Vasily Vatagin - Master of the Animal World

Nadezhda Tregub

Magazine issue: 
#4 2008 (21)

As an artist I admire the animal kingdom - this powerful manifestation of beauty. <...>
As a biologist I admit in an animal a kindred with man and admire the wild force of an animal - the predecessor of man on Earth. As an individual I cannot ignore the great sacrificial role of animals in the construction of human civilization.

Vasily Vatagin

The 125th anniversary of Vasily Alexeevich Vatagin’s birth was marked in 2008, and proved a good reason to present the master’s work more extensively. The spectrum of his work is broad - illustrations for academic as well as art books, painting, graphic art, lithography, and sculpture. Vatagin (1884-1969) was the author of books about animals for children and adults, a museum space designer, and a teacher. He created a whole gallery of portraits of renowned men of arts and science. It is hard to believe that one person achieved all of this. He made wall-paintings on themes of zoology, paleontology and zoogeography. The State Darwin Museum collaborated with Vatagin since 1908. The museum’s galleries include more than 50 of Vatagin’s paintings and sculptures, and one may say that Vatagin’s works are exhibited in the Museum every day. But the Darwin Museum’s collections hold many more works that have not yet been shown to a mainstream audience. The Darwin Museum, together with the Tretyakov Gallery, has prepared two major exhibitions of more than 150 paintings, sculptures, and works of graphic art. Many visitors, who know Vatagin as a sculptor, will see his large-scale paintings.

Vatagin graduated from the Moscow State University with the Ph.D degree in zoology.

But it was not science that became his occupation, instead he became a painter — an animal painter by vocation, and his knowledge of zoology made him a really unique master.

In 1907-1908 Vatagin worked on a watercolour series depicting animals. The large sheets were included in the series: “Red Kangaroo”, “Giraffe”, “Guanaco”, “Lama”, “Two-humped Camel”, and others, which the artist had worked on in the zoos of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, and in the Moscow Zoo, collecting material for the “Zoogeographic Atlas” of Mikhail Menzbir. Even when Vatagin depicted one animal species, the artist chose his own expressive tools in each case.

In 1913-1914, the artist visited India and Ceylon, a journey that gave him impressions that enriched his entire life. He brought 180 watercolours and ink drawings back from India.

In 1919, Vatagin taught at the First State Free Art Workshops (for the Stroganov college), first in the department of sculpture, then in the lithography workshop [1]. His teaching career did not last very long, but he continued to return to the lithography workshop for a number of years because he was fascinated by this technique. At the time, Vatagin was working on “India”, an album of lithography works that reflected his impressions from the trip to India. He prepared two editions of the album with 11 lithographs each. One of the lithographs, “Twilight” (1919), depicts elephants following each other, and two mahouts (elephant drivers): the dark silhouettes of the animals and people stand out against the background of spots of light on the water. The procession is moving along the river. The shadows of the trees play hide-and-seek with breaks in the clouds, while the elephants themselves entrance the viewer, and the approaching atmosphere of the night adds mystery to this work of art. The composition with the bathing elephant would become one of the illustrations for “The Jungle Book”. By 1922, Vatagin had already completed 43 lithographs and collotypes. 14 depictions of Indian landscapes, temples, elephants, and buffaloes, were included in the series, and the album “India” was highly praised.

The emotional impression from the trip could not have been realized in graphic art only. In 1921 Vatagin painted the work “Ceylon”, portraying an idyllic scene: a leopard lounging on a tree trunk among verdant vegetation, and parrots and other tropical birds flying about. Hunting is an essential part of wild life, but if everyone is full, beasts and birds co-exist peacefully in the jungle. Vatagin emphasizes not only certain kinds of animals, but nature itself. The artist embodied the riot of colours he had seen on his Indian trip; he no longer restricts his impressions with the austerity of graphic techniques, instead he fully surrenders to the power of colour.

At times, it is difficult to show the life of animals in one single piece of work. In 1919-1920, Vatagin created the triptych “Cranes” in which his skill and knowledge were unparalleled. In the triptych “Beavers” (1919-1920), the animals are gnawing on a tree in one part of the piece, and in another part they are building a dam. Many years later, in 1948, Vatagin painted again three works on the same theme: “Beaver Huts”, “Beavers’ Construction”, “Beaver at Work” (one can hardly find another example of such triptychs on animal subjects in the work of other artists). The artist is laconic in these works, using only two colours, umber and green.

unique approach and shows the animal turning around and looking back, as if checking whether there is any danger. Thus the sculpture acquires a truly three-dimensional quality, without any “blind spots” where the viewer sees only the animal’s tail or back. “Kangoroo” is a spacial sculpture with multiple vantage points. It can only be wondered what inspired the piece. Vatagin used to say that sometimes the material itself dictated modifications from an original conception. It is possible that the first draft did not imply such a dynamic image, and a particular turn in the wood gave the kangaroo such a lively perspective.

Vatagin illustrated a great number of children’s books by Ernest Thompson Seton, Jack London, Vitaly Bianki and others, thus becoming a real live classic of Soviet book illustration. But it was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” that brought him fame and popularity. Vatagin started his work at the book in 1922 and continued it up to the 1950s. He created an enormous number of illustrations, about 200 in all, and returned to them many times. A book which came out in 1922 included about 100 illustrations. The 1934 edition of the book featured three to four small drawings on each spread, which show the plot development. In the 1965 edition there were fewer but more developed, expressive and finished illustrations. Vatagin made the drawings in black-and-white, with ink and pencil, in the auto-lithography technique. The wildlife here is full of danger, and the combination of black and white conveys the feeling of tension in the jungle (“Maughli Learned to Jump from Branch to Branch”, “The Herd was Already Unable to Stop”, “Hathi Stepped Forward — It Was Clear That He is the Master of the Jungle”). The artist also pays great attention to the details of Indian life. In all, there have been 12 editions of the book with the artist’s illustrations, and readers have loved his drawings just as they loved Kipling's tales.

After his visit to the Berlin Zoo in 1926, Vatagin actively worked on images of monkeys, creating numerous drawings and sculptures. The image depicted in the former is remarkably different from the latter — when drawn, orangutans, baboons, chimpanzees, and gorillas have more detail. The artist draws minute details of facial expressions: elongated lips, round expressive eyes, and also peculiarities of figures — grasping paws, twisting tails, flexible bodies. Sculpture is more sparse in its expressive means. In sculpture, especially wooden sculpture, Vatagin has to work with the whole mass. An animal in wooden sculpture cannot stand on thin little legs, or hang on a tail. The works from the Tretyakov Gallery’s collection depict fragments of animals: “The Head of an Orangutan” (1927), sitting monkeys — “Group of Monkeys”, “Chimpanzee” (from the 1930s), and his late work “The Sad Monkey” (1964). The language of generalization is more inherent in sculpture. The master chooses to sculpt in wood a sitting animal, when its arms, legs and body form a silhouette without gaps. In fact, monkeys are very agile animals, more characterized by dynamic images rather than thoughtful and reflective ones. In connection with that it is worth pointing out a clay and gypsum sculpture from the Darwin Museum collection (the gypsum sculptures were the ones that found their way into the Museum’s collections.) Sometimes one comes across a dismissive attitude towards such pieces; wooden sculpture is considered more expressive. One can hardly agree with this: clay and gypsum sculpture has different expressive means because of the specificity of the material: it is easier for the artist to convey movement and details: thin legs, grasping fingers. The standing “Chimpanzee” and “Old Walking Orangutan” (both of 1927), “Standing Orangutan” (1929), are in gypsum. And the “Young Standing Orangutan” (1929) catches the eye of the viewer too.

In 1931, Vatagin painted several pieces depicting birds of paradise. These are small birds, incredibly different in form and the colour of their plumage. Birds of paradise prefer humid tropical forests. The composition of the paintings is dynamic. Several males fluff up their peach-coloured or blue tails and wings, their beaks are open, and for a while the viewer does not notice a plain female in the picture, over which this whole theatre is taking place. The males are performing courtship dances, and are literally hanging off the branches upside down, with their feet up, in order to attract the female’s attention. The artist changes the manner of painting depending on the task: while depicting large animals, he works on the big plane; while painting birds of paradise, which are quite small, his stroke is smaller, and the details are more precise.

An animal’s life is dynamic, and one picture is not enough to capture different periods from animals’ lives, and their habits. Thus, working in series, Vatagin creates epic narratives about animals’ lives. In 1932 he worked on a bear cycle. Vatagin did not limit his use of oil paints to compositions on canvas; this series, for instance, is executed on plywood: a bear looking for honey; a bear that has killed an elk; a bear in the oats; a she-bear fishing with her cubs, a bear ravaging an anthill, a bear sitting on a pear tree. It is preferable to become acquainted with a bear’s life with the help of such oil paintings rather than by meeting a wild animal in nature. The bear has little in common with the hedonistic beast of Russian folk tales.

In 1934, Vatagin worked on a series dedicated to the large-cat family. Such his artworks as “Amur Tiger”, “Persian Tiger”, and “Sumatra Tiger” were added to the Darwin Museum’s collection. Vatagin depicted the Persian tiger crouching among rocks in the sand. This tiger does not have a pronounced red colour, and its stripes are not dark black. Its fur is fair, close to sandy, and its stripes are thin and brown. The two figures in the “Amur Tiger” are shown against a snowy winter background. The tiger in the foreground is large; nothing escapes the attentive stare of its yellow eyes. Another small figure is painted in the background. It may be the tiger’s mate, since the mating season of these predatory felines falls in the winter.

Vatagin also painted a touching family scene “The Dimorphism of Leopards”. Here the artist has applied a tabular method, the same he had used before in decorating the “Zoogeographic Atlas”. There is only one animal in the painting, a black panther, depicted in a calm pose, and the leopard and its four cubs are shown in motion — the black and spotted kittens are jumping. Four cubs — four different “jumping” perspectives that only in painting can be adequately depicted. The spotted colouring of the animals influenced the overall image solution: there are spots on the leopards’ fur, the panther’s fur is also not solid black, but spotted. The sandy ground is achieved by spots of light and shadow, the tree leaves are conveyed by light and dark spots of foliage. Thus the painting is spotted all over, but the small spots being balanced by larger ones, makes the composition just one whole.

In 1937, Vatagin created the sculpture “Sea Lion”. In 1938, he worked on a series of marine animals, painting “Finback Whale”, “Cetacean”, “Dolphins”, and “Beluga” in the dark waters of the Northern seas. A merry school of dolphins is painted in the azure blue Southern seas, where the water is luminous with the glow of the sun. In 1940 he painted “Dugong” — an aquatic mammal that looks like a manatee.

Like any artist, Vatagin was interested in solving major space problems and in 1941 the master painted a monumental canvas, “Elephants in the Indian Jungle”, depicting the jungle element and the power of the elephants. The cycle is continued by “Elephant in the Indian Jungle” and “Elephant in the Savannah”.

From the painterly point of view, the work “Dimorphism of Merlins” (1945) is very beautiful. The white-feathered birds stand out against the gray merlins. The artist had executed the pastels with merlins several decades earlier, in 1902-1906. Vatagin turned to the same subject illustrating the book by a renowned Russian zoologist George Dementyev “Falcons-Merlins”.

In 1946 Vatagin painted “Chinese Leopard”, “Persian Leopard”, and “Indian Leopard”. The same year the artist painted the picturesque triptych “Canadian Puma”, “Puma in Patagonia Pampas”, and “Puma in the Jungle” (this amazing animal lives both in the hot prairie and in snowy regions). The initial drawings of the Museum’s collection show that Vatagin had a concept of the triptych as a whole, and was compositionally solving all the three images simultaneously.

Vatagin painted a distinctive triptych, “Blue-Yellow Macaws”, “Red Macaws”, and “Hyacinth Macaws” in 1960. He had painted macaws in the beginning of his artistic life as well, but now it was a new approach to the world of birds. The early series with experimental birds was of a small format, whereas the later cycle was painted on large canvases. No trace was left of the harsh graphic manner of the young artist. These works belong to a mature master, a genuine painter.

Like any artist, Vatagin was interested in solving major space problems. The artist’s painterly manner had established itself a long time ago: it is quite fine, and the layers of his oil paintings are half-transparent. If you look at his works closely, you notice initial drawings in pencil. Such delicate work is characteristic of the artist’s manner; in some way it resembles a fresco. His transparent painting gives an impression that he was creating his works easily, in a short period of time. True, the artist always painted fast because he always had a large volume of work. On the other hand, Vatagin painted fast because he was extremely collected and intent. Vatagin’s experience as a sculptor of holding the image in his mind helped him in his painting as well. He preferred generalized, and, thus, integral, images.

Vatagin clearly divided the tasks of scientific illustration, artistic illustration, and painted works. For scientific illustrations he drew extremely clearly all the characteristics of animals and birds, and the surrounding landscape. In this case he worked neatly, covering the whole surface of the sheet. For artistic illustrations the master worked in a different way: thus in the “The Jungle Book” he draws an emphasis on the main characters, just lightly outlining the rest of the inhabitants of the jungle. As for his large works, Vatagin’s manner of painting changes again — here the artist works on large surfaces, using a broad stroke. It is as if we see two different artists: one is a meticulous precisionist, the other a daring master of the paintbrush. All these characteristics of Vatagin’s art are not born spontaneously; they are the result of a precise position. The artist realized that different kinds of art have different goals, which he then followed to the letter.

Vatagin’s creative activity coincided with a complicated historic period: two wars, and a revolution. But it must be admitted that his artistic fate was a lucky one. The time of revolutionary rebuilding tragically affected many artists. Those who were unable to realize themselves under the new political conditions were forced to leave their motherland. Vatagin, having chosen the animal theme, thus removed himself from time-serving political orders as much as possible. Working in the Darwin Museum put the artist in the ranks of a simple executor of Alexander Kots’s (a founder of the Museum and a close friend of Vatagin) ideas. But at the same time it allowed Vatagin to work on a large scale, to create monumental sculptures and paintings. Vatagin worked intensely; he created hundreds of sketches, huge canvases, and he cut wood himself.

One can hardly believe it now but Vasily Vatagin’s almost classical painting did not receive recognition right away. First of all, the public appreciated him as a sculptor. However, both sculpting and painting are equal facets of this talented master.

At times it seems that the master had drawn, painted, and sculpted all animals — that he had done everything there was to be done in the art of depicting animals, leaving no more themes for other artists. Just the opposite — Vatagin’s art has inspired many young artists to dedicate themselves to creating images of animals.

The exhibitions that opened at the Tretyakov Gallery and the Darwin Museum will give the opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge of Vatagin as an artist.


  1. In 1922 Vatagin taught at VKhUTEMAS, Moscow's Higher Artistic and Technical Studios. Many years later he returned to his teaching career: thus, in 1963-1964 he lectured at the Department of Ceramics and Glass at the Moscow Higher Art & Industry College. His course was really very special and was based on his book “Depiction of an Animal. Notes of an Animal Artist".
Vasily Vatagin. The 1960s
Vasily Vatagin. The 1960s
Photo from the artistʼs family archive
Penguin with a Fledgeling. 1960
Penguin with a Fledgeling. 1960
Coloured wood. Height 43 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily Vatagin. 1968
Vasily Vatagin. 1968
Photo from the artistʼs family archive
Walruses. 1909
Walruses. 1909
Composition. Coloured wood, bone. Height 33 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
The Nivkh Woman. 1930
The Nivkh Woman. 1930
Sitting figure. Wood. Height 74 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Drawings to Rudyard Kiplingʼs “Maughli”. 1922–1926
Drawings to Rudyard Kiplingʼs “Maughli”. 1922-1926
Vataginʼs family archive.
Red Elephant. 1915
Red Elephant. 1915
Painted wood. Height 30 cm. Picture gallery of Tarussa
Dimorphism of Lemurs. 1934
Dimorphism of Lemurs. 1934
Oil on plywood. 165 × 109 cm. State Darwin Museum
Chinese Leopard. 1946
Chinese Leopard. 1946
Oil on plywood. 152 × 152 cm. State Darwin Museum
Monkey on the Capital. 1959
Monkey on the Capital. 1959
Coloured wood. Height 77 cm. Tretyakov Gallery





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