Russia • 1880−1912
Nikolai Sapunov (17 December 1880, Moscow — June 14, 1912, in Terijoki) was a theatrical artist, painter, graphic artist and set designer. He was a prominent figure of the Scarlet Rose, Blue Rose and Mir Iskusstva associations.

Peculiar features of Nikolai Sapunov's art: From his young age, Sapunov’s work was distinguished by a special sense of colour and light, which brought him closer to the Impressionist and Symbolist artists. Later, the artist was fascinated by the theatrical world with its scenery. Being an innovator, Sapunov departed from the idea of theatrical sketch and transfered the theatre images to the canvas space as a finished, full-fledged work, thus creating a special genre of theatrical painting. During his short life, Sapunov designed many theatrical productions, worked at the Bolshoi Theatre, Komissarzhevskaya Theatre, created productions with Meyerhold. The artist’s later works tend towards generalization and primitivism, they are filled with a premonition of death.

Famous paintings of Nikolai Sapunov: Masquerade , Still Life. Vases, Flowers and Fruits Apple Trees in Bloom, Ballet, Carousel.

Sapunov appeared in the period of cultural history, when art experienced a cycle of change and took new forms, it became the centre of life, which was changing landmarks every minute. It was in thatcultural vortex, among the “generation thirsting for beauty”, that Sapunov’s work, short and bright as a flash, developed from impressionistic chiaroscuro to the aesthetics of Mir Iskusstva members, the symbolism of the Blue Rose, and finally grotesque and primitivism.

Early years: study and formation

Nikolai Sapunov was born in Moscow, Zamoskvorechye region into a merchant family. His father owned a small candle factory. The luxury and gold of church candles, a garden and a greenhouse with exotic flowers — the views and images surrounding the boy developed a sense of beauty in Nikolai, contributed to his desire for beauty. He was keen on drawing.

In 1893 Sapunov became a student of I. Levitan, V. Serov, K. Korovin 

In 1893 Sapunov became a student of LevitanSerov, and Korovin at the Moscow Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Next five years he studied at the Academy of Arts under A. Kiselev. During his studies, the student travelled to Italy, where he received a prediction from a gypsy about his own untimely death “from the water”. From that day on, the feeling of the inevitability of a fate prepared from above did not leave the artist and played a key role in his painting.

Isaac Levitan influenced the young Sapunov more than his other teachers, but in Nikolai’s mature years, Konstantin Korovin became his main mentor, whom the student helped to decorate the scenery at the Bolshoi Theatre. Under his influence, the young man became interested in still lifes.

The twentieth century changed the attitude towards theatrical artists. They were no longer indistinct behind-the-scenes figures, along with the actors, they emerged into the centre of the staging process. The staging is not only the action on the stage, but a union of play, music and artistic images. The first performances, in which Sapunov showed his special abilities, were H. Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” and “Hansel and Gretel”. Critics noted that the scenery was done equally for both the spectator and the actor, as the actor on stage literally dissolved into the painting, becoming a colour spot against the general background.

The period of Roses ans Miriskusnikis

The artist got closer to the representatives of the Scarlet Rose, the symbolist artists  Saryan,Kuznetsov and Utkin. In 1905, he exhibited at the 12th exhibition of the Moscow Society of Artists. A year later, the artist took part in a large exhibition of Mir Iskusstva in St. Petersburg, where he presented six works.

In 1907, the Symbolists announced a new direction, the Blue Rose, whose representatives were inspired by the works of Vrubel and Borisov-Musatov. The Blue Rose exhibition amazed the public not only with new ideas, but also with the magical theatrical design: an invisible orchestra with mesmerizing music, aromas of flowers and semi-dark hall arches... Sapunov presented his Masquerade, which fit perfectly into the general idea of sophistication and mysteries.

The theatrical artist became recognizable. He increasingly resorted to still lifes, choosing exotic flowers with their sophistication and aristocracy. He managed to surprisingly connect such a “grounded” genre as still life with symbolist ideas. A vase of flowers was not just a vase, but a slight mirage, an obsession that was about to disappear.

The crisis of symbolism and the artist's death

Symbolism is prosperity and decline at the same time: artists of the early 20th century felt the groundlessness of their mystical hopes. Those thoughts were expressed by the poet A. Blok, who wrote the Balaganchik play, where all the aspirations of the Symbolists turned into a cartoon. The play was staged by Meyerhold and Sapunov.

Sapunov was well aware that theatrical scenery and costumes were temporary art, it was impossible to preserve such props for centuries. Therefore, he created a special genre of theatrical painting: he did not make sketches, but created full-fledged artworks.

The premonition of a short life made the artist strive forward and not waste time for doubts. The fear of death generated his craving for noisy amusements: this was how the series of nighttime festivities was born, where you could no longer find melting ghosts or ballerinas. The canvases were filled with crowds of people heated up by the feast against the backdrop of booths and carousels. It is Carousel, a bright spot of colour, that was the turning point in Sapunov’s work. The symbol of festivities became a symbol of eternal but doomed circle of life at the same time.

In the early 1910s, Sapunov was actively working in the theatres of Komissarzhevskaya, performing sketches of scenery for the Uncle Vanya play by Chekhov for the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and for the Nezlobin private theatre in Moscow. Based on Golovin’s sketches, he performed scenery for Stravinsky’s The Firebird ballet for Diaghilev’s first Russian ballet season in Paris.

In the last year of his life, Sapunov painted the interior of the Stray Dog literary cabaret, the centre of the cultural life of the Silver Age in St. Petersburg. At the same time he was going to implement a unique, but fatal for himself idea of creating a theatrical carnival action titled “The Merry Night on the Shore of the Gulf of Finland”. In the town of Terijoki near St. Petersburg, his special ideas were to be embodied: it was a synthesis of theatre and reality. According to Sapunov’s idea, the spectators were not supposed to sit in their places, but to walk around the park, while getting into the thick of booth events.

Sapunov’s plan remains unfulfilled. The artist, who always hurried and did not have his own refuge, drowned in the waters of the Gulf of Finland during a boat trip at the age of 32. All other passengers of the overloaded boat were rescued.

Sapunov’s friend, director Soloviev published his memoirs about him, where he compared the artist’s fate with the mystical story of the Italian puppet master Nicolo. The puppeteer decided to revive his creations by putting clockwork instead of their hearts. But he forgot that puppets had no soul, and one day his disciples found the master dead.

Sapunov's artworks can be seen in the State Russian Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery, Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts,  Bakhrushin Theatre Museum and many private collections in Russia.

Written by Liudmyla Lebedeva

Go to biography


View all publications


All exhibitions of the artist
View all artist's artworks
Whole feed