Russia • 1850−1873

Biography and information

Fedor Vasilyev (10 (22) February 1850, Gatchina - September 24 (October 6) 1873, Yalta) was a Russian landscape painter of the second half of the 19th century.

Features of Fedor Vasilyev's art. As an artist, Vasilyev was influenced by Shishkin and Kramskoy but, despite his short life, he managed to form his own direction in landscape painting, lyrical and poetic. His findings had a tremendous impact on the development of Russian art.

Famous paintings of Fedor Vasilyev: "The Thaw", Wet Meadow, Illumination in St. PetersburgIn the Crimean Mountains

If you ask to list the largest Russian landscape painters of the 19th century, many will name Shishkin, Savrasov, Polenov, LevitanKuindzhi or Aivazovsky. The choice depends on personal tastes and preferences in painting. But hardly anyone would immediately remember Fedor Vasilyev. Meanwhile, experts call this artist with such a common surname a true genius in the field of landscape. It is believed that if he had lived longer than the 23 years he was allowed to, the name of Fedor Vasilyev would undoubtedly be among the listed artists. With the exceptional talent like his, he could outshine some of them.

"A popinjay, scallywag, Khlestakov..."

In 1870, Ilya Repin, a 26-year-old student of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, who already had a Small Gold Medal and applied for the Large one, met 19-year-old Fedor Vasilyev at the Artists’ Artel — a brilliant young man, cheerful, sociable, energetic, gushing wit, self-confidently recommended himself as a “retired reader of the Society of Free Scallywags”.

Observant Repin did not like this cheeky subject from the very beginning: he was impudent, mocking, and self-confident. Where do they come from?! Repin was angry and amazed at the same time: after all, they said he was poor, this Vasiliev, while he always was perfumed, perfectly trimmed and dressed like the most regular dandy: in a top hat, an expensive frock coat, kid gloves. Nowhere had he really studied, but now he scolded the Academy and its orders for nothing, he said they were ridiculous and outdated for almost thirty years. He did not know any languages and had never been abroad — and by the way, he knew how to put a French or German funny word or a Latin scientific term into a conversation, which was simply amazing. And he said that he did not specially study music, he did not have any instrument at home, but he could sit at the piano and play something from Beethoven. An amazing type!

And Repin decided to stay away from this type. However, the charming Fedor Vasilyev decided to get closer with him for some reason. Moreover, although he was almost seven years younger, he put himself patronizing. To begin with, Vasilyev said that it would be good for Repin to go to the Volga — otherwise, sitting at his lectures at the Academy, he must have never seen living barge haulers. Repin agreed: of course, it would be nice, but where could the funds come from? After all, he was still taking care of his 17-year-old musician brother Vasya, which meant that he needed to take him. Therefore, he’d need at least two hundred roubles. Vasilyev answered, nonsense! Who has the desire has the money: “Cross my heart and hope to die, in two weeks I’ll get you two hundred roubles.”

Shocked by such bravado, Repin immediately received a new hit from the restless Vasilyev. “Just you know, you should take the monastic vow,” his new uninvited friend taught him fatherly, “be a decent young man. Well, it’s a shame to have such long locks! It’s horrible, like a village deacon!”

What a popinjay! I hate exquisites and foppery!” Repin muttered to himself. “And this one is picture perfect! It’s just some kind of Khlestakov! And fools my head like as if were a small child!”

Repin decided to ask his mentor and senior comrade Ivan Kramskoy about what was happening and who was this amazing Fedor Vasilyev. He seemed to have taught Vasilyev something and was well acquainted with him. “This chick has dared beyond his years! ' Repin shared his indignation with Kramskoy, “He is out of line! What do you think he is?”

But the informed Kramskoy did not agree or assent. On the contrary, Ivan Nikolayevich spoke of Fedor almost enthusiastically: “Ah, Vasilyev! Oh God, this is such a phenomenon that has never been on earth!.. I have never met such a gifted nature!..” “But he has not even entered the Academy yet!” Repin wondered. “So this may be for the better,” Kramskoy patiently explained, who seven years ago led the Revolt of the Fourteen and demonstratively left the Academy, “Moreover, Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin takes care of him. Ilya Yefimovich, you need to see Vasilyev’s works as soon as possible!”

Repin is amazed, Vasilyev amazes

On the Seventeenth Line of St. Petersburg’s Vasilyevsky Island, Ilya Repin, referring to the address, found the low one-storey house. The rooms in it were tiny, the easels by the window were crappy and loose. The owner was Fedor Vasilyev, and Repin found him at work.

I went from the light side to see the pictures, and I stood open-mouthed,” Repin would later admit in his memoir. “The pictures stunned me... I was surprised to the point of complete confusion..."
“Tell me, for God’s sake, how did you succeed so?” I babbled. “Did you paint them yourself?! Well, I didn’t expect! What a sky, the sky... How is it? Was it really without any nature?.. I have never seen such wonderfully fashioned clouds, and how they are illuminated!!!”
Less than two weeks later, Vasilyev, just as he had promised, found money for the Volga expedition — it was given by his patron, Count Pavel Stroganov, a collector and philanthropist. The trip, which Repin could not even dream of, would still take place. "Barge Haulers on the Volga", perhaps the most famous of Repin’s paintings, would be painted (albeit not immediately, but two or three years later) thanks to the cheerful perseverance of an extraordinary young man, Fedor Vasilyev.

That year, Vasilyev also went to make Volga sketches with Repin. Repin recalled how carefully his friend was preparing for the trip, how he bought himself an elegant, long and narrow, travel chest, how gladly he made a shopping list: whips, riding leggings, several pairs of kid gloves, a dozen ties, various types of soap, colognes, disinfectants, and also a first aid kit, alcohol, inflatable pillows...

Irritated by such waste (he surely did not need these lordly things!), Repin did not yet suspect that with all his way of life, Fedor Vasilyev sought to break out of the doomed and closed circle of life, to which he was sentenced by the very fact of his birth. Throughout his short life, Fedor Vasilyev desperately struggled with the complexes associated with his origin. 

Family, childhood and early maturity of Fedor Vasilyev

The artist was born on 10 (22) February 1850 in Gatchina near St. Petersburg. His father, a clerk Alexander Vasilyev, lived unmarried with the petty bourgeois Olga Polyntseva, and therefore their older children, the girl Evgenia and the boy Fedor had no legal right to either their father’s patronymic or his last name. Later the family moved to St. Petersburg (which, however, did not help their disastrous financial situation), the parents of Fedor Vasilyev got married and thus their two youngest sons, Alexander and Roman, already were legitimate children. However the “illegitimate stamp” that weighed so much remained with Fedor for life.

Biographers stubbornly compare Fedor Vasilyev’s father with typical heroes of Dostoevsky: he was a loser, suspicious to the point of paranoia and evil to the family, a drunkard and a desperate gambler. Children grew up in an atmosphere of disorder and scandals. But, apparently, that was what formed the character in Fedor Vasilyev, gave him an enviable inner core. When the 42-year-old father died in the Obukhov hospital, 15-year-old Fedor had to take care of the big family.

The young Vasilyev had a phenomenal sense of purpose.

From early childhood, he got used to redrawing from magazines the pictures he liked.
At the age of 10, he already worked with chalk and painted with oil paints. For his visiting teacher, literary historian Alexander Skabichevsky (remember “The Master and Margarita” and the famous lines: “Koroviev wrote ‘Skabichevsky’ next to the name ‘Panaev’, and Behemoth wrote ‘Panaev’ next to ‘Skabichevsky’”? Bulgakov wrote about him!), 11-year-old Fedor Vasilyev presented the drawing as a keepsake with a serious look, as if saying, you would be proud someday!
The stubborn Fedor was taken to the gymnasium to study for free, as a reward for his unusually clear and sonorous voice, which stood out in the local church choir. During the holidays, the boy worked part-time — for a rouble a month he helped the postman carry his mail bag.

From the age of 12 or 13, he worked at the post office — sorting out correspondence and doing other minor work in order to help the family somehow. And at the same time, having realized his abilities very early, he began to attend evening classes at the Drawing School under the Society for Promotion of Artists and got a job as an assistant to Pyotr Sokolov, one of the best Petersburg restorers at the Academy of Arts, which was the reason of often jokes about Vasilyev who got to the Academy through the back yard rather than through the front door.

At the age of 16, Vasilyev met the leading Russian artists, two Ivans, Shishkin and Kramskoy. Kramskoy would remain his close and faithful friend for life and admit that Vasilyev, being a decade and a half younger, influenced him greatly.

16-year-old Vasilyev paradoxically felt himself almost on an equal footing with Shishkin, already an academician who has just returned from Germany, where “Germans ask everywhere if this Russian is the man who draws so nice”, and in 1867, both went to the island of Valaam for artistic impressions. If you look closely at Shishkin’s “At the church fence. Valaam" painting, you’ll recognize the happy and carefree Fedor Vasilyev in the young man artistically sprawling on the grass, spreading his arms wide and freely (see also the portraits of Vasilyev by Kramskoy: 1, 2).

After this trip, Ivan Shishkin went to Yelabuga to ask his father, a merchant, for a blessing for his wedding with Evgenia Vasilyeva, Fedor’s sister. And young Vasilyev in the same year exhibited his painting On the island of Valaam. Stones, which really pleased Count Pavel Stroganov, a major patron of the arts who played a significant role in the Society for Promotion of Artists.
Stroganov bought this painting and began to take care of the 17-year-old diamond in every possible way, supplying him with funds and inviting him to stay for a long time at his Znamenskoye estate in the Tambov Governorate and Khoten estate in Sumy Governorate. Needless to say, for a beginner landscape painter, the opportunity to escape from St. Petersburg and see nature, picturesque and diverse, meant a lot. And Stroganov also provided him with a wagon for traveling so that Vasilyev could see more.

During the two years before he made the enchanting impression on Repin, a boy from a poor, almost impoverished family, under the auspices of the brilliant Stroganov, acquired secular gloss and aristocratic manners. Kramskoy said: “He, this bourgeois by birth, behaved always and everywhere in such a way that those who did not know him believed that he was, at least, a count by blood.”

Fedor worked a lot, slept little, his talent was recognized immediately and unconditionally, the paintings were sold out, Vasilyev became the favourite for the aristocrats and Petersburg bohemians. He had time everywhere: to the theatre, to the ball, to the skating rink. It is amazing how much he managed to paint with this lifestyle and how far to advance. Kramskoy was surprised at the phenomenal learning ability of Vasilyev: “He studied so that it seemed as if he was living for second time, and that he only had to remember something long forgotten”.

Fast Thaw — in painting and in life

In 1871, Fedor Vasilyev presented his Thaw painting to the competition of the Society for Promotion of Artists. The work was a success and the artist won the first prize, beating The Pechersk Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod" by already famous Alexei Savrasov.

The case was quite extraordinary: the artist was only 20 years old, he had no formal education, no noble origin, no money, and not even a patronymic — he had no right to use his father’s name as an illegitimate child. The heir to the throne, the future Emperor Alexander III commissioned a copy of his painting and immediately placed it in the Anichkov yard. One might think that such a success of Vasilyev was due to the sentimental inclination of the heir to the throne to something deeply national in the picture, a kind of “primordial and homespun”, poeticized cold, poverty and impassability (this Russian specificity can also be found in Savrasov, later in Levitan). But a year later, the Academy of Arts sent The Thaw to the World Exhibition in London, and there Fedor Vasilyev had total success again. British newspaper publicists wrote: “We would like Mr. Vasilyev to come to us in London and paint our London streets during our quick thaw... Isn’t he the real artist for this task?”

It would seem that the triumph was already there, maybe both early and undeserved, but Fedor knew better than others how stubbornly he moved towards it, how he attached to his vocation. He could seemingly repose on his laurels. However, his life didn’t allow him to relax for a long time.

At the age of 21, Vasilyev was subject to compulsory recruitment, in 1871 he had just reached the age of majority. Friends advised him to enter the Academy of Arts as a volunteer, this could help postpone the military service. But Vasilyev was not pleased with the danger allotted in time, he was terribly morally oppressed that in the received passport instead of his patronymic Aleksandrovich, they wrote him, the illegitimate son, Viktorovich.

Once on a skating rink, heated Vasilyev ate too much snow. The case ended with a fever and doctors’ fears that everything could turn out even worse — they suspected Vasilyev of consumption and recommended that he leave the rotten Petersburg climate and move to the south, preferably to the Crimea. Vasilyev did not take the warnings seriously. Instead of Crimea, he went to Stroganov in Khoten. Ignoring the recommendation to take care of himself, he went to Finland with another mischievous friend Kudryavtsev to “outvoice Imatra”, a popular entertainment of the period. Standing among the icy rocks on different sides of the rumbling waterfall, young people shouted till hoarseness and soar throat with excitement and laughter.

Back home, Vasilyev felt ill. The doctors clarified the diagnosis: throat tuberculosis. Only the Crimean climate, if, of course, if he still wanted to live and hoped to create something — that was the final verdict.

Fedor Vasilyev: “I miss Russia and I do not believe the Crimea”

Vasilyev did not want to go to Crimea, but he had to. His mother and his little brother Roman went with him. It made him happy — Roman, who was born when he was already a teenager, was simply adored by the artist. But this also added responsibility: Fedor remained the breadwinner of the family. There were more sad factors. Friends, acquaintances, like-minded people, those with whom he could fool around and talk about art until morning, they all stayed in the capital. On the Black Sea coast (the Vasilyevs settled in Yalta), the sick artist felt like a fish thrown out of the water.

Moreover, the enchanting nature of the Crimea did not seem enchanting to Vasilyev at all; at times he saw it painfully bright, screaming and infinitely alien. “I miss Russia and don’t believe Crimea,” Vasilyev complained in a letter to Kramskoy. It is curious that the same would happen later with Levitan: in the Crimea, he would yearn for Central Russia. Vasilyev felt this painful feeling, when there were mountains and the sea nearby, and he dreamt of steppes and swamps, was aggravated by the thought that he might never see them again. Several years earlier, when travelling with Shishkin, he wrote to his sister Evgenia: “If only you saw the steppe! I loved it so much that I cannot think enough of it.” In his letter to Kramskoy, he composed a real hymn to the swamp: “O swamp, swamp! If you knew how painfully the heart contracts from a heavy foreboding. What if I’ll never again breathe this freedom, this life-giving power of the morning waking up over the steaming water? After all, if they take it from me, they will take everything. After all, I, as an artist, will lose more than half!

There were periods when doctors limited Vasilyev’s movement. He was not allowed not only to travel, but even to move from one room to another. Then the illness receded for a while and again there was a hope of getting better someday, escaping somewhere.

In Yalta, in his first Crimean winter, Vasilyev conceived and painted a landscape depicting a completely non-Crimean nature. From his sketches, from memory, he created the Wet Meadow painting. He defined its theme as “morning over a swampy place”. With excitement, he sent his nostalgic picture to Petersburg, to Kramskoy. Vasilyev wondered what he would say. He wondered if the painting could participate in the exhibition (of which, however, he had almost no doubt). Maybe then it would be able to win a cash prize. Oh, that would be so handy, Vasilyev already had so many debts, because he couldn’t survive on 100 roubles, which the Society for Promotion of Artists paid the three of them. Tretyakov sometimes gave him money, but only at the expense of future paintings.

Kramskoy answered Vasilyev with a heartfelt feeling: “This picture told me more than your diary.” In the competition, however, it was given the second place: the first was taken by Shishkin’s Pine Forest. But a real struggle broke out for Vasilyev’s painting. Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich wanted to buy it. But Tretyakov did not want to miss the Wet Meadow either. He actually hoped that Vasilyev would give it to him to compensate is debt, but the headstrong artist sent it to Petersburg instead. Then Tretyakov set out to “outbid” the canvas from the Grand Duke. Shortly before the opening of the exhibition, he just rushed from Moscow to St. Petersburg and bargained it for a considerable sum of a thousand roubles (however, by that time Vasilyev owed him about an equal amount, so the Wet Meadow went to the Tretyakov’s gallery on account of the debt).

The last two years

Gradually, Vasilyev got used to the environment, the nature of the Crimea began to touch him a little, to penetrate into his heart. The last two years, despite the alien environment, despite the fatal illness, are considered the most fruitful in the work of Fedor Vasilyev. He painted a lot, unrestrained, fruitful, he almost stopped sleeping at night, work helped him not to think about death. Nobody believed that Vasilyev would recover.

Friends supported him with letters and occasionally came to visit him. Vasilyev said how much he wanted to “wander” around Russia with Shishkin or Repin. Once, after a long sleeplessness, Vasilyev had something like a hallucination — with his own eyes, he saw Christ in the Desert  painting just started by Kramskoy, which, of course, Vasilyev could not see.

Once he was visited by old Aivazovsky with his retinue, as Vasilyev ironically called them. He sarcastically reacted to this condescending visit, and especially to Aivazovsky’s advice on colour. “...Aivazovsky arose,” Vasilyev reported to Kramskoy, “and told me, among other good advices, a recipe for paints to depict the Black Sea in the best manner.”

In the last six months of his life, doctors forbade Vasilyev to speak so as not to bother his throat. He was forced to communicate with the help of “conversational notebooks” — these were once used by the deaf Beethoven.

Having received in March of his last year, 1873, the first prize in the Society for Promotion of Artists for his painting In the Crimean Mountains, Vasilyev made a request — to allow him, due to his illness, not to take exams at the academy on the scientific course and receive the title of 1st degree artist based on his work. This would solve several problems at once: living in Crimea with an expired passport and surname, to which he was not entitled by law, he would receive an official status, could count on paid treatment abroad. The Academy hesitated for a long time. However, Vasilyev still received the letter: it was written there that his request was denied and only the title of “honorary free fellowship” was awarded.

Vasilyev’s mother told Kramskoy that Fedor stood for half an hour with this letter in the middle of the room, saying “It’s all over”, then lay down and never got up. On 24 September (6 October) 1873, the 23-year-old artist died and was buried in Yalta at the Polikurovsky cemetery.

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya