The Plastovs - A Family of Artists

Tatyana Plastova

Magazine issue: 
#4 2011 (33)

The Plastovs are an ancient Russian family. Their ancestors, many of whom were priests, lived in the Arzamas region. Legend has it that one of the Plastovs was a cleric in an area populated by the Mordvins (the Erzya people). Their family surname then was Sinitsyn, and among them was, in the late 18th-early 19th centuries a certain Vasily Sinitsyn, a deacon fond of painting. One of the Sinitsyn family was an apprentice with the icon painter Plastov — he painted icons with the artist travelling from village to village. When his mentor died, the apprentice took his family name: at first he was called Plastov the apprentice, and then simply Plastov. The first family member about whom anything is reliably known is Gavrila Stepanovich Plastov (1801-c.1843), whose father is known to have been a cleric. Gavrila studied at (but did not graduate from) a seminary in Kazan. He also studied at an art school in Arzamas founded in 1802 by the painter Alexander Stupin. Founded on academic principles (Stupin himself had studied at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg), the school had a curriculum combining professional education with a large range of general subjects and was endorsed by the Academy. The school placed a special emphasis on teaching icon painting.

Many churches in the Volga region featured icons and murals created by graduates of the Arzamas school, a group that likely included Gavrila Plastov. Arkady Plastov in one of the versions of his autobiography mentioned him: “My grandfather Grigory studied under his father — Gavrila Plastov, a graduate of the Stupin school in Arzamas. I didn’t see my grand-grandfather’s paintings. The only thing that was left from him in our family was ink drawings — copies of some academic pieces...”1

It is also known that Gavrila Stepanovich worked at the Church of the Archangels in Chirkovo village, in Alatyrsky Province, and later at the Church of Christ the Saviour in the city of Alatyr. Late in his life he became a low-ranking cleric.2

Gavrila’s son, Grigory Gavrilovich (1831-1887) — Arkady Plastov’s grandfather — was an icon painter and architect who built a church in Prislonikha. Grigory finished a religious school in Alatyr and worked in many churches (he stayed the longest with the Nikolskaya Church in the village of Tetyushi, in the Ardatovsky province of the Simbirsk region, and the Epiphany Church in Prislonikha village). He probably did not receive a conventional art education, although he succeeded well as an icon painter and a church architect. Arkady Plastov recalled in his autobiography that before a fire in 1931, “I came across in the papers left by my father many architectural drawings with signatures like ‘Church in a village, designed and drafted by Grigory Plastov’. His technical drawings were used for the construction of the church in our village, and he also created, together with his father, images inside the church.” It is known that Grigory Plastov also designed a church in a neighbouring village called Zherebyatnikovo (both churches were partly destroyed in the Soviet period — “re-adjusted for civil use”). For all its simplicity, the reconstructed church in Prislonikha astonishes with its harmonious and clear proportions, and accord with the surrounding environment and consistency of its architectural design.

The church had two altars — the main one, dedicated to the Epiphany, and the second one, dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Holy Virgin. The walls were covered with compositions focused on Biblical themes, which were lost in the 1930s. The images for the church were painted by Grigory Plastov, together with his son Alexander (Arkady Plastov’s father) and an artist known by the surname Groshev. The young Arkady Plastov was astounded by these murals, and this fascination would last throughout his life: “I was especially amazed by the darkened evangelists and the Lord of Sabaoth on the inside of the dome, painted by my grandfather, the upper part of the iconostasis... I perfectly remember the images on the iconostasis, they are etched in my memory. My grandfather was fond of rich, extremely saturated tones. He was fond of juxtaposing deep greenish-blue tones and blood-red, with inserts of citrine-emerald, violet, orange; the background colours were gold, the soil under the feet — burnt sienna or dull pinkish-grey. All heads were flame-coloured sienna, all shadows, green clay. Noses, the curls of hair, lips, eye sockets, fingers — everything was contoured with saturnine red, and when, during a vespers service, the sun cast its ray on the iconostasis, you could not tear your eyes away from this splendour.”3

The family has kept only several icons made by Grigory Plastov: “The Archangel Gabriel” (a fragment about the Annunciation), “The Lord of Sabaoth” and “The Archangel Michael”, as well as fragments of a mural (“Baptism”).

Nikolai Arkadievich Plastov (Arkady Plastov’s son) recalls these images: “The ‘Gabriel’s’ style is somewhat heavy and stiff. Whereas ‘The Lord of Sabaoth’, a solidly crafted piece with rich dark colours — translucent umbers, siennas — is imposing and unusual in its composition; it’s probably fashioned after one of the serious academic images created for a church in the first quarter of the 19th century; its combination of hues is well balanced, the outlines are crisp and austere. The winged ‘Archangel Michael’ is undoubtedly the best of the three pieces by Grigory Plastov. The archangel is statuesque and imposing. A layer of vanish darkened over the centuries protects the dark image of the leader of the heavenly host equipped with a fiery ball and an unrolled scroll. The folds of the Roman warrior’s dark suit of armour opalesce with a fine golden hachure, his dress is hemmed with golden tracery, a crimson mantle blown by otherworldly elementary forces flutters against the gold-plate in the background. This is the only motion in the menacing insularity of the figure atop the ochreous smoking clouds. The wrathful visage itself, the delicately crafted outlines of the hands, and elegant traces of the light feet — all this shows that the artist possessed great skills and was well versed in the subtleties of contemporary icon painting. ”4

Grigory’s son Alexander Plastov (1862-1908) did not receive a regular education, but he was literate and “an avid reader”. Apprenticed to his father, he helped him to paint churches and after his death “served as a psalm reader” in the Prislonikha church. Alexander married a woman called Olga Ivanovna, a daughter of Ivan Leiman, a country doctor of German roots. On January 31 (18 in the old style calendar) 1893 the couple had their sixth child, who was given the name Arkady at his baptism. In Arkady’s life, two paths seem to have crossed — that of the priesthood and that of art. His parents dreamed about Arkady becoming a cleric. At the age of ten Arkady was sent to a religious school in Simbirsk, and later he enrolled at a seminary. But an event in the summer of 1908 shaped his entire life.

“In 1908,” wrote Arkady Plastov in his autobiography, “icon painters came to our village to renovate the paintings my grandfather and father had made long ago for our little church, and to add some more artwork. The locals put my father in charge of the management and supervision of the project. When they started mounting scaffolds, grinding pigments, and boiling linseed oil, I walked around almost like a sleepwalker — so enthralling was the whole process. And then my father and I went up to the space under the dome, where the cheerful frizzy-haired icon painters were perched. The smell of linseed oil, jars with pigments, gigantic prophets, archangels with iridescent wings enthralled me. The contours were finger-thick, there was no trace of the slickness customary in the icons. The strokes were wide, rough. As if under a spell I stared and saw how some handsome man in a flame-coloured chlamys was conjured up amidst pink clouds, and an exceptional and unfamiliar delight, some honey-sweet horror were fitfully squeezing my heart. I immediately made my father promise that he would buy me pigments like this and that I would grind for myself these beautiful paints — blue, flame-coloured, and will become a painter, nothing but a painter...”5

In Arkady’s fourth year at the seminary, the dean blessed him to serve the people as an artist — not destined to become a cleric, he left for Moscow.

There he studied under Ilya Mashkov, Fyodor Fyodorovsky, Leonid Pasternak, Apollinary Vasnetsov, Alexander Stepanov, and Sergei Volnukhin at Moscow’s two best art schools — the Stroganov College and the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture; he regarded himself as a student of Valentin Serov, Nikolai Ge, Ilya Repin, and Vasily Surikov and studied and copied the works of Hans Holbein, Diego Velazquez, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, the Renaissance masters, and the impressionists. He digested and used in his work all the treasures of the visual culture of the world.

The path of Arkady Plastov’s life and his existence as a painter were nearly identical. “All our thoughts should be focused on the passionate and unabating desire to arrange one’s life so that one can enjoy nature and freedom in peace and quiet... to devote oneself to one’s favourite pursuit without interference and hindrance from ignorant and dishonest people” (from a letter of March 16 1950).

In 1925 Plastov married his wife Natalya, a daughter of A.N. Von Vick, a former head of the local administration of the Korsunsk province in the Simbirsk region and a gentleman by birth. Before her marriage Natalya had worked in a local church and thought about becoming a nun. Plastov attracted her not only with his personal charisma and talent but also with his Orthodox Christian belief and ties with the church and religious culture. She introduced the traditions of her family — the culture of a nobleman’s house — into the peasant household in Prislonikha. In 1930 the couple had a son, Nikolai. He was slightly over one year old when the disaster of a fire in Prislonikha destroyed not only their home but all the works that Plastov had created over 37 years as well. “Since that year I stopped taking part in fieldwork. I had to restore what was destroyed, and to do it extraordinarily quickly.”6 The artist spent winters in Moscow, leaving his wife and their small son behind in the village. Plastov’s letters home are full of anxiety and guilt — for their separation, homelessness, and rootless life. He was completely aware of the price his family paid for the sweeping reversal that his talent made in the mid-1930s.

Nikolai Plastov reminisced: “I never saw my father in those years at rest; from dawn until late at night he was juggling numerous tasks, making up for what was lost in the fire, trying to catch up with his friends, scrambling to earn paltry sums creating instructional posters. It looks like we lived very poorly then, counting every kopeck. I remember that as a child I liked to play under a big quilting machine with quilts in the making stretched on it. My mother made quilts for neighbours to earn a little extra. My father designed peacocks to adorn the quilts, which shook the neighbours to the core. In the long winter evenings I would fall asleep on the snippets of fabric under the roof while my parents would stay up late at night patiently quilting yet another peacock.”7

From his adolescence on, which coincided with World War II, Nikolai replaced his father in domestic chores, walked on workdays six kilometres to a school in the neighbouring Yazykovo village and of course painted, unable to imagine himself as anything but an artist. As a teacher, Arkady was brilliant but strict and demanding. His letters to his son are full of concern about the boy’s soul, demanding love and clear professional instructions.

“You should know, dear young boy, that my heart is filled with joy and pride when I read that you write and paint and don’t make a display of what you have achieved but treat it thoughtfully and critically. This is the right thing to do. This attitude generates the fruitful and creative anxiety of the soul which is indispensable for any advancement. Of course, one shouldn’t force oneself, but the discipline of the soul always ought to be at a high level” (in a letter from January 13 1946).

“I beg you — don’t waste your time. Do more watercolours. If you can’t paint from nature, paint as if from nature, very liberally, without slavishly mimicking the original, copy my sketches of the busts. Don’t be afraid to be slightly unfaithful to an original. Try to convey the very essence — try to mould the head, to make it palpable, vibrant, powerful in colour. Try to paint the hands of Grandma Sonya or Grandma Olya life-sized or a little smaller. Go ahead confidently, without trembling, make shadows translucent, in light spots try to make surfaces pearly. If you use a dark background, craft the background as well, but a white, light backdrop would be better” (in a letter from November 20 1944).

“Make watercolours as slight and colourful as possible, more agreement between colours. Take your cue from Velazquez, Serov or Repin, Surikov. If you look closely at their works, you’ll see an astonishing harmony and most elegant combinations of colours. Avoid the motley of a scrap quilt” (in a letter from December 20 1944).

For Nikolai, his father was his first and the most important teacher throughout his life. Copying and painting from nature — the traditional foundation of European art education, as well as astuteness of stylistic objectives, good knowledge of the system of colours and tonal relations, and, finally, the personal example of tireless work and uncompromising self-discipline — these are the main lessons Arkady taught to his son, the lessons that shaped Nikolai as an artist. But Nikolai had other teachers as well. He graduated from the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, where he studied under Dmitry Mochalsky — a brilliant educator and a master of composition who knew how to design a refined colour scheme even for a seemingly very simple theme. Nikolai’s classmates at the Surikov Institute included Yefrem Zverkov, Andrei Makarov, Yelena Leonova, Yaroslav Manukhin, and Eduard Bragovsky, all of whom went on to become distinguished artists. The students remained friends, almost like brothers, and associates in art throughout their lives.

Nikolai Plastov was an excellent drawer. Early in his career he worked as an illustrator at the “Detgiz” publishing house for children and at children’s magazines. His father’s enormous talent and glory, in the shadow of which he was bound to live, as well as his awareness of his responsibility undoubtedly shaped him as an artist. He didn’t have his father’s ardour and daring, simply because that path was already trodden, with the brilliant result showed off to the world, but he had impeccable skills, a perfect artistic taste, and erudition in literary and visual cultures. When he looked at nature, he was equipped with the entire history of world art. Like his father, he saw shapes and colours in every manifestation of life — he saw the world only as an artist (for instance, he would say about a supposedly handsome man that he was “poorly drawn”). In the company of friends and at home he created amazingly sharp caricatures.

As a painter, he undoubtedly belonged to that group of exponents of the Moscow school which, together with the champions of austere style in painting, defined Soviet art in the 1960s-1980s. A traditional realist in his early pieces, he later consciously abandoned focus on detail in favour of a more impactful colour scheme and forms of exaggerated, maximally expressive design. Rich saturated colours, vibrant combinations of contiguous tones of paints, deep limpid tones creating a breathing, seemingly live surface are features of his style. An invaluable witness of his father’s life, Nikolai Plastov watched the birth of many of his paintings and was often painted by him.

Nikolai Plastov was a prominent figure in public life and cultural politics. In differ ent years he held administrative posts at the Society of Artists of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the Society of Artists of the USSR and chaired the Union’s purchasing committee. It was to a large degree due to his efforts that the best works accomplished in most diverse styles were bought from their creators, to form the “special reserves” of our art. Together with Pavel Korin, Leonid Leonov, Ilya Glazunov, Boris Rybakov, and Georgy Sviridov, Nikolai Plastov was one of the founders of the Russian National Society for Preservation of Landmarks of History and Culture and served on the society’s board. The intervention of the artistic and academic communities helped to save from destruction dozens of historical buildings and churches, including the Kazan Cathedral and the cathedral at the New Jerusalem Monastery, and to have them rebuilt and renovated in compliance with scientific norms.

Nikolai Plastov was instrumental in renovating and re-opening the Epiphany Church in Prislonikha, which was built by his great-grandfather Grigory Plastov. He did much for the preservation and systematisation of Arkady Plastov’s legacy and organised two major exhibitions at the Central Exhibition Halls in Moscow (1976) and in St. Petersburg (1977).

His early death, in 2000, was a symbol of revulsion for the neglectful and consumerist attitude to the national culture he had witnessed in the last years of his life.

The work of Nikolai Plastov’s wife, Yelena Kholodilina, can be justly regarded as a part of the family’s legacy. The daughter of a chemistry professor, Yelena Nikolaevna was born in Lugansk, finished art school in Kharkov, and then studed at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow. When, after her wedding, Yelena moved in with the elder Plastovs in Prislonikha, she felt the experience very keenly. The proximity of the great master, who was always very busy with his work and initially did not pay attention to the shy artist, discouraged her rather than stimulated her work. Yt, soon, humbly but firmly, she chose her path in art. Undoubtedly, the opportunity to see Plastov’s compositions, and later the experience of painting by his side in the open air, taught her much and revealed to her that what usually takes years and decades for an artist to learn. “When I came to know Plastov’s art better, I was astonished by the clarity and power, by the exultation of colour which is the truth of God’s world... Starting to work on a composition, Plastov tried to apply translucent paints in certain areas, these paints sometimes held on in shaded spots too. Siennas, umbers, clay. From the beginning of a work he tried to avoid muddying the mixtures and colours with white paints... ‘The palette of Delacroix’. What’s each colour’s sound? Which mixes bring into play other mixes? The theory of complementary colours. I’ve been interested in these problems all my life. And I’ve tried to apply these ideas in my work. ”8

As an artist she focused on landscapes. The ability to see a state of nature as a whole, to vest every brushstroke with worth and meaning, to materialize the subtle semantics of landscape — all these qualities made her an artist of note in the 1970s-1980s. Although Arkady Plastov’s influence on Kholodilina’s artwork is undeniable, in terms of style her landscapes are closer to such artists as Stanislav Zhukovsky, Leonard Turzhansky, and Pyotr Petrovichev. The emphasis on individual brushstrokes and deliberate definiteness of colours are some of the important features of her oeuvre.

Perhaps the main property of Kholodilina’s art is its poetic sentiment and openness, the warmth of her soul, which this modest and shy woman boldly communicates to the viewer.

“A landscape that has once grabbed your attention should be carefully thought out and compositionally robust, lines directing the spectator’s eye should be carefully arranged — the tilt of the tree, the bends of the twigs, spatial relations. so that the viewer feel tempted to enter this world, and to love it. I have always wanted to ‘lodge’ some living being in the landscapes. A big plot of felled forest, with only several trees — pines — left. The entire landscape is suffused with the scarlet light of a setting sun, there are fallen leaves under the feet, tiny green pines, tall dry weeds with umbels. And across this entire kingdom, a hedgehog makes his way stamping his feet in a business-like manner. I later reworked my quick sketch into a large landscape and called it ‘A Time When Hedgehogs Rove’.”9

Arkady Plastov’s only and much loved grandson Nikolai Nikolaevich Plastov grew up in Prislonikha, with his grandmother Natalya Alexeevna and nanny Katya, who lived with the family for more than 60 years. Arkady Plastov relished every minute of this child’s life, painted portraits of the boy over and over again, pampered him, made him wooden toys, told fairy tales of his own invention, and came to the rescue when his parents were too hard on him, as well as teaching him painting... The little Kolya is featured in Plastov’s wonderful portraits, such as the “Portrait of My Grandson (By a Window)” and “My Grandson Is Painting”, and a composition “A Small Jar of Milk”. Like his parents, Nikolai Plastov graduated from the Surikov Art Institute (from Dmitry Mochalsky’s workshop) and then was an assistant at the Academy of Fine Arts with the outstanding masters Alexei Gritsai and Alexei and Sergei Tkachev.

Certainly, Nikolai Plastov’s development as an artist was greatly influenced by his grandfather’s and father’s art. When Nikolai was a child, his grandfather arranged objects for his still-lifes, “taught with word, didn’t correct with a brush”; a tough and demanding teacher, he was eager to cultivate in his grandson what he considered essential — a love for painting, and an enjoyment of art. The father and the grandfather were very demanding towards themselves as artists, never agreeing to compromises in their work. Nikolai inherited this attitude — or, rather, it was cultivated in him from an early age. Dignity and a sense of responsibility for the family’s honour are his main qualities both as an artist and as a person.

The nearly 200-year-long history of the Plastov family is inextricably linked to Russia’s history, and every one of its family members has faithfully served Russia as best as he or she could.

Nikolai Plastov is a co-chairman of the jury awarding the Plastov International Prize, which recently named first winners in the Master nomination — famous artists working in the Russian national tradition, Yefrem Zverkov and Vladimir Telin.


  1. Plastov, Arkady. “An Autobiograpy”. (Arkady Plastov’s archive).
  2. Avdonin-Buryuchevsky, Alexander. “Arkady Plastov”. Korporatsiya Tekhnologii Prodvizhenia publishing house. Ulyanovsk, 2006. P. 30.
  3. Plastov, Arkady. “An Autobiograpy”. (Arkady Plastov’s archive).
  4. Plastov, Nikolai Arkadievich. ‘Prislonikha. About the past’. In: Pamyatniki Otechestva (Landmarks of the Homeland). 1998. No. 42 (7-8), part II. P. 164.
  5. Plastov, Akady. “An Autobiograpy”.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Plastov, Nikolai Arkadievich. ‘An introduction’. In: “Arkady Plastov. Album of Prints”. Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR (Artist of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic), 1979. P. 9.
  8. Kholodilina, Yelena. Memoirs (manuscript).
  9. Ibid.





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