Yelena Polenova - The artist’s work in the collection of the Polenov Museum Reserve

Yelena Kashtanova

Magazine issue: 
#4 2011 (33)

“God forbid you worry that the subjects of your art are interesting to the public, or think about the public at all while working — only then can you be worthy of being called an artist.”
Yelena Polenova to Praskovia Antipova. 1883.

Yelena Polenova was gifted in graphics and drawing, painting, ceramics, and the decorative arts, as well as an accomplished collector, researcher and educator... Her diverse personality and creative quest has always posed certain challenges for scholars.

She did not find due recognition in her lifetime, even though her art was highly regarded by her colleagues and the public — the watercolours she exhibited sold well, she was in demand as a ceramics master, and the articles manufactured by the workshop in Abramtsevo proved very popular. However, it was only in 1902, when Natalya and Vasily Polenov organised the posthumous exhibition of the artist’s work, that her oeuvre was recognized as significant and broad, and her place in Russian art as exceptional. A sharp and accurate assessment of Polenova’s art came from Alexander Benois: “Yelena Polenova was a profoundly artistic person; all her life she looked deep into the mysteries of her own soul, hoping to find there the answers to the essence of art.”1

In 1902 Natalya Polenova wrote a short book “Ye.D. Polenova”, that became the first and, for many years to come, the only attempt to give a comprehensive story of Polenova’s life in art.

There are only a few paintings by Polenova housed at the museum; however, her drawings and sketches form a third of the museum’s graphic arts collection. Most of them come from the private collection of the Polenov family — according to the artist’s will, her brothers Vasily and Alexei and her sister-in-law Natalya became the executors of her estate. In 1939, the Polenov heirs gifted the family art collections, including Yelena Polenova’s works, to the state. Sketches, rough drawings and notes from the funds of the Polenov Museum allow us to trace the artist’s path from apprenticeship to mastery, and her creative development; they help to fully understand the artist’s multi-faceted talent. Even more importantly, sometimes they become instrumental in determining the proper meaning of her art without having to resort to guesswork — for example, the watercolour study “The Serpent” appears to be the conclusion, a “full stop” that the artist reached in developing the plot of her painting “The Beast. (Serpent)”.

As an artist, Polenova was cast from a special mould. Her work was born of reflection and deep feelings. Extraordinarily emotional by nature but also quite reserved, she did not show her emotions in her everyday life, and kept everything deep inside — she was only open in her art.

The artist’s personality was influenced by her large and talented family, the domestic atmosphere of which was very special — everyone was in some way involved in science or art. The family’s life was steeped in the most enlightened interests — the highest purpose of art, the artist’s noble mission, and the value of the classical heritage.

The artist’s father, Dmitry Polenov, a lawyer and historian, was devoted to science; a bibliographer and scholar of ancient Russian chronicles, he became his daughter’s first history tutor. He singled her out as gifted and knowledgeable on the subject. Yelena was interested in her brothers’ university courses and studied law and mathematics; later her education was supplemented with courses in geology, mineralogy, ethnography, archaeology and literature.

Maria Polenova, Yelena’s mother, was fond of drawing; in her youth, she had taken classes from Konstantin Moldavsky, a member of the Academy of Art, and became her children’s first art teacher. The parents encouraged their children’s interest in drawing. Yelena was nine when she and her siblings started taking classes from Pavel Chistyakov. Five years later, she became a student of Ivan Kramskoi at the Drawing School of the Society for the Support of Artists. Elena became more and more interested in drawing; she took private lessons from Kramskoi and continued (intermittently) studying at Chistyakov’s studio at the Drawing School.

In 1869-1870 Polenova studied in the Paris studio of the artist Charles Chaplin, who formed a high opinion of her aptitude: “You are gifted. <...> You have substance, which is more important, but your technical skills are lacking, and it is those skills that you need to acquire.”2 However, the portrait of her mother Maria, which Polenova painted at the age of 15, is a testament to her masterful skill, not just talent.

In Polenova’s own words, even when she was already a master in her own right, she continued to feel the lack of sound, timely instruction: “What a great thing sound schooling is. I constantly feel the same about my art. I received my own instruction in art like a handout, ‘for Christ’s sake’, from one teacher or another. I desperately lack what one gets from well-timed education.”3

Having made the decision to paint “precisely, seriously and from nature”, Polenova never left her album behind. She spent considerable time around Russia, visiting villages like Imochentsy in Karelia, and Olshanka in the Tambov region. Years later, Polenova would call her life that of a “gypsy, a nomad”. Her sketches and studies were filled with real-life images of the poetic, charming life of an old country estate that held so much value for her; she captured this much-loved world on the pages of her albums. Polenova’s watercolours do not depict obviously striking landscapes; they are free of any exaggerated “prettiness”. Her art is a whole world in itself; her trusting, intense delight in the details creates the atmosphere of the paintings.

In 1877, during the Serbian-Turkish War, Polenova quit all her studies, went to Kiev, where her sister was in charge of the temporary “Hospital of the Round Tower” for the wounded, studied medicine, and worked long hours.

It was in Kiev that Elena met A. Shkliarevsky — a medical doctor and professor at the University of Kiev. Their closeness was shared, but Yelena’s parents did not approve of her choice, and the expected marriage was called off. Polenova’s only salvation was her art: “Yes, a profession is a good thing; happiness is even better. Well, it was not meant to be, so it is God’s will...”4

Her personal drama ruined her life — the only thing left was her art; so she took the road of self-sacrifice, devoted her life to her craft, and carried on as a master artist.

Polenova was more than sincere in her approach to art. Her personal experiences were inseparably intertwined with her poetic, creative thought. When studying her art, it is imperative to have a feeling for her personality, her thoughts, emotions and moods, all of which influenced her
artistic outlook. Polenova did not keep a diary, to our great regret. What survives is her correspondence with those close to her, as well as some, albeit few, recollections of her. They allow us to come closer to appreciating her personality, to attempt to understand her as a human being and a creative individual, with all the challenges of her lot in life.

There is a very interesting document in the museum’s collection — Polenova’s handwritten translation of a parable (originally in English) by Olive Schreiner about a woman expecting a child. The translation is only a draft, but the parable’s ending allows us to understand why the artist found it so appealing, as well as why Polenova made the life choices that she did. “Let me touch the baby. I am Love. If I touch him, he will not live his life alone. In the deepest darkness he will stretch out his hand and meet another hand reaching out to him. If the entire world persecutes him, another will say to him: you and I. And the baby stirred. <...> Around the mother’s head bees were flying and touching her lightly with their long bodies; and in her imagination, another creature came out of the dark depths of the room: his expression was grave, his features defined, his cheeks sunken; there was a smile trembling on his face. He reached for her, and she recoiled and cried: ‘Who are you?’ He did not answer, and she raised his eyes to him: ‘What can you give to the baby?’ Whoever I touch will develop a burning fever in his blood, and it will burn his blood out, like ozone. This fever will last as long as his life lasts. ”5

Back in 1875 Polenova passed the rigorous examinations at the St. Petersburg education district (her preparation took much time and effort) and obtained the diploma of a home tutor.

The artist opened drawing classes at her house in St. Petersburg, taught at Princess Obolensky’s grammar school and at the Liteino-Tavrichesky courses of the Society to Support Impoverished Women. She also re-enrolled in the Drawing School at the Society for the Support of Artists (1878-1880) and took two classes at this time — in watercolour and ceramics. Captivated by the ceramics course, Polenova was very successful: she was granted a “minor gold medal” at her first examination (“gold medals” were not awarded); at her second examination, she received a “grand silver medal” and an offer to go to Paris for further training: “What a scandal, Vasya!” she wrote to her brother. “The Society is sending me abroad for training. I think it is the first example in history, at least in Russian history, that a person of our female ‘class’ is given a task and sent abroad to study, etc.”6

Polenova’s studies in Paris were serious and useful: over five months the artist gained considerable knowledge of painting on ceramic, as well as enamels; she had a chance to work in A. Egorov’s workshop, as well as Theodore Deck’s factory and Sieffert’s studio. Polenova’s outstanding professional skills allowed her to answer her older brother Vasily’s request to help him write an article on ceramics.

In the future Polenova would travel extensively, and her series of watercolours “Journey to the West, 1895”, with their exquisite palette, delicate sentiment and masterful implementation, proved a special chapter in the history of Russian watercolour painting.

The artist fell in love with Paris — forever: “... anyhow, there is no other place so favourable for work, as in studying something. And the country is really good for painting en plein air. To work in Imochentsy, in Voieikovo, to study in Paris, to live in Moscow... What a shame that the year does not have just three autumns for the seasons! One to study in Paris, another — to enjoy working in the country, and the third — to apply one’s knowledge to practice!”7

Due to her family circumstances, Polenova had to move to Moscow in 1882. She was very emotional over having to part with her friends, as well as having to abandon her professional plans (she had been offered to head the ceramics class at the Society for the Support of Artists); she was also apprehensive of her brother’s artistic influence. However, in her letter from Paris she had anticipated that the move would mark the end of the period of apprenticeship; that it was Moscow where all her accumulated artistic experience was to be realised. She found herself surrounded by young artists, friends and students of her brother Vasily; Vasily’s wife Natalya became her closest friend for the rest of her life. Polenova also became close to the Mamontov family and for many years found inspiration at their estate at Abramtsevo. She also found a good friend in Yelizaveta Mamontova, who was able to somewhat soften the artist’s suspicion and distrust of the world and people.

From that time on, Polenova went to Abramtsevo almost every week. “Landscape painting has its challenges compared to painting in your own studio, but what poetry, how alive you feel as you are having this fascinating conversation with nature! Isn’t it so?”8

There was the company of friends, working together with such different but such talented artists, the tender charm of the Abramtsevo landscapes, productions at the home theatre (for which Polenova created the costumes), and finally, the Abramtsevo carpentry workshop, where she began serving as artistic director in 1885... Polenova was very taken with this work. She herself mentioned that she created more than 100 designs for furniture in the Russian folk style. One is tempted to say it was a “Polenova style” — as she was guided by her goal “to pick up all the living folk creations”, the artist treated the original sources with such care (as well as passion) that she was able to not only follow her own imagination but also preserve the folk masters’ canons of beauty. It was no accident that at the same time Polenova started working on her illustrations for Russian fairy tales: “<...> started with the fairy tale motifs from Afanasiev’s collection; to be honest, I was drawing them without a particular aim in mind, I just like Russian fairy tales (I have always been fond of Russian life ofthe past.) <...> somebody mentioned publishing them, and I welcomed the thought and began painting illustrations for Afanasiev’s ‘The White Duck’.”9

The artist created numerous illustrations that are conventionally divided into two periods, titled “Abramtsevo” and “Kostroma”. They are united by one idea that Polenova cherished: “very daring but also terribly tempting: in a series of watercolours, I want to convey the Russian people’s poetic view of Russian nature, to determine for both myself and others how Russian landscape influenced and found expression in Russian folk poetry...”10

At the same time as she was working on furniture designs for the carpentry workshop and illustrations, Polenova was creating ornamental patterns — an art in which she remains unsurpassed to this day. Captivating colours, oddly-shaped vegetation weaving in luxurious pattern, beautiful magical birds and animals flocking and dancing to music we cannot hear... Polenova admitted that she “often saw new patterns and colour combinations in her dreams, which she would sketch when she woke up, <...> that she had ‘colour hearing’, and that many patterns revealed themselves to her while she was listening to music.”11

It is worth noting that Polenova’s decorative patterns became an integral part both of her fairy tale illustrations and other artwork. In her designs for carpentry, in her illustrations, and in her decorative patterns, the artist created the style which would later be called “Russian art nouveau”.

One of Polenova’s last projects, for the dining room design for Maria Yakunchikova’s house in Nara, created in cooperation with Alexander Golovin, was as conceptually brilliant (judging from the surviving sketches) as it was beautifully executed — although we can only see it in an old photograph. The artist valued it greatly and mentioned it when she was close to death, although still conscious: “2. To support the publication of ‘Mir Iskusstva’ [The World of Art] by S.P. Diaghilev, provide him at no charge with some of Yelena Dmitrievna’s art to be used in this publication, at our discretion. Also, in consideration of the support the deceased expressed for Mr. Diaghilev’s efforts in organizing art exhibitions, to hand over the collection of her art to him for a planned exhibition in St. Petersburg. 3. To ask A.Y. Golovin to finish decorative art based on drawings by Ye.D. [Polenova] which he had started working on for on commission from M.F. Yakunchikova.”12

Such freedom of imagination, such refined artistic taste and style was unprecedented in Russian art before Polenova. As we contemplate Yelena Polenova’s heritage today, the impact of her art, especially her drawings and decorative objects, is remarkable.

“She was a patient student; for a long time she looked for her way, doubted herself, switched styles, moved from ceramics and wood burning to genre and oil painting, from illustrations to drawings for furniture making, and to embroidery. It was too early that death took her. Much remains unfinished. But everything she created is unique and intelligent.”13


  1. Benois, Alexander. “A History of Russian Art in the 19th Century”. St. Petersburg, “Znanie” Publishing House. 1902, p. 254.
  2. Letter from YD. Khruschova to V.D. Polenov. Paris, June 29 1870. Ye.V. Sakharova. “Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A chronicle of the artists’ lives.” Moscow, “Isskustvo” Publishing House. 1964, p. 65.
  3. Ibid, p. 515.
  4. Letter from Ye.D. Polenova to V.D. Polenov. March 27 1887. Manuscripts Department, Tretyakov Gallery. F 54, item 1, file 3927.
  5. Fund 1. Museum Documents at Polenov Museum Reserve. Item 434, pp. 4-6.
  6. Letter from Ye.D. Polenova to YD. Polenov. St. Petersburg, February 15 1880. Manuscripts Department, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 54, item 1, file 3947.
  7. Letter from Ye.D. Polenova to V.D. Polenov. Paris, November 12/24 1880. Manuscripts Department, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 54, item 1, file 3949.
  8. Letter from Ye.D. Polenova to P.D. Antipova. Moscow, June 22 1883. Manuscripts Department, Tretyakov Gallery. Item 1, file 6860, p. 18.
  9. Letter from Ye.D. Polenova to V.V. Stasov. Moscow, April 2 1894. Ye. V. Sakharova. “Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Elena Dmitrievna Polenova. A chronicle of the artists’ lives”. Moscow, “Isskustvo” Publishing House. 1964, p. 497.
  10. Letter from Ye.D. Polenova to P.D. Antipova. Moscow, October 25 1896. Ye.V. Sakharova. “Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Elena Dmitrievna Polenova. A chronicle of the artists’ lives.” Moscow, “Isskustvo” Publishing House. 1964, p. 373.
  11. Ye.F. Junge. Remembering Ye.D. Polenova. “ Russian Antiquity. ” June 1912, p. 37.
  12. “Draft statement of wishes of the deceased Ye.D. Polenova compiled by her relatives” December 1899. Fund 1. Museum Documents at Polenov Museum Reserve. Item 438.
  13. Sergei Makovsky. Profiles of Russian artists. Moscow, 1999. “Respublika” Publishing House; pp.156-157.





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