Russian art of the late 19th century portrayed the resilience of country life with affection and nostalgia.
The Russian painter Vasily Polenov was born in St. Petersburg in 1844. His father was a famous historian, archaeologist, and bibliographer and his mother wrote children’s stories and was fond of painting. During the 1860s, Polenov studied at St Petersburg University and, at the same time, the Academy of Arts, which he referred to as his spiritual home.
Polenov was 17 years old when Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs, a decree that changed the political and economic landscape of Russia, forcing landowning aristocrats to pay for labour and contributing to a rising middle class that could afford paintings.
Art academies in St Petersburg and Moscow catered to the classical tastes of old Russia, represented by the aristocracy. But shortly after the emancipation of the serfs, a group of artists, named The Wanderers decided it was time “take art to the people”. With their first exhibition in 1870, The Wanderers rejected the classical ideals taught in official schools in favour of Realism. They painted earthy, everyday scenes and took their exhibitions to rural areas of the country where a broader public could appreciate it.
Polenov was adopted as a member of The Wanderers, yet maintained his ties with the Academy of Arts. He was perhaps the most travelled Russian artist of his generation. He sojourned in Italy and France, where he experienced Impressionism at first hand, returning to Russia with a love of working outdoors (en plein air, as the French had taught him). In 1881-82 he travelled extensively in Greece and the Middle East, where he visited biblical sites such as Bethlehem.
The painter and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev shared a passion for the Russian landscape as a source of inspiration and tradition. However, while Turgenev was a connoisseur of Western visual art, he tended to be rather damning of the work of his compatriots. In his novella Smoke, one character dismisses the very idea of Russian painting: “Russian art, indeed! Russian impudence and conceit, I know, and Russian feebleness, too, but Russian art, begging your pardon, I’ve never come across…”
But Turgenev made an exception for Polenov, whose work he championed along with that of his contemporary Ilya Repin, when the two artists were living in Paris in the early 1870s. Polenov admired Turgenev’s writings, and in 1880, on one of his visits to Russia, the writer gave him a copy of A Hunter’s Sketches in response to a gift by the artist of a version of his famous “A Moscow Courtyard”. For many years, that painting had pride of place in Turgenev’s study.
Towards the end of his life Polenov joined the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia and in 1926 was named a People’s Artist of the Republic. He died the following year at the age of 83. His house in Borok, Tula – a hundred miles south of Moscow – is now a national art museum and the village has been renamed Polenovo in his honour.