daughter Olga referred to the gathering of like-minded people which formed around her father as the “Polenov circle", and its daily routines are easy to discern from the letters of his sister, Yelena: “In the afternoon - painting classes, sometimes visits to museums, tours of the ‘mushroom market', the ‘willow market', the Podnovinsky tomfooleries [public revelries that were celebrated at this time on Red Square and at the Novodevi- chy Convent], searching out handicrafts, the study of old landmarks of Moscow, then at the end of the day, drawing evenings, and on Sundays, drawing mornings."[16]

In the summer, Polenov and his students would regularly take excursions to paint in the open air, producing a huge quantity of pieces that capture the beauty of Russian nature. The characteristics of all the barely perceptible nuances of colours that exist in nature cannot be described from memory, as Polenov noted: “There are no strict rules applying to this area of perspective; personal observations and working from nature are of the utmost importance here."[17] In view of this, the special role that the sketch played in the creative practice of Polenov and his favourite students seems entirely natural. It was in such sketches that the shape-forming function of colour could be fully explored, the very function that Polenov had in mind when describing the basics of perspective in his study guide. Many of his students successfully used his technique: thus, Isaak Levitan, when teaching his own students, stressed the significance of “properly matching and harmonizing colour tones".[18] This, Levitan believed, was of paramount importance for the creation of the space of a painting; he used to say that, “a brushstroke amounts to an expressive word only when it is applied properly, otherwise it is ‘mere verbiage'... Painted imagery should be simple and true to nature, and nature isn't sugary."[19]

Konstantin Yuon, another artist from a later generation, also applied the principles that Polenov had developed in his teaching - in particular, he remarked more than once that the latter had provided a “most valuable contribution to solving the problem of light and space, and did so in a very innovative manner".20 Adopting the key principles of the Chistyakov system, Polenov introduced the young generation of artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to a new approach to mastering the basics of painting skills. At the same time, he also in troduced the “artistic workshop" method, intended principally as an instrument to cultivate the individualities of the young artists who were studying with him, to the teaching practices of the Moscow School. It was a trend continued by the generation of teachers that followed, including Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin and Leonid Pasternak. As researchers have noted, these artists, too, strove to combine in their teaching an academic curriculum with artistic training, including painting from nature and introducing their students to the latest achievements of Russian and Western European art.[21]

Chistyakov stands out among other educators of his era for his unique views on visual art, as well as his sensitive and unusual approach to painting. The degree of innovation that he introduced into the Russian school of painting can be appreciated not least thanks to the legacy of his students. His main principles were incorporated into Polenov's teaching practice and, thanks to his further development of them, subsequently taken to a new level by the generation of artist-teachers that followed him.

 

  1. Mikhail Nesterov letter to Vasily Polenov, May 1924, Moscow, in ‘Mikhail Nesterov. Several Lett- ers7/“Iskusstvo” (Art) Magazine. Leningrad, 1968. P. 242.
  2. From Vladimir Stasov’s article ‘Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov and His Works. Vladimir Stas- ov’s Reminiscences and Brief Essays’//“Pavel Chistyakov. Correspondence, Notebooks, Memoirs". Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1953. P. 480.
  3. From Polenov’s memoirs: “My acquaintance with Pavel Petrovich [Chistyakov] began in 1856, when I was 12." The lessons lasted until 1861, when the Polenov family left for Petrozavodsk. (‘Memoirs of Vasily Polenov’//“Pavel Chistyakov. Correspondence, Notebooks, Memoirs". Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1953. P. 477.
  4. ‘Memoirs of Vasily Polenov’ // “Pavel Chistyakov. Correspondence, Notebooks, Memoirs". Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1953. P. 478.
  5. Vasily Polenov letter to Pavel Chistyakov, 1872, St. Petersburg. “Vasily Polenov: Correspondence, Diaries, Memoirs". Ed. Sakharova, Ye. Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1950. P. 21. Hereinafter - Polenov.
  6. Vasily Polenov letter to Pyotr Iseev, December 16-17 1873, Paris, in “Great Artists Talk About Art", Vol. IV. Moscow, Izogiz Publishing House, 1937. P. 464.
  7. Ibid. P. 475.
  8. Moleva, Nina; Bielutin, Ely. “Pavel Chistyakov - Theoretician and Teacher". Moscow, Academy of Fine Arts, 1958. P. 83.
  9. Vasily Polenov letter to Ilya Repin, February 14 1893, Moscow. Polenov. P. 352.
  10. “Konstantin Korovin Looks Back at His Past". Moscow, Izobrazitel- noe Iskusstvo, 1990. P. 99.
  11. Moleva, Nina; Bielutin, Ely. “The Russian School of Art in the Second Half of the 19th-early 20th Centuries". Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1967. P. 93.
  12. Moleva, Nina; Bielutin, Ely. “Pavel Chistyakov - Theoretician and Teacher". Moscow, Novaya Realnost, 2017. P. 82.
  13. Polenov, Vasily. ‘Linear Perspective Study Guide’. Manuscript, undated // Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54. Item 20. Sheets 1-34.
  14. Ibid. Sheet 13.
  15. Moleva, Nina; Bielutin, Ely. “Pavel Chistyakov - Theoretician and Teacher". Moscow, Novaya Realnost, 2017. P. 84.
  16. Polenova, O.V. ‘The Polenov Drawing Evenings’//“Pages from Tarusa Life. A Literary-Artistic Almanac". Kaluga, 1961. P. 250.
  17. Skorodumov, N.V. “The New Method of Simplified Stage Productions (Scenic Design and Equipment)". Including essays and stage design sketches by Academician V.D. Polenov. Moscow, 1914. P. 47.
  18. Levitan, Isaak. “Correspondence, Documents, Memoirs". Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1956. P. 217.
  19. Ibid. P. 217.
  20. Yuon, Konstantin. “On Art". Moscow, Sovetsky Khudozhnik, 1959. P. 198.
  21. Moleva, Nina; Bielutin, Ely. “The Russian School of Art in the Second Half of the 19th-early 20th Centuries". Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1967. P. 256.

 

The story of a sketch

Vasily Polenov gifted this sketch to the painter Alexander Kiselyov. The two artists regularly displayed at the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) exhibitions and often saw one another at the Moscow Society of Art Lovers shows and meetings. In addition, in his personal diary Kiselyov mentioned “drawing” evenings at the Polenov household, in which he often participated.

Like Polenov, Kiselyov did a good deal of teaching: he gave private lessons and, from 1897, was the head of the landscape workshop at the High School of Art under the auspices of the Academy of Arts. His students there included painters such as Nikolai Sapunov, Arnold Lakhovsky, Alexander Hausch, Konstantin Gorbatov and others.

In 1879-1894 Kiselyov’s private students included Ilya Ostroukhov, Mikhail Mamontov, Vasily Perepletchikov and Nikolai Dosekin, while in the 1880s Ivan and Mikhail Morozov – the future collectors and patrons of art – took lessons in drawing and painting from him. Kiselyov taught the basics of art to members of the Yakunchikov family – Natalya Yakunchikova, Vasily Polenov’s future wife and the best friend of Yelena Polenova, Zinaida Yakunchikova (née Mamontova) and Maria Yakunchikova-Weber, who later achieved fame as a painter of the Silver Age.

But it was not only such social ties that Polenov and Kiselyov had in common – they also shared a similar approach to teaching. They both believed that it was important to cultivate in their students the ability to depict nature in a true-to-life manner, and to help them form their own artistic vocabulary without the teacher imposing his artistic will on them. As Kiselyov used to tell his students, “listen to me and then make sure you don’t copy me in your work…”[1]

Kiselyov held in high esteem the creative approach of his fellow artists – in particular, that of Vasily Polenov, with his perfect command of the techniques of plein air painting. It is known that he suggested to Ostroukhov to use this sketch by Polenov as a model of the “living breathing” painting, as Ostroukhov recalled in his memoirs: “In 1880, after the Wanderers’ show in Moscow in April, I first took up the brush under the guidance of kindest A.A. Kiselyov, the only Wanderer painter whom I knew. In the autumn of the same year I copied under his guidance a charming sketch by Polenov that he held, and as for another sketch, he proposed I should go with him (it was in October 1881) to the artist’s studio on Devichye Field, the Olsufiev house, to pick it up…”[2] There is every reason to believe that this image of a boat on a river backwater, now in the Tretyakov Gallery’s reserve fund, was the precious piece concerned.

 

  1. Minchenkov, Ya.D. “Remembering the ‘Peredvizhniki’”. Leningrad, 1959. P. 119.
  2. Sakharova, Ye.V. “Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov: Letters and Diaries. Memoirs”. General editor, foreword: Leonov, A. 2nd edition. Moscow, Leningrad, 1950. P. 448.

Illustrations

Vasily POLENOV. Turgenevo Village Study. 1885. Этюд
Vasily POLENOV. Turgenevo Village Study. 1885
Oil on canvas. 35.5 × 28.7 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Ivan KRAMSKOI. Portrait of the Artist Pavel Chistyakov. 1860
Ivan KRAMSKOI. Portrait of the Artist Pavel Chistyakov. 1860
Italian pencil, sauce, whitewash on paper. 55 × 41.3 cm
© Russian Museum
Pavel CHISTYAKOV. An Italian Brick-layer (Muratore). 1870
Pavel CHISTYAKOV. An Italian Brick-layer (Muratore). 1870
Oil on canvas. 67 × 54 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily POLENOV. Nikita Bogdanov, Narrator of Folklore (Byliny). 1876
Vasily POLENOV. Nikita Bogdanov, Narrator of Folklore (Byliny). 1876
Oil on canvas. 71.3 × 44.5 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Konstantin KOROVIN. Artists at a “Drawing Evening” at Vasily Polenov’s Home, with a Model in Caucasian Costume. 1887
Konstantin KOROVIN. Artists at a “Drawing Evening” at Vasily Polenov’s Home, with a Model in Caucasian Costume. 1887
Among the artists are Yelena Polenova and Maria Yakunchikova Ink, watercolour, pencil, pen on paper. 25.8 × 32.5 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Yelena POLENOVA. Class at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. 1890s
Yelena POLENOVA. Class at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. 1890s
Watercolour on paper. 16.5 × 5 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Isaak LEVITAN. Overgrown Pond. 1887
Isaak LEVITAN. Overgrown Pond. 1887
Oil on canvas. 35 × 51 cm. Gift to Vasily Polenov from the artist
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. Landscape with a Bell Tower. Study. 1880s
Vasily POLENOV. Landscape with a Bell Tower. Study. 1880s
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 9 × 21.5 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Vasily POLENOV. “Linear Perspective Study Guide”. Title page
Vasily POLENOV. “Linear Perspective Study Guide”. Title page
© Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery.
Fund 54. Item 20. Sheet 1
Vasily POLENOV. “Linear Perspective Study Guide”. Table of contents
Vasily POLENOV. “Linear Perspective Study Guide”. Table of contents
© Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery.
Fund 54. Item 20. Sheet 1
Vasily POLENOV. “Linear Perspective Study Guide”
Vasily POLENOV. “Linear Perspective Study Guide”
Drawing for the section “Making an Imagined Painting Real”
© Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery.
Fund 54. Item 20. Sheet 1
Valentin SEROV. A Small Pond. Abramtsevo (Upper Pond at Abramtsevo). 1886
Valentin SEROV. A Small Pond. Abramtsevo (Upper Pond at Abramtsevo). 1886
Oil on panel. 34.5 × 24.5 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Konstantin KOROVIN. Autumn. Alley in Zhukovka. 1888
Konstantin KOROVIN. Autumn. Alley in Zhukovka. 1888
Study. Oil on canvas. 57.8 × 47.8 cm. Gift to Vasily Polenov from the artist
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. A Boat. 1880
Vasily POLENOV. A Boat. 1880
Sketch. Oil on carton on canvas. 22.5 × 31.6 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery

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