“One should search for nature at its simplest…”

Galina Churak

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#4 2007 (17)

Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin is remembered in the history of Russian art as an artist who glorified the grandeur and beauty of the nature of his homeland, and masterfully and lovingly translated into the language of painting the limitless vastness of fields with golden grain, the greatness of oak forests with their ceaseless murmur, the dense pathless thickets of woodland, every single grass-blade, the unassuming flowers of the field, and the wrinkled tree-bark on an old tree. His life in art is one of the most essential and important components of Russian landscape painting, of the history of its formation and bloom.

I.I. Shishkin. Self-portrait. 1886
Self-portrait. 1886
Soft ground etching, printing. 24.3 by 17.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery

When the young artists at the turn of the 1850s-1860s started studying and painting landscapes typical of Russia's heartlands, they were inspired in no small degree by Russian society's general interest in the life of the simple person. This interest was fuelled not only by the turbulent developments in Russia in the late 1850s - early 1860s, but also by the state of aesthetic thinking, by art criticism and, finally, by Russian literature and poetry. The stories of Sergei Aksakov, with their limpid and steadily paced descriptions of the long roads and of the expanse of the steppe alternating with woodlands; "Notes of a Hunter” by Ivan Turgenev with its heartfelt stories about the Russian landscape, where "everything has an imprint of touching simplicity”; the poems of Afanasiy Fet, Nikolai Nekrasov, Alexei Koltsov, Fyodor Tutchev, which discovered beauty, not in lush Italian landscapes, but in the unassuming landscapes of their native land.

Shishkin was born on January 13 (25), 1832 in the small town of Yelabuga in Vyatskaya (Vyatka) province ("guberniya”), which was once tightly encircled by woodlands. Not only the sublime pristine nature and the poetic legends that animated it, but also the atmosphere at home, and most essentially, the personality of his father, Ivan Vasilievich, formed the nourishing ground where the artist's first serious interests and attachments developed. When the father's efforts to make his son an heir to his business met with stubborn resistance from the son, he let his younger son look for an independent place in life.

After graduating from the state college of Yelabuga, the young man in 1844 was sent to the Kazan gymnasium, where he studied until 1848, when he decided to quit the school for good - in his own words, "in order to avoid becoming a clerk”. His ideas of the chosen path pure and elevated, the 20-year-old Ivan Shishkin left Yelabuga in 1852 and came to Moscow, to enroll at the Moscow College of Art and Sculpture and to devote himself completely to art.

By the early 1850s the Moscow college, evolved from the Moscow Art Class founded in 1833, had distinct traditions and techniques of teaching young artists, and developed qualities that formed the backbone of the Moscow school of painting. At the college Shishkin found himself in a milieu free of excessive reverence for rank, and with fairly liberal relationships between teachers and students. The circle of Shishkin's classmates and closest friends included Vasily Perov, Konstantin Makovsky, Grigory Sedov, Georgy Oznobishin, Ivan Pryanishnikov, Alexander Gine (the friendship with the latter was formed earlier, at the Kazan gymnasium). Exhibitions of Ivan Aivazovsky and Leo Lagorio, opened in the autumn of 1852 at the college, became for the artist-in-making one of his first powerful art experiences. The dazzling attraction of the seascapes by the already famous seascape artist, and the austere mysteriousness of the gorges in Lagorio's pictures delighted Shishkin, albeit not without making him wonder, "...if mountains and seas come out so good in the pictures, why wouldn't our forests and fields?”[1]

However, it was Apollon Mokritsky who influenced Shishkin the most. A student of Alexei Venetsianov and Karl Briullov, he combined the rapt admiration for "the great Karl” and the commitment to painting from nature inherited from Venetsianov. The creator of a number of landscapes himself, Mokritsky passed on to his charges the skill of rendering space, constructing perspective, committing to canvas "the material differences” of objects, and an unfailing devotion to nature.

During his years at the college Shishkin developed and established his main artistic interests and work method, which was based on meticulous and accurate drawing and thorough representation of the natural world. Mokritsky encouraged his student to try his hand in other genres as well. Shishkin painted an oil sketch "Rooms in Mokritsky's Apartment”, created a watercolour sketch "Peasant and Peddler (1855, Tretyakov Gallery), painstakingly painted "A Peasant Woman with a Bag over her Shoulders” (1852-1855, Russian Museum); he filled the pages of his album with drawings of architectural monuments of the ancient capital city; he penciled a "Self-portrait” (1854, Russian Museum).

But landscape remained his main passion. Together with his fellow students he painted in such neighborhoods as Sokolniki, Ostankino, Sviblovo, the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra (monastery). The sheets in Shishkin's albums became filled with images of trees, gnarled tree stumps, boats, dray-carts; he painted the luscious leaves of small burdocks, he painted field flowers, thin twisted blades of grass. There were also generic landscapes - with woodlands, fields, rivers. They looked "as beautiful as Swiss landscapes,” Shishkin's niece Alexandra Komarova wrote later in her memoir about the painter, "...and little by little all the school knew that Shishkin was painting such landscapes as no one had ever painted before.” [2]

One of Shishkin's early attempts to render a sweep of space in the landscape of a real-life locality was a picture called "Harvesting”, which represented sheaves in the foreground, a golden field, a footpath across it, and a view of his native Yelabuga (1850s, Ivan Shishkin Museum, Yelabuga).

The three years spent as a student in Moscow were filled not only with work and creative pursuits. Nights were spent loudly discussing with his fellow students books, and debating the outdated norms in art, which the young saw as an obstacle to their development. Not yet a set of clearly defined convictions, this ferment of ideas was based on a disagreement with idealization that prevailed in official art. "Explicit protest against classicism: I, Perov, Makovsky K., Sedov, Oznobishin” - thus Shishkin spelled out such attitudes [3].

In 1856, already experienced in art and assured of his abilities, Shishkin matriculated at the Academy of Arts. In St. Petersburg, he felt at once the difference between Moscow and the capital city of the North, between the Academy and the Moscow College: ".here everything seems to me august and solid, the Imperial Academy of Arts in the full sense of the word.” [4] "Moscow is somehow simpler and, for this reason, better,” he wrote to his parents. In the new environment he felt lost and lonely.

Shishkin's stubborn pursuit of perfection was always there. Assigned to Sokrat Vorobiev's landscape class, he soon became noticed for his extraordinary drawing skills, astonishing the Academy's professors with his accomplished craftsmanship. This craftsmanship would later frequently amaze not only the Academy's professors, but many other contemporaries as well. In St. Petersburg the young student gained "a nearly universal respect, as previously in Moscow”. Next year - 1857 - saw Shishkin receive his first academic award: a minor silver medal for the picture "A View in the Environs of St. Petersburg” (1856, Russian Museum), created the previous summer on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, in the village of Lisii Nos. In the artist's words, "the picture called for rendition of the warmth and lucidity of the air and of the sun's reflections on the objects - true-to-lifeness, resemblance, portrait-like similitude of the nature painted - and for rendition of the life of hotly breathing nature”. In the picture, "portrait-like similitude” of nature went together with a generic stage-set-like composition learned at the Academy and a romantic aspiration to commit to canvas "the life of hotly breathing nature” [5].

The Academy had a hand in the formation, at the turn of the 1850s-1860s, of the perception of landscape painting as having national significance; the artistic trends coming from Moscow to St. Petersburg played an important role in this. The Academy's Council, selecting candidates for medals and honorary titles, reviewed and approved the pictures sent from the Moscow College. The most gifted and strong-willed among the Moscow painters - in particular, Shishkin - continued their education at the Academy, bringing with them their youthful ideas and attitudes. The Academy' curriculum included the mandatory copying of the works of famous masters, a practice that existed in the Moscow College as well. The great old masters were the painters that Shishkin copied most often: learning from their paintings in the Hermitage collection, he was especially fond of Jacob van Ruisdael. The Dutch painter of the 17th century became for Shishkin "the ideal”, catching his imagination with the "lively form” and the introduction of humans and mundane details into the landscapes - the details that reflected the individuality of the local landscape, which would be reflected in the universalized landscape imagery.

Visits to Valaam - this Mecca of the North for Russian landscape artists - were important for Shishkin's growth as an artist. He first stayed on the island throughout the summer in 1858, and he spent the next two summers there as well. "The gloomy nature of Valaam for you is like the church where the Genius of Art resides or, at least, the Muse, or the Oracle, telling you your fortune” - in so lofty a style Mokritsky wrote to his favorite student [6].

With a word of warning against aiming for "superficial effects” and "smartness of the brush”, the Moscow mentor gave the artist good-natured and sensible advice about "a painting being an organic whole” with "essential and secondary components”, and about "excessive beauty” being as detrimental to a picture as its absence.

The Valaam pieces - drawings and painting alike - show that Shishkin was single-mindedly and successfully mastering the skills necessary for a graphic artist and a painter. In 1857, after his first academic award for a painting, he received another minor silver medal for four drawings. Next year the Academy's Council would again distinguish his pen-and-ink drawings along with his painted sketches, awarding him a major silver medal - awarded to the artist in 1860 for his paintings, also from Valaam.

The gold medal afforded Shishkin the opportunity to improve his skills abroad, and in 1862 the artist went to Germany. Starting from the 1850s, the awardees of the Academy fellowships were addressing new priorities: the blessed sky of Italy no longer holding its previous allure, and their eyes were set on France, Germany and Switzerland. Shishkin visited Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Saxon Switzerland, and Prague; he traveled around Bohemia. The Dusseldorf Academy of Arts, which owed its fame mostly to its landscape artists, was one of the centres that the Russian artists were anxious to visit. Shishkin was carefully studying the works of the professor of the Dusseldorf Academy Johann Wilhelm Schirmer and his students, Carl Friedrich Lessing, Andreas Achenbach, and Hans Fredrik Gude. The German art attracted the Russian visitor with its solid drawing, precision of compositional structure, and experience of landscape painting. He liked the German masters' devotion to the national landscape.

Staying in France for too short a time, Shishkin could not really appreciate then the Barbizon landscape school. He thought that it lacked polish, and that the looseness of brushstroke was more appropriate for sketches than for paintings. At that time Shishkin valued an austere "finality” in landscapes. His direct acquaintance with French art took place later, in 1878, by when Shishkin was an altogether accomplished painter, his preferences fully formed. He held in high esteem the landscapes of Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and Constant Troyon.

Although Shishkin was far from satisfied with his work and the works of contemporary German artists, where "the poetic side of art is often annihilated ... by the materiality of colours and of workmanship itself, the three years he had spent abroad were very useful for the painter with his inquiring mind.

Intending "to combine landscape with animals” in the future, Shishkin started to study in Munich under the tutelage of the brothers Benno and Franz Adam, and then in Zurich under Rudolf Koller - all three famous animal painters. This interest was inspired by a desire to convey realistically the life of nature and everything that was a part of it. As a result, Shishkin produced an impressive series of paintings and large sketches of herds of cows or sheep, either resting under trees or grazing in meadows. Increasingly disappointed with his mentors, however, Shishkin gave up animal painting. Nevertheless, later, when he returned to Russia, he continued to use similar themes and to create landscapes with genre elements until the 1860s. The small pictures "Walk in a Forest” (1869, Tretyakov Gallery) and "Landscape with Walkers” (1869, Russian Museum), created after his return to Russia, radiate a great charm. Both pieces are evocative of the Dusseldorf and Munich landscape paintings, seen in studios and at exhibitions, featuring groups of holiday-makers, wayfarers or artists at work.

The sketches and drawings brought Shishkin unconditional success with his German colleagues and the public. "These people are stunned by my drawings, and by some of my sketches too. They say they have seen few artists like that,” wrote Shishkin with justified pride in his letters to St. Petersburg [7].

Working with Lev Kamenev and Yevgeny Dukker in the Bernese Oberland or in the environs of Dusseldorf, in the Teutoburg Forest, Shishkin created many sketches from nature. They were fully realized in the sweeping, freely breathing picture of Russian scenery created in Russia. For his painting "View in the Environments of Dusseldorf’ (1865, Russian Museum) Shishkin received the title of academician from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts.

Upon his return to Russia in the summer of 1865 Shishkin found himself in the thick of things in both art and society. When he was in Dusseldorf, he was eagerly reading letters with news about exhibitions at the Academy of Arts, about the achievements of his friends - landscape painters, about how Vasily Perov's painting "Easter Procession in a Village” was ordered to be removed from an exhibition "within 24 hours”, about the "astounding” impression produced by Nikolay Ge's "Last Supper,” about the "soulful” picture "Misalliance (An Unequal Match)” by Vasily Pukirev, and, finally, about how a group of 14 contenders for the gold medal, with Ivan Kramskoi at the head, rebelled at the Academy. This group of rebels became Shishkin's friends when he returned to St. Petersburg. He was a frequent guest at the gatherings of the Artel of Artists on their "Thursday” nights, with Kramskoi at the helm - the meetings where the artists painted and joked, "trading gossip about and locking horns over ... all manner of social phenomena”. The new "claptrap” (Ilya Repin's phrase) articles of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, "Destruction of Aesthetics” by Dmitry Pisarev, "Art” by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, "Pushkin and Belinsky” and "Milk-and-water girl” by Dmitry Pisarev, Robert Owen's "The Formation of Human Character” and many other published works were read avidly. In this close circle of like-minded individuals Shishkin became friends with a young and very talented landscapist Fyodor Vasiliev, who became his first student and a good friend. And although artistically the two landscape artists differed, sometimes radically, this did not prevent them from beneficially influencing each other's art - the two seemed to complement each other. In autumn 1868 Shishkin married Vasiliev's sister Yevgeniya Alexandrovna.

The 1867 picture "Tree Felling” (Tretyakov Gallery) became something of a manifesto for Shishkin. The artist came to believe that the grand can be very simple. Soon he made the transition from an analytical study of nature to the creation of its holistic image.

"Noon. Near Moscow” (1869, Tretyakov Gallery) was one of the first pieces in this vein. The picture, marked by a comprehensive universalization with distinct poetic overtones, clearly conveys the artist's idea of the beauty of his homeland; it was Shishkin's first piece to present so sharply the theme of the native land, which was to become key in his art. The painting was Shishkin's first piece to be acquired by Pavel Tretyakov, immediately after the closing of the 1869 exhibition, where it was displayed together with another of his works - "The Little River Ligovka in Konstantinovka Village in the Vicinity of St. Petersburg” (in a private collection). Both pieces were commendable products of the joyful creative labour of the summer months of 1869. By that time the artist's array of techniques was fully formed. "Noon” and "Ligovka” catch the eye with their diversity of texture - from gentle brushstrokes in the representation of universalized distant views, to the near tangible fabric of the mud-laden riverside or the water-worn road; and picturing the dry grass blades in the foreground the artist would even scratch dots on the canvas with the handle of a brush.

By the early 1870s Shishkin was a mature master. His life from then onwards was linked to the "Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) Society, and he participated in each of its exhibitions starting from its first in 1871. That exhibition featured his painting which would later become a classic example of his art - "Pine Forest. Mast-tree Forest in Vyatskaya Province” (1872, Tretyakov Gallery).

As in his earlier piece "Tree Felling” the artist places himself "inside” a forest. This technique of representing a forest landscape - not from the outside, but at a closest distance, and even placing the artist and leading the viewer inside the space of the forest - would become Shishkin's pivotal technique for creating the imagery of the vigorous forest nature. Shishkin handles representation of wood land life as a kind of narrative of everyday life, where everything is important, every detail is in its place contributing to the common unhurried narration that brings out a picture which, in Kramskoi's words, "looks very impressive: healthy, robust and even vibrant. In a word, the picture is good and appears wholesome. But, as usual, you're more impressed by the drawing than the painting ... He never created anything better.” Comparing the "Pine Forest” with Fyodor Vasiliev's picture "Dewy Meadow”, which, like Shishkin's piece, was destined for a competition exhibition of the "Peredvizhniki”, Kramskoi insightfully noticed the difference in the two landscapists' perception and artistic treatment of nature: "Shishkin's nature is primarily objective, while yours is subjective.” [8]

This democratic landscape art had two main distinct trends: the emotional and the lyrical, reflected in the landscapes of Alexei Savrasov, Fyodor Vasiliev and Isaac Levitan (or the very personal, with romantic inflections - as in Kuindzhi's pictures), and the epic, reflected in Shishkin's pictures, where the nature of Russia receives the most creative and poetic treatment.

However, together with the monumental forest landscapes, he created, seemingly unexpectedly, a small-size picture "Before a Looking-glass. Reading a Letter” (1870, in a private collection). The painting depicts a room where, standing with her face to a window, a young woman reads a letter - the plot is untypical for Shishkin. The face, the letter in the woman's hands, the walls of the room, and the floor are suffused with a gentle light. This painting, representing Shishkin's wife, seems to have been inspired by Shishkin leaving his family for a trip to Nizhny Novgorod, where he spent the whole summer of 1870. In his letters to "Dear Genya”, as he called Yevgeniya Alexandrovna, the artist, concerned about her health, begged her to write him more often. This very personal and even intimate painting is an astonishing combination of Mokritsky's lessons, the traditions of "indoor scene” genre a la Alexei Venetsianov, and an even more distant memory of the art of Dutch masters of the 17th century. This painting is a natural complement to the group of landscapes and genre paintings that the artist created in 1869, such as "Walk in a Forest” (Tretyakov Gallery) or "Landscape with Walkers” (Russian Museum).

Throughout his life the artist remained devoted to the robust, enthralling beauty of forest scenery - his artistic fantasy was inexhaustible. Every new painting demonstrated that his view of nature was independent from any influence. The painting "Backwoods” (1872, Russian Museum) was created in the same year as the "Pine Forest”. The painting, displayed at a "Peredvizhniki” exhibition in 1872, received most favorable comments. Vladimir Makovsky wrote to the artist: "Your 'Backwoods' is a marvellous, wonderful painting; setting a serious tone for our exhibition, it gains plaudits from everyone.” [9] This piece gained Shishkin the title of professor at the Academy of Arts.

In the 1870s Shishkin occupied a stable and very individual position in Russian landscape painting. Every autumn, returning to St. Petersburg after summers spent making sketches, the artist brought along dozens or sometimes hundreds of sketches from nature and paintings. "Study of nature can never be completed; you can never say that you have learned the subject well enough . and that you do not have to be learning any more,” said the artist [10].

Often Shishkin's sketches are not linked to a particular painting. Accomplished pieces of art in themselves, they have an independent value. The artist was able to find in nature itself a wholeness and compositional integrity, which was so important for full-size paintings. These are the qualities distinguishing the sketch "Little Oaks” (1886, Tretyakov Gallery), created in one of the most scenic localities in the environs of St. Petersburg - the village of Dubki (little oaks) not far from the township of Sestroretsk. The unfinished study "Oaks. Evening” (1887, Tretyakov Gallery), made in preparation for the monumental painting of the same year "Oak Grove” (Kiev Museum of Russian Art), affords an opportunity to look inside the artist's creative laboratory, to see the developing process of his work. He would create on a primed canvas a free-flowing but accurate drawing, within the limits of which he would apply an underpainting with a nuanced colour scheme - dark for shadow patches, lighter for lighted patches. In his sketches and paintings Shishkin would often leave the underpainting untouched by the main layer of paint, making it "work” within the overall design of colour and form.

At his solo exhibition in 1891 at the Academy of Arts Shishkin showed 300 studies and 200 drawings - just a small portion of his portfolio. Scattered in museums and private collections, his studies are a precious part of his legacy.

The journey to one of his key oeuvres, "Rye” (1878, Tretyakov Gallery), took several years. The image of the free-flowing expanse of the motherland, first featured in the large-scale and meticulously crafted 1866 study "Noon. Environs of Moscow. Bratsevo” (Astrakhan Picture Gallery), and then crystallized in the superb 1869 painting, has also several small companion sketches and graphic pieces, such as "Pathway Across a Field of Rye” (1866, Tretyakov Gallery) and a drawing at the Russian Museum. Using a specific motif and relying on real-life experiences he had in 1877 during a summer trip to his native Yelabuga, in the surroundings of which, on a so-called "Lekarevskoe” (lekar' means "doctor") field, he was making sketches and drawings, the artist created a painting with an overarching stately image of Russian nature. The entire landscape is suffused with a sense of sublime peace.

Shishkin's gravitation to epic august imagery became especially pronounced in his paintings from the 1880s. The best, the benchmark pieces of this period include "Amidst a Flat Vale...” (1883, Kiev Museum of Russian Art), "Forest Vistas” (1884, Tretyakov Gallery), "Oak Grove” (1887, Kiev Museum of Russian Art). "Amidst a Flat Vale.” marked an important divide in the artist's life.

The 1870s-early 1880s was a period of troubles and tribulations for the painter, as he suffered the loss of many people who were closest and dearest to him. The painter's father passed away in 1872, and his little son died the same year; 1873 saw the death of Fyodor Vasiliev, a dear friend whom Shishkin held in high esteem as a landscape artist; next year his dearly loved wife died, and soon after that their second son, a one-and-a-half-year-old toddler. Having recovered after these misfortunes, in the winter of 1880 Shishkin married his talented student Olga Lagoda, who died too in the following year.

Mourning these losses acutely, he even quit working for a while hoping that alcohol would dull his pain. Shishkin again returned to the friends of his youth, who suffered from the same malaise. He moved away from Kramskoi, who had the strongest and most benign influence on him. In a letter to Savitsky Kramskoi bitterly remarked: "Ivan Ivanovich ... got craggy, his company is the same as before. He has taken up photography, he's studying, taking photos - but not a single sketch or painting.” But Kramskoi hastened to add hopefully: "Yet, he is a hard nut to crack; maybe everything will settle.”[11] Indeed, his undefeatable love for life, work and nature put the artist back on his artistic track. The painting "Amidst the Flat Vale...” became a kind of symbol of his return back to normal life and of his standoff with fate. The name, borrowed from an old romance, goes together well with the epic ballad-like texture of this monumental painting. The finely calibrated proportions between the far-flung vale and the vertical line of the robust lone oak, the undulations of the smooth horizontal rhythms of the soil lend the painting a song-like quality. Likewise, plane after plane, starting from the pine-tree at the edge of the painting, the artist unscrolls the limitless expanses of the woodland of the North in "Forest Vistas”, making the viewer's eye follow all the way up to the lake glistening on the horizon. In this painting, the focus on the smallest detail is gradually replaced with a gentle universalization of forms.

Shishkin's 1880s oeuvre, based as before on his customary themes and motifs, is marked by a growing grandness of message and a leaning to monumentality. The painting "In Peter I's Private Grove” (1886, Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum) and "Oak Grove”, created in the following year, demonstrate the best artistic qualities of Shishkin, who reached a level of confident, sustained craftsmanship. The life-like tangibility in the representation of the robust thick-set oaks with their expansive branches, the solid painting style, the natural play of light and shade, the compositional universality and the austere simplicity of composition let us sense the vehement vigour of nature. In the 1880s-1890s the artist painted these majestic trees many times. In the big study "Oaks” (1887, Russian Museum), which is a practically accomplished painting, in "Oaks in Old Peterhof (1891, Research Museum of Russian Academy of Arts), in "Mordvinovo Oaks” (1891, Russian Museum) the artist not only rendered the beauty of these vigorous giants, but also tackled the challenges of plein-air painting - an art form many Russian painters had become interested in from the 1870s onwards.

Shishkin was placing ever more emphasis on the lighting and rendition of the states of natures. His artistic manner was becoming more relaxed, his brush strokes more expansive, and the layers of paint applied to the canvas, lighter and thinner. "Sun-lit Pine-trees” (1886, Tretyakov Gallery) demonstrates that the renowned artist never ceased to search for a new artistic language. Coming to grips with the problem of conveying light and air, the artist handled it brilliantly. Shishkin considered this painting a sketch, and worked on it accordingly, painting outdoors. In the picture the overall spontaneity of a sketch is masterfully combined with an inner completeness and perfection of imagery, a quality that puts this piece in the same class as his finished compositional paintings.

The experience Shishkin gained working on such sketches was well applied in his monumental paintings. In the picture "Sands” (1886, Kiev Museum of Russian Art) nature seems to be bathed in the beams of light flowing from the sky, and the vibrant currents of air are nearly palpable. Shishkin was creating more and more sketches of preautumnal and autumnal seasons. He was attracted not only by the opportunity to reproduce a polychrome colour scheme of nature, as in the picture "Autumn” (1892, Russian Museum), but also by the opportunity to express the instability of nature's existence. In the landscape "Hazy Morning” (1885, Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum) Shishkin captures the fleeting instance when the pre-dawn haze is dissipated by the first glimpses of the sun. In the painted sketch "Krestovsky Island in Fog” (early 1890s, Russian Museum) - a remarkably fine piece resembling a watercolour - the contours of a forest, and its rippled reflection in the water transpire as an ephemeral vision. The artist became increasingly fond of such subjects as old parks, quiet ponds with still water, abandoned mills near rivulets in forests. The master started to tackle the problems that are best handled through landscapes of mood. With its elements of meditativeness and intimacy, the painting "Rain in an Oak Forest” (1891, Tretyakov Gallery) reflects the melancholy of a rainy day.

"Morning in a Pine Forest” is one of Shishkin's most popular pictures of the decade (1889, Tretyakov Galelry). Although the bears (painted by the artist's friend Konstantin Savitsky) occupy the central position in the painting, the true main character of the piece is the landscape - a forest virginal in its pristine character, swathed in predawn haze. The painting withstood many criticisms. The artist was criticized for an incongruity between the vast canvas and the genre character of the scene, as well as that the incongruity supposedly undermined the picture's monumentality. There were comments on a lack of harmony between the monumentality of the concept and the elements of plein-air painting in the distant views. Indeed, the size of the picture disqualifies it as an easel painting, suggesting that it belongs to the class of panel paintings.

The wide popularity of the picture did it a disservice. Failing to see through the superficially entertaining quality of the picture's plot, the critics missed the artist's sincere admiration, free of any touch of sentimentality, for the vigorous force of nature - the admiration he communicates to the viewer.

The artist's experience, craftsmanship and wisdom were reflected in one of the most heartfelt lyrical paintings of his last decade, "In Countess Mordvinova's Forest” (1891). The painting is marked by the complete cohesion of its parts. The composition, with its life-like naturalness, is based on a measured, nearly musical rhythm of the trunks of fir-trees. The colour scheme is formed by harmonious combinations of numerous hues of green enlivened by aureate patches of the evening sky peeking through the treetrunks.

In the 1890s the motif of the winter forest was added to the array of the artist's themes. Strangely, the Russian landscape painters did not often focus on winter landscapes. This theme first figured in "Russian Winter” (1825, Russian Museum) - a picture full of naivete and pastoral tranquility, created by a student of Alexei Venetsianov, Nikifor Krylov. Later the artist Lev Kamenev made this season his artistic focus in his unassuming and expressive landscape "Winter Road” (1866, Tretyakov Gallery). Fyodor Vasiliev's "Snowbreak” (1870, Tretyakov Gallery), in Ivan Kramskoi's opinion, "begot a new generation of winter landscapists”. Finally, Alexei Savrasov's lyrical and poetic landscapes, capturing the instances when the receding winter morphs into the coming spring, fully secured a place for this theme in Russian landscape painting. Focusing on the "sleepy” season that seemingly did not offer opportunities for showcasing one's artistry, each of the masters was playing to his own tune.

In the winter scenery, benumbed for the months to come, Shishkin sensed the stability, grandeur and monumentality, which had always attracted him to Russian scenery. The painting "Winter” (1890, Russian Museum) is based on nearly monochrome contrasts of white snow and dark trunks of the robust trees. The theme of winter was to have a strong hold over Shishkin for a long time to come. He produced several versions of this painting in different techniques, and many coal-and-chalk drawings on coloured paper. The motif of winter received a novel treatment in the painting "In the Wilds of the North” (1891, Kiev Museum of Russian Art). The dazzling romantic treatment of the landscape with a lone snow-covered pine-tree on a cliff, moon-lit, with colouristic and compositional contrasts, undoubtedly derived from the influence of Kuindzhi, Shishkin's close friend. Kuindzhi even had a hand in the creation of the picture, dotting a red spot - a gleam of light at a far distance - and thus expanding its space limits.

The decade of the 1890s was a time of change in Russia's artistic life, a new dawn. Responding to the new artistic challenges of the time, striving to express, in particular, more complex and nuanced states of nature consonant with the feelings and emotions of a person, Shishkin, however, always remained himself, never departing far from the artistic style formed over the years. Meticulous drawing, clearness of form, accurate colour characteristics of every detail, and wonderful fluidity of brushstrokes remained always the staple of his style. Shishkin neither was a pioneer of plein-air painting, nor had the ability to finely convey the complex sentiments and emotions of nature. His strength lies elsewhere. Kramskoi noted as early as the 1870s: "Of course what he doesn't have he hasn't”; "Shishkin is good as it is ... he is far superior to all of them taken together ... All these Klodts, Bogolubovs and others are small fry compared to him.” [12]

In the 1890s Shishkin continued to create monumental and epic paintings. He made two versions of the painting "The Kama River near Yelabuga” (1895, private collection; another version in the Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum), using and remaking his drawing "River Floods Similar to Seas” (1890, Kiev Museum of Russian Art), whose concept is linked to Mikhail Lermontov's poem "Homeland”. The drawing and the painting represent a sublime and august image of Russian nature - an image which draws on the scenery of many specific localities of Shishkin's native area. Shishkin first tackled a cognate motif with a roadway, a forest on a slope descending to the Kama, an unrestrained stream of river and a limitless vastness of the sky over the expanse of the earth in his 1882 painting "Kama” (in a private collection). An aspiration to combine the large scale with an image with poetic inflections distinguishes one of the best works of the decade, "Graveyard in a Forest” (1893, Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum). The picture's name calls up associations with death and rot - but the painted imagery inspires a sense of tranquility and meditativeness.

Drawings and etchings always occupied an important place in Shishkin's art. Not just humble blueprints for his larger scale work, his drawings have an artistic value in itself. Shishkin mastered the technique of pencil drawing like a virtuoso. His legacy includes limpid, "light” sheets where only lines, only the sweep of a pencil render the intricate tracery of boughs, stems of grass and trees. He often used hatchwork and blending stumps to create a sense of spatial depth and of the pulsation of the live forms of nature. Shishkin had no equals in pen-and-ink drawing at that time. And he especially favored etching - a technique of making prints while preserving all the fine points of the artist's design. Working on etchings Shishkin introduced changes to the printing plates imparting different emotions to the same motif. The novel technique of "raised etching” developed by the artist enabled printers to print images together with the text of a book. Shishkin's drawings were taking new directions together with his art.

In the 1880s-1890s he often used coal and chalk, creating with these instruments large finished compositions whose beauty and expressive quality put them on the same level as his paintings.

The life of the Russian forest was Shishkin's favourite theme in art. Silvan motifs, discovered by the master for Russian art, received in his works an individualized, always technically impeccable and truly poetic treatment. These qualities are fully present in the artist's last work "Mast-tree Grove” (1898, Russian Museum). The picture's imagery, marked by an august stillness, brings to mind his earlier "Pine Forest”. However, in this painting, which seems to sum up the painter's life in art, the forest landscape has such a great vigour, and such a lucid simplicity of expression that could only be achieved by a truly outstanding master.

Shishkin remained forever loyal to the democratic attitudes of his youth. In 1896, not long before the opening of the anniversary 25th exhibition of the "Peredvizhniki”, Shishkin wrote to Viktor Vasnetsov: "It makes you feel good when you remember the time when we, the novices, were making the first shy steps towards the itinerant exhibition. And now out of these shy but solidly thought-through steps has developed an entire path, a commendable path, a path one can be proud of without reservation. The idea, organization, meaning, goal and aspirations of the Society secured for it a place of honour, if not the central place, in Russian art.” [13]

A great and tireless worker who never betrayed his principles either in art or in life, Shishkin valued sincerity, frankness, and industry before all. "To work! To work every day ... No use to wait for so-called 'inspiration' ... Inspiration is work itself!”: such was the artist's credo14. He passed away in a like manner, on March 20 (in the Gregorian calendar) 1898, seated at his easel in front of his last painting "Silvan Kingdom”.

 

  1. Quoted from: I. Pikulev. Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin. 18321898. Moscow, 1955. P 24.
  2. Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin: Perepiska. Dnevnik. Sovremenniki o khudozhnike (Letters. Diary. Contemporaries about the Artist )/ Compilation, introduction and notes by I.N. Shuvalova. Leningrad., 1978. P 301. (further Shishkin. Letters).
  3. I. Pikulev. Ibid. P 32.
  4. Shishkin. Letters. FI 33.
  5. Shishkin. Letters. P 44, 45.
  6. Shishkin. Letters. FI 64
  7. Shishkin. Letters. FI 83.
  8. Perepiska I.N. Kramskogo (I.N. Kramskoi's letters). In 2 vols. Moscow, 1953-1954. V 2. Correspondence with artists. P 34. (further Kramskoi's letters).
  9. Academic Bibliographical Archive of the Russian Academy of Arts, Archive 39: I.I. Shishkin, op. 1, unit. 17, sheet 1.
  10. Shishkin. Letters. FI 320.
  11. Kramskoi's letters. V 2. P.441.
  12. Kramskoi's letters. V 2. P 65.
  13. Shishkin. Letters. FI 215. 14Shishkin. Letters. F 338.

Illustrations

Rye. 1878
Rye. 1878
Oil on canvas. 107 by 187 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Sunlit Pine Trees. 1886
Sunlit Pine Trees. 1886
Study. Oil on canvas. 102 by 70.2 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Little Oaks near Sestroretsk. 1857
Little Oaks near Sestroretsk. 1857
Primed cream-coloured tinted paper, Italian pencil, water dipped brush, white paint, sgraffito. 48 by 66.3 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Herd under Trees. 1864
Herd under Trees. 1864
Oil on canvas. 72.4 by 104 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Noon. Near Moscow. 1869
Noon. Near Moscow. 1869
Oil on canvas. 111.2 by 80.4 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Landscape with Hunter. The Island of Valaam. 1867
Landscape with Hunter. The Island of Valaam. 1867
Oil on canvas. 36.5 by 60 cm. State Russian Museum
Felled Tree in the Forest. 1870
Felled Tree in the Forest. 1870
Chinese ink, pen, sepia, brush on cream-coloured paper. 43.8 by 60 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Logging. 1867
Logging. 1867
Oil on canvas. 122 by 194 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Little Oaks. 1886
Little Oaks. 1886
Etching, aquatint. 24.5 by 17.7 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Por-Porog waterfall. 1889
Por-Porog waterfall. 1889
Black lead pencil, blending stump, chalk on yellow-brown paper. 31.4 by 47.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Woodland Vistas. 1884
Woodland Vistas. 1884
Oil on canvas. 112.8 by 164 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Morning in the Pine Forest. 1889
Morning in the Pine Forest. 1889
Oil on canvas. 139 by 213 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Burdocks. Late 1880s
Burdocks. Late 1880s
Sketch. Oil on cardboard. 37.3 by 24.7 cm. Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum
Forest (Shmetsk, near Narva). 1888
Forest (Shmetsk, near Narva). 1888
Study. Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 35 by 59.5 cm. State Russian Museum
Oaks. Evening. 1887
Oaks. Evening. 1887
Study for the “Oak Grove” painting (1887, Kiev Museum of Russian Art). Oil on canvas. 42 by 62 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
A Corner of Overgrown Garden. Aise-weed. 1884
A Corner of Overgrown Garden. Aise-weed. 1884
Sketch. Oil on canvas. 54.3 by 41.7 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Oaks. 1887
Oaks. 1887
Oil on canvas. 147 by 108 cm. State Russian Museum
Rain in an Oak Forest. 1891
Rain in an Oak Forest. 1891
Oil on canvas. 124 by 203 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Pine-tree. Mericule. 1894
Pine-tree. Mericule. 1894
Oil on canvas. 110 by 83 cm. Vladimir-Suzdal Museum Reserve
Sands. 1886
Sands. 1886
Etching, roulette, aquatint, dry point. 17.5 by 28 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Mast-tree Grove. 1898
Mast-tree Grove. 1898
Oil on canvas. 165 by 252 cm. State Russian Museum
Old Oak. 1897
Old Oak. 1897
Etching, black-lead pencil. 22.8 by 16.8 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Small Bridge. 1873–1892
Small Bridge. 1873–1892
Etching, aquatint. 19.3 by 26 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery

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