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Artworks mailing lists
Sales of reproductions and digital copies
Read more

Konstantin Somov: 10 Facts from the life of the “Gallant Scenes” master

Masquerade, buffoonery, coquetry, frivolous scenes… "A venal, frivolous thing" — this is how the artist spoke of the series of works that made him famous. A virtuoso watercolourist, an excellent graphic artist, a master of portraiture, a subtle landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
painter — it’s all about Somov. In the year of the 150th anniversary of the artist, we talk about the life and creative path of the remarkable master and one of the founders of the famous Mir Iskusstva society.
Konstantin Somov: 10 Facts from the life of the “Gallant Scenes” master

1. The origins of the artistry

To begin with, Konstantin Somov’s desire to become a professional artist was supported in every possible way by his family. His father, Andrei Ivanovich Somov, was a famous museum figure, the Hermitage curator, and the young Somovs were surrounded by art objects and talks about art from their childhood. The eldest son, Alexander, became an art critic, while Konstantin and Anna became artists.
A descendant of nobles of ancient standing, Andrei Somov was forced to build his career on his own a

A descendant of nobles of ancient standing, Andrei Somov was forced to build his career on his own and achieved great success on this path. A graduate of the Physics and Mathematics Faculty of St. Petersburg University, he worked for several years as a tutor, teaching mathematics, and found time for painting, which he adored. Under his leadership, cadets of the Marine Corps and students of the Mining Institute learned the wisdom of mathematical sciences, and at the same time, there remained time to study art and publish in the Picturesque Russian Library magazine. Andrei Ivanovich showed his scientific mind and language skills in translating Galileo’s works into Russian. And his love of art manifested itself in the creation of an etching guide, which he learned from one of the students of the famous engraver, Nikolai Utkin. From their early age, children of Alexander Ivanovich absorbed the history of art and drawing lessons, communicated with famous artists and art critics who often visited the house.

Konstantin Somov. Family happiness
Family happiness
1890-th , 57×70 cm

2. Neva Pikwikians and meeting like-minded people

While studying at the Karl May School in St. Petersburg, an advanced educational institution for its time, Konstantin Somov met and became close to Alexandre Benois, Walter Nouvel, Dmitry Filosofov. Even then, the young gymnasium students began to think about a new art, different from the emasculated academicism. In 1887, they formed the Neva Pikwikians circle, at their meetings, they studied art history, painting and music. Later, Sergei Diaghilev and Léon Bakst joined the Pikwikians. Thanks to the energy and talent of Diaghilev, the small group of the art lovers, named after the first novel by Charles Dickens, grew into a more respectable group, Mir Iskusstva. It was joined by Moscow artists Konstantin Korovin, Valentin Serov, the Vasnetsov brothers, Mikhail Vrubel and Mikhail Nesterov.

3. In Paris

In 1888, Konstantin Somov entered the Imperial Academy of Arts. In order to see the masterpieces of European museums, he did not have to fight for a pensioner prize, because the Somovs regularly went on vacation abroad. Little Kostya saw Paris for the first time when he was only nine years old. Museums and theatres were part of the family’s compulsory program, which was greatly facilitated by the artist’s mother, Nadezhda Konstantinovna, who received an excellent musical education. While studying at the Academy, Somov visited Europe again — first accompanied by his mother, and later with his father. We can only imagine those fascinating excursions Somov Sr. conducted for his son when they visited the famous museums of Italy and Germany.
Konstantin Somov. Confidence
1897, 53×72 cm
…His charcoal drawings, tinted with watercolours, were so good that Benois ‘…immediately made Sergei Diaghilev purchase two of these sketches, representing an orchard in late twilight. From that moment on, Kostya acquired his meaning of a real artist; since that moment, we all, and I in particular, began to expect something wonderful from him.

…In 2006 and 2007, the works by Konstantin Somov set records at the Christie’s auction of Russian art in London: the Russian Pastoral painting (1922) was sold for amount of £ 2.4 million, which became a record sum for the artist’s work at that time. A year later, another work by Somov, Rainbow, was auctioned for 3 million 716 thousand pounds with a starting price of 400 thousand pounds.
Konstantin Somov. Letter
1896, 67.5×94 cm
In 1897, Somov completed his three-year study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
at Repin's studio and went to Paris. By that time, his friends had already gathered in the French capital — Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst, Eugene Lanceray and Maria Yakunchikova. Later, Anna Ostroumova joined them, Diaghilev and Nouvel were frequent visitors. Ten years later, the former Neva Pikwikians continued to explore new art trends in the very heart of its recognized capital. Someone studied (Somov did at the Colarossi Academy), someone came to work. Artists visited the Louvre, where works by Delacroix and Corot, Daumier and Courbet were exhibited. The Durand-Ruel gallery is dominated by the impressionists Monet and Degas.
Konstantin Somov. Rainbow
1897, 27×24 cm

4. Gauguin and Cézanne through the eyes of Somov

In Paris, Somov created portraits of his father and his sister Anna, as well as Arbor, In August, Rainbow, Confidentials paintings. And this is how he spoke of what he saw in local galleries: "I really liked Gauguin, but not Matisse. His art is not art at all!" Cézanne also got it: "Except for one (or maybe three) beautiful still lifes, almost everything is bad, dull, without values, in stale colours. His figures and his naked "bathers" are very filthy, mediocre, inept. Ugly portraits." And even Van Gogh was rejected: "Not only not brilliant, but rather not good."

5. Mir Iskusstva and the first steps in illustration

Thanks to the energy and talent of Sergei Diaghilev, the small group of the art lovers, named after the first novel by Charles Dickens, grew into a more respectable group, Mir Iskusstva. Diaghilev, who already was fond of collecting paintings by that time, organized an exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1898. Later, the exposition had place in Munich, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Berlin.
Somov’s first step in illustration was a competition for the design of the Mir Iskusstva magazine cover. The artist worked hard and fruitfully, creating drawings for books. He illustrated Count Nulin by Pushkin (1899), Gogol’s The Nose and Nevsky Prospect stories (1901). Somov worked on the design of the Mir Iskusstva and Artistic Treasures of Russia magazines. In 1903, his first personal exhibition was held in St. Petersburg, at which Somov presented 162 works; later, most of this exhibition was shown in Berlin and Hamburg.

6. Diary as a companion of a true dandy

Keeping a personal diary at the end of the 19th century was fashionable. Somov, like many of his colleagues, kept daily notes, trusting the diaries not only with his own innermost thoughts, but also describing the works that he drew, compiling a kind of a catalogue raisonné. Somov apparently destroyed the notes of his youth himself; the notes, which have come down to us, he took from the age of 25. Somov not only wrote, but also re-read his diary, his notes became more and more interconnected and literary perfect. Sometimes he read excerpts to his sister Anna, sometimes to his life partner Methodius Lukyanov; however, the latter did not like these "seances". Without a doubt, the artist wanted the diary to be published after his death, and even rewrote some parts of it in his declining years.
In his will, Somov left his diaries in the care of his old friend, collector Mikhail Braikevich (we will talk about him later). One of his conditions was not to print anything for 60 years after the death of the artist. However, Braikevich had little time to do anything, he died in 1940, a year after Somov. And then the fate of the artist’s diaries seems to be truly fantastic. According to the version of Braikevich’s widow, Sofia Andreevna, there little remained from the house where the manuscripts were kept after the bombing, except for the Somov’s diaries, which miraculously survived among the ruins in a drawer.
One of the Braikevich’s daughters brought the diary to the USSR in 1969 and gave it to the artist’s nephew, Yevgeny Mikhailov, who kept Somov’s early diaries. After 10 years, the Diaries were indeed published; these were mainly letters from Somov to his sister Anna Somova-Mikhailova. Despite the fact that many personal details were seized by Mikhailov, the original text was largely restored by the Moscow art critic Pavel Golubev. The first volume of Konstantin Somov’s voluminous "work of a lifetime" was published in 2017, the second — a year later, and a total of 8 volumes of the artist’s Diaries are supposed to be issued.
Konstantin Somov. Portrait of the composer Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff. 1925

Konstantin Somov s

Konstantin Somov. Portrait of the composer Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff. 1925

Konstantin Somov showed himself brightly both in portrait and landscape genres, showing the world his remarkable talent and brush mastery. Nevertheless, one of the artist’s stocks in trade is erotic illustrations for the courtly collection, The Book of the Marquise, which collected an anthology of French erotic literature of the 18th century.

7. The courtly Book of the Marquise

Somov himself did not like his illustrations for the Book of the Marquise much. In his diary, one often encounters such phrases: "I'm tired of them, these graphics, in which I’m so awkward," and "a venal, frivolous thing". Nevertheless, it was the fashionable eroticism of the illustrations for this collection that made Somov popular. The renowned bibliophile and art critic Erich Hollerbach called The Book of the Marquise the highest achievement in Somov’s graphic art. "Here… the dream cult of the 18th century is reflected, with its charming shamelessness, frivolity and intense sensuality," wrote Hollerbach.

This collection, the idea of which belongs to the Austrian essayist and critic Franz Bley, contains an anthology of French erotic literature of the 18th century: Voltaire, Casanova, Chenier, Parny, about fifty authors in total. Actually, Bley ordered the illustrations for The Book of the Marquise to Somov. The book was first published in German by the Hans Von Veber publishing house in 1907, and later it was reprinted several times, in particular, in 1918 in St. Petersburg.

8. Revolution and emigration

After the demise of Tsar Nicholas II, Somov wrote in his diary: "There are so many events in two days. Nicholas has been dethroned, we’re going to have a republic. My head is spinning. I was so afraid that the dynasty would remain. I saw how the royal coats of arms were knocked down from signboards everywhere. This morning I called Benois, advising him to take power in the field of art right away. He told me that Roerich, Grzhebin, Petrov-Vodkin had already conceived something with the assistance of Gorky… It is better for me not to interfere and live as I used to". Despite all this, Somov still decided to leave the country. And only in 1923 he succeeded — he left for America as an authorized representative of the Russian Exhibition, which he successfully held in 1924. Konstantin Somov did not return to Russia. In January 1928, he settled in Paris, having bought an apartment on Boulevard Exelmans, and immersed himself in work — he painted portraits, landscapes, miniatures, and created a series of wonderful watercolour
Watercolour (it. “aquarello”, germ. “Aquarell”) is a well-known painting technique with water-based paints. It was invented in the 3rd century in China. Watercolours become transparent after dissolving in water, so when applied to grainy paper, the image looks airy and thin. Unlike oil paintings, watercolour paintings lack textured strokes. Read more
Konstantin Somov. Costumed
1929, 18×27 cm

9. Mif: the heart friend

In September 1910, Konstantin Somov met a young model, Methodius Lukyanov. Methodius, or Mif, as his friends called him, turned 18 at that time. Mif was not only a friend and assistant for Somov; over time he became his "son, brother and husband" and settled in the Somovs' house. Somov’s short romance with the British writer Hugh Walpole, who also lived in the Somovs' house in 1916—1917, did not destroy, but rather strengthened the relationship between Somov and Mif. After the revolution, Lukyanov was the first to emigrate; in 1922, he found out that he was sick with tuberculosis, and he went to Paris by hook or by crook, to get to the doctors there. Mif bought a farm in the Norman town of Granville, was engaged in breeding and selling 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; their life was calm and resembled that of a family.
In the spring of 1931, tuberculosis began to take its toll: Mif experienced exacerbations, he fell ill. In February 1932, Somov wrote to his sister Anna Mikhailova: "During these troubling days, I though much about Methodius, about the fact that I was often very nasty and cruel. That all his guilt is small, meaningless, and that I just have a picky disposition. That nobody loved me as he did." Mif’s last words, addressed to Somov, were "Kostya… goodbye".

Somov continued to live, paint nudes, keep a diary, hiding intimate moments with simple codes and allegories, records in foreign languages.

10. An admirer, a friend, an executor

One of the great admirers of Konstantin Somov’s talent was Mikhail Vasilyevich Braikevich. A graduate of the Institute of Railways, a talented engineer, Braikevich worked at many imperial construction sites. Braikevich was also a passionate admirer of the works of Russian artists, miriskusniki. An enthusiastic collector, vice-president of the Odesa Society of Fine Arts, he always stated that he bought paintings not only for himself personally, but in order to create a collection intended as a gift to Odesa.
In 1920, going to emigrate, Braikevich gave more than a hundred paintings to the Novorossiysk University (although the circumstances of this step were not easy). Today these works are part of the collection of the Odesa Art Museum.
Konstantin Somov. Sorceress
1915, 52×39 cm
As Mikhail Braikevich wrote in his memoirs about Somov, "… our friendship began in the distant pre-war years, grew stronger over the years and was never broken by a spat… I remember myself impatiently waiting for Somov to leave his St. Petersburg living room for the next toilet room, where he kept his sketches of early youth devoted to nature, often because he himself especially liked them, in order to select two or three things for me. What treasures they were! Somov has the same right as Serov and Levitan to be considered a fine poet of the Russian landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
Having moved to London, Braikevich did not abandon his addictions and began to collect a new collection of the Mir Iskusstva artists' works. In 1931, he came to Somov in Paris, where he bought several works, and also ordered a portrait of his daughter Tatyana to the artist.
Paris became the home of Konstantin Somov until his death in 1939; he died in the arms of his friend, Mikhail Vasilyevich Braikevich and was buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois cemetery. Braikevich paid for the perpetual use of the land for the grave of his friend, and also became the executor of Konstantin Andreevich.
In the anniversary year, several exhibitions of works by Konstantin Somov took place: the artist’s work was widely represented in the State Russian Museum (St. Petersburg) and in the Odesa Art Museum. They exhibited paintings, graphics, as well as porcelain figurines created according to the artist’s sketches.

The review was prepared based on the publications of the Arthive authors, information from the mentioned museums.