Nikolay Dubovskoy was born in Novocherkassk into the family of a Cossack foreman of the Don Cossack Region. He studied at a military gymnasium in Kyiv, but devoted all his free time to drawing. He entered the Academy of Arts, studied painting under the guidance of M. P. Klodt (1877—1881). He travelled to Western Europe and the Middle East several times. The Hushing (1890) painting, in which the artist captured the pre-storm weather, brought him universal recognition. Since 1899, Dubovskoy had been a member of the board of the Association of Itinerants.
He lived mainly in St. Petersburg. Since 1911, he was the head professor of the landscape studio at the Academy of Arts.
Russian landscape painter N. N. Dubovskoy was born on 5 (17) December 1859 in Novocherkassk into the family of a Cossack foreman of the Don Cossack Region. As a boy, Dubovskoy studied at a military gymnasium in Kyiv, but he was so much attracted to art that he got up two hours earlier every day and painted. The director of the gymnasium advised the parents to send their son to study painting. Seventeen-year-old Dubovskoy went to Petersburg and entered the Academy of Arts, where in 1877—1881, he studied under the professor of landscape painting Baron M. K. Klodt.
Landscape painter by his vocation and keeper of the sacred traditions of itinerant movement by his conviction, N. N. Dubovskoy belonged to the younger generation of the Itinerants. Jokes were told about his devotion to art. Once he was so much carried away by working on a sketch from nature that he forgot about his own wedding and came to church when they almost ceased to wait for him.
Since 1884, Dubovskoy has been among the Itinerants. At the same time, in 1884, the first performance of the young landscape painter at a travelling exhibition took place, which was highly appreciated by both the art critics of that time, in particular, V. V. Stasov, and collectors: P. M. Tretyakov acquired his Winter painting for his gallery. In this completely independent work of the artist, we can clearly trace the influence of his teacher M. K. Klodt. But, perhaps, the continuity with the works by A. K. Savrasov, F. A. Vasilyev and A. I. Kuindzhi is even more obvious. “It seemed that Vasilyev and Kuindzhi combined the best sides of their talents in order to pronounce this masterpiece,” wrote the art columnist V. N. Mikheev for the Artist magazine.
The Winter was followed by other paintings, such as Early Spring (1886), Hushing (1890), Morning in the Mountains, Winter Evening, On the Volga (1892 and 1903), which brought Dubovskoy wide fame and put him to the forefront of Russian landscape painters. There were many enthusiastic reviews about the artist’s works in press, in the memoirs of his contemporaries. See one of them, the Professor V. A. Vagner’s. “I remember, it was a long time ago, Dubovskoy’s On the Volga appeared at a traveling exhibition,” he wrote in 1918. “An endless surface of water, several seagulls rush over it, a barely noticeable point of a distant steamer, and purple clouds above all this, covering both the distance and the height of the sky. Nothing more. But the public constantly crowded around the picture and stood there for a long time; they obviously did not realize immediately what attracted them to the canvas. The picture was not its striking technique, although it was impeccably good, not skill, which was evident, however, but precisely the mood of the artist, his spiritual symphony, conveyed not by sounds, but by his colours. The viewer was attracted to the picture not by the picture itself, but by its colours, which made up its soul.”
All mentioned works by Dubovskoy were bought by Tretyakov. However, one picture stands out sharply from this series, and Dubovskoy entered the history of Russian art primarily as the artist who painted the Hushing landscape (1890, Russian Museum; replica in the Tretyakov Gallery), which he created from the sketches made on the White Sea. The artist discovered a new motive for the Itinerants here, in his words, “the silence before a thunderstorm”, “when it is difficult to breathe, when you feel your insignificance when the elements are approaching”. He found an original solution to realize this motive. The thunderclouds, illuminated by the sun’s rays, stretch in a heavy horizontal line, which occupies almost the entire upper half of the picture, over the blackened water reflected in it. In the distance, there is a dark strip of the coast, as if squeezed from above and below by the elements of sky and water. The land loses its materiality, thunderclouds are the most material, tangible here, bright and luminous. Among the best works of world painting, there are not many canvases in which mood is expressed with such completeness, such truly classical clarity. Having learned that the Hushing painting from the travelling exhibition in St. Petersburg had been acquired by the tsar for the Winter Palace gallery, Tretyakov went to the capital to commission the artist to repeat it, since the picture was inaccessible to the general public. “As for me, the repetition turned out better and larger, which made the motive more grandiose,” Tretyakov shared his impressions in his letter to Repin.
Tretyakov closely followed the creative development of Dubovskoy, enriching his collection with his works. The last work of the artist, that was acquired by him during his lifetime, was the Calm Evening painting (1898). N. Selivanov, a reviewer of Russkiye Vedomosti, called it a “poem in gold”: “The picture produces an extraordinary effect. The sky, barely noticeable clouds, the sea distance, air, water — everything shines with aurulent and golden tones of a hot, clear day. Amazing is the richness of these tones emanating from the main one and merging in it.”
Where are these paintings now? Why a whole generation of Russians could not see other works by Dubovskoy in the halls of the gallery apart from Hushing? The answer is simple: five out of ten paintings by Dubovskoy, bought by Tretyakov himself, have left the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery long ago. First, they were moved to storage facilities, and then they were “moved” to the museums in the remote cities of the former USSR. Thus, the Calm Evening ended up in the Far Eastern Art Museum in 1931, the Early Spring entered the Turkmen State Museum of Fine Arts in 1962, the After the Thunderstorm landscape — in the Saratov State Art Museum... Exile is the only word for such actions. Why was Dubovskoy so “guilty”? Did Tretyakov mistake in his taste and collected his works in vain?
However, something similar happened to the artist’s legacy in St. Petersburg. In the modern collection of the Russian Museum, there are his 27 works. But in the exhibition, there are only a few his works (the Hushing and another five or six studies). The central Dubovskoy’s works, such as The Waterfall Imatra (1894), Ebb (1898), Calm (1899), Homeland (1904), Daylight (1913) — the latter three had been included in the Museum collection of the Academy of Arts before the revolution — they were “sent” to the periphery again. The Calm painting was transferred in 1929 from the Russian Museum to the Kalinin Regional Art Gallery, it is still accessible. And it is worth it, because it was demonstrated at the World Paris Exhibition in 1900 along with Hushing, where Dubovskoy was awarded a silver medal, the only Russian landscape painter (neither V. D. Polenov, nor I. I. Levitan received awards at that time) But the Homeland, the artist’s most significant and largest canvas (167 x 275 cm), is not easy to see: it is now in Siberia, in the Omsk Regional Museum of Fine Arts. And in 1911, this painting was exhibited at the World Exhibition in Rome. Repin’s letter addressed to Dubovskoy from Rome eloquently witnesses that the artwork was noticed there: “This is the best landscape of the entire Roman world exhibition... Nikolai Nikanorovich, I especially congratulate you: you have never been so magnificent and powerful: an original, lively and beautiful picture!!!”
You can certainly ignore the opinion of such an authority as Ilya Repin, such a critic as V. V. Stasov, and other famous figures of Russian culture. It appeared possible to break the posthumous will of P. M. Tretyakov not to separate the works by Russian artists he has collected, and do the opposite. But for what sake, for what purpose? Too obvious was the desire to scatter Dubovskoy’s legacy across the cities and towns of the vast country so that his works could no longer be united in one hall. At present, N. N. Dubovskoy’s works are represented in more than 70 museums in Russia and foreign countries. At first glance, the goal seems to be a noble one: to acquaint the public of the distant outskirts of the former Soviet Union with the artist’s work. But in fact, Dubovskoy’s legacy turned out to be excluded from the artistic process. You need to travel all over the country to get a complete picture of the artist’s work. And after the collapse of the USSR, it became even harder: Dubovskoy’s works are in different countries now, therefore access to them is even more restricted.
Things are different for I. I. Levitan, for example. A separate room with his works was in the Tretyakov Gallery, another one was in the Russian Museum. When Dubovskoy’s works were distributed to other museums from there, Levitan was carefully collected. Tretyakov acquired twenty of Levitan’s works (along with sketches), their number is already approaching a hundred in the gallery now. At the beginning, only one of his paintings was acquired for the Russian Museum, four more were added from the artist’s posthumous exhibition in 1901. Now there are thirty-eight of them. Probably, such a careful attitude to the creative legacy of Levitan is indisputable. But then the question arises: why was Dubovskoy deprived of the same attention?
“The fate of non-recognition follows Dubovskoy!” they said in the artist’s family. It seems very strange to have support of such luminaries of Russian culture and to fall into non-recognition. This is another mystery of his creative fate. Old magazines and newspapers, reviews of travelling exhibitions, convince that Dubovskoy had no reason to complain about inattention. He belonged to the younger generation of the Itinerants, joined the Association in 1886, became a permanent member of the board of the Association of Travelling Art Exhibitions in 1889. In the second half of the 1880s, he performed at exhibitions with A. Arkhipov , A. Vasnetsov. V. Serov, K. Korovin, whose names are associated with the emergence of a new Russian landscape painting. Based on the experience of the older Itinerants, who laid the foundations of a realistic landscape, they continued their search in creating the so-called “mood landscape”, which featured asserting the purely visual image rendering.
In reviews of travelling exhibitions, the names of Dubovskoy and Levitan stand side by side. Moreover, Dubovskoy takes his place after Shishkin and Polenov, and Levitan has long been considered only “one of the strongest competitors of Dubovskoy”. At the travelling exhibition of 1890, the reviewers focused on the Hushing painting by Dubovskoy, On the Oka by Arkhipov, Evening. Golden Plyos and After the Rain. Plyos by Levitan. In the World Illustration magazine, V. V. Chuiko characterized the works of landscape painters at the exhibition negatively, noted that “the only exception can be Dubovskoy and Arkhipov: they seem to make attempts to go beyond the established routine. Only they attract the attention of the public, only they are talked about.” M. V. Nesterov, in his letter to his relatives from Kyiv, conveyed the opinion of V. M. Vasnetsov on the traveling exhibition of 1891: “He swears that my thing is the best at the exhibition, then go Dubovskoy, Serov, Repin.” I. E. Repin in his letter to P. M. Tretyakov on the traveling exhibition of 1892: “On the Volga by Dubovskoy is an amazingly perfect thing. The water, the sky are painted so skilfully, everything contains so much poetry — the best thing at the exhibition.” On the exhibition of 1895, M. V. Nesterov wrote: “Levitan is weaker this time. Dubovskoy is good in two or three things, but in general he is not strong today.” He said about the next traveling exhibition of 1896: “The exhibition will be varied and interesting. Serov, Levitan, Dubovskoy, Kostya Korovin are especially good.” In 1898, five young Itinerants were awarded the title of academicians of painting “for being famous in the artistic field”: A. E. Arkhipov, N. N. Dubovskoy, N. A. Kasatkin, I. I. Levitan, V. A. Serov.
These reviews are enough to convince you of how significant Dubovskoy’s role was in the new Russian landscape painting. And the question was not so much who to give the “first place”, but rather that both artists, Dubovskoy and Levitan, objectively affirmed the principles of the “mood landscape” in their art. Dubovskoy represented the St. Petersburg school of landscape, whereas Levitan — the Moscow one. As you can see, at that time, Dubovskoy occupied a worthy place in Russian art, sharing it on an equal footing with Levitan. However, starting in 1898, with the emergence of a new association of artists around the Mir Iskusstva magazine, the situation changed dramatically. The “golden age” of the Association of Travelling Art Exhibitions has passed, it was in crisis. On the pages of the Mir Iskusstva, the Itinerants were subjected to derogatory criticism, accused of “lack of striving for technical perfection”, “ignoring the solution of artistic problems”, etc. Among ballast artists, the Association included many major artists, such as Repin, Surikov, Vasnetsov... The young Itinerants, primarily Serov, Levitan, Nesterov, began to be drawn into their camp. An attempt was made to lure Repin, whose work was “awarded” a special issue of the magazine. The assessment of the artist’s works was often given based on it.
After the death of N. A. Yaroshenko (in 1898), Dubovskoy turned out to be the ideological leader of the Association. He enjoyed a well-deserved authority and respect among artists, he worked a lot, successfully and creatively. But what were the responses to his works then? In the Mir Iskusstva magazine, the author of an unnamed note about the travelling exhibition of 1899 wrote about the successful works by Levitan, Nesterov, Surikov, and further stated: “Some artists, from whom one could expect something interesting, have not shown themselves in any way. Svyatoslavsky is completely colourless, and Dubovskoy degraded, and it is sad to see how this once promised artist descended to open coddling of the public, to Ayvazovism.” On the pages of the Mir Iskusstva, there was not a single positive response about the works by Dubovskoy. In the very next year 1900, he took part in the World Exhibition with his paintings, where, as already mentioned, he was awarded a silver medal. Since 1894, Dubovskoy has been invited to the international exhibitions of the Munich Secession, then he sent his works there hors concours, and in 1913, he was awarded a gold medal for his painting After the Thunderstorm. Given that, it’s hard to believe that Dubovskoy was not very interested in solving artistic problems and, moreover, that he “degraded”. Levitan’s biographers regard his participation in the Secession exhibitions and at the World Exhibition in Paris “as a European recognition of his art”. Then how can we assess Dubovskoy’s success? How to evaluate the legacy of Dubovskoy, whose works were scattered across the country’s museums with enviable consistency? Hence the distorted idea of him as the painter of almost the only picture that was inexplicably born. All this resembles the fate of A. K. Savrasov, whose work was little known to his contemporaries except for the “single” The Rooks Have Arrived painting. Now, when his works have been identified and collected together, it turned out that this is a whole era in the development of the Russian landscape.
So there is no blind fate in Dubovskoy’s oblivion, but there was and is a very real practice of silence, elevation of one artist at the expense of belittling another one, the theoretical justification of which was the concept of Alexander Benois in the History of Russian Painting. It is clearly seen in the works of his followers, I. E. Grabar, A. A. Fyodorov-Davydov... Some works by modern researchers echo this bad tradition, for example, M. M. Rakova, the author of fundamental articles on the landscape of the late 19th — early 20th centuries, included in the works on the history of Russian art. From book to book, there are definitions based more on a one-sided examination of Dubovskoy through the prism of the “Levitanian landscape” than on a genuine study of the artist’s works and their connection with his time. For example, the analogy given by Rakova in the History of Russian Art looks rather strange: “By the feeling of a huge water expanse and an inexorably approaching element, this work (Hushing) echoes Levitan’s later painting, Over Eternal Peace. Levitan correctly noted that in the Hushing, you feel not the painter, but the very element, which ‘not every painter could convey’. But in the light effects that Dubovskoy resorts to, one can feel the influence of A. I. Kuindzhi.”
If you carefully analyse the work of Dubovskoy and Levitan, then the analogies suggest themselves, indeed. The landscape painters worked at the same time and lived their own time. Take a quick look at the titles of their works, their resemblance speaks volumes. Levitan: Evening on Arable Land (1883), Spring (1886), Evening on the Volga (1888), Quiet Monastery (1890), Over Eternal Peace (1894), The Lake, Rus (1900). Dubovskoy: Early Spring (1886), Hushing (1890), On the Volga (1892), Outside the Monastery (1893), Land (1894), Homeland (1904). If we compare these works with an open mind, we will get an objective idea of the creative competition of these two artists. Moreover, Dubovskoy’s thematic range was much wider. Dubovskoy mainly painted landscapes, but there are also numerous paintings and sketches that he painted after foreign trips to Italy, Switzerland, France, mountainous and architectural landscapes, magnificent marines, allowing us to speak of the artist as of the greatest marine painter. We are talking about a great artist, whose work has long deserved close study.
N. N. Dubovskoy travelled to Western Europe and the Middle East many times, he knew the classical art of Italy, France, Germany, was well aware of the latest trends in Western European painting. His painting technique changed in line with the general development of Russian painting, but he never thoughtlessly accepted what did not correspond to his understanding of his own creative tasks.
Since 1899 N. N. Dubovskoy was a member of the board of the Association of the Itinerants, he became one of the most influential Itinerant leaders. Unlike strong-willed I. N. Kramskoy and N. A. Yaroshenko, Dubovskoy was a gentle and delicate person, which is probably why he played the role of the eternal conciliator of the Itinerants of the older and younger generations very skilfully. In 1900, Dubovskoy was elected a full member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, and in 1911, he became a professor at the Academy, head of a landscape studio.
Dubovskoy painted a total of about 400 paintings and over 1000 studies. On 20 December 1913, he sent a statement to the head of the Novocherkassk City Council, in which he offered to take his collection of paintings (70 his own works and 129 works of Itinerant artists) for the creation of an art museum in his hometown. There was only one condition: to place the donated items in a specially built building. The city government gratefully accepted this proposal and assigned an advance for the construction of the museum. The artist’s nephew V. E. Dubovskoy, who was the chief architect of Novocherkassk, undertook to draw up the project free of charge. But the First World War began, then the revolution broke out, and then the civil war followed. There was no time for the museum. In the 1930s, the question of the need to create an art museum in Novocherkassk was raised again, but the Second World War interfered. For many decades, there has always been some problem preventing the creation of a gallery. After the war, the collection of Dubovskoy’s paintings was accepted for temporary storage by the Museum of the History of the Don Cossacks in Novocherkassk. This is the museum containing the most complete collection of the art of N. N. Dubovskoy in Russia. Only there the visitor has the opportunity to rediscover the work of this outstanding Russian landscape painter, to enjoy the brilliance and beauty of his art. In February 1968, the USSR Academy of Arts issued an ordinance recommending to create the N. N. Dubovskoy Novocherkassk Museum of Fine Arts. But until now things haven't budged an inch. There is no museum. “Decade comes after decade. Some of the paintings by N. N. Dubovskoy are exhibited in the Museum of the Cossacks, and the rest of them continue to languish in the storeroom...”
The Academician of painting Nikolai Dubovskoy died in revolutionary Petrograd on 28 February 1918 after heart failure. He was buried at the Smolensk Orthodox cemetery, not far from St. Xenia of Petersburg Chapel.