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Wet meadow

Painting, 1872, 70×114 cm

Description of the artwork «Wet meadow»

The Wet Meadow painting by the early deceased brilliant landscape painter Fyodor Vasilyev (1850—1873) is considered one of the iconic realistic Russian landscapes. Arthive will tell you how Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich and the collector Pavel Tretyakov fought for it; why the artist deliberately painted nothing Crimean in the picture that was created in the Crimea; what exactly Kramskoy and  Repin valued in the Wet Meadow; why Nikolai Ge believed that Fyodor Vasilyev discovered the living sky for Russian painting; what is a nostalgia picture and how one can painfully yearn for the Central Russian swamp.

The circumstances of the appearance of the Wet Meadow painting

The time from December 1871 to February 1872, when the Wet Meadow was created, was Vasilyev’s first winter in the Crimea. The artist, who was diagnosed with laryngophthisis, lived there all the time, constrained by medical prescriptions and prohibitions, but he failed to fall in love with the Crimea. The Crimean nature seemed deliberately spectacular to Vasilyev, the colours were too contrasting, the shapes were too sharp. At first, he painted Crimean landscapes only to earn money, but he was burdened by this work, desperately yearning for the nature of Central Russia and its discreet beauty. Vasilyev wrote elegiac letters from Crimea to his close friend, Ivan Kramskoy, where he said about his love for... the swamp: “Oh swamp, swamp! If you only knew how painfully contracts my heart from a heavy foreboding. What if I’ll never breathe this freedom, this life-giving power of the morning waking up over the steaming water again? After all, they will take everything from me if they take it. As an artist, I will lose more than half!”

In his reply, Kramskoy informed his friend: in the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, which subsidized Vasilyev’s stay in the Crimea, another exhibition was soon planned. Would Vasilyev send something to the competition? And Vasilyev began the landscape from his memory — he called it “a morning over a swampy place”, far from the Crimean natural realities, but well known to him from the Znamenskoye estate near Tver and the town of Khotin, Sumy uyezd of Kharkiv Governorate, where the artist visited Count Stroganov, a patron and a great admirer of Vasilyev’s outstanding talent. He ran through and revised his sketches made in Khotin, all these, as Repin put it, “lovely burrows in the sand”, but Vasilyev’s very idea was not by no means chamber. He conceived a work featuring scale, spaciousness and air, an impressive openness of space (the very “freedom” that Vasilyev mentioned in his letter to Kramskoy).

A nostalgia picture

The artwork would later be titled Wet Meadow. In the full sense, it is a nostalgia picture, a memory picture, a declaration of love for what you may never see again.
One of the most striking moments is that Vasilyev painted it without the nature, almost entirely relying on his amazingly tenacious memory, which, having captured once, retained and preserved the smallest details, just as people remember and carry through the whole life the features of a beloved face. The memory did not fail him; in this picture, Vasilyev revived his impressions of the “northern” (this definition is certainly conditional, in contrast to the “southern” Crimean) landscape he valued so much. The opposition is not that obvious, but it is in the subtext: Vasilyev depicted not what he saw “here and now”, but what he remembered. Instead of the endless sea, there is a tiny reservoir, a swamp or a lake. Instead of the Crimean steppes scorched by the sun, there are meadows “greasy” with moisture. Instead of the pointed Yalta cypresses, which rose before Vasilyev’s eyes in Crimea every day, there is a rounded crown of an acacia or other deciduous tree.

Impulsive and temperamental Ilya Repin, another senior comrade of Fyodor Vasilyev, was delighted with his ability to depict the flora: “He feels the plasticity of every leaf, every stem! They unfold before him, turn in different directions and look directly at the viewer. What a rich memory Vasilyev has for all these even the smallest details! And then he always generalizes the picture to make a grandiose impression.”

Kramskoy called Vasilyev’s landscapes “subjective”. Indeed, the Wet Meadow, for all its masterful technicality and drawing accuracy, is still not the extremely detailed, almost photographic “objectivity” of the Frankfurt school we meet with Shishkin (Vasilyev’s older friend and mentor who married his sister Evgenia). “The poetry of his perception of nature is in some contradiction with prosaism and sobriety, which were quite acceptable for Shishkin,” an art critic Aleksei Fyodorov-Davydov wrote. In the landscape of Vasilyev, there is much more lyricism, anxiety (at that, it is not static, but moves from quiet sadness to solemn admiration), emotional beginning.

He discovered the living sky...”

Memory usually tends to idealize, but there is no idyllic pacification in the Wet Meadow landscape. Its composition is based on the contrast between calmness and movement, between the frozen surface of a small reservoir, the land heavy with the water that has saturated it, the plants that have subsided in calmness, and the dynamically changing, moving sky. The swirling clouds with subtly designed colour transitions would arouse special admiration. In general, the sky in Vasilyev’s landscapes very often turns out to be the main subject and even the spokesman for a certain moral philosophy: the Wet Meadow is often described as the source of “the enlightenment by the higher light of everything dark, inert, unawakened in nature” (this is the definition from the website of the Tretyakov Gallery). Nikolai Ge, an artist of the older generation, spoke about Vasilyev’s innovation in depicting the sky as follows: “Young, strong man, who lived as an artist for only five years, he reached a tremendous height... he discovered the living sky, he discovered the wet, light, moving sky and those delights of the landscape, which he expressed in a hundred of his paintings...

What was the further fate of the Wet Meadow landscape?

Rumours about the painting appeared even before it was finished. After last year the heir to the throne, the future Emperor Alexander III, ordered a copy of The Thaw painting by 20-year-old Vasilyev for the Anichkov Palace, his new works were waited for impatiently. The cousin of Alexander III, Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich also wanted to acquire the Wet Meadow. He was the first among the Romanovs to graduate from a higher educational institution (Academy of the General Staff) on his own initiative, travelled a lot and enthusiastically collected Western European paintings... Nikolai Konstantinovich’s fate would be extraordinary: after just a couple of years, in the spring of 1874, the family would accuse him of stealing three diamonds from the icon frame, a family heirloom, and presenting them to his mistress, American dancer Fanny Lear; at the trial, the Grand Duke would swear on the Bible and lie that he was not guilty, although all the evidence would point at him. The Romanovs would publicly declare him insane, deprive him of his inheritance and ban the mention of his name, and Nikolai Konstantinovich himself would be expelled to Uzbekistan forever without the right to return. However, he would do well there either: he would marry, live to see the October Revolution (die only in 1918), found several businesses, and his collection of five hundred art objects would enrich the Tashkent Museum of Fine Arts. However, it would still lack the Wet Meadow painting, which Nikolai Konstantinovich dreamed of in 1872, because Pavel Tretyakov would compete with the Grand Duke for the Vasilyev’s masterpiece.

The funds allocated by the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts to Fyodor Vasilyev for his living in Crimea were not enough. During the first year, he addressed in his letters to Pavel Tretyakov several times with a request to send money: “My situation is the most difficult, the most hopeless. I am alone in a strange city, without money and sick. I need 700 roubles...” Tretyakov sent money towards future paintings, and again, and again... He was generous, but prudent: “Stay healthy, dear friend, take heart! Whoever gets sick young is stronger when gets old!.. Yours sincerely, P. Tretyakov.” Feeling blessed and obliged, the artist promised Tretyakov the exceptional and inalienable right to be the first to look and choose Vasilyev’s paintings. Such offers must not be rejected. Thus, Tretyakov began to set conditions, gently but persistently. For example, he asked Fyodor Vasilyev, to send his Wet Meadow to him in Moscow for preliminary acquaintance before sending it to St. Petersburg for the exhibition.

We do not know exactly why, but Fyodor Vasilyev violated this condition. At the end of February 1872, against Tretyakov’s request, he sent the Wet Meadow to Petersburg, to Kramskoy. However, he would still lose the exhibition competition and take only the second place: the first place would be awarded to Shishkin’s Mast Pine Forest in Viatka Province painting.

Having learned that the Wet Meadow is about to leave his hands, persistent Tretyakov made a special trip to St. Petersburg. He already bought the Shishkin’s Pine Forest without any obstacles before the competition was opened, and he intended to compete for Vasilyev’s painting. He knew that the main contender was the Grand Duke, therefore Tretyakov immediately appointed a significant amount — a thousand roubles — and the Wet Meadow remained with him. Now it is the property of the Tretyakov Gallery.

“The first glance is not in favour of strength,” Kramskoy wrote to Fyodor Vasilyev about his contradictory first impression, when he received the Wet Meadow. “It seemed to me a little light, not much watercolour, but as if over finished. But the feeling lasted for a moment... In all other respects, it immediately says clearly what you thought and felt to such an extent that even the very natural moment could not say more... This picture told me more than your diary.”

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya

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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Landscape

Style of art: Realism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1872

Size: 70×114 cm

Artwork in selections: 37 selections