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Let them speak: Valentin Serov’s friends and fans on his talent, honesty, cigars and what a wonderful horse, elephant and donkey became of him

Valentin Serov was not very eloquent. Being able to say with one picture more than some writers with a complete collection of works, he did not scatter words. Others did it for him — fortunately, there were always enough admirers of his talent.
Martyrs of their work, artists are never satisfied with themselves… I liked to see Serov call himself a horse and beat himself on the head when he "could not" take colours. "Oh, what a horse I am," he said.
Konstantin Korovin, friend
Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov. Vaska
1899, 24.1×31.5 cm
On the surface he was a stern and dry man. At first I was even afraid of him, but soon I learned that he is a humorist, merry fellow and an extremely truthful creature. He knew how to say harsh, but one could still feel a good attitude towards a person behind it. Once he talked about the cabbies standing at the Passion Monastery. I was amazed to see how this stocky man, sitting on a chair in his room, correctly and accurately portrayed a cabman on a sleigh box, how splendidly he conveyed his words: "Want a ride? Six roubles, sir!" I was very fascinated by this clever manner of artists to accurately grasp the pieces of life… And looking at them, I also tried to be expressive, plastic in life and on stage.
Fyodor Chaliapin, opera singer, friend

Once in the Zoological Garden, he cried out as a donkey so naturally that a real donkey answered him with the same cry and rushed to the grate, looking for his brother, to the great surprise and delight of the audience. Their screams were completely impossible to distinguish — everyone thought it was a donkey screaming.
Adelaida Simonovitch-Derviz, cousin of Valentin Serov

  • Illustration by Valentin Serov for Krylov’s Quartet fable.
  • Valentin Serov observes cubs at the St. Petersburg Zoological Garden, where he often worked on sketches for Krylov’s fables. Photo by P. I. Neradovsky. June 1900. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art
I think all the time that if Serov had lived another seven years; it seems to me that life in Russia could have gone differently. Publicly. He was the absolute light of social thought, conscience. Although he never participated in any foreign political life. But there was some kind of his invisible secret connection with the internal life of the country.
Yuri Norstein, animation director, artist (from an interview with Novaya Gazeta)

His taciturnity and especially his peculiarly eloquent definition of merits in art often with a nod, turn, tilt of his head, a short gesture (with his fatherly short hand) and especially the look of his expressive cheerful eyes, they talked so much, resolved such major disputes! Sometimes even those who wrote about art waited for these wordless decisions, like manna from heaven, and they believed only them, getting lost in determining their personal new impressions.
Ilya Repin, friend, teacher

Undoubtedly, Domotkanovo had a tremendous educational influence on the character of Valentin Alexandrovich, firm, civilly developed. The first years of passion for Domotkanovo were the "golden age" of his young existence. Olga Fyodorovna, of course, brightened up this existence most of all; to him, a true family man, her decision to become his wife gave a new impetus to a conscious struggle, without which the life of such an original artist could not pass. Therefore he managed to maintain his position as a solid, unshakable person, as if carved in one stone.
Valentina Serova, mother
Before we, the youth of the early twentieth century, were poisoned by the microbe of the new art, Serov was our idol.
David Burliuk, poet, artist, "father" of Russian futurism
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more

An invisible atmosphere of love and judgment over everything false entered the room with him, just as slowly, without shining with a colourful rainbow, his huge creativity entered our consciousness to remain to live there forever.
Andrey Bely, poet, writer

Serov thinks to himself, and his eyes slowly wander and squint. A funny comparison comes to mind: "elephant", "little elephant"… Looks like it! Even his difficult, slow thinking process, with all his caution and conscientiousness, figuratively resembles an elephant, calm, thoughtful…
Léon Bakst, friend

Cigars were a whole part of Serov’s life. It was some kind of cult. He usually bought them from Eliseev brothers, he did not trust all those Ten Cate, Feik & Co. He assured that only at Eliseev brothers you can get some nice cigars, if you know them. When we happened to be somewhere for a good dinner, we "stole" cigars for Serov. This was especially practised at Pr. Tenishev’s.
Dmitry Filosofov, publicist, critic, politician

  • Vladimir Serov. Self-portrait, 1901.
  • Valentin Serov at the Tretyakov Gallery building, 1900.
Valentin Aleksandrovich loved animals with a particular passion. He vividly felt their entire organic essence, up to an inseparable closeness. And this passion was involuntarily expressed in even the slightest gesture when he intended to represent one of the creatures of the animal world. Whether he wanted to portray a pig, a horse, a bear or a monkey, he made my children laugh with delight with one hint; "Anton" was always the most welcome guest and the most authoritative foreman for solving any misunderstandings, ignorance and wisdom.
Ilya Repin

In Serov’s paintings, everything is clear, light, and for that very reason it is good, beautiful. No sauce, no haze; his creations do not resemble delicious gingerbread or superbly cooked dishes, but act like beautiful, clean, spring water.
Alexandre Benois, artist, critic, art historian
Truthful to the end, he never hid his opinions. Thanks to this, he often made small enemies. He was a "proud" and independent man. He valued his freedom above all. And at the same time, he was a faithful servant of the law set for himself. This was especially evident in his family life, which was exemplary. There was no shadow of betrayal in him, and if he quarrelled, he did it seriously, deliberately. If Serov had a quarrel, it’s not in the mood, but out of conscience.
Dmitry Filosofov

Serov, a humane man and a staunch defender of all the poor, seemed to "formalize" all my innermost thoughts and feelings with his long and friendly conversations. His advanced views have influenced the development of my mind. And the more his artistic brush finished my appearance on the canvas, the more the person matured within me, which I remained all my life, and Serov’s friendship left an indelible impression on me.
Count Felix Sumarokov-Elston, the last of the Yusupov princes
Count Felix Feliksovich Sumarokov-Elston posing for Serov. Arkhangelskoe Estate, 1903—1904
I recall a trait of his character: he was very serious and organically chaste, never had any cynicism, there had been no lies in him since childhood. In Kyiv, we stayed at M. I. Murashko's, the founder of Kyiv drawing classes (my academic friend). In the evening, a professor came to us, a frivolous storyteller.
"Gentlemen," I remarked to my loose friends, "don't you see this young listener! Come on, you are corrupting him!
"I am not incorruptible," the boy Serov said gloomily and loudly.
Ilya Repin
Collected by Andrii Zymohliadov