Russia • 1869−1939

Biography and information

Konstantin Somov (30 November 1869, St. Petersburg – 6 May 1939, Paris) was a famous Russian painter and graphic artist, portrait and landscape master, illustrator, one of the founders of the association “Mir iskusstva” (“World of Art”).

Peculiar features of Konstantin Somov’s art: Konstantin Somov is known for numerous portraits, as well as paintings and drawings depicting genre scenes that revive the cutesy world of the court balls and masquerades of the “gallant” 18th century. The artist's watercolors best demonstrate his exquisite workmanship.

The most famous artworks by Konstantin Somov: “Rainbow”, “Lady in Blue”, Portrait of Sergei Rachmaninov, illustrations for the “Book of the Marquise”.

Childhood and youth in his father's house
Konstantin Somov was born in 1869 in a famous noble family. The artist’s father taught physics and mathematics, translated Galileo’s “Discourses and mathematical demonstrations relating to two new sciences” into Russian, and later worked at the Hermitage.

Konstantin Somov's mother, Nadezhda Konstantinovna, came from a noble family of the Lobanovs. Having married her, Andrei Ivanovich Somov received not only a dowry of a four-story mansion on Yekateringovsky Prospekt, but also a kind and educated wife, a funny laughter who was not alien to the arts - Nadezhda played the piano and sang wonderfully. The Somovs had three children: Alexander (1867), Konstantin (1869) and Anna (1873). The family, in which good old customs reigned, revered painting and theater, literature and music.

The love of art for all Somov’s children became an integral part of their education. Besides that, the famous artists and art historians often visited their house. Andrei Ivanovich was a passionate collector: the walls in the Somovs house were hung with paintings and drawings. For 22 years he had been working as a senior curator of the Imperial Hermitage Museum, and laid the foundation for a new period in the history of Russian art. Konstantin and Anna received initial musical and drawing education at home, and they were even seriously passionate about the idea of making the careers of singers.

The beginning of art career
Without having completed a gymnasium education (the father took away Konstantin from the prestigious St. Petersburg school of Karl May - they said that his son was out of the natural sciences) Somov entered the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg in 1888. And in 1894 he was already a student in the workshop of Ilya Repin.
In 1895 Somov took part in the first important exhibition, which was organized by the Society of Russian watercolorists - “Blanc et Noir” (“White and Black”). His charcoal drawings, tinted with watercolors, were so good that Alexandre Benois “…immediately forced Sergei Diaghilev to purchase two of his sketches, which represented the orchard in the late twilight. From this moment Konstantin acquired the value of a true artist, and only from this moment we all, and me in particular, begin to expect something wonderful from him.”

Then there was Paris – how could it be without Paris! There, in 1897−98, Konstantin Somov studied at the Academy of Colarossi, where he was greatly influenced by the graphics of Western Art Nouveau and the paintings of French Rococo. Returning to his native St. Petersburg, the artist plunged into the busy artistic life of the capital. It was then that he was fascinated by the elegant sculptural plasticity of porcelain, which he loved, understood and collected for many years. Several years later, several porcelain figurines were cast on his models at the Imperial Porcelain Factory, including the famous "Lady taking off the mask" (1906).

"World of Art
In 1898 Somov became one of the founders of the «World of Art» art association. He took his first steps in illustration, taking part in a contest for the cover of the "World of Art" magazine. The artist worked a lot and fruitfully, creating drawings for such books as “Count Nulin” by Pushkin (1899), Gogol’s novel “The Nose” and “Nevsky Prospect” (1901). Somov worked on the design of the issues of the “World of Art” and “Art Treasures of Russia” magazines. In 1903 his first solo exhibition was held in St. Petersburg, where Somov presented 162 works; later on most of those works were on display in Berlin and Hamburg.

"Book of the Marquise"
One of the most famous works of Konstantin Somov was a series of erotic illustrations for the courtesy collection of poetry and prose "Book of the Marquise". The idea of creating this collection belonged to the Austrian essayist and critic Franz Blei, it appeared to be an anthology of the 18th century French erotic literature: Voltaire, Casanova, Chénier, Évariste Parny, about fifty authors in total. Blei commissioned the illustrations for the «Book of the Marquise» to Konstantin Somov. The book was first published in German by the «Hans Von Veber» publishing house in 1907, later it was reprinted several times - in particular, in 1918 in St. Petersburg.

The famous bibliophile and art critic Erich Hollerbach wrote the following words about the «Book of the Marquise»: “Here, as in a certain focus, the refined retrospectivism and the fashionable eroticism of the aesthetic worldview were concentrated, the dreamy cult of the 18th century was reflected, with its charming shamelessness, frivolity and intense sensuality. In the sense of artistic ideology, this book has is no movement forward, no search, but it is undeniably remarkable in itself, “just like a thing”. [...] Somov’s graphic art makes this book his highest achievement. In the history of Russian illustrated editions, it can rightfully take one of the first places. ”

Somov did not seem to particularly like the illustrations for the «Book of the Marquise». In his diary the reader can often find a phrase like this: “I’m tired of it, this graphic in which I am so awkward” and “a corrupt and frivolous thing”.

Revolution and departure for Paris
Konstantin Somov did not accept the 1917 revolution, although in 1918 he became a professor at the Petrograd State Free Art Studios, and a year later he held a large exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery on the occasion of his 50th birthday.

After the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, Somov wrote in his diary: “So many events in just two days. Nicholas has been put down, we will have a republic. My head is spinning. I was so afraid that the dynasty would stay... I saw how the royal coat-of-arms being knocked down from all the shop signs. This morning I called Benois, advising him to take power directly into his hands in the sphere of arts. He told me that Roerich, Grzhebin, Petrov-Vodkin had already conceived something with the assistance of Gorky ... I’d better be in the way and live my old life”.

In 1923 Somov emigrated to the United States as an authorized “Russian Exhibition,” which he successfully held in 1924. Konstantin Somov did not return to Russia. In January 1928, he bought an apartment in Paris on Boulevard Exelmans. In France, the artist worked a lot and fruitfully painting portraits, landscapes. In 1927 he tried himself in miniature, created a series of watercolors, and participated in the exhibitions abroad.

Diaries of Konstantin Somov
All his life, Konstantin Somov kept diaries, describing there his work on paintings and drawings, his clients, his own attitude to the works he performed, his visits to friends and heartfelt experiences. In addition to the fact that Somov’s diaries make up a reliable catalogue raisonné, this is also a deeply personal story about relations with the artist’s lovers - very erotic and emotional.

The first volume of Somov's "Diaries" was published in 2017; it is expected that eight more volumes will be published soon. An art historian Paul Golubev, who has been deciphering and reconstructing Somov’s texts for ten years, noted: “... Somov’s sexuality was expressed in his art. “Without realizing the fact that Somov was homosexual, without understanding what role sensuality played in his daily routine, we will not understand the specifics of his artistic career.”

Private life of Konstantin Somov: men
The counting of Konstantin Somov’s affaires started from the time of his studies at Karl May School - then his tender affection for his classmate Dmitry Filosofov may have been the real reason that his father took him from the gymnasium. Being one of the founders of the World of Art, Konstantin Somov frequently encountered with his school passion. Feelings didn’t blew up again - the heart of Filosofov was occupied by his cousin, Sergei Diaghilev. “Despite the fact that Somov will work a lot together with Diaghilev, some hostility will remain for his whole life,” wrote Igor Kon. At the turn of the century, sex for Somov was perhaps only entertainment; the rampant decadence that reigned in society contributed to its inclinations.

Another close friend of Somov was Walter Nouvel. The organizer of musical evenings and various events of the World of Art, a member of the editorial board of the society’s magazine, Nouvel spent almost all his leisure time with Somov. However, Sergei Diaghilev again “crossed” the road to Somov, and Nouvel, in order to sweeten the bitter breakup, introduced Somov to the poet Mikhail Kuzmin. Later there was an affair with the 31-year-old amateur dancer Nikolai Poznyakov, whom the artist enthusiastically painted: five of his portraits, made in different techniques, survived.

Myth, a hearty friend
In September 1910, Konstantin Somov met with a young sitter, Methodius Lukyanov. Methodius - or Myth, as his friends called him - at that time was 18 years old. Myth was not only a friend and assistant for Somov - over time, he became his “son, brother and husband” and settled in the Somov’s house. Somov’s short romance with British writer Hugh Walpole, who also lived in the Somov’s house in 1916-17, did not destroy, but only strengthened the relationship between Somov and Myth.

After the revolution, Lukyanov was first to emigrate; in 1922 he found out that he was sick with tuberculosis, and by hook or by crook he went to Paris to see the doctors. Somov and Lukyanov met again three years later. By that time, Myth had bought a farm in the Norman town of Granville, engaged in the breeding and sale of chickens, ducks and rabbits. Picturesque landscapes, fresh air, silence and simple work prolonged the life of Methodius. Somov often came to visit him from Paris; they had a peaceful family life.

However, in the spring of 1931 tuberculosis began to take control: Myth had exacerbation, he fell ill. In February 1932, Somov wrote to his sister Anna Mikhailova: “During these troubled days, I changed my mind so much about Methodius, I was often very ugly, cruel. All his faults were small and meaningless, I just had a picky temper. No one loved me like he did”. And a month later: “Yesterday, lying on the floor by his bed, I tried to pray - it's me! like: God, if you exist and care about people, prove, save me Methodius and I will believe in you! But ... this is my weakness! Reason and logic - everything is against the existence of a gracious and implored god ... ” The last words of the Myth addressed to Somov were "Kostya ... goodbye."

Executor. Mikhail Braikevich
One of the biggest admirers of Konstantin Somov’s talent was Mikhail Braikevich. A graduate of the Institute of Railways, a talented engineer, Braikevich worked at numerous imperial construction sites. He lived in Odessa and was a respected and famous person. In 1911, he married the daughter of Andrey Bunge, a chairman of the board of the Russian-Belgian Metallurgical Society, and he ran the Odessa branch of the company. In 1917, Braikevich was appointed the city mayor; under his leadership, Odessa survived during the difficult years of the Revolution and the Civil War.

Braikevich was also a passionate admirer of the works of Russian artists, the members of «World of Art». An enthusiastic collector, vice president of the Odessa Society of Fine Arts, he always claimed that he bought paintings not only for himself personally, but in order to create a collection intended as a gift to Odessa. In 1920, before his emigration, Braikevich left more than a hundred paintings to Novorossiysk University. Today they are part of the collection of the Odessa Art Museum. There one can find its own “Rainbow” along with the captivating “gallant scenes” and landscapes of the artist, as well as the portraits of Mikhail Brakevich and his daughter Tatyana. The latter ones were donated to the museum by Tatyana's sister - Ksenia Fielding-Clark - in 1976.

As Mikhail Braikevich wrote in his memoirs about Somov, “... our friendship began in the distant pre-war years, grew stronger over the years and has never been broken by a dispute ... I remember how excited I was while waiting for Somov to leave his Petersburg living room to the next toilet room, where he kept for himself nature-related studies of early youth, often because he loved them himself, in order to select two or three things for me. And what treasures they were! Somov, with the same right than Serov and Levitan, can be considered a subtle poet of the Russian landscape. ”

Having moved to London, Braikevich did not abandon his addictions and started a new collection of works by the artists of the «World of Art». In 1931 he came to Somov in Paris, where he bought several works, and also commissioned the artist a portrait of Tatyana’s daughter. After his death, Braikevichțs collection entered the Ashmolian Museum at Oxford University

The last years
Paris became the home of Konstantin Somov until his death in 1939; he died in the arms of his friend, Mikhail Braikevich, and was buried in the cemetery of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. Braikevich paid for the indefinite use of land for the grave of a friend, and also became the executor of Konstantin Somov.

Sales records
In 2006 and 2007, the works of Konstantin Somov set records at the auction of Russian art at Christie’s in London: the painting "Russian Pastoral" (1922) was sold for a record price for the artist's works of 2 million 400 thousand pounds. A year later, another Somov's work, landscape «Rainbow», went under the hammer for 3 million 716 thousand pounds at a starting price of 400 thousand pounds.