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Prominent Russians: Vasily Surikov

January 24, 1848 - March 19, 1916

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“A picture is a poem without words.”

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov is considered Russia's greatest historical painter. He executed only nine historical canvases out of hundreds of portraits, studies, and sketches - but what canvases! He was a master of monumental historical compositions, depicting national tragedies and powerful human characters.

In his canvases Surikov dealt with many dramatic episodes of Russian history such as the reformation of the church in the mid 17th century and Peter the Great's reforms of the 18th century. In Surikov's own time, the late 19th century, there were numerous flashbacks to those events in Russia. The Wanderers, a group of Russian realist artists to which Surikov belonged, were greatly influenced by the ideas of revolutionary democrats; they believed that art had a social-educational mission. They organized exhibitions all over Russia bringing art to the common people. The association united many of the best artists of the time. It was most active during the 1870s and 80s. Moscow merchant Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the first museum of Russian art, was the main collector and promoter of the Wanderers’ works, guided in his activity by the ideal of serving the people.

The Russian people were the main characters of Surikov’s works and courage and daring were the artist's principal subject matters. In his paintings, Surikov always focused on fine portraiture. His female images are particularly elaborate and masterful.

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Born in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Surikov was of Cossack descent. His ancestors once built this city and participated in Cossack uprisings in Siberia and on the River Don in southern Russia. Surikov’s father's family came to Siberia from the Don area with Yermak, the Cossacks’ ataman (commander) in the Urals. His mother came from the old Cossack family Torgoshin and it was from these roots that the artist inherited his proud and freedom-loving character. Pyotr and Ilya Surikov and Vasily Torgoshin are mentioned among those who took part in the Krasnoyarsk uprising of 1695-98. Surikov was proud of his origins and wrote: “I am a Cossack through and through, with a pedigree going back over two hundred years.”

His parents were also in a broader sense artistically gifted. His father, a passionate lover of music, played guitar excellently and was considered the best amateur singer in Krasnoyarsk. His mother had wonderful inherent artistic taste. The source of Surikov's conception of beauty was Siberia, with all its severity, its sometimes cruel customs, its courageous people and “old Russian” beauty. “Siberia, brought me up from childhood with the ideals of historical types,” Sukarov wrote.

Sukarov made his first attempts at drawing in early childhood: “I was six, I remember, I drew Peter the Great from an engraving. The colors I did myself: blue for the uniform and crimson for the lapels.”

The first person to notice the boy's abilities was Grebnev, the drawing teacher at the Krasnoyarsk district school, which Surikov finished in 1861 with a certificate of merit. Grebnev gave Surikov the task of copying etchings from the old masters. Surikov later spoke with gratitude of his first tutor: “Grebnev nearly wept over me, teaching me to draw.” Appreciating Vasily's exceptional talent, his drawing teacher supported the young man's desire to become a professional painter.

In order to support the family after his father's death in 1859, Surikov worked as an office clerk. Sometimes, as he recalled later, he even had to “paint Easter eggs for three rubles per hundred” and once he took a commission to paint an icon entitled “The Holy Virgin's Feasts.” Surikov's drawings attracted the attention of the governor of Krasnoyarsk, Zamyatin, who put in a word for him at the Council of the Academy of Arts. The response from St. Petersburg was positive, but with the reservation that he would not be provided a scholarship. The rich gold-mine owner Kuznetsov, an art lover and collector, came to Surikov's aid and offered to pay for his studies and upkeep.

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In the middle of December 1868, the young artist set off on a two-month journey to the capital with a string of carts transporting Kuznetsov's merchandise. Surikov proved to be insufficiently prepared for the Academy examinations. He entered the school of the Society for the Advancement of the Arts and in the three summer months mastered a three-year course. A straight-A student, Surikov didn't care much about big-city nightlife. He set his sights firmly on the portrayal of Russian history, working day and night to master that very challenging profession. On 28 August 1869 he passed the Academy's entrance examinations and was accepted as an external student. By the following autumn he was already at work on his first independent painting: “View of the Monument to Peter the Great on Senate Square in St. Petersburg” (1870). Surikov made great progress at the Academy, extracting the maximum benefit from his lessons. His achievements were particularly impressive in composition - so much so that his colleagues called him “the composer.”

The development of his natural gifts was owed much to Pavel Chistyakov, who trained many masters of Russian art. At the Academy Surikov successfully executed a series of compositions on classical themes and also a depiction of early Russian history, “A Prince's Judgment” (1874).

In April 1875 the artist participated in a competition for a gold medal with “The Apostle Paul Expounding the Dogma of Christianity to Herod, Agrippa, His Sister Bernice and the Roman Proconsul Festus.” Compositionally, the work did not venture beyond academic canons, but it did already show the artist's interest in his characters' psychologies. However, it did not earn him a medal.

Graduating from the Academy with honors in 1875, Surikov was allowed the privilege of a two-year trip abroad, paid for by the state. He refused, asking instead to be allowed to paint the murals for Christ the Savior's Cathedral in Moscow, a commission that made him a wealthy man. Surikov did the preparatory work for this in St. Petersburg and only added the final touches in Moscow. It was the only commission he ever took throughout life.

In 1877 Surikov settled in Moscow. From June 1877 the artist lived permanently in Moscow, spending two years doing frescos depicting the four ecumenical councils. In 1878 the artist married Elizaveta Share. His happy family life and relative material security allowed him to paint scenes from Russian history.

“Arriving in Moscow, I found myself in the center of the life of the Russian people and immediately found my bearings,” he subsequently recalled. And paint he did, churning out a raft of masterpieces such as “The Morning of the Streltsty's Execution,” “Menshikov in Beryozovo” and “The Boyarynya Morozova.”

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“The Morning of the Streltsy's Execution” (1878-81) is truly staggering. Not for its depiction of the horrors of death, but for the power of its characters and its portrayal of the tragic nature of one of the most crucial periods of Russian history. The subject of the picture comes from the Petrine Age and reflects one of the episodes in the struggle for the throne between Peter the Great and his sister Sophia, the outcome of which was the defeat of Sophia and the Streltsy (members of Ivan the Terrible's elite corps) who supported her. It seems strangely appropriate that this canvas was first exhibited in St. Petersburg on 1 March 1881, the very day of Tsar Alexander II's assassination. This canvas shows, of course, not the execution itself, but the scene leading up to it. Not only are the Streltsy leaving their loved ones, but the whole of old Russia is departing. Surikov's compositions are designed to bring the spectator into the painted space, which is evident both in “Streltsy” and “Boyarynya Morozova.”

“It was not the execution I wanted to convey, but the solemnity of the last minutes,” wrote Surikov about the painting, which was soon bought by Tretyakov.

The first study for “Boyarynya Morozova” appeared in 1881. Surikov began work on the picture itself three years later, having meanwhile painted “Menshikov in Beryozovo” and made a trip abroad. Here the artist chose as his heroine Feodosiya Morozova.

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Morozova, née Sokovnina (1632-1675) was an old-believer and a boyarynya. Boyarin for a man, boyarynya for a woman, denoted a person of the highest nobility in Old Russia, descendants of the Grand Dukes and princes of Russia. Morozova had secret connections with Avvakum, a Russian archpriest of Kazan Cathedral on Red Square who led the opposition to Patriarch Nikon's reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church (his autobiography and letters to the tsar, Morozova and other Old Believers are considered masterpieces of 17th-century Russian literature). Morozova and her sister were arrested in 1671. First, the tsar planned a public execution, but fearing unrest, he sent them out of Moscow. Boyarynya Morozova died in prison from exhaustion in Borovsk.

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The painting was first shown at the Fifteenth Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) Exhibition and was showered with the highest praise. Vladimir Stasov (a huge figure and a tyrannical critic of mid-19th century Russian culture) wrote:
“Surikov has now produced a painting which in my opinion is foremost among all our pictures on subjects from Russian history. Nothing in that sphere of our art which sets itself the task of illustrating Russian history has gone as far or as high as this picture.”

Then, all of a sudden, in 1888 the artist suffered a grave shock - his wife died. Devastated by the tragic loss of the woman he loved, Surikov stopped working. As his good friend Mikhail Nesterov later recalled, “...after a torturous night he would get up in the wee hours and head to a morning prayer. There, in the quiet of the old church, he prayed ecstatically for his deceased wife, hitting his burning forehead against the cool plates of the stone floor. Then, rain or shine, he would go straight to the Vagankovo cemetery weeping tears on his beloved's grave, calling out to her and praying desperately to no end...”

A testament to Surikov's state at that time was the painting “The Healing of a Man Blind From Birth” which was first seen at a Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) Exhibition in 1893.

Heeding the advice of his relatives, Surikov and his daughters went to Siberia, to Krasnoyarsk. “In Siberia the people are different than in Russia: free, courageous… Mountains formed wholly from jewels… Yenisei pure, cold, fast… Siberia gave me the ideals of historical characters, spirit, strength and health. I do not understand the actions of the separate historical persons without the people, without the crowd,” Surikov wrote.

“The Taking of a Snow-Built Fortress” (1891), the artist’s most joyous masterpiece, which appeared after three historical canvases, shows his great love of life, which helped him overcome grief and adversity. The heroes of his works are also endowed with this same love of life.

In 1891 Surikov returned to Moscow and began to work on a new canvas, “Conquest of Siberia by Yermak” (1895). The army is led by the legendary Yermak, whose figure is at once singled out and indivisible from the Cossacks. His exploration of Siberia marked the beginning of Russian expansion into the region and its colonization. In 1558, the Stroganov merchant family received their first patent for colonizing “the abundant region along the Kama River” and in 1574 lands over the Ural Mountains along the rivers Tura and Tobol. They also received permission to build forts along the Ob and Irtysh rivers. Around 1577, the Stroganovs hired Yermak to protect their lands from the Siberian Khan Kuchum. In 1582 Yermak attacked the Siberia Khanate, finally defeating Kuchum's forces.

In the painting the distinguishing feature of the Cossack force is its unity, its oneness. In contrast, the army of Kuchum, seized by panic, appears disconnected.

The work was presented during the 23rd Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) Exhibition, which was also visited by Tsar Nikolay II, who bought the masterpiece.

“Suvorov Crossing the Alps” (1899) further developed the theme of the military heroism of the Russian people, which was introduced in “Conquest of Siberia by Yermak.” Surikov began working on it in 1895 and in 1898 he made etudes for it at the site of the historic crossing in Switzerland.

Surikov spent several years working on his last large-scale work “Stepan Razin” (1907-10). Stepan Razin was a Cossack ataman, leader of a major uprising against the nobility and the Tsar's bureaucracy in southern Russia. This painting caused Surikov some trouble and he returned to it even after it had been shown in public. In 1909 the artist wrote in a letter: “As far as Razin is concerned, I am still working on it, emphasizing the characterization of Razin. I went back home to Siberia and there I found the realization of my dream of him.” Evidently Surikov's aim was to convey the inner state of this strong, rebellious character, and this fact is brought out by his words to the artist Minchenkov: “Today I painted Stepan's forehea;: he's got much more pensiveness about him now, hasn't he?”

The last historical figure to be painted by Surikov was Pugachev. A study dating from 1911 shows the leader of the eighteenth-century peasant uprising locked up in a cage.

Surikov died on 19 March 1916 and was buried beside his wife in the Vagankovo Cemetery in Moscow.

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