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The thaw

Painting, 1871, 53.5×107 cm

Description of the artwork «The thaw»

Winding ruts from runners darken on the yellow spongy snow. The mud mixes with melt water, the feet of the peasants, an adult and a child, get stuck in slush, and only the crows and jackdaws that the baby points to do not care: they flock to the road in search of meager food after a long winter. The wide plain is crushed by a heavy, gloomy sky. The anxious flickering of spots of shadow and light on the snow is disturbing and oppressive. A hut with a stove and low roof looks abandoned with its “blind” window, but this is not the case: smoke creeps out of the chimney — and this detail touches everyone familiar with the specifics of the Russian landscape.

It may seem that this homeless space, riddled with cold, this off-road with chilled travellers, so intimately recognizable to all those familiar with Russia, was painted by an old man who looked at a typical Russian landscape from the height of his past years. In fact, the artist who painted the famous Thaw was a 20-year-old cheerful young man, a boy, Fyodor Vasilyev, who would only be approved to the Academy as a volunteer in the year when this painting that made him famous was created.

How the Thaw missed a bit with the Rooks

In the early spring of 1871 in Moscow, in the exhibition halls on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, an exhibition of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts was held. Alexey Savrasov, a 40-year-old Muscovite, whose work was at its zenith that year, presented his painting Pechersky Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod for the competition. After debates, Moscow critics unexpectedly turned out to be more supportive not to him, but to a very young St. Petersburg artist Fyodor Vasilyev: the Society for the Encouragement of Arts awarded the first prize to his Thaw painting, and Savrasov became the second.

History (including the history of art) does not imply the subjunctive mood. But the competitive struggle could surely have been much harder if Savrasov had presented another picture, which he kept for the First Travelling Exhibition, which would take place in the same year, The Rooks have Arrived.

It’s amazing: two masterpieces that determined the fate of the Russian landscape for the coming decades were painted during the same days, and it is impossible not to notice the similarity in subject of the both paintings. Both paintings depict a short interval between winter and spring (the weather is likely of those spring days of 1871), melted snow, muddy roads, dark trees, melt water, black wooden walls; both pictures were painted under the influence of the recent Volga impressions of Vasilyev and Savrasov; for both, an ascetic, almost monochrome colour was chosen; both discovered a new social context of the landscape; both “sounded” shrill and sad; both seemed to be the quintessence of something very Russian; independently, both made a revolution in Russian painting, which Kramskoy called the presence of the “soul” in the landscape.

The resounding success of The Thaw by Fyodor Vasilyev

To understand the scale of The Thaw’s success among its contemporaries, try to imagine the situation: Fyodor Vasilyev is only 20 years old, he is illegitimate, has no right to claim his father’s patronymic or surname (and, according to Russian law, has seriously restricted rights), he knows what is poverty like and formally, he is not even a professional artist, as at the Academy of Arts he is only listed as an assistant of the restorer Sokolov. Whereas Pavel Tretyakov buys his Thaw directly from the exhibition (and this is the third painting by Vasilyev in his collection). Moreover, The Thaw was so much liked by the Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich (the future Emperor Alexander III) that he commissioned the copy of this painting for himself. As Vasilyev was extremely demanding and even picky about himself (“You see, I am terribly tormented looking at my paintings”), but inspired by the recognition, he completed the copy in less than a month and a half — already in May 1871 it went to the customer to take a worthy place in the Anichkov Palace.

A year later, it was decided to send The Thaw from the collection of Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich to the World Exhibition, London. The venture looked risky: will they understand? Will Europeans appreciate the poetry of the Russian plain, or will the Russian poverty and impassability cause them a skeptical smile, an indifferent shrug of their shoulders? However the European reviews were also enthusiastic!

The influential newspaper, The Morning Post wrote: “We would like Mr. Vasilyev to come to us in London and paint our London streets during our quick thaw, because we are sure that no one would paint them like him. Look at his excellent painting, The Thaw, the wet mud, the grey, muddy and brown snow; notice the ruts, flowing water and general slush and be sure that he is the artist for this task.”

Technical and semantic findings in The Thaw painting by Fyodor Vasilyev

The Thaw looks a surprisingly mature thing and at the same time it contains many innovative finds. The picture has an unusual format: the canvas is strongly elongated in width (its height is half the width), which gave an almost panoramic view, and this intensified the feeling of the “flattened” land and human abandonment. It seemed that the artist even needed the figures of people not to revive the landscape, but to emphasize the aching feeling of human disorder and melancholy. The diagonal of the carriageway, crossed crosswise by paths trampled by human footprints, illustrates the idea of life as a difficult “painful path”.

The British, whom the landscape painter John Constable taught to especially appreciate the poetry of abandoned rural corners half a century ago, wrote about Fyodor Vasilyev that he had a rare talent to give “picturesque courage even to desolation”.

The porous texture of the snow in the foreground was obtained by a special Vasilyev’s painting technique — critics called it “rough brushstroke”. It is interesting that Vasiliev always preferred to work with exceptionally thin brushes, even when performing large-sized paintings. Ilya Repin told how he was surprised by this fact and received the following explanation from Fyodor Vasilyev: “I always work with small (brushes — ed.): they are so good at sculpting and drawing moulds... I hate daubing with a mop, it’s like painting fences, disgusting, I hate daubery...”


For 40-year-old Savrasov, The Rooks Have Arrived would become the pinnacle of his professional career: all his subsequent works were destined to be compared with The Rooks, and the comparison will be a losing one for new pictures; Savrasov would start drinking, turning from a professor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture into a drunken alcoholic, but after the creation of The Rooks, he would live for more than a quarter of a century. For his successful rival in the competition of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Fyodor Vasiliev, a 20-year-old “genius youth”, as everyone called him, everything would turn out completely differently. The Thaw also became his loudest public success, but for a different reason: in just two years Vasilyev died of tuberculosis in Crimea, having managed to paint several more wonderful paintings (for example, the Wet Meadow and In the Crimean Mountains), but he could never feel the taste of fame and universal unconditional recognition any more, as it happened with The Thaw.

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: 1871

Size: 53.5×107 cm

Artwork in selections: 38 selections