Art and Faith

Friday, 11 December 2009

Valentin Serov. A Girl with Peaches. 1887

A Girl with Peaches

Valentin Serov



If you were to pin me down and demand to know which Russian painting was “the greatest of all time”, this is the one that I would vote for.  Yes, this is my most favourite piece of Russian art. Mind you, my favourite artist is Zinaida Serebyakova, but, as far as individual paintings are concerned, this deserves to stand with the best of all time.


Zinaida Serebryakova: An Artist of Charm and Simplicity

At the Toilette (Zinaida Serebyakova, 1909)

Zinaida Serebryakova was the first Russian woman to become famous in the history of world art. 12 December marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of this famous artist, whose work has recently become one of the more expensive offerings in international auctions.

In 1910, a then-unknown Zinaida Serebryakova presented in Moscow a number of works, amongst which the self-portrait in oils entitled At the Toilette caused a furore. The painting depicted a happy young woman brushing her hair before a mirror. Outside the window, it was winter, but, in the room, amongst the whimsical trinkets, perfume, and candles, it was warm and festive… Professionals were amazed at the originality of the composition. Serebryakova was able to convey a person’s gaze looking at herself in the mirror so accurately that it occurred to none of the audience that there was, in fact, no mirror shown on the canvas. After the exhibition, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow acquired the painting, where it caused another sensation!

At Breakfast (Zinaida Serebyakova, 1914)

Today, according to art historian Lydia Iovleva of the Tretyakov Gallery, the largest museums in the world are proud of the fact that the works of Zinaida Serebryakova are in their collections. She said, “As time passes, her art just seems to gain in significance. Moreover, of course, everyone knows how the prices of her works have soared at international auctions. We know that there is a wonderful collection of Serebryakova items in France, and that there is an idea to organise, on the basis of this collection, a Museum of Russian Art in Paris”.

She was destined to become an artist because she the bloodlines of two of the best-known artistic families of Russia, Benois and Lanceray. Her uncle, Aleksandr Benois, the leading light of the “World of Art” («Мир искусства») school, joked that in their family everybody was born with a pencil in their hands. Indeed, as a child, Zinaida spent hours drawing flowers and animals, easily mastered watercolour, affecting adults with the purity and brightness of tone in her childish sketches.

Serebryakova was her name in marriage. Boris Serebryakov, a railway engineer, won the heart of Zinaida Lanceray, and even though complexity surrounded the wedding, for Zinaida was Catholic, still, a happy marriage took place. For her, her family was of paramount importance, and the couple had four children. The 1917 Revolution rudely interrupted the prosperous life of the Serebyakovs. The estate of Neskuchnoye near the southern city of Kharkov, where she spent her happiest years, was burned to the ground during the fighting. In 1919, Boris Serebryakov died from typhoid fever, Zinaida was left alone with her children, and sometimes she had nothing to feed them. She decided to go to France in order to earn a living for herself and her family. That was in 1924, she felt that she was leaving for only a short while, but, it turned out to be forever. With the help of the Red Cross, she managed to smuggle out only two of her children, and, up to the beginning of World War II, she kept Soviet citizenship, hoping for a reunion with her other two children, who remained in Russia. However, during the occupation of France by Hitler, Serebryakova had to choose between a French passport and the Nazi death camps, and she lost her link with her homeland for many years.

Two Peasant Girls (Zinaida Serebyakova, 1915)

Today, the creativity of Serebyakova is manifest and much studied. Albums, monographs, and the correspondence of the artist are now in print. However, much of her work remains unpublished, there are many paintings and drawings “scattered” in private collections, and every year brings news. For example, a couple of years ago, there was a first showing in Russia of a series of six allegorical panels, which Serebryakova painted more than 70 years ago for the villa of one of her French admirers. For a long time, the heirs of her patron had one of her monumental works as a “secret”. Yevgeni Petrov, a curator at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, said, “Serebryakova as a monumentalist generally has an open style. Even so, these works confirm her excellent skill in such a complex genre of painting as the ‘nude’. In Russia, all ‘nude’ genre paintings were, probably, restricted to salon works by the Academy of Arts. However, in the Russian milieu, realistic painting of that sort was quite rare. In this sense, Serebryakova was a unique artist”.

Zinaida Serebryakova, unlike so many of her contemporaries, always drew from life. A sublime portrayer of the real, she was interested only in what she could really see, eschewing experiments with art forms and means. She was quite comfortable with the traditions and experience of the old masters, amongst whom she particularly acknowledged the Frenchman Antoine Watteau and the Russian artist Andrei Venetsianov.

Fame at home returned to Serebryakova even in the Soviet era, in 1960, during the ideological “thaw”, when there were improved relations with France. Fortunately, she lived until this time, although, due to old age, she was unable to attend exhibitions of her work in Moscow and Leningrad (St Petersburg), and the fact that these showings took place cheered her immensely. Zinaida Serebryakova died in Paris in 1967 and her burial was according to the Russian Orthodox rite at the Russian cemetery in Sainte Geneviève-des-Bois.

11 December 2009

Tatiana Zavyalova

Voice of Russia World Service

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