Love Story in Paintings. Arkhip and Vera Kuindzhi
The artist Arkhip Kuindzhi
had two loves in his life. The first was loud,
frantic — the Art. And the second was quiet,
but just as strong — his wife,
the only companion of his whole life,
Vera Leontyevna. Arkhip Ivanovich was a rather secretive and modest person,
he did not keep diaries,
he rarely wrote letters,
he did not tell much about himself. Testimonies of his adolescence,
as well as stories from his family life,
only remained in the memories of his students and contemporaries,
we extract them bit by bit. At the same time,
we abandon usual clichés like "a dozen years of waiting" and "a one hundred rouble advance for the seriousness of intentions".
Young Arkhip met his future wife in his native Mariupol. When did it happen? Many sources indicate 1863. If we take into account the year the artist was born (1842, according to historians, although both 1840 and 1843 are discussed), and the year of birth of his future wife Vera (born either in 1854, or in 1855), then at the time of their acquaintance Arkhip was 21 years old, and Vera was only 9 years old. Even if we consider the 2 to 3 year ranges in the interpretation of dates, the tragic stories about "12 years of waiting" told by many who write about the fate of Vera Kuindzhi, still look like untenable. But what was it like in reality?
In the 1913 biographical ,
"A. I. Kuindzhi" by the publicist Mikhail Nevedomsky and Kuindzhi’s old friend,
the artist Ilya Repin
, there is an interesting mention of one of the earliest works by Arkhip Ivanovich. "…From the drawings of the young man Kuindzhi,
note the portrait of the father of his future wife,
the merchant Shapovalov-Ketcherdzhi: this work relates to the seventeen years of Arkhip Ivanovich and was preserved by Mrs. Losevich" writes Nevedomsky. Add 17 years to 1842,
the estimated year of Kuindzhi’s birth,
to get 1859. Vera Shapovalova-Kuindzhi was only 4 years old at that time. Therefore,
one cannot exclude the version that Arkhip Ivanovich was familiar with the family of his future wife long before he fell in love with Vera Leontyevna. They lived in the same city,
both came from Greek families who always stayed together.
So, the future wife of Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi was born, like himself, in Mariupol. Vera’s father, the Russified Greek Eleutherios Spiridonovich Ketcherdzhi, was a very wealthy merchant who held his family’s business — making hats and selling furs. Hence the first part of the family’s compound surname, Shapovalov-Ketcherdzhi (Ukrainian ‘shapoval' means a hat fuller). Striving to give their daughter a decent education, the parents sent the girl to Kerch, to the Kushnikovsky Institute for Noble Maidens. Tuition fees were quite affordable for children from middle class families. Here Vera was taught mathematics, Russian, French and Greek. The program included art history and literature, painting, dance, music, handicrafts, housekeeping, and the Law of God. The training lasted seven years, and during this time the students only left the Institute to travel to their relatives. Over these years Vera could surely meet Arkhip Kuindzhi when she came home for the holidays.
Kushnikovsky Institute for Noble Maidens. The Source
If we assume that noble maidens were admitted to the Kushnikovsky Institute, as in Smolny, at the age of 9 to 13, then Vera Shapovalova-Ketcherdzhi graduated from the institution when she was 16 to 19 years old. All these terms, of course, are approximate due to large gaps in the exact dates of our heroes' biographies. Nevertheless, it can be argued with a fair probability that the young people have known each other for many years, met from time to time, and at some point their feelings flared up.
The story of Vera’s father demanding "one hundred gold roubles" and then larger sums from Kuindzhi as a sign of his serious intentions, seems far-fetched. A girl from a wealthy merchant family, and even with a brilliant education (and a rich dowry!), could constitute a very profitable match. Thus it really was love, moreover, mutual. It is clear that in order to marry, Kuindzhi needed to achieve financial success. And he did.
The young man dreamt to study at the capital’s Academy of Arts, and this dream was fuelled by everyone who happened to see his drawings. Making a living, Kuindzhi mastered the art of photo retouching, which gave him his bread and supported him on the way to his dreams. While Vera was in the elementary grades of the Institute of Noble Maidens, in 1868 he held and failed his first exams at the Academy of Arts, but the dream was there, nearby. Finding a job as a retoucher in a photo studio, Kuindzhi spent most of his money on paints and canvas, and on 21 August 1868, he presented his painting, A Tatar Village in the Crimea by Moonlight, to the Council of the Academy of Arts. The decision of the Council was positive, the picture was approved for an academic exhibition, and Kuindzhi received the title of a free artist. His talent was so clear and indisputable that a year later, harsh academics allowed him to take exams only in basic subjects. In 1870 he received his diploma as an out-of-class artist.
Arkhip Kuindzhi. A Tatar Village on Crimea’s South Coast by Moonlight (detail) 1868
The location of the painting is unknown.
Photocopy (reproduced from: Nevedomsky M.P., Repin I.E. Kuindzhi. SPb., 1913). Photo library of the State Tretyakov Gallery. The Source
Kuindzhi spent the next five years with the Association of the Itinerants. He painted Autumn Thaws (
for which in 1872 he received the title of the 3rd degree class artist), Forgotten Village,
Chumak Tract in Mariupol. He made good friends with his mates in the Academy,
Ilya Repin, Viktor Vasnetsov
, Fyodor Burov
. In 1873,
he met Ivan Kramskoy
, who rented an apartment next to him. Kuindzhi began to attend soirees and parties at the Kramskoys: Ivan Nikolayevich considered his colleague very talented,
but so much original that "the painters did not understand,
but the audience noted". Kuindzhi’s works had great success at exhibitions of the Itinerant Society,
which he entered in 1875. He became famous,
the collector Pavel Tretyakov
paid 1,500 roubles for two paintings. Kuindzhi could afford trips abroad. In 1875 he came to Paris,
where he met his friend Ilya Repin.
In a friendly conversation,
Kuindzhi said that he finally intended to marry his longtime chosen one,
Vera Shapovalova-Ketcherdzhi. Here,
a wedding dress coat and a top hat were bought,
and Arkhip Kuindzhi went to Mariupol to fulfil his promise.
Vera and Arkhip got married in the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos, in which Kuindzhi himself was baptised as a child. The wedding was big and noisy, according to Greek custom. The just married went to St. Petersburg, and then on their honeymoon to the island of Valaam. On the way, an unfortunate adventure happened: because of the bad weather, the steamer on which the Kuindzhis were travelling ran aground, and the passengers had to flee in boats. Everything ended well, and Arkhip Ivanovich subsequently repeatedly described this case in conversations with his friends. Subsequently, the couple visited Valaam again without any incidents.
In St. Petersburg, the newly-weds settled on Vasilievsky Island. In 1876 Kuindzhi rented an apartment with a studio in the house number 16 on Maly Prospekt, corner of the 6th line. As the literary critic Mikhail Nevedomsky recalled, in this house there was "…the life of an artistic bohemia: in noisy crowds, comrades migrated from one apartment to another at every hour of the day or night…"
The only surviving image of Vera Leontyevna Kuindzhi is a small pencil ,
made by Arkhip Ivanovich in 1875,
shortly after their wedding. He did not paint his wife anymore,
although he himself repeatedly posed for portraits to friends. There was a time when Kuindzhi insisted that his wife receive an art education,
for which he acquired Alexander Ivanov
's student copy of Denner’s The Beggar. It is not known for certain why Vera Leontyevna did not ,
but this work of Ivanov remained in the family,
along with another painting that did not belong to Kuindzhi’s brush — a portrait of the artist by Repin.
Arkhip Kuindzhi. Portrait of the artist’s wife, Vera Leontyevna Kuindzhi. 1875
. Lead pencil on paper. 20.9×13.1 cm (
sheet size). State Russian Museum. The Source
A year after his marriage, Arkhip Kuindzhi painted the Ukrainian Night painting. It was a fantastic success! The audience beat a path to see it and didn’t believe their eyes — this modest was so fantastically realistic, subtle and luxurious. The Ukrainian Night marked he beginning of the romantic period in the work of Kuindzhi. Itinerants' colours and moods were forgotten: the artist found his own unique style, his vision of light and shadow, his path in art. And his beloved and unique Vera, his Muse and inspirer was next to him.
The democratic nature of Arkhip Ivanovich was reflected in his home life, which was very modest. The couple lived together, without servants or a cook. They had no children. Of course, Vera Leontyevna did not go to the market, the janitor or the doorman bought the groceries, bringing baskets under the door of their apartment. The family’s daily menu was simple, Vera Leontyevna herself cooked simple dishes that suited both of them. She also dealt with accounts, kept correspondence, obviously answered letters; Kuindzhi was known to be not a very literate person.
The furnishings of the Kuindzhi family have almost remained unchanged over the years since they bought a set of simple and sturdy furniture for 200 roubles at an auction and which they took with them from apartment to apartment. The modesty of their housing amazed their guests — no lush curtains, no figurines, no souvenirs, no artist’s numerous paintings on the walls. In his heart, Arkhip Ivanovich has always remained a real itinerant democrat. His beloved Vera supported him in everything, their simple way of life did not burden her at all. She decorated the apartment with flowers, planted wax ivy and grapes on the windows.
Kuindzhi adored music, played the violin himself, and Vera Leontyevna played the grand piano, which was the only expensive piece of furniture in their ascetic house. The couple often played a duet. Arkhip Ivanovich was very fond of Italian composers, idolized Beethoven. When visiting, he usually refused to play music himself, only making exceptions for the Kramskoys, and only when there were no strangers. Sometimes the couple visited the theatre, preferring opera performances.
Arkhip Kuindzhi did not like country life in its traditional Russian meaning. He constantly needed fresh impressions, so the artist preferred to travel in the summer. In 1878, he and his wife went abroad to the World’s Fair in Paris. They often visited the south, travelled around Ukraine, regularly visited relatives in Mariupol, went to Crimea, which Kuindzhi loved so much that he subsequently acquired a large land plot near Kikineiz. The artist continued to participate in exhibitions of the Association of Itinerant Art Exhibitions, maintained close friendly relations with Ilya Repin and Vasnetsov, with whom, according to Vera Leontyevna, they were "like brothers".
The break with the Itinerants happened at the beginning of 1880 after a big scandal with Mikhail Klodt
, who criticized Kuindzhi’s paintings presented at the 7th exhibition of the Association. Arkhip Ivanovich showed much restraint and resourcefulness — he held an exhibition of one painting,
Moonlight Night on the Dnieper,
in Paris and St. Petersburg. To convey the idea of the work better,
Kuindzhi used a directed beam of electric light. This innovative step made the painting even more attractive: about 13 thousand people came to see the painting in St. Petersburg in two weeks. It was a tremendous success,
both with the public and with critics. The painting was acquired by the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich for five thousand roubles requested by the artist.
In 1882 Kuindzhi ceased exhibiting. He devoted himself to other pursuits: he developed the principles of flying vehicles, investigated the properties and formulae of paints, made a close friendship with the famous scientist Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev and became a frequent guest at traditional Mendeleev’s "Wednesdays". It is notable that the cream of the creative intelligentsia of the capital gathered here, many artists came. Ilya Repin recalled these meetings: "In a large physics at the university courtyard, we, the Itinerant artists, gathered in the company of D. I. Mendeleev and F. F. Petrushevsky to study, under their guidance, the properties of different colours. There is a device for measuring the sensitivity of the eye to the subtle nuances of tones. Kuindzhi broke the record in sensitivity to perfect subtleties, and some of our mates had laughingly low sensitivity." Vera Kuindzhi was also familiar with Dmitry Ivanovich; there is evidence of the scientist himself that Vera Leontyevna did translations of scientific articles into French for him.
Dmitry Mendeleev (left) and Arkhip Kuindzhi (right) play chess at Mendeleev’s house. The game is watched by Anna Ivanovna Mendeleeva, the scientist’s second wife. (C. 1882). The alleged author is Fyodor Bloumbach.
Kuindzhi’s love for "high viewpoints" in 1891 prompted him to purchase three residential buildings on the 10th line of Vasilievsky Island. Actually,
he liked only one,
but it was only possible to buy all at once. The houses were pledged for a fantastic amount of 600 thousand roubles,
but Kuindzhi fell in love with the views from the roof of the five-storey building and spent almost all of his savings,
and put this burden on himself.
The painter Konstantin Kryzhitsky left us the memories of Arkhip Ivanovich himself:
"…This entire roof,
where I sit,
must be cut and levelled,
then all this must be done as a platform… Put some soil,
birds will live here,
beehives can be put,
there will be a garden… You can paint all sorts of sketches here… this is such a workshop and such a view,
which is nowhere to be found!"
Kuindzhi had to personally take part in the repairs,
deal with careless tenants (
we are sure that Vera Leontyevna shared many of the trouble with him). The Kuindzhis moved to the upper floor,
occupied two apartments,
and a garden was arranged on the roof.However, the burdensome purchase turned out to be a profitable investment of capital, a guarantee of real wealth.
Kuindzhi’s "period of silence" ended,
and the artist with the rank of professor headed the studio of the Academy of Arts. Home ownership began to weigh on him. In 1897,
a buyer turned up,
and Kuindzhi happily sold the houses for 385 thousand roubles. This amount formed the basis of Arkhip Ivanovich’s fortune,
and also became a source of future funds,
which the artist widely spent on charity.
"Kuindzhi just gave out his money to everyone. ‘After all, you know what is up? There is such poverty all around that you do not know who is fed, who is not… They are coming from everywhere, everyone needs help…' he justified his wastefulness. Hundreds of thousands he donated to charity, to prizes for emerging artists and the arrangement of opening days. Kuindzhi was not vain and did not demand anything in return. It happened that, when he once heard that someone was having a hard time, he embarrassedly transferred money through acquaintances with the words: ‘I am not familiar with him, I feel embarrassed, so you do… You pass it on to him'."
… While teaching at the Academy, Kuindzhi took his students to museums in Vienna, Dresden, Paris. He climbed on the Crimean mountains ahead of everyone. If someone ordered an expensive dish during the trip lunch, Kuindzhi insisted that the same should be served to everyone (the bill, of course, was on him)…" — a biographical of the artist in Arthive.
Kuindzhi left the Academy,
as he supported his students in their confrontation with the rector. However,
his resignation did not at all mean a final break with either the Academy or the followers. His students were the outstanding painters Nicholas Roerich
, Arkady Rylov
, Konstantin Bogaevsky
, Arkady Chumakov
, Vilhelms Purvītis
, the future founder of the Latvian Academy of Arts. Together with them,
Kuindzhi travelled around the Crimea,
went on a European tour and paid all expenses himself.
Having lived in a state-owned apartment for a short time,
Kuindzhi acquired a flat in the Eliseev house,
where Ivan Kramskoy and Arkhip Ivanovich himself once lived. 10 years earlier,
the house was enhanced with an attic,
specially designed for the work of artists. Kuindzhi worked in this atelier from 1897 to 1910,
he adored high points. From the roof,
he contemplated adorable views of Vasilievsky Island,
Peter and Paul Cathedral,
the Neva and its embankments.
In the mornings,
the artist worked in his studio,
and exactly at noon,
birds flocked to the roof of the house; Kuindzhi welcomed them,
fed and treated. According to the itinerant artist Yakov Minchenkov
, Arkhip Ivanovich could complain about his wife,
who was ironic about his love to feed the birds on the roof of their house. "My old woman says: I can forsee your fate,
Arkhip Ivanovich: a carriage will come for you,
they will say,
there is a crow freezing on the road,
save it. And they will take you,
however not to the crow,
but to the asylum," the artist sneered.
"Arkhip Kuindzhi adored birds. He considered himself "the one chosen by birds", he said that birds understand his speech, they easily come to his hands. Usually the laconic Arkhip Ivanovich became extremely talkative when it came to birds. He sat for hours on the roof of his house, "talking" with pigeons and crows. Every month, to feed his feathered friends, he bought 60 French rolls, up to 10 kg of meat and 6 sacks of oats. He tirelessly healed the birds' broken wings and legs and even did tracheotomy to some unfortunate bird with his own hands. The illustrator Pavel Shcherbov once published a cartoon in which Kuindzhi put an enema on a bird. They say that Arkhip Ivanovich, who did not have a special sense of humour, was terribly offended…" — from Arthive’s publication, Strokes for the Portrait: 6 Funny Stories about Arkhip Kuindzhi.
Kuindzhi was widely known for his generosity. He lived extremely modestly, always helped both needy colleagues and local vagabonds. Both inventors and crooks went to Kuindzhi with petitions for help. It was decided to accept applications in writing, and Vera Leontievna was in charge of all this "application office". On the initiative of the artist, the Academy established annual Spring Exhibitions, he transferred one hundred thousand roubles to its prize fund. In 1909, on the initiative of Arkhip Ivanovich, the Society of Artists was created, named after him, to which he bequeathed almost everything he owned — money, land, paintings. Vera Leontyevna agreed with his decision. According to various sources, Arkhip Ivanovich left his wife ten thousand roubles and an annual allowance (the amount of which varies from 600 to 2500 roubles).
In the spring of 1909, after a trip to Crimea, Kuindzhi fell ill — his heart, always healthy and strong, began to fail. This time the artist managed to cope with the disease, and he continued his efforts to organize the Society of Artists. A year later, he went to his Crimean estate again, and suffered from acute attacks of illness. He fell ill in Yalta with pneumonia, and soon Vera Leontyevna came to him. After the first signs of recovery, the wife left for the capital to prepare for the arrival of her husband, but Kuindzhi’s condition worsened again. This time Vera Leontyevna came to her husband to take him to a resort in Sestroretsk, but upon reaching St. Petersburg, it became clear that there was little hope for the artist to recover. Arkhip Ivanovich’s painful parting with life lasted two months. Kuindzhi suffered terribly, he was constantly surrounded by his closest students, doctors, and Vera Leontyevna was always there.
The artist died on 11 July 1910 under the Julian calendar.
After the funeral Vera Leontyevna took an active part in the work of the Society of Artists named after her husband for some time, helped to sort his paintings and documents. Her further fate is practically unknown, except that after the October Revolution she continued to live in Petrograd. Vera Leontyevna Kuindzhi died in the 1920s. The A. I. Kuindzhi Society of Artists existed until 1930.