Lermontov in Landscape. An issue of attribution relating to two watercolour landscapes among Mikhail Lermontov’s memorabilia from the poet’s Pyatigorsk museum

Yekaterina Sosnina

Magazine issue: 
#4 2019 (65)

One of Russia’s oldest museums devoted to literature, the Lermontov Museum in Pyatigorsk was established in 1912 in the house where Lermontov spent the final months of his life and wrote his last poems. The famed “Lermontov House” itself has been preserved exactly as it was during the poet’s lifetime, while the museum itself currently consists of several sections situated in the four old estate houses on its compound.

Mikhail LERMONTOV (?) A View of the Caucasus with Mountain People (A Man and Two Women). 1841
Mikhail LERMONTOV (?) A View of the Caucasus with Mountain People (A Man and Two Women). 1841
Gouache and watercolour on paper. 17.7 × 15.9 cm
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk

The museum’s collection features a number of unique artefacts, including the poet's personal belongings, as well as a number of his paintings and drawings, including “A View of Krestovaya Mountain", which Lermontov painted in 1837-1838, as well as his original drawing “Three Portraits", which the renowned Lermontov scholar Viktor Manuilov donated to the museum in 1972.

Among its other works are two old watercolours depicting the mountain people of the Caucasus that for a long time have been classified only as “attributed to Lermontov" (and were therefore largely ignored in Lermontov scholarship). Certain factors, however, point to them being original works by Lermontov: the statement of their original owners Anna and N.Z. Popova, the dating of the pieces that was carried out at the Grabar Central Art Renovation Workshop (now the Grabar Art Conservation Centre), as well as similarities between their colour scheme and subject and the aesthetic interpretation of the realities of the Caucasus in drawings and paintings that are known to be by the poet.

The story that lies behind these two watercolours deserves further attention from those interested in Lermontov's life and art. The works concerned, “A View of the Caucasus with Mountain People (A Man and Two Women)" and “A View of the Caucasus with Four Figures (Three Men and a Woman)", feature scenes from the everyday life of the mountain people of the region. Presumed to be the work of the poet, they were acquired by the museum in 1941 from the Popovs who, in turn, had received them at the very beginning of the century from L.I. Umanova, the wife of Nikolai Chilayev, who was the son of Vasily Chilayev, the owner of the small thatched house that Lermontov had rented in 1841.

According to the Popovs' account, the poet gave the pictures to Vasily Chilayev as a keepsake shortly before the duel in which he perished. When Chilayev and his family were selling their house in Pyatigorsk, they handed over some of their Lermontov items to their relatives, meaning that the family retained the watercolours in their possession. Anna Popova heard many times from her mother, Z.A. Popova, and from Umanova that the watercolours were Lermontov's original creations.

In addition to that oral history, it is worth noting, as the scholar Isaac Zilbershtein has highlighted, that Lermontov was in the habit of giving his pictures as gifts to those who were close to him: “The poet often presented his friends and acquaintances with his paintings, watercolours and drawings... From specific memoirs and letters it can be deduced that at least 15 people received from Lermontov himself his paintings, watercolours and drawings. And how many such gifts have left no records behind?!"[1]

In 1941, Anna Popova wrote to the “Lermontov House" in Pyatigorsk: “The Lermontov Museum acquired from us the coloured portrait of our grandmother [the grandmother of the last owners of the watercolours, Maria Murlykina, was related to the wife of Vasily Chilayev, and had known Mikhail Lermontov in person - Ye.S.] and Lermontov's graphic pieces. They bought them from Anna Zakharovna Popova."[2]

The scholarly descriptions, or “academic passports", of the two items contain the following citation: “The authorship of the watercolours is attributed to M.Yu. Lermontov on the basis of documentary evidence from their last owners [the letters of Anna and Popova to the Lermontov House - Ye.S.] and their style, characteristic for M.Yu. Lermontov." The works were restored in 1966 at the Grabar Workshop in Moscow, in the process of which the restorer Filatova did considerable work to clean the watercolours, reinforcing them and restoring their paint layers and missing elements, as well as gluing.

The restored watercolours were put on display in the “Lermontov House" section of the museum, and Pavel Selegey, its former director, wrote in a guide to the collection: “The walls in the reception room feature... two watercolour drawings attributed to Lermontov and handed to the museum by relatives of the house's proprietor."[3] This publication is the first time that the two images have been reproduced, nor have they previously been the subject of scholarly discussion.


A hunter’s farewell

“A View of the Caucasus with Mountain People (A Man and Two Women)" features three figures set against a background of mountains covered with dark vegetation: to the left, and dominating the picture, a highlander in a chokha, the Caucasian mountainer's woollen highnecked overcoat, sits high on his horse, with a white bashlyk, or cone-shaped hood, on his head, and a gun strapped over his shoulder. Dark-faced, he has a black moustache and beard and is looking at one of the two women who are seeing him off: the horseman appears to be preparing for a journey.[4]

The women stand towards his right, the first figure with her back to the viewer. Her head wrapped in a grey headscarf, she wears a red, Caucasian-style waisted dress with a belt. Two skirts show from under her dress, one light-coloured, the other, below, dark-blue. Her arm is stretched out, holding a large round flat plate resembling a bowl.

Standing somewhat apart from her, the second woman faces out from the picture in a three-quarter view. Her head wrapped in a light-coloured headscarf, she looks up at the horseman, her left arm bent at the elbow and slightly raised. This woman, too, wears a Caucasian dark-blue dress, with two skirts - one deep-pale-blue, the other almost black - showing from under it.

The horseman is mounted on a pale grey horse. To the right of the picture, there is a partial view of a saklia, or stone dwelling, with a threshold and open porch, behind which the entrance door is visible. The left-hand part of the picture features the contours of three structures against the horizon.

Describing the pieces discussed here, we have relied on the text of the “academic passports" compiled by the former chief custodian of the Lermontov Museum, Isabella Ter-Gabrieliyants, who identified these three structures as three saklia houses. However, when the piece was taken out from beneath its protective glass and the image digitized and magnified, it became obvious that these structures in the distance do not much resemble ordinary saklias - they appear too tall and monumental.

Most probably, the picture features three mausoleums standing on the hills in the distance. Tatar mausoleums, or turbe (from the Turkish for “tomb"), can occasionally be found in the Caucasus: such funerary complexes are situated on the Gumbashi Pass, not far from Kislovodsk, and in Shamakhi (the Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum); a funerary edifice of similar appearance - an ossuary - is also located on a slope of Sentinskaya (Senty) Mountain in the North Caucasus (close to an early Christian church), while there are also several turbek in Dagestan.

Lermontov's writings mention such mausoleums, or funerary complexes made of stone, on more than one occasion. One such allusion comes in the 1831 poem “Who on a winter morning.":

“...a flower
of the burial mound, a mausoleum
that will not change; neither fate
nor people’s petty troubles
will stifle him; forever alone,
the sombre master of the tall tower,
he tells it all to the world but he himself
is foreign to all, to the earth and the heaven.”[5]

Lermontov's famous 1838 “Demon" has a similar reference - “...it creeps, or glows / like flame, it crackles, blazes, rushes / or, like a tomb, it chokes and crushes - / a granite tomb for the repose / of ruined passions, hopes and woes”[6] - while an earlier poem, “A Lithuanian Woman (Litvinka)”, from 1832, has the lines: “Neither fresh topsoil nor any opulent mausoleum / Burdens his damp bones.”[7]

While the picture features an image characteristic of Lermontov, the absence of a signature has given rise to doubts about its authorship. Arguing against Lermontov's authorship, experts have mainly claimed that the pieces are “not very skilful, very professional”. But the pictures do not exactly show a lack of the skill, and moreover, even the scholar N. Pakhomov long ago noted that “Lermontov's painted and graphic works depart from many rules of painting.” That researcher argues that, “instead they all breathe the spirit of Lermontov, they all are distinguished by their singular colour design, reflecting the poet's peculiar responses to nature, authentic fragments of his visual impressions.”[8]

If we look at Lermontov's images of the Caucasus and pay attention in the main part to their moments of poetic contemplation of nature, to poetic feelings and moods, then the minor technical deficiencies become less obvious and recede into the background. Or perhaps they are not deficiencies at all, but rather a way to express the essence of things, a flight of fancy, a manifestation of that element of creativity that distinguishes the truly chosen?

The palette used for the portrayal of the mountains covered with their dark vegetation in this picture is similar to that in Lermontov's famous illustration to his “Prisoner of the Caucasus” (1829).[9] As for the images of the mountain people and the characteristic Kabarda, or Caucasian horse, they too recall Lermontov's illustrations to Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky's story “Ammalat-Bek”, which feature a very similar aesthetic interpretation of the realities of the Caucasus.


A meeting in the mountains

The second watercolour from the “Lermontov House”, “A View of the Caucasus with Four Figures (Three Men and a Woman)”, shows in the foreground the figures of mountain people near a saklia, at the entrance to which sits an old man in baggy sirwal trousers wearing a pa- pakha, stiff woollen hat, with a white top, with a burka coat made of felt or karakul thrown over his shoulders. Moustached and black-bearded, his face is gloomy; he holds a stick in his hands and talks with the two highland men who have approached him.[10]

One of his interlocutors, the figure to the left in the painting, wears a blue Caucasian overgarment with a belt, red sirwal trousers, and a tall dark papakha hat, with the tip of a shashka sabre peeking out from behind his left side. He rests his right arm on the left shoulder of his fellow: with only a moustache but no beard, he looks young. The other highlander is clad in a brown Caucasian-style outer coat and ichigi, high boots of soft leather, and he too wears a tall dark papakha hat. With a gun hanging by a strap over his shoulder, his arm is extended towards the elderly highlander, and he holds in his hands some object with two small straps hanging loose from it (it is perhaps a bridle).

In the saklia's open doorway, facing away from the men in conversation, stands a woman: her head leant against the lintel, she seems to be listening to what they are saying. With a pale headscarf wrapped around her head, she wears a red Caucasian dress with a dark lining over dark skirts, the longest of which is dark-blue.

Two narrow windows of the saklia are hidden behind brown shutters, and behind the building we see a garden and outbuildings. The left-hand section of the picture features the nearby mountains looming large, girdled with shelves of rock. In the distance a snow-capped Caucasian ridge is visible, while closer to the viewer there is a large hill with a tower (probably a watchtower) at its top, with a path leading up towards this peak.

It appears likely that this watercolour was also an illustration by Lermontov to Bestuzhev-Marlinsky's “Am- malat-Bek’’. The background in the picture is similar to the landscape described in that work: “The ledges with saklias, irregularly scattered over the steep slope, descended to its midsection, and only narrow paths led to this fortress, created by nature and found, after a long search, by mountain beasts of prey, to be used for protecting their freedom and keeping safe their catch."[11]

The gloomy-faced elderly highlander featured in the watercolour fits the writer's description of Sultan- Akhmet-khan: “At the regular time of the Muslim afternoon meal Sultan-Akhmet-khan was normally intensely unsociable and gloomy. His eyes would gleam distrustfully from under his puckered eyebrows."[12] It can be guessed that the piece features an uzden' (the local term for a free man), Ammalat's friend, and Ammalat himself, standing in front of the old man.

The old man's hand, tightly holding a stick, resembles very closely Lermontov's hand with a sabre that the poet-artist depicted in his 1837-1838 self-portrait.[13] Researchers have long pondered why, in Lermontov's self-portrait, the hand gripping the sabre is portrayed with so little technical competence - surely the artist could have depicted it more accurately?

In the 1829 picture “An Infant Reaching out for His Mother" by the young Lermontov, both the mother's and the child's hands are represented “as is right and proper". So how was it that the artist had “unlearnt" this skill by 1837? Or could this irregularity be deliberate, a manifestation of his artistic nature?

Truly artistic personalities sometimes take the liberty of experimenting with form and space. For instance, the great Michelangelo inexplicably (and, in his case, unpardonably) committed “sins" of improper structuring and proportioning: a case in point is his “David", whose fingers “grow" from the surface of the hand, suggesting that it has no volume. Not infrequently, the great master would modify the proportions of the human body and, to benefit his artwork, was one of the first artists to “invent" muscles. Some minor flaws, not occasioned by the artist's style or “vision", can also be found in the works of the truest and most devout romantic of all times, Sandro Botticelli, who used to bend forms “out of shape" so that they looked better as a result. Such a “peculiarity" is also present in the art of the equally “fantasy-driven" El Greco, as well as other geniuses who nonetheless are considered great masters precisely because their art directs the viewer's thoughts in a philosophical direction.

So can we see such a “Michelangelo complex" in Lermontov's self-portrait? This peculiar manner of portraying the hand may even be approached as a “signature" of the artist (some painters mark their compositions with an impression of their finger instead of a signature, while Lermontov seems to be telling us, “Here it is, my hand").

It should also be added that such saklias and towers feature in others of Lermontov's images of the Caucasus, such as “The Georgian Military Highway Near Mtskheta (A View of the Caucasus with a Saklia)".[14] It is worthy of note that the hill itself, crowned with an ancient structure, resembles the scene featured in the watercolour piece attributed to the poet: such resemblances of contours and shapes are found both in the watercolours under review and in artwork accepted as by Lermontov.

It appears difficult to analyze how the layers of paints are applied because the watercolours were extensively touched up by later restorers, while Lermontov is also known to have created some of his pictures in partnership with other people: one such collaborator was the artist Grigory Gagarin, the pieces that they created together including “An Episode from the Battle of the Valerik River" and “A Fight" (also known as “An Episode from the War in the Caucasus").[15] In these pieces, Lermontov created the composition and underdrawing, while Gagarin painted in watercolour over that base.

Gagarin came to Pyatigorsk in the summer of 1841, staying there until the middle of the summer, during which time, according to the accounts of their contemporaries, he visited the poet at his home every day. Another such “artistic companion" was Alexander Arnoldi, an acquaintance of Lermontov who also kept in touch with him while he was in Pyatigorsk, who was also a watercolour artist of some accomplishment.

Lermontov's contemporary Vasily Boborykin remini sced how the poet would spend time with such friends painting. Travelling to Vladikavkaz from Tiflis along the Georgian Military Highway around the date of December 10 1837, Boborykin found the poet in company at an inn, remembering the occasion: “M.Yu. Lermontov, in an army frock coat, and some civilian (a French traveller, as it turned out) were sitting at the table and drawing, loudly chanting ‘A moi la vie, à moi la vie, à moi la liberté’".[16]

It seems an appropriate scene with which to close this short study, allowing us as it does to suppose that such scenes of artistic collaboration might well have continued in the final episode of the poet's life that is under consideration.


  1. Zilbershtein, I.S. “The Parisian Discoveries". Moscow, 1993. Pp. 234-235.
  2. Anna Popova letter to the Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk, April 5 1941. Now held at the Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk, archive of I.G. Ter-Gabrieliants.
  3. Selegey, P.Ye. “A Guide to the Hallowed Land of Mikhail Lermontov". Stavropol, 1984. P. 135.
  4. “A View of the Caucasus with Mountain People (A Man and Two Women)". 1830s-1840s. Gouache and watercolour on paper, 17.7 x 15.9 cm, Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk. Inventory number 238.
  5. Lermontov, M.Yu. “Collected Works". In six vols. Vol. 1. Academy of Sciences, Mos- cow-Leningrad, 1954-1955. P. 229.
  6. Translation by Charles Johnston. Lermontov, M.Yu. “Collected Works". In six vols. Vol. 4. Academy of Sciences, Moscow-Leningrad, 1954-1955. P. 206.
  7. Translation by Charles Johnston. Lermontov, M.Yu. “Collected Works". In six vols. Vol. 3. Academy of Sciences, Moscow-Leningrad, 1954-1955. P. 206.
  8. Pakhomov, N. “Lermontov’s Legacy of Paintings and Drawings". Moscow, 1948. P. 79.
  9. “The Prisoner of the Caucasus". Frontispiece. 1828. Gouache on paper. 11.6 x 7.6 cm. The Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), St. Petersburg.
  10. “A View of the Caucasus with Four Figures (Three Men and a Woman)". Gouache, watercolour and varnish on paper. 16.7 x 22.7 cm. Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk. Inventory number 239.
  11. Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, A. “Russian Stories and Short Stories". St. Petersburg, Nikola Grech printing house, 1832. P. 271.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Mikhail Lermontov. “Self-portrait". 1837-1838. Watercolour, white paints, varnish on paper. 10.2 x 9.4 cm (oval). Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk.
  14. Mikhail Lermontov. “The Georgian Military Road Near Mtskheta (A View of the Caucasus with a Saklia)’’. 1837. Oil on canvas. 36 x 43.5 cm. The Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), St. Petersburg.
  15. “On the Occasion of Mikhail Lermontov's 125th Anniversary". Exhibition catalogue, Academy of Sciences. Compiled by Bubnova, V.L.; Kalaushin, M.M.; Kornilov, P.Ye. Executive editor - Eikhenbaum, B.M. 1941. Pp. 74-75.
  16. Boborykin, V.V. ‘Three Encounters with M.Yu. Lermontov'//“Mikhail Lermontov in the Memoirs of His Contemporaries". Moscow, 1989. Pp. 179-182.
Mikhail LERMONTOV (?). A View of the Caucasus with Four Figures (Three Men and a Woman). 1841
Mikhail LERMONTOV (?). A View of the Caucasus with Four Figures (Three Men and a Woman). 1841
Gouache, watercolour and varnish on paper. 16.7 × 22.7 cm
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk
Seal with the Lermontov family coat of arms and motto. Late 18th-early 19th centuries
Seal with the Lermontov family coat of arms and motto. Late 18th-early 19th centuries
8.6 × 1.8 cm
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk
Seal with the Lermontov family coat of arms and motto. Late 18th-early 19th centuries
Seal with the Lermontov family coat of arms and motto. Late 18th-early 19th centuries
8.6 × 1.8 cm
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk
A tray from Vasily Chilayev’s house on which meals were served to Lermontov
A tray from Vasily Chilayev’s house on which meals were served to Lermontov
Silver-plated copper. 37 × 45 cm
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk
Small plate belonging to Mikhail Lermontov. First half of the 19th century
Small plate belonging to Mikhail Lermontov. First half of the 19th century
Glass. Diameter - 16.3 cm
Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk
Mikhail Lermontov’s milk jug. 1840
Mikhail Lermontov’s milk jug. 1840
Silver, 225 grams. Diameter - 10.5 cm
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk
Mikhail LERMONTOV. A View of Krestovaya Mountain. 1837–1838
Mikhail LERMONTOV. A View of Krestovaya Mountain. 1837-1838
Oil on carton. 32.7 × 40 cm
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk
Mikhail LERMONTOV. Self-portrait. 1837–1838
Mikhail LERMONTOV. Self-portrait. 1837-1838
Watercolour on paper. 10.2 × 9.4 cm
© Literary Museum, Moscow
Contemporary view of Lermontov's house
Contemporary view of Lermontov's house
Photograph V. Shiryaev
Mikhail LERMONTOV. Three Portraits. Undated
Mikhail LERMONTOV. Three Portraits. Undated
Drawing. Pencil on paper. 10.2 × 14.2 cm
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk
Mikhail Lermontov’s writing-table and armchair. 1820s-1830s
Mikhail Lermontov’s writing-table and armchair. 1820s-1830s
© Lermontov Museum, Pyatigorsk





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