Pushkin in Portrait. “Like the memory of first love, you will forever stay dear to Russia’s heart…”

Veronika Kirsanova

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#4 2019 (65)
 

“Like the memory of first love, you will forever stay dear to Russia’s heart...”[1]

To mark the 220th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Pushkin in 2019, Moscow’s Pushkin Museum (the State Museum of A.S. Pushkin) staged an unprecedented exhibition of portraits of the great Russian poet. It brought together more than 300 works from Russian museums and galleries, both images created in the poet’s lifetime and works made after his death.

Russia’s “anthology” of Pushkin portraits is enormous and varied, shaped by the most diverse contributions that represent different art schools and styles, different media and techniques. From the early 19th century onwards, artists have been creating images of the poet for more than two centuries now, in oil, graphic art and sculpture. As one historical period gave way to another, new cultural traditions and art forms appeared: the fervour of the romantic age succeeded classicism's striving for perfection, while the realistic accuracy of the 19th century gave way to the stylistic innovations of the 20th.

Orest KIPRENSKY. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin. 1827
Orest KIPRENSKY. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin. 1827
Oil on canvas. 63 × 54 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery

The artists who were inspired to create images of Pushkin frequently strived to show their understanding of, and attitude to the poet both as an individual and as a creative figure, most of all through the prism of their own times. The “versions" of Pushkin of the Russian avant-garde differed significantly from those that emerged from the academic tradition or from Socialist Realism; the artists of the 1960s, the era of political “thaw" in the Soviet Union, depicted the poet as a free spirit, effortless and impetuous, as if in protest against the static, towering figure created by the Russian and Soviet “natularist school of painting".

In every sense symbolic, the task of assembling such an exhibition was formidable, and both viewers and critics agreed that its curators rose to the occasion. The exhibition brought together portraits of the poet, including paintings and graphic works, sculpture and objects of decorative and applied art, with less formal representations in popular as well as souvenir forms, from more than 20 collections in all, from museums devoted to the poet as well as other galleries and archives.[2]

Naturally, those paintings and drawings that were created during Pushkin's lifetime were at the heart of the show: by definition, the portraits of the poet by his contemporaries are the most valuable in any museum collection. The fact that the two most famous, “canonical" portraits, by Orest Kiprensky (Tretyakov Gallery) and Vasily Tropinin (National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg), did not feature at the exhibition somehow did not diminish the importance of the event. In fact, the effect was the opposite: it helped to highlight some of the lesser-known lifetime Pushkin portraits.

Rather than covering the full range of the art lent by participating museums, it seems productive to focus on works from the two major Russian museums dedicated to the poet and his oeuvre, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the National Pushkin Museum in St. Petersburg. The two institutions were co-organizers of the show, and the greater part of the poet's portraits can be found today in their collections, from those from the early 19th century through to works created by contemporary artists of the 21st.

Yelena Usova, curator of Moscow's Pushkin Museum, describes that collection: “The ‘Pushkin gallery' in the museum has more than 2,500 portraits of the poet, including graphic works, oil paintings and sculpture, from his portrait as a young child to the works of contemporary artists. And that is just portraits! There are more than 2,000 other objects and works of art, including illustrations to Pushkin's poetry and prose, as well as genre works related to the poet and his characters. There are extremely rare works that date back to the early 19th century alongside outstanding, even unique creations by 20th century artists; for example, the museum has more than 100 ‘Pushkiniana' drawings by the young artist Nadya Rusheva (1952-1969), as well as over 30 works from the private collection of Nikolai Kuzmin (1890-1987) and Tatyana Mavrina (1902-1996), two artists, husband and wife, who were famous for the delicacy of their regard for the poet and his work.

“The collection of applied and decorative art has remarkable pieces too, including decorative boxes, porcelain, glass and beaded objects, as well as works in leather and textile, coins and commemorative medals. The collection of commercial graphic art is similarly rich and varied, comprising bookplates, postage stamps, labels, posters and other pieces. Such objects represent artistic attempts over the ages to recreate Pushkin's image, in a way comparable to the portraits of him: they become of especial educational interest when studied in their historical context."

 

Image and self-images

What did Pushkin really look like? Since the poet died before the arrival of photography, his appearance can only be judged from portraits painted in his lifetime, as well as from the descriptions of his contemporaries: they suggest how he looked at different periods in his life, conveying both how he himself wanted to be seen, and how he was perceived by artists, whether professional or amateur, from Russia and beyond. Of course, every artist sees their model differently, while the memoirist may be subjective or imprecise. In addition to such issues, Pushkin's appearance was particularly unusual and distinctive, something that sparked considerable interest among artists, as it did among his friends and the general public. For many, the poet's features clearly recalled his famous African ancestor Abram Petrovich Gannibal (Hannibal), the “blackamoor" of Peter the Great. It is well known that Pushkin approached his own appearance with some irony, often exaggerating his “ugliness" and “African features", as in his 1828 short poem “To Dawe, Esq.":

“Why is your marvellous pencil
Sketching my blackamoor profile?
Though saved by you for good and all
It will be hissed off by the devil.”[3]

Such was Pushkin's jestful reaction to the portrait drawing by the renowned English artist George Dawe, who had famously painted the gallery of portraits of military leaders for the War Gallery of 1812 at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. (Unfortunately, Dawe's drawing of Pushkin does not survive.)

From a young age Pushkin was aware of his unusual appearance, as well as his wilful personality. In 1814, while still a student at the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo, he wrote a poem in French titled “Mon portrait" that has been translated into Russian several times:

“Vrai demon pour l’espieglerie,
Vrai singe par sa mine,
Beaucoup et trop d’etourderie.
Ma foi, voila Pouchkine."
“MischievousJester, little devil,
With the face of a monkey,
He is a rogue like no other,
There’s Pushkin’s portrait - I can’t deny it!"[4]

With apparent nonchalance, Pushkin made many such comments - half seriously, half in-joke - in his writings and letters. Could it be that the way he saw his appearance, in such critical and ironic terms, was the reason why even later in life, when he was already famous, the poet was reluctant to sit for a portrait, especially in sculptural form?

Of course, Pushkin often drew his own self-portraits - on the margins of his manuscripts, in different states of mind, at different stages throughout his life. Faithful to his “model" and constant in his attitude, Pushkin may have turned to the self-portrait as a means of understanding himself: neither an egotist nor a narcissist, he regarded himself with irony. Occasionally he made fun of himself; sometimes he was even bitter. Pushkin himself possibly proved to be the artist most accurate in creating his portrait, an assertion that does not diminish the importance and value of his vast iconography, or the interest of the works by his artist-contemporaries.

It was not only the poet's distinctive appearance that made it difficult for artists to portray him - there was also the fact that his appearance could change almost imperceptibly depending on what he was engaged with at any moment, or in whose company he could be found. Furthermore, Pushkin's profound inner beauty and towering spirit were hard to capture on canvas. In just such a context, the review by Nikolai Polevoy, editor of the magazine “Moskovsky telegraf" (Moscow Telegraph), of Vasily Tropinin's 1827 portrait of Pushkin is revealing. “The portrait's likeness to the original is astounding, even though we do not believe that the artist fully grasped the poet's quick gaze and expressive face," Polevoy wrote. “It must be said that Pushkin's face is so distinctive and lively that any painter can grasp it; however, that same face is so changeable, so unpredictable that it is impossible to imagine that any one particular portrait could give the viewer a true idea of Pushkin's appearance. Indeed, the poet's fiery genius is enlivened by each new experience, inevitably changing the expression on his face, and expression is the soul of the face."[5]

Some of those who were close to Pushkin wrote of his extraordinary spiritual beauty, and how it changed the way people perceived his appearance. “When he talks, one forgets that his features are not really beautiful - his conversation is so interesting, so brilliant in its intelligence, so devoid of pedantic judgment," wrote one, the writer and salonist Dorothea “Dolly" de Fic- quelmont.[6] Anna Kern, the dedicatee of Pushkin's most famous love poem, described how the poet was transformed when his talent and creative genius lit up his face: “He was not capable of hiding his feelings, he always expressed himself with sincerity, and looked beautiful in a way that is impossible to capture when something excited him and brought him joy..."[7] Even physical suffering and death could not erase that spirituality from the poet's face.

 

The Moscow collection

The portraits of the poet in Moscow's Pushkin Museum include priceless original works as well as prints and copies that are also held in other collections. Due to historical circumstance, the most famous original portraits of Pushkin had by the mid-20th century reached St. Petersburg, concentrated at what is now the National Pushkin Museum on the Moika Embankment. Nevertheless, according to Lydia Karnaukhova, visual arts curator of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, that museum, which opened in 1961, was able to assemble and research a number of striking portraits of the poet, in the process introducing them to the world of literary and art scholarship. Each has a distinctive story, as well as a documented provenance that describes the origin and previous ownership of the work concerned: they were largely acquired or received as gifts in the 1960s, when the museum's collection was being put together.

Xavier DE MAISTRE. Pushkin as a Young Child. 1801–1803
Xavier DE MAISTRE. Pushkin as a Young Child. 1801-1803
Oil on metal plate. 10 × 7.7 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow

One such gem is the portrait of Pushkin as a small child, which is today the only surviving original painting that shows him at such a young age. Set in a frame of curly birch wood, this is a small oval portrait of a blond boy aged two or three. There is a gentle blush on his chubby cheeks; the white shirt with its lace collar has slipped from his shoulder - it may be that he has just woken up - but his golden curls have clearly been smoothed down, probably for the portrait. We see a high brow, a rather firm chin, and beautifully arched eyebrows; the boy's large, prominent grey-blue eyes are serious and thoughtful.

This miniature oil portrait, painted on a metal sheet, is the work of Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852).[8] The artist, an emigre from the French Revolution who settled in Moscow after an outstanding military career, was close to Sergei and Nadezhda Pushkin, the poet's parents, and his miniature portrait of Nadezhda (she was known as “the beautiful Creole" in high society, that nickname derived from her African ancestry) is well known today. It is possible that Nadezhda Pushkina commissioned the portrait of her young son Alexander together with her own portrait on ivory. At a much later date, when every educated person in Russia was reading her son's poetry, she gave this miniature portrait to one of her closest friends, the daughter of the renowned Dr. Mudrov, who attended professionally to the Pushkin family in Moscow and also became a close friend.

It is a curious fact that for more than 150 years this portrait of Pushkin as a child remained practically unknown, so much so that it created a sensation when it was first shown to the public on June 6 1961 at the opening of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It had been gifted to the collection the previous year by the actor Vsevolod Yakut, who had become famous in the 1950s for playing the role of Pushkin in Andrei Globa's play about the poet (he played the role 840 times over the years).[9] During a tour to St. Petersburg, an elderly lady approached Yakut to tell him how delighted she was with “his Pushkin" and gave him the miniature portrait in appreciation, telling him the story behind this priceless artefact, which had been in her family for many generations. She was Yelena Chizhova, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War who had served in the army medical corps: the last surviving descendant of the Mudrov dynasty of doctors, she had inherited the family's art collection.

The Moscow museum has two further portraits of the poet executed during his lifetime. It is interesting that both were painted at about the same time in Moscow, after the triumphant return of the poet to the city from his exile on the family estate in Mikhailovskoye, when he was at the height of his fame. One is a miniature, painted on ivory in 1826 by the Moscow artist Joseph Eustache Vivien (de Chateaubrun, 1793-1852), the other a smaller copy in oil of the Tropinin portrait of 1827, painted at almost the same time as the original work and known as “the Elagin copy".

Vivien's own biography is of interest, closely related as it is to Pushkin's circle. He had arrived in Moscow in 1817 from Malorossiya (“Little Russia", a historical term for the territories in the west of the Russian Empire that are now mainly part of Ukraine). Upon the recommendation of the local landowners, the counts Potocki, Vivien obtained a teaching post at the Palace School of Architecture in Moscow, where he would remain for more than 30 years. A total of 40 portraits by Vivien survive, miniature works executed on ivory, in black chalk and watercolour, an oeuvre that includes many significant portraits of people close to Pushkin, including the philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev, Pushkin's uncle and fellow poet Vasily Pushkin, the prominent Decembrist Ivan Yakushkin, the writer and public servant Pyotr Vyazemsky, and the poet Yevgeny Baratynsky. As an artist, Vivien was skilled not just at conveying his model's appearance: a fine psychologist, he went beyond simple likeness to reveal the subject's true character.

In Vivien's miniature portrait of Pushkin, executed in warm golden brown hues, the poet looks pensive, his head turned slightly downwards as he gazes into the distance; the overall impression is romantic. This was Pushkin at a happy time in his life, finally free from police surveillance, his work recognized both by the Emperor and the Russian reading public. This miniature portrait's provenance is complicated: it changed hands many times at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and only in the 1960s-1970s were scholars at Moscow's Pushkin Museum able to elucidate the piece's history and attribute its authorship with necessary clarity.

The story of the “Elagin copy" is no less fascinating, to say nothing of the famous Tropinin portrait on which it is based. A member of the Academy of Arts, Vasily Tropinin (1776-1857) painted the poet in spring 1827. Sergei Sobolewski, Pushkin's close friend, would recall its origins in a letter that he wrote in 1868 to the historian Mikhail Pogodin: “It was Pushkin who commissioned [the portrait] in secret, and he then presented it to me as a surprise, accompanied by all kinds of foolery."[10] Although some historians believe that is was Sobolewski who convinced Pushkin to have the portrait painted, it is clear that Pushkin visited Tropinin's studio on Volkhonka Street on more than one occasion to sit for the work.

The most important thing is that Pushkin's contemporaries thought the portrait excellent: there was talk of it being sent to St. Petersburg to be exhibited at the Academy of Arts, but its owner, Sobolewski, decided that it should remain in Moscow. When Sobolewski set out on his travels, he wanted to take something that was close to the magnificent portrait of his dear friend with him, so he commissioned a small copy from Avdotya Elagina (1789-1877): a gifted artist whom both he and Pushkin knew, she was the mother of their mutual friend, Ivan Kireyevsky. Thus the “Elagin copy" accompanied Sobolewski for several years on his journeys around Europe. Eventually, according to Sobolewski's will, the painting returned to the Elagin family; in the 1960s the great-grandson of the artist loaned, and later gifted the portrait to the new Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Two other lifetime portraits in the collection are noteworthy, although far less widely known: an 1829 oil miniature on ivory attributed to Nikolai Utkin (1780-1863), and a small oil study, possibly by Karl Bryullov (1799-1852), painted in 1836 for the sculptor Ivan Vitali (1794-1855), who at the time was working on a sculptural bust of the poet.

Alongside such original works, the exhibition also featured graphic portraits of Pushkin created in his lifetime, which both appeared in editions of his works and were sold as individual pieces. It was from such images that lovers of poetry who had never met Pushkin would recognize their idol when they encountered him in public.

An excellent example of that phenomenon is the famous graphic portrait that first appeared as the frontispiece to the first edition of Pushkin's narrative poem “The Prisoner of the Caucasus": this stipple engraving by Georg Johann Heytman (1798-1829/1862) was executed in 1822, the first such engraved portrait of the poet. Heytman had worked from a watercolour drawing of Pushkin as an adolescent which was probably the work of Sergei Chirikov, the poet's drawing teacher at the Lyceum (dating from the mid-1810s, the Chirikov drawing, now in the collection of the National Pushkin Museum, was also shown at the Moscow exhibition). This image, the first portrait of Pushkin to become widely available to the general public, depicted him as an adolescent, as he was when he first “met his Muse" in the Lyceum gardens, striking a pose that evoked Lord Byron, the cultural icon par excellence at the time of the poem's publication. In reality, Pushkin was then 23, living in exile in the southern provinces of Russia, notoriously “liberated" from the conventions of society: he dressed as a Turk, a Greek, a gypsy or a “blackamoor", wearing the widest Turkish salvar pants, a red fez, and a black scarf around his neck.

However, the reading public took this image of a romantic youth for reality, as the writer and literary critic Ksenofont Polevoy would later attest in his memoirs: “Along with the majority of my contemporaries, I imagined Pushkin the way he was in the portrait that accompanied the first edition of ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila' – a plump youth with curly hair and a pleasant smile..."[11] (In fact, writing this many years after his first meeting with Pushkin, Polevoy was mistaken about the volume concerned: this first graphic portrait appeared in “The Prisoner of the Caucasus". Although “Ruslan and Lyudmila" had been published before “The Prisoner", it had no image of the poet.)

The graphic portrait by Utkin, a professor of engraving at the Academy of Arts, is no less important: the artist created his copper etching in 1827, working from the famous oil painting of Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky (1782-1836). It was, in fact, the wide circulation of Utkin's work that made both the original painting - and Kiprensky himself as an artist - famous. The etching is still considered to be the most faithful image of Pushkin. “His bearing, his gestures as he spoke to you, betrayed the reserve of a gentleman of good breeding. I believe that it is Utkin's etching, based on the portrait by Kiprensky, that gives the best impression of him as he was in real life," wrote Pushkin's younger literary contemporary, the writer Ivan Goncharov.[12] Utkin's etching also served as the frontispiece for the 1828 issue of the “Northern Flowers" almanac of poetry, published by the poet Anton Delvig, Pushkin's friend and fellow student at the Lyceum. A rare version of this etching from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow was displayed at the exhibition - an offprint on a large sheet, printed in red. Its size and unusual hue somehow make the image appear celebratory, even imposing, distinguishing it from a standard book illustration and elevating it instead to the level of an original work of art.

Another prized piece from the Moscow museum is the lithograph executed by Gustav Adolf Hippius (1792-1856) at the beginning of 1828: born in the Governorate of Estland (Estonia), the artist was a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, who lived and worked in St. Petersburg for some 30 years from 1819. He excelled at the fashionable new printing technique of lithography and created numerous portraits of his famous contemporaries, including that of Pushkin. Hippius's approach was unusual: he did not base his work on paintings by other artists, but drew his own images on stone plates, from life. In addition, his portraits, for which he used thick paper, were unusually large and realistic in manner; his portrait of Pushkin one such work, its mood neither romantic nor lofty, the poet's facial features sculpturally precise, sharp and cold. This lithograph holds an important place among other portraits executed during Pushkin's lifetime - the artist, a relative outsider who was contemplating a poet considered a national treasure of Russia, saw his subject as an intellectual, an energetic and astute individual.

 

Post-mortem representations

Pushkin’s tragic death on January 29 1837 divided his portrait iconography into works created in the poet's lifetime and those that followed. However, from the latter, the images that Pushkin's contemporaries created immediately following his demise, as they bade their farewells to him, constitute a special group.

The poet's death mask, a priceless artefact in itself, was displayed among other important pieces in the memorial section of the Moscow exhibition. It is known from memoirs of the time that a total of 13 death masks were made for Pushkin's family and close friends from the plaster cast taken of his face on the day of his death. The Pushkin Moscow in Museum has one of the three original masks that survive: according to legend, it had belonged to the poet's father and, when shown at the 1899 Pushkin exhibition in Moscow, it was considered the best preserved. Just weeks after Pushkin's death, his friend and fellow poet Vasily Zhukovsky wrote to the poet's father, Sergei, on February 15 1837: “I had never seen such a look on his face as I saw in the first moments after his death... It was not that expression of intellect, so characteristic of this face in life, nor was it poetic. No! It was as if some profound, unexpected thought was taking shape on that face, something like a vision, something resembling full, deep, and contented knowledge. Thankfully, I quickly remembered that a death mask should be taken. It was done immediately; his features had not yet changed."[13]

Several pencil drawings, including those by Vasily Zhukovsky, Fyodor Bruni and Apollon Mokritsky, were made at the poet's apartment on the Moika Embankment while those close to him were taking their last leave. These portraits are final ones in every sense: the works that follow are substantively different, no longer revealing any immediate impression derived from the poet's presence, but rather reflecting how people imagined him to be, a representation based in turn on those past famous images. From that moment when the real Pushkin died, every artist and every new generation would create their “own" version of him.

Fyodor BRUNI. Pushkin in His Coffin. 1837
Fyodor BRUNI. Pushkin in His Coffin. 1837
Italian pencil on paper
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow

The story of Pushkin's iconography after 1837 would become closely connected with the creation of the first public monument to him: the idea of such a commemoration first appeared in the 1850s, with three open competitions taking place in 1873-1875. That process concluded with the choice of the design by Alexander Opekushin (1838-1923), and the resulting statue was erected in Moscow in 1880: funded by donations from the public, its unveiling became a moment of true celebration across all Russia. Opekushin was able to create a sculptural monument that was somehow perfectly measured, a work that was not exactly realistic, and sufficiently generalized, but so full of meaning that to this day it personifies Pushkin and his poetry. The Pushkin Museum in Moscow houses several pieces that Opekushin created in preparation for this project, among which the bronze bas-relief dating from the 1870s is especially significant.

It reached the museum in 1960 from the family collection of Vasily Sheremetyev, who was the great-grandson of Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, a close friend of Pushkin. The bas-relief, like the poet's iconic monument itself, is an outstanding example of academic classicism: laconic and restrained, it combines classical clean lines with exalted visual symbolism.

Other sculptural portraits were also shown at the Moscow exhibition, including the bronze bust by Robert Bach (1859-1933) from 1886 and the 1899 bronze and tinted plaster bust by Paolo Trubetzkoy (1866-1933). A noted Impressionist, Troubetzkoy always had his models sit for him, which makes his sculpture of Pushkin exceptional: Troubetzkoy created an image of someone no longer living in order to point out the everlasting nature of the poet's genius.

 

A Soviet poet

The 1917 revolution brought significant changes in society's attitude to Pushkin and his oeuvre, which were reflected in the range and quantity of the poet's portraits. The 1918 woodcut by Vasily Masyutin (1884-1955) was the first portrait of Pushkin to be created in Soviet Russia, a solemn and imposing image that was highly symbolic: with the ruins of the “old world" in the background, illuminated by the radiant dawn of the new era, Pushkin is depicted front and centre, quill pen in his right hand, a sheet of manuscript in his left. The scrolled lines, from his 1830 poem “To the poet", read almost like a slogan: “You are your highest court, / You'll be your strictest judge. / Well, do you like your work, my most exacting artist?..."[14] The collection of the Moscow museum has the first, test copy of the print, which was produced in an edition of only 50.

The large woodcut portrait of Pushkin by Pavel Pavlinov (1881-1966), created in 1924, is a classic example of Soviet visual art: Pavlinov saw his purpose as to create an image of the poet that would be in keeping with the new era and its spirit of creating a new way of life. Another masterpiece of Soviet graphic art is the 1935 portrait of the young Pushkin as a student at the Lyceum by Vladimir Favorsky (1886-1964). His woodcut, like the etchings of Heytman and Utkin, was created for the publication of an edition of Pushkin's works, in this case the 16-volume edition that appeared from 1937 to 1959. Favorsky's portrait introduced the first volume, which contained Pushkin's early lyrical poetry, and the artist's goal was not limited to showing Pushkin as an inspired and poetic young man but also attempted to show the “birth of the poet" in him.

“There is no one else in our literature who could claim the same kind of personal affection that we have for him [Pushkin]," the writer, translator and poet Samuil Marshak wrote in an essay, and the “personal affection" of which he spoke has informed all 20th century contributions to the iconography of “Pushkiniana".[15] So much so that it would be hard to name an artist who did not at some point paint or draw the poet: among those who did were Nikolai Ulyanov, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Vasily Shukhayev, Arkady Plastov, Alexander Tyshler, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Nikolai Kuzmin, Sergei Konenkov, Mikhail Anikushin, Yekaterina Belashova and Oleg Komov, all of whose work was shown in the Moscow exhibition. Such distinguished Soviet artists frequently returned to Pushkin throughout their careers.

Ulyanov (1875-1949) was remarkable in this respect: famous for his definitive portraits of Pushkin, his oeuvre includes a vast gallery of drawings, watercolours and paintings dedicated to the poet. “I have always been drawn to Pushkin as a source of complex and joyful artistic inspiration," Ulyanov wrote in his prose work “My Pushkin". “Early in his life and career, Pushkin interested me as a poet of indomitable vitality, while at the end of his life, at that time when he was involved with high society, he struck me as a tragic, doomed figure."[16]

Shukhayev (1887-1973) became captivated by Pushkin as early as the 1930s, shortly before the grandiose 1937 celebration of the centenary of the poet's tragic death, meaning that Pushkin's loneliness and anguish became a dominant theme for the artist. He created wonderful, deep portraits, which are held at both the St. Petersburg and Moscow museums and were central to this important exhibition. Tyshler (1898-1980) was just beginning his career in the 1930s when he created his series of humorous drawings, “Pushkin and the Golden Fish", its title alluding to the poet's fairy tale “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish". In contrast, the mature Tyshler would paint a symbolically profound portrait of the poet in 1964: he wrote in a letter, “I always wanted to paint him the way I imagined him. I mean, his appearance is so pliant, especially his face, but in my opinion, this was somehow lost on those artists who were his contemporaries. They painted him as ‘beautiful'; everything seems to be right, but the most important thing is missing - the rich inner life of the poet."[17]

It is significant that the portraits of Pushkin that were created in the decades between the 1970s and the 1990s, whether in oil, graphic art or sculpture, are rich in metaphor, symbolism, decorative elements and expressive qualities. The 1983 watercolour by the outstanding avant-garde artist Anatoly Zverev (1931-1986) stands out from such works, his pensive, introspective Pushkin easily distinguished among such fluxes of light brushstrokes and edgy lines.

 

The Moika collection

According to Galina Kostina, chief custodian at St. Petersburg's National Pushkin Museum, that institution dates back to 1879, when students and teachers of the Imperial Lyceum began collecting materials about their school's most famous alumnus. “At the beginning, their collection consisted mostly of books; as for portraits of Pushkin, it was mainly printed graphic sheets, like the etchings by Nikolai Utkin and Thomas Wright [the English artist who was a contemporary and close friend of George Dawe], lithographs and photogravures made in the mid-19th century, as well as in the 1880s and 1890s. At that point, there were only two original portraits in the collection, the drawing ‘Pushkin and Count Khvostov' by Platon Chelishchev (1804-1859), the amateur artist who was a contemporary of Pushkin - that image dates from the early 1830s - and an oil portrait signed only with the initials 'I.L.'’’

That latter work remains a mystery to this day, with both the identity of the artist and the date in which it was painted the subject of debate. The most likely version is that it was painted by a certain Ivan Linev, an amateur artist; while some think that Linev painted Pushkin in the final years of the poet's life, others believe that the artist was so moved by spending hours standing vigil by the poet's dead body that he painted an image of Pushkin that was almost “alive”. However, there is agreement on one thing, that the work would be of far greater value today had it not been restored so totally when it reached the Lyceum in 1887. By the end of the 20th century it had become clear that the results of that process were disastrous: Pushkin's features had been significantly altered, his impression becoming constrained and rigid. Today this portrait is kept mostly in storage and is only rarely shown at exhibitions.

The St. Petersburg collection grew in the aftermath of the centenary of Pushkin's birth in 1899. In reality, at this time the original portraits of the poet would move quite frequently from one owner to another until, in Soviet times, the main museum dedicated to Pushkin's life and oeuvre was established in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg), the All-Union Museum of A.S. Pushkin (now the National Pushkin Museum).

The visual associations of Pushkin that come to most devotees' minds are linked to the two iconic portraits painted during his lifetime, one by Orest Kiprensky, the other by Vasily Tropinin. Both were created in 1827 and the two works somehow define how other artists would depict the poet throughout the rest of the 19th century. The poet's family and friends commissioned copies of the two works for themselves, while engravers and lithographers used them to create their graphic images. In the 20th century both original portraits were acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery, where they remained until 1937, when the Historical Museum in Moscow hosted a landmark exhibition to mark the centenary of the poet's death. It brought together works of art from museums all over the Soviet Union, as well as historical materials and archival documents, to tell the story of Pushkin's life and times, and of his work.

The organizing committee of the Historical Museum show not only dealt with works that had been loaned for the occasion but also acquired artefacts relating to Pushkin in its own right, as well as accepting them as gifts. In such a way, a new collection of works, both historically and artistically invaluable, came into being for the 1937 exhibition, one that after its conclusion had no permanent home of its own. Thus, in 1938, this collection became the basis for what is now the National Pushkin Museum, following a government decree that passed a considerable number of the pieces that had been brought together for the anniversary exhibition to the new institution. Not all items were transferred in this way, with some returning to their original homes: while the Kiprensky portrait returned to the Tretyakov Gallery, Tropinin's masterpiece, along with two of the artist's studies, went to the newly established museum. In the years after the Great Patriotic War the collection of this new museum was displayed in various locations in and around Leningrad, before even
tually moving to its current address at Moika Embankment, 12, Pushkin's home at the time of his death. There was an “irony of fate" in such decisions: while Pushkin had sat for Kiprensky in St. Petersburg, Tropinin painted him in Moscow, close to the Kremlin - now the permanent home of Pushkin's “St. Petersburg" portrait became Moscow, while its “Moscow" counterpart was to be found in St. Petersburg.

Today the National Pushkin Museum houses arguably the most important collection of Pushkin's portraits painted during his lifetime. A total of 60 portraits came from there to the Moscow 220th anniversary exhibition, 13 of them painted during the poet's lifetime, including works by Alexander Bryullov, Pyotr Sokolov, Vivien, the brothers Grigory and Nikanor Chernetsov, and several pieces by artists whose names have not survived.

A watercolour portrait dated 1831 is one such “mystery": the anonymous artist depicted Pushkin in a soft, wide-brimmed white hat, which would have been considered unusual headwear for that time. Indeed, not all scholars are convinced that the young man in question in the portrait is actually Pushkin. Nevertheless, in spite of such differences of opinion, the watercolour is now accepted as a portrait of the poet, executed during his lifetime, and listed as such in the museum's inventory. What is most striking is how alive the poet looks, somewhat dandyish (as indeed he was), a “traveller-adventurer" in almost “western" style: it is quite possible that this was indeed how his friends saw Pushkin, a figure who was drawn to the road, who dreamed of seeing faraway lands.

The small 1839 painting by Karl Peter Mazer (1807-1884) is no less striking. Following Pushkin's untimely death, all of those who had been close to him, as well as artists who followed the urging of those friends, hurried to record the poet's features before their memories began to fail. Taking such factors into consideration, the curators of the Moscow exhibition decided to include the Mazer painting among the portraits created during Pushkin's life. This work was commissioned by Pavel Nashchokin, a friend of Pushkin from Moscow, who remained heartbroken until the end of his life by the loss of his close companion. The portrait bust of Pushkin by Vitali that Nashchokin had already commissioned while the poet was alive had a place of honour in his drawing room. But despite such an impressive memento, Nash- chokin nevertheless missed the poet's familiar presence, relaxed and natural as he had been in the home of his closest friends, with his bold humour and ideas, perfectly happy in the moment. Nashchokin decided to sit for the artist himself: he remembered very well how Pushkin, ever the sybarite, had relished sitting on his favourite divan, always with a book, his feet tucked beneath him, wearing his beloved arkhalig, the red, chequered caftan that became a sacred memento in the Nashchokin family.

Later artists, those who had never known Pushkin in person, would attempt instead to grasp the inner dynamics of the poet's emotional life, to reveal the fascinating, elusive process of his artistic creation through the visual arts. Such is true of many of the paintings and drawings created by great masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Ilya Repin, Ivan Aivazovsky, Valentin Serov, Boris Kustodiev, Konstantin Somov, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Nikolai Ulyanov and Yevsei Moiseyenko, the most famous of which were shown at the anniversary exhibition in Moscow.

Ilya REPIN. Pushkin at an Examination at the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum. 1911
Ilya REPIN. Pushkin at an Examination at the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum. 1911
Oil on canvas. 127 × 201 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg

It was interesting to watch visitors at the show, to witness their excitement as they encountered works remembered from the school curriculum, such as Aivazovsky's “Pushkin's Farewell to the Sea" (1877, with associated title “Farewell, Free Nature!"), Repin's “Pushkin at an Examination at the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum" (first painted in 1911, the artist would return to the theme throughout his life), and Konchalovsky's “Pushkin Writing Poetry" (1937-1944). As they studied such familiar, iconic images, viewers seemed thrilled to notice small details that had been forgotten, or to learn something new. Like the fact that when Aivazovsky painted Pushkin against the backdrop of the stormy waves in “Pushkin's Farewell to the Sea", the artist was able to paint the storm with complete confidence, but could not bring himself to attempt the figure of the poet. In the end, he asked Repin to paint the figure in his place (the work has the two signatures of both artists). Or how Konchalovsky initially painted Pushkin with his legs uncovered, which earned him a reproach from the Soviet cultural organization that had commissioned the work, “It is not becoming for a great poet to display his bare knees!" To which Konchalovsky found an ingenious solution, to cover the poet's legs with a down blanket.

In such a way, over the centuries, artists have continued their quest for “their own" Pushkin - a figure who can be an idol or may be a friend to converse with; a distant genius and inspired prophet, or a down-to-earth, cheerful kindred spirit. As this exhibition of Pushkin portraits so beautifully illustrated, this process, one that has been bringing new works of great talent into museum collections for so long, is sure to continue as long as the Russian language is spoken on the planet, and the world continues the read the work of this Russian genius.

 

  1. Fyodor Tyutchev. From the poem “January 29 1837".
  2. The exhibition was made possible with contributions from the National Pushkin Museum (All-Russia Museum of A.S. Pushkin), St. Petersburg; the Museum of A.S. Pushkin, Moscow (Pushkin Museum, Moscow); Mikhailovskoye Memorial Museum Reserve, Pskov Region; Literary Museum (Vladimir Dahl Museum of Literature), Moscow; Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), St. Petersburg; Ostafyevo Museum-Estate “Russian Parnassus", Moscow; Museum of Decorative and Folk Art, Moscow; Tsaritsyno Museum-Reserve, Moscow; Pushkin History and Literature Museum-Reserve, Bolshiye Vyazomy, Moscow Region; Boldino Literature and Nature Museum-Reserve of A.S. Pushkin, Nizhny Novgorod Region; “ROSIZO" Museum and Exhibition Centre, Moscow; Marina Tsvetaeva House Museum, Moscow; Nikolai Gogol House Memorial Museum and Research Library, Moscow; Yegorievsk Art and History Museum; Museum of Russian Lubok and Naive Art, Moscow; Putevoy Dvorets Museum and Exhibition Centre, Solnechnogorsk, Moscow Region; Krasnoarmeysk City Art Gallery, Moscow Region; Orenburg Regional Museum of Fine Art; All-Russia Museum of History and Ethnography, Torzhok; Russian State Library, Moscow; Sergei Gorshin Art Gallery, Khimki, Moscow Region.
  3. Alexander Pushkin. From the poem “To Dawe, Esq.", 1828.
  4. This translation follows the Russian version created, it is believed, by Valery Bryusov in 1919.
  5. “Moskovsky Telegraph" (Moscow Telegraph), 1827. No. 9. Pp. 33-34.
  6. “Alexander Pushkin in the Memoirs of His Contemporaries". Moscow, 1985. V. 2. Pp. 151-152. Hereinafter - Contemporaries.
  7. Ibid. V. 1. P. 409.
  8. A French aristocrat, Xavier de Maistre fled revolutionary France in the late 18th century and made his way to Russia. In 1799 he became an officer in the Russian army and served under General Alexander Suvorov, taking part in the latter’s Swiss expedition. De Maistre retired in 1802, settled in Moscow, and in order to support himself and the family of his sister, who had followed him to Russia, opened a studio and began teaching painting. Even though he was not a professional artist, de Maistre earned a reputation in high society as an accomplished miniature painter.
  9. “Pushkin", a play by Andrei Globa, staged at the Yermolova Theatre by Viktor Komis- sarzhevsky in 1949, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Pushkin's birth.
  10. Ivanova, L.; Konshina, E. ‘On the Portrait of Pushkin by Tropinin'//“Literary Heritage". V. 58. 1952. P. 344.
  11. Contemporaries. V. 2. P. 65.
  12. Ibid. V. 2. P. 254.
  13. “Pushkin in the Memoirs of His Contemporaries". Moscow, 1974. V. 2. Pp. 353-354.
  14. Alexander Pushkin. From the poem “To the Poet". (“Oh poet! Not popular applause shalt thou prize..."), 1830.
  15. Marshak, S.Y. ‘Pushkin and “the Young Tribe"‘//"Words as Education". Moscow, 1961. V. 7. P. 237.
  16. Ulyanov, N.P. “Encounters". Moscow, 1959. P. 157.
  17. Quote from: Pavlova, Ye.V. “Alexander Pushkin in Portraits". Moscow, 1989. P. 125.

Illustrations

Alexander PUSHKIN. Autograph of the manuscript of the poem “Why were you sent...” Draft. 1824
Alexander PUSHKIN. Autograph of the manuscript of the poem “Why were you sent...” Draft. 1824
© Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), St. Petersburg
Alexander PUSHKIN. Autograph of the manuscript of the novel “Eugene Onegin”, Chapter 2. Draft. November-December 1823
Alexander PUSHKIN. Autograph of the manuscript of the novel “Eugene Onegin”, Chapter 2. Draft. November-December 1823
© Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), St. Petersburg
Mikhail ROMADIN. Pushkin in Mikhailovskoye. 1974
Mikhail ROMADIN. Pushkin in Mikhailovskoye. 1974
Tempera and gouache on cardboard. 31 × 40 cm © Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Paolo TRUBETZKOY. Alexander Pushkin. 1899
Paolo TRUBETZKOY. Alexander Pushkin. 1899
Tinted plaster. Height - 58 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Kuzma PETROV-VODKIN. Alexander Pushkin. 1934
Kuzma PETROV-VODKIN. Alexander Pushkin. 1934
Oil on canvas. 70 × 51 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Pyotr KONCHALOVSKY. Pushkin Writing Poetry. 1937–1944
Pyotr KONCHALOVSKY. Pushkin Writing Poetry. 1937-1944
Oil on canvas. 169 × 210 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Б.К. ЗАОЗЕРСКИЙ. А.С. Пушкин. «Грезы». 1999
Boris ZAOZERSKY. Alexander Pushkin. “Daydreams”. 1999
Oil on fibreboard. 59.3 × 61 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Yulia OBOLENSKAYA. Alexander Pushkin. 1925
Yulia OBOLENSKAYA. Alexander Pushkin. 1925
Ink, whitewash, brush on cardboard. 48 × 62.5 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Pavel PAVLINOV. Alexander Pushkin. 1924
Pavel PAVLINOV. Alexander Pushkin. 1924
Xylography. 27 × 17.5 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Viktor POPKOV. Autumn Rains. Pushkin. 1974
Viktor POPKOV. Autumn Rains. Pushkin. 1974
Oil on canvas. 169 × 172 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai ULYANOV. Pushkin at His Writing Desk. 1936–1949
Nikolai ULYANOV. Pushkin at His Writing Desk. 1936-1949
Oil on cardboard. 53.7 × 71 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
© ГМП
Boris TALBERG. Alexander Pushkin. 1980
Boris TALBERG. Alexander Pushkin. 1980
Oil on cardboard. 53 × 47.5 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Yekaterina BELASHOVA. Pushkin as an Adolescent. 1960
Yekaterina BELASHOVA. Pushkin as an Adolescent. 1960
Marble. Height - 48 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Gavriil GLICKMAN. Alexander Pushkin and Gavriil Derzhavin. 1958
Gavriil GLICKMAN. Alexander Pushkin and Gavriil Derzhavin. 1958
Tinted plaster. Height - 68.5 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
UNKNOWN ARTIST. Pushkin as a Student at the Lyceum. Mid-1810s
UNKNOWN ARTIST. Pushkin as a Student at the Lyceum. Mid-1810s
Watercolour on paper. 17.2 × 13.5 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Lev DMITRIEVKAVKAZSKY. Alexander Pushkin with the Remarque Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky. 1880
Lev DMITRIEVKAVKAZSKY. Alexander Pushkin with the Remarque Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky. 1880
Etching. 49.7 × 31.8 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Samuil GALBERG. Death Mask of Alexander Pushkin. 1837
Samuil GALBERG. Death Mask of Alexander Pushkin. 1837
Plaster. 22 × 17.5 × 11.5 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Platon CHELISHCHEV. Pushkin and Count Khvostov. 1830–1831
Platon CHELISHCHEV. Pushkin and Count Khvostov. 1830-1831
Graphite and lead pencils, cherry varnish on paper. 24.5 × 19.2 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Anatoly ITKIN. Young Pushkin in the Park of Tsarskoye Selo. 1966
Anatoly ITKIN. Young Pushkin in the Park of Tsarskoye Selo. 1966
Chromolithograph. 41.5 × 53 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Alexei KRAVCHENKO. Pushkin in Arkhangelskoye. 1936
Alexei KRAVCHENKO. Pushkin in Arkhangelskoye. 1936
Xylography. 22 × 18.3 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Ilya SHENKER. Alexander Pushkin at the Theatre. A sheet from the series “Pushkin in Odessa”. 1970
Ilya SHENKER. Alexander Pushkin at the Theatre. A sheet from the series “Pushkin in Odessa”. 1970
Lino print on paper. 51.5 × 41 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Yelena SHIPITSOVA. Illustration to Alexander Pushkin’s poem “Wandering the noisy streets...”. 2012
Yelena SHIPITSOVA. Illustration to Alexander Pushkin’s poem “Wandering the noisy streets...”. 2012
Ink and pen on cardboard. 29.8 × 21.2 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Dmitry TEREKHOV. Alexander Pushkin. 1989
Dmitry TEREKHOV. Alexander Pushkin. 1989
Ink, pen, brush on paper. 29.8 × 21.2 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Oleg KOMOV. Pushkin and the Muses. 1989
Oleg KOMOV. Pushkin and the Muses. 1989
Bronze. Height - 82.5 cm
© Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Vasily TROPININ. Alexander Pushkin. 1827
Vasily TROPININ. Alexander Pushkin. 1827
Sketch for the portrait dated 1827 (in the National Pushkin Museum). Oil on board. 18 × 15.8 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
UNKNOWN ARTIST (Sergei CHIRIKOV?). Alexander Pushkin. Mid-1810s
UNKNOWN ARTIST (Sergei CHIRIKOV?). Alexander Pushkin. 1831
Watercolour on paper. 20.5 × 17 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Valentin SEROV. Alexander Pushkin Sitting on a Park Bench. 1899
Valentin SEROV. Alexander Pushkin Sitting on a Park Bench. 1899
Graphite pencil, watercolour and white on paper. 39.9 × 30.5 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Ivan AIVAZOVSKY. Ilya REPIN. Pushkin’s Farewell to the Sea. 1877
Ivan AIVAZOVSKY. Ilya REPIN. Pushkin’s Farewell to the Sea. 1877
Oil on canvas. 232 × 162 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Vasily TROPININ. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin. 1827
Vasily TROPININ. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin. 1827
Oil on canvas. 68.2 × 55.8 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Konstantin YUON. Alexander Pushkin. 1950
Konstantin YUON. Alexander Pushkin. 1950
Oil on canvas. 81.2 × 65.1 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Alexei PLATUNOV. Alexander Pushkin. 1938
Alexei PLATUNOV. Alexander Pushkin. 1938
Oil on canvas. 82 × 64 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Revaz (Rezo) GABRIADZE. A sheet from the “Alexander Pushkin” series. 1991
Revaz (Rezo) GABRIADZE. A sheet from the “Alexander Pushkin” series. 1991
Ink, pen on paper. 55.8 × 75.5 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Isaak AYZENSHER. Alexander Pushkin. 1936
Isaak AYZENSHER. Alexander Pushkin. 1936
Pencil on paper. 30.8 × 21.9 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg
Yury LYUKSHIN. Pushkin on Palace Square. 1998
Yury LYUKSHIN. Pushkin on Palace Square. 1998
Gouache on paper. 70.2 × 48.6 cm
© National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg

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