The painting Unequal Marriage by Vasilii Purkiev has not been fully solved yet. Trying to analyse it, we enter a shaky ground of inklings. Who is that girl? Who is that gloomy handsome man standing cross-armed behind her and giving the "young groom" the look full of hatred and desperation? And why is that ghostly, or even invisible at first glance old woman on the left of the groom, and why is she giving him such a strange look? Let's try to figure it out.
The subject of the Pukirev’s Unequal Marriage is unlikely to allow someone to stay indifferent: a young, sad bride is helplessly holding out her hand, which the priest, bowing flatteringly, is going to put the ring on. He will let her into the possession of the old rich voluptuary – the stiff groom holding the candle. It's a wedding, though not a happy one. The subjects are depicted in a dark church.
The girl is a real flower: Pukirev managed to marvellously convey her tenderness, helplessness and vulnerability. She seems like a child who just started turning into a girl. Her appearance is filled with the charm of youth. The bride is painted in soft lines; her face, shoulders and, to a lesser extent, white dress are the brightest elements of this scene. But the groom, on the contrary, seems to be made up of angles and straight lines, symbolizing withering, stiffness and the atmosphere in which the bride's charm is doomed to fade. In fact, we are witnessing the contract of sale. And all those present participate in this crime: the girls' parents or aunt who cannot be seen, but who agreed to this deal, a fat priest in a gilded robe, the old groom himself ... By the way, let's allow ourselves a little cynicism in the hope of a better future for the girl. What if the old man will soon ... join the majority? What if the girl will become a young rich widow? In search of an answer to this question, let's look more closely at the guests.
To the left of the groom there is an old woman with a ridiculous for her age decoration on her head... Is it the wedding one? Isn't there another old woman peeking out from behind her? The art critic and senior associate of the Tretyakov Gallery Liudmila Polozova suggested that these ghostly old women, giving the picture a gloomy mystical flavour, are the groom's previous wives. Are they "retired"? Or are they about to be sent to the celestial kingdom? The second version is more likely to be true, otherwise why would they be at the wedding? The woman behind is looking at the ring that's being put on the girl's finger with a great interest, while the woman wearing an unsuitable orange blossom, is giving it a dead sarcastic glance from behind the groom's back.
The male figure behind the bride – a stately, gloomy young handsome man with his arms crossed – also attracts our attention. In his image, one can catch a resemblance to the artist himself. What if the story is autobiographical? And next to him there is the only person looking at the viewer. In his eyes one can see the understanding of what is happening and deep sympathy for the victims of this action. Some say that his prototype is Petr Shmelkov – Purikev's friend from The Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.
Perhaps, here lies the explanation of why Vasilii Purkiev painted this picture so quickly and swiftly, and why the painting gets under the skin, leaving no one indifferent. And, maybe, that is why the artist hastily left abroad instead of enjoying the success of The Unequal Marriage exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition of 1863 at the Academy of Arts. There is one more fact counting in favour of this version. In 2002, the Tretyakov Gallery acquired a pencil drawing made by the artist Vladimir Sukhov in 1907. It is signed: "Praskovia Matveevna Varentsova, whose likeness 44 years ago took the artist V. Pukirev while creating his famous painting Unequal Marriage. Mrs. Varentsova lives in Moscow, in the Mazurin poorhouse."
Thus the idea suggests itself that the young Vasilii Pukirev fell in love with the beautiful girl Praskovia who was given in marriage to a rich merchant Varentsov. She outlived her old husband, but judging by the fact that her last known portrait was made in the poorhouse, the marriage brought her neither happiness nor wealth.
However, there is one more story behind the Pukirev’s painting. The fact is that in the Tretyakov Gallery there is a sketch for the painting Unequal Marriage. And what do we see there? Behind the bride's back there's still a stern-looking man with his arms crossed. But it's a different person! Surprisingly, this version contains the same surname. Is there anything we still don't know about the artwork or is it just a strange coincidence? Vasilii Pukirev had a friend named Sergei Varentsov. He was in love with Sofia Rybnikova. They belonged to the same circle of merchants' children. But it so happened that the girl preferred another man – whether influenced by her parents, or on her own will... Sofia married Andrei Karzinkin. He was richer than Varentsov and older than the bride – but by no means old enough to become a real prototype of the man in picture: his age difference with the bride was 13 years. And since the families of Varentsov and Karzinkin were bound by other ties and deeds, Sergei could not refuse the "honour" of being the best man at the wedding. That's why he is portrayed behind the bride.
It seems that Sergei Varentsov suffered a lot, shared his feelings with his friend and caused the latter's creation of this picture. But some time passed, the passions subsided, and Varentsov was going to marry another woman. Having found out that Pukirev decided to eternize his sufferings caused by the previous love, Varentsov raised a stink. As a result, Vasilii Pukirev modified the work, keeping its name and subject. And since his friend's trauma had already been forgotten, and the artist himself experienced a similar story (at that time it was a common phenomenon), he painted himself behind the young bride's back. It was completely fair, since it turned out that the marriage of Varentsov's former bride, Sofia, wasn't "unequal", but on the contrary, very happy. She had three children, and spent the rest of her life in love and harmony with Andrei Karzinkin.
As for the image of the "miser", the groom, the researchers tend to believe that it turned out to be collective. There can be traced some features of the Tver leader of nobility Aleksei Poltoratskii, Prince Pavel Tsitsianov and even the cook who served in Sergei Varentsov's house. Probably, there's also the man who married Pukirev's bride. The artwork was accepted enthusiastically, Vladimir Stasov called it one of the most grandiose and tragic works of the Russian school, and historian Nikolai Kostomarov honestly admitted that, after looking at this picture, he scrapped the idea of marrying a young girl.