Elena Kiseleva (27 October 1878, Voronezh, Russia — July 8, 1974, Belgrade, Serbia) was born in Voronezh, into the family of the teacher and mathematician Andrei Petrovich Kiselev. The family was famous and progressive: Andrei Petrovich taught mathematics at the Voronezh Institute of Public Education and in a number of other courses, he had been a member of the City Duma for many years. His wife, Maria Eduardovna, in addition to raising three children, was engaged in charity work. Together with her husband she opened a school for peasant children in her own Otradnoye estate, which was turned into an orphanage after the revolution (and the estate was nationalised along with this). Since 1922, the family has lived in Leningrad, where the younger children had already settled by that time.
Elena Kiseleva received her first private drawing lessons from Mikhail Ponomarev, a famous Voronezh photographer and artist. Then she studied at the Voronezh drawing school under the guidance of the artist Lev Soloviev, after which she entered the Mariinskaya women’s high school. After graduating from the high school with a gold medal, Kiseleva entered the Bestuzhev courses in St. Petersburg.
Naturally, the daughter of a famous mathematician chose the Faculty of Mathematics. However, she was not destined to become a teacher: in 1898, after typhus, Kiseleva decided to devote herself to the artistic path and became a student at the Higher Art School at the Academy of Arts. Two years later, she entered the Academy and studied at the studio of Ilya Repin. Being one of his favourite students, Elena Kiseleva, accepted the academic, classical school of her mentor to the full extent. In 1903, Repin entrusted Elena and another his talented student, Evgeniya Maleshevskaya, with work on a series of dioramas for the 200th anniversary of St. Petersburg.
In the same year, the artist went abroad for the first time, to Paris. She had absorbed the latest trends and introduced them into her works, nevertheless she did not find support in her homeland. Her sketch for her Parisian Café degree work was rejected by the Council of Academicians with very rude reviews. After that, Kiseleva took an academic leave and left for Paris again — the “rebellious” academicist entered the art school of the painter and graphic artist Eugène Carrière. The intentional “poverty” of Carrière’s palette was not transferred to Kiseleva’s work in any way: her works were bright, she worked with colour and light. In 1907 she graduated from the Academy of Arts, and her diploma work was Brides. The Trinity Day.
Elena Kiseleva became the first woman to graduate from the Academy of Arts, and she was officially granted a pension for studying abroad. According to one of the St. Petersburg newspapers, “she is the first student of the Academy to be crowned with laurels according to her merit”. Naturally, she went to Paris again, where she studied at the Academy of Rodolfo Julian. Then there was a trip to Italy, and in 1911, the artist returned to Russia.
Elena Kiseleva lived and worked in Europe, she took an active part in the exhibitions of the New Society and the Union of Russian Artists, at international exhibitions in Munich (1909) and Rome (1911). In 1909, at the Spring Exhibition at the Academy of Arts, her At Home portrait, where Kiseleva portrayed herself in the interior of her Paris studio, was awarded the A. I. Kuindzhi Prize.
Experts and historians consider the 1910s the best period in the work of Elena Kiseleva. The artist was successful at numerous exhibitions, the press wrote a lot about her, she enjoyed respect and support from Ilya Repin, and often visited her teacher’s estate in Finnish Kuokkala. Critics were supportive, noting the combination of the classical school and post-impressionism in the artist’s work. They bought pictures willingly; Maxim Gorky is known to have acquired several her paintings for his own collection.
One of the few works by Elena Kiseleva, where she combined portrait and animalistic genres, is the portrait of the artist’s first husband, Nikolai Perevertanny-Cherny. Their family life was not successful, however, after the divorce, the former spouses maintained friendly relations. Korney Chukovsky spoke very uncomplimentary of Kiseleva’s husband: “When I met him, he turned out to be a lazy person, a parasite, who read nothing, was indifferent to everything in the world — except for his car, nails and hairdo; he lived on the means of his wife, a narcissist, uninteresting, dumb, but as if good-natured.” However, Perevertanny-Cherny was capable of love — for his own dogs. While Elena had a rich life, full of creative aspirations.
According to the artist herself, “it’s amazing, I have always been fascinated by woman’s portrait. When I met a beautiful woman, I just wanted to paint her.” She managed to create a whole series of amazing female images, capture the lively appearance of her contemporaries, convey the true feeling of immersion into the atmosphere of the Silver Age.
In 1917, Elena Kiseleva moved to Odesa. There she met her second husband, Anton Bilimovich, whom she first met back in 1914 in France. Professor of mechanics, later the rector of Novorossiysk University, Anton Bilimovich became a constant companion of the artist’s life. In May 1917, their son Arseny was born.
Like in the life of Zinaida Serebryakova, emigration became the borderline of Elena Kiseleva’s fate and creative ambitions: in February 1920, the artist left for the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes — that was the name of the future Yugoslavia — where Professor Bilimovich got a job at the University of Belgrade. Unlike Serebryakova, Kiseleva was not in need in emigration: her family life was quite comfortable, she had her own home, Elena Andreevna did not have to think about her piece of bread. But in her life, there was much less creativity, which she constantly regretted.
In her memoirs, Elena Kiseleva wrote: “My husband was too much of a scientist, completely absorbed in his science and his work, he could not help me with the housekeeping and raising my son. I was the linchpin. We had a lot of guests, we lived “openly”, as they say, but no one was interested in Kiseleva the artist.”
In 1970, Elena Andreevna buried her husband, Anton Bilimovich, and she spent the remaining years alone, taking a vow of silence and devoting a lot of time to flowers and her beloved garden. Elena Kiseleva put the final point in her work after the death of her son: while on the territory occupied by the Germans, in 1942, Arseny got to a concentration camp, together with his wife. Two years later, after their return in 1944, Arseny was seriously ill and soon died. The Portrait of the Son on His Deathbed is the last work by Elena Kiseleva. She kept the picture in her room; according to the artist’s will, it was burned after her death, during cremation. The artist passed away at the age of 95.
The art critic from Voronezh Margarita Ivanovna Luneva largely facilitated the return of the legacy of Elena Kiseleva, the re-discovery of her name for the history of Russian painting. With the help of the Belgrade Museum of National Art in 1967, Luneva found out that Elena Kiseleva-Bilimovich was still alive, and got in touch with the artist; their correspondence continued until the last days of the artist’s life. Reflecting on her heritage, Elena Andreevna donated most of her paintings to the city in which she was born — to the Voronezh Museum of Fine Arts.
In winter-spring 2017 the artist’s first personal exhibition was held in Moscow.
Written by Rita Lozinska