Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (February 23 (March 7) 1878, Astrakhan - May 26 1927, St. Petersburg) – was an artist who captured the scenes of Russian everyday life and holidays on his bright and cheerful canvases.
Features of the artist Boris Kustodiev: he loved the portrait genre, when a human subject was revealed through the surrounding landscape, interior or even a genre scene serving as the background. He did not spare such important things as spectacle and decorativeness when depicting everyday scenes; with great sympathy he painted the life of the province.
Fate wasn’t too supportive of the artist Boris Kustodiev. He survived the hungriest days and got through a lot of trouble - two revolutions and a civil war. He happened to bury a one-year-old son. Kustodiev himself was ill for a long time and during the last years of his life he had practically lost the ability to walk. He was not always understood and not always accepted; there were times when critics called Boris Kustodiev’s paintings “illiterate splints”.
But even in the most hopeless times, Kustodiev’s canvases were shining with health, joy and love of life. Sugar snowdrifts and domes melting under the sun, blazing watermelons and the beauties, who were not inferior to watermelons in either the intensity of the blush or the smooth roundness of the shapes - this was all that an art historian Alexandre Benois once called “a barbaric fight of colors,” the holiday which always lived within the artist.
When Boris Kustodiev turned eleven, his elder sister, Katerina, took him to the exhibition of the Peredvizhniki movement (Russian: Peredvizhniki; The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English). Paintings by Vasnetsov, Serov, Polenov and Shishkin stunned the young man - he had never seen anything like this before. It was then that Kustodiev firmly decided that he would become an artist.
However, first and foremost, he had to graduate from a religious school, and then enter the Astrakhan Theological Seminary. His mother, Ekaterina Prokhorovna, hoped that Boris would continue the family dynasty and become a priest after the late father and numerous uncles.
Kustodiev’s first teacher was a graduate of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts – Pavel Vlasov. He was a loud man who had got truly heroic proportions. He organized an art club for art lovers in Astrakhan, where Kustodiev studied the basics of the craft. Vlasov was an astute teacher. It was he who helped Kustodiev to believe in himself and (perhaps, more importantly) convinced his mother that the young man needed to continue his studies in the capital.
Boris Kustodiev couldn’t go to the Moscow School of Painting because of his age - he had already turned 18 by that time. However, he was accepted to the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, where he studied at Ilya Repin’s studio.
In those years, there was a certain stagnation in teaching at the Academy. Boris Kustodiev recalled that mentors often confined themselves to recommendations such as “it needs to be more gilded,” and one of them used the definition “that is a suitcase!” – the students did not manage to comprehend whether that was praise or a claim.
Shortly before Kustodiev got into the Academy, Alexander III conceived a reform of art education, which he formulated simply: “Get them all out, only “peredvizhniki” are welcomed here!” And Repin was assigned the role of a leader. Under his guidance, Boris Kustodiev was growing rapidly - primarily as a portrait painter. He proudly telegraphed to Astrakhan that he “started making money as an artist” - his sketch “In the artist’s studio”, which was exhibited at the premises of the Society for the Promotion of Arts, brought him as much as 16 rubles. His family was really happy about his achievements; however, Ekaterina Prokhorovna had warned her son not to “admire the models too much”.
In 1901, the portrait of Ivan Bilibin painted by Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev was awarded a small gold medal at the International Exhibition in Munich. Ilya Repin, who was commissioned to paint the epic canvas “Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council”, was going to work on it together with two of his best students - Kustodiev and Ivan Kulikov. Later, in a letter to Korney Chukovsky, Repin wrote: “Kulikov and Kustodiev - grew up working on this painting right away - into great masters.”
The artist’s popularity was growing, people started writing about him more and more in the press. And yet life in Petersburg bothered him. In a letter to his mother, he wrote: “Great Lent is coming, it is spring, but Petersburg seems to be not even thinking about it. This city is also still cold, unfriendly, it still has the same licked physiognomy of the official, the same manner of behaving soldierly, at the seams. Today I went for a walk to the islands, far beyond the outskirts ... and repented: factories, pipes, black fences, taverns, and everything is covered with snow, everything is dead, trees are standing as if some kind of a black wall, boring, bare: unbearable... “. Kustodiev yearned for the province, he was desperately longing for its artlessness, rich colors, “a river with green shores and wings of sails.” He used every opportunity to break out of the “granite” embrace of St. Petersburg. During one of those “escapes” - at the Vysokovo estate in the Kostroma province - he met his future wife Julia Proshinskaya.
There, in the estate, which Kustodiev’s family called the “tower’, the artist felt that he was at home. However, he managed to stay there infrequently: Kustodiev, recklessly devoted to the remote places in Russia, nevertheless, wanted to see the world and show himself to the world.
In 1902, Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev finished “The Bazaar in the Village” painting (it did not survive), for which he received a gold medal from the Academy with the right to a one-year “pensioner” trip abroad, and some time later went with his family to France.
It was a time of first victories and great hopes: the artist had a son, he was paid a fee of 3.5 thousand for work on the “Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council”, all the perspectives were open right before him. It was not surprising that he was delighted with Paris. He tirelessly absorbed European culture there and painted a lot. Art critics noted that during his stay in Paris, the palette of Kustodiev was getting noticeably brighter. From France, the master went to Spain, which caused him dual feelings. On the one hand, the Prado and Velazquez, Goya, Murillo made an indelible impression on Kustodiev. On the other hand, there he saw a bullfight (“How strange and wild this is: murders with blood are terrible and ruthless!”), and the Museum of Modern Art (“Something terrible in its disgrace and mediocrity!”).
Upon returning home, Boris Mikhailovich started working in the “tower”, reveling in the beauty of his native places. Things were going well: the paintings by Kustodiev were willingly bought by the museums, he was kindly written about in the foreign press. Clouds started gathering over Petersburg, meanwhile: revolutionary fever was spreading across the country.
Due to unrest in the student community, the Academy of Arts was closed - classes were resumed only in 1906. Kustodiev rarely expressed his political views. But he definitely sympathized to the anti-government sentiments that seized the workers, the students, and the radically minded intelligentsia. When an old friend, Ivan Bilibin, invited the artist to enter the editorial board of the satirical magazine “Zhupel”, he agreed with enthusiasm. The subject he chose for his first drawing, “Entry,” was suppression of the uprising on Krasnaya Presnya. The magazine was soon closed, Bilibin was arrested. However, the “Zhupel” magazine was followed by the “Adskaya Pochta” magazine, in which Boris Kustodiev distinguished himself with caricatures of Count Ignatiev, chief prosecutor Synod Pobedonostsev and many subjects of Repin’s painting “Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council”. “Adskaya Pochta” suffered the fate of “Zhupel”: the circulation was confiscated, and the magazine was closed.
As for Kustodiev, the government turned a blind eye to his “opposition pranks”: his talent was too obvious and valuable. In 1906, Boris Kustodiev received a state order: on the 100th anniversary of the Finland Regiment, the artist was instructed to paint portraits of its founder Alexander I, as well as Nicholas II. In addition, a work depicting the scene of the first presentation to the regiment of their boss, Tsar Alexei. The artist did not hesitate for long: it was about the glory of Russian weapons, in addition, the one who portrayed the sovereign and members of the royal family was always in demand by eminent customers. Thus, starting the year with provocative caricatures, Kustodiev graduated with the status of a court portrait painter.
Obviously, Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev had to face not only the admiration of critics and public recognition. As usual, some people criticized him exactly for what others extolled. But neither fierce criticism, nor geopolitical cataclysms, nor a serious illness could temper Kustodiev’s creative thirst.
Having enthusiastically met the 1917 revolution, he soon lost faith in the Bolsheviks. But he stayed at his homeland and continued to work frantically. His illness, which first appeared in 1907, was progressing. Since the doctors diagnosed Kustodiev’s tumor in the spinal canal, the operations followed one after another, but brought only temporary relief. During one of them, it became clear that it was necessary to cut the nerves and choose what to keep - the mobility of the legs or arms. Kustodiev’s wife Julia (the artist himself was anesthetized) decided: “Arms, Arms! An artist without arms! He won’t live like that.”
Boris Mikhailovich did not give up despite being confined to a wheelchair. Moreover, during that period, he created almost his most light and life-affirming paintings (1,2, 3). He retained courage, a love of life and a sense of humor until his last breath. When his friends who visited him tactfully hinted that it was time for him to rest, he persuaded them not to disperse so early. And when they nevertheless drove him to the bedroom in an wheelchair, he joked: “Don’t break it, I’m made of glass!”
In 1927, the Soviet government allocated money for the treatment of the artist in Germany, but Kustodiev did not live a few days before the trip. According to his daughter Irina, before his death, the artist, who flatly refused to grow old, was readind “Portrait of Dorian Gray.”