Aleksandrovich Serov

Russia • 1865−1911
Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov (7 (19) January 1865 – 22 (5) December 1911, Moscow) was an outstanding Russian painter, a recognized master of psychological portrait, a student of Ilya Repin.

Features of the artist Valentin Serov: the paintings by Valentin Serov were characterized by a “sunny” palette and light intonation - the artist was looking for the opportunity to convey everything that he called “encouraging” in painting. His portraits could be distinguished by a deep penetration into the inner world of the sitter and true honesty. Striving to achieve the surprising similarities, Serov was able to emphasize the special features, sometimes not the most flattering to the model. His later works characterized him as a universal artist, not limited to the stereotypes of any school or direction.

Famous paintings by Valentin Serov: “The girl with peaches”, “In summer”,”Girl in the Sunlight. Portrait of Maria Simonovich”, “Portrait of Ida Rubinstein”, “The Rape of Europa”.

As we look at the bright, sun-splashed paintings by Valentin Serov, it is hard to believe that they were painted by a quite introverted person, who was laconic and gloomy enough. Fyodor Chaliapin, who later became a close friend of the artist, admitted that at first he was simply afraid of this short, sturdy man with gimlet eyes, and a cigarette, which was always in the corner of his mouth. Having become a popular portrait painter, Serov was in great demand. Posing for him was not only a tribute to fashion, but also an opportunity to tickle some nerves: everyone knew that his brush could be truly ruthless. Serov had a capacity to glance into the soul of his sitter, to pull out the very essence to the canvas. He knew how to portray the most intimate, and sometimes, impartial features with a simple look, gesture or posture. While doing that, he didn’t think twice about rich people or members of the royal family.

One of his students, Nikolai Ulyanov, wrote: “Outwardly harsh, self-contained, Serov did not immediately reveal his nature — sincerity and almost childlike directness. Until the end of his life, he was obsessed with his truth, keenly felt it and kept it with the passion of a fanatic.

Mother’s impact

Serov's father, Alexander Nikolayevich, was a famous composer and music critic. Valentina Semenovna, his mother, also played the piano. Valentina Semenovna was always full of ideas. Vladimir Odoyevsky, an outstanding Russian musicologist, wrote in his diary: “Serov married a musician girl - a scholarship holder of the Musical Society, who knows all the Bach fugues by heart ... it is crucial to protect this brilliant creature from the nihilist swamp which she is ready to go into.” And his fears were there for a reason. “Unreliable” young people were constantly all around Valentina Semyonovna, and somebody from her entourage was arrested every now and then. Ilya Repin, who often visited the Serovs’ house, recalled how once he tried to give the hostess a place (all the chairs in the room were occupied by numerous guests), but she only pursed her lips and silently left. Not knowing that Repin insulted Valentina Semenovna, having encroached on the most sacred - gender equality.

Valentin Serov grew up in an extremely artistic environment. In times of need (and they happened, despite professional success), his father borrowed from Dostoevsky. Turgenev and Alexey Tolstoy were frequent guests at their home performances (where little Valentin portrayed an angel). Being with his parents in Switzerland, he, a four-year-old, rode the newfoundland of Richard Wagner. A kaleidoscope of faces, landscapes, interiors, a syncopated European gallop, artillery volleys of champagne, intoxicating bells, castles, scenes, ovations, some controversy about art, and again the rattle of wheels - this was a childhood full of vivid impressions. And at the same time it was an unhappy childhood because Valentin desperately lacked communication with peers.

After the death of his father (Alexander Serov died suddenly from a heart attack), six-year-old Valentin was assigned to the labor commune in the Smolensk province. Valentina Semenovna left for Munich to continue her musical education there. She thought her son would have been a burden, if they had come together. He reunited with his mother a year later: the commune gasped out the last breath, and the boy was brought to Munich. However, it did not change a lot of things. His mother was constantly engaged in the service of art and the struggle for the rights of women - Valentin was left to himself. But it wasn’t better when Valentina Semyonovna eventually paid attention to her son - she was a demanding, despotic, and sometimes cruel teacher.

The only one outlet appeared in the life of a young man after moving to Paris was drawing lessons taught by an old family friend, Ilya Repin.

He was truly happy when he stayed with his mother in Abramtsevo - at the cottage of Savva Mamontov. The river, boats, horses, peers – he had something there that looked like a normal childhood, though not for a long time. Mamontov's wife, Elizaveta Grigorievna, also played music. As a child, Serov noticed the difference between the mother’s loud-blasted performance and Mamontova’s insinuating manner. This distinction was manifested not only at home concerts, and soon Serov began experiencing filial affection towards the soft and wise Elizaveta Grigorievna. Until the end of his days, he loved the Mamontovs and felt himself at home around them.

With regard to Savva Mamontov, his friendship with Valentina Serova cost him a lot. In 1899 she persuaded him to stage her opera “Ilya Muromets”. A lot of people, including the leading actor, Fyodor Chaliapin, warned Mamontov that it was probably going to fail. But Savva could not refuse the wife of the honored composer and the mother of a brilliant painter. The performance was booed by the Moscow public - Mamontov's private opera did not know such failures before.

Nonetheless, Valentina Semenovna Serova achieved considerable success in the field of feminism and went down in history as the first Russian woman composer.

As a mother, she did not succeed.

Going through obstacles and getting recognition

Achieving success was not easy for Valentine Serov. Observing how skillfully, with a couple of strokes, Repin corrected his sketches when he was a child, Serov highly doubted whether he really was that good at drawing. Later, when Serov studied at the Academy of Arts and in the studio of Pavel Chistyakov, those doubts only intensified. The artist especially questioned his skills, looking at another Chistyakov’s student - Mikhail Vrubel.

Having dealt with the model in just one session, Vrubel graciously let her go, and Serov had to ask the girl to pose specifically for him. Vrubel threw a sketch in 15 minutes, whilst Serov fought for weeks over his own sketches. Vrubel's talent was bright and obvious - apparently, he was born with it. Serov worked hard in order to succeed.

Having already achieved certain recognition, the artist Valentin Serov stayed in the shadow of his father for some time - in the reviews his name was usually followed by the specification in brackets “the son of a famous composer”. Serov painted slowly. That feature of him was known to many people. Some potential customers were frightened by the prospect of posing dozens of sessions, and Serov stood against painting from photographs. All this did not contribute to the strengthening of his financial situation - money questions became especially painful when the artist started a family (Serov and his wife Olga had six children).

The situation was getting complicated by the fact that Serov did not know how to ask for help when in need, he hated to borrow, and was, by Repin’s definition, absolutely "not a negotiator." Once the artist asked Pavel Tretyakov for a deposit for a painting, and he, having shown a shadow of displeasure, came out for money. Being utterly confused by the situation, Serov did not wait for Tretyakov - he ran away from embarrassment, and afterwards he was terribly worried that he had offended a good and generous person by his demand. Another time, in order not to become a miser, he took much lower price, than usual, from the Yusupov family, which was infinitely rich (that he later regretted, of course).

Even at times of heyday and glory, when the paintings by Valentin Serov were considered a sign of luxury, the artist often was in need. There was no “jackpot” in his biography, a rapid breakthrough in the morning, when he would have woken up famous. He was striving to succeed and was taking step by step.

The portrait painter

One day (he studied at school at that time), Valentin Serov made an amazing discovery. It turned out that if you drew a fat man even thicker, the similarity would only increase. This method opened up some brilliant prospects. The young artist sought out characteristic features in his classmates and mentors and exaggerated them to the highest extent. To those, who had big noses, the artist drew an actual “weathervanes”. Those, who had thick brows, he provided with big spreading bushes. He portrayed beautiful girls with angel wings behind their shoulders. And he got immediate applause - recognition was undeniable. He showed his drawings to Repin, and he gave him a lecture about the caricature genre. Repin explained to the boy that delicacy and tact were truly required there - the caricature should make people laugh. Serov heeded the warnings of the teacher. Especially after one of his school teachers identified himself in one of the caricatures (and did not laugh). However, he used that experience later on.

Serov got recognition and success as a portrait painter due to that school insight. Like nobody else, he knew how to spot a special feature in the model (surely, no longer as obvious as an excessively large nose) and shift the emotional emphasis to it. Frequently that gave an unexpected (for the customer) effect: Serov had no clue how to flatter. He could portray the merchant with a wallet at the ready (or with a specific gesture). He could portray the lady with a crooked smile and an empty look, or the young heir of the famous family – with self-love and arrogance.

Only when Serov felt sympathy for the model, much more subtle nuances started appearing in his paintings. Valentin Serov could depict everything – from emotional turmoil to willingness to move mountains; and such details as the spread of the shoulders, the inclination of the head, a gesture caught, the emotion guessed through the eyes. It was no longer flawless mastery of the craft and not even art — it was pure magic.

Disregarding the well-known risks, customers pushed each other with their elbows, people lined up in the long queues before the notorious exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery.

The commissions from Nicholas II contributed to the general excitement. However, he ended up in a quarrel with the imperial family. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna tried to give Serov an unsolicited advice, and he suggested her to finish the portrait herself. He did not complete the work, which only raised the price of his share - everyone wanted to be painted by the master who dared to refuse the emperor himself.

Serov was interested in portraying some people of his own accord, the others he was obliged to or didn’t want to offend by refusal. Furthermore, there were relatives, friends, colleagues (and all of them, so to speak, had children). Considering how much time it took Serov to work on his paintings, one can imagine what an avalanche of work he constantly had to resist.

Obviously, to make ends meet, Serov was constantly forced to paint a lot of customers’ portraits. Of course, that was dragging him down big time. When one of his friends mentioned the possibility of receiving a commission, Serov either cautiously or hopefully asked: “Does it look like a mug?

The silent man

As his fame grew, Serov became increasingly involved in public life. After a lot of persuasion, he agreed to lead the full-scale artist’s studio in the Moscow School of Painting. He took an active part in the exhibition activities - first with the Peredvizhniki movement, then with the magazine “World of Art”. He helped Savva Mamontov and Sergei Dyagilev with the design of operas and ballets. He also helped with some things in the Tretyakov Gallery.

Things were complicated. He wasn’t an easy-going person, so it was hard for him to make friends. It was quite difficult for people to get his recognition. Serov did not have a lot of friends; meanwhile he did have a lot of like-minded people or good acquaintances beside him. In addition to Mamontov and Repin, he was particularly close to Konstantin Korovin (referring to the inseparability of these two, Mamontov called them "Serovin"). Serov honestly tried to be friends with Vrubel - at least as long as he kept signs of sanity. He felt great sympathy for Sergey Dyagilev and highly appreciated Chaliapin - not only as an artist, but also as a friend.

From time to time, Serov had quarrels with even the closest people. For instance, after Serov had shown Repin a portrait of Ida Rubinstein, something was instantly off between them. Repin was skeptical of the late “modernist” paintings by Valentin Serov, while Serov reacted very painfully to criticism.

However, even among the people who were close to him, Valentin Serov had a reputation of a “silent man”. He could hardly ever lose his temper due to being very reserved and taciturn.

But, of course, there were some exceptions: some events, to be exact. Sometimes Serov had an inner conflict between his eternal restraint and his keen sense of truth and justice. Having witnessed the shooting of a peaceful demonstration in 1905, he quitted the Academy of Arts, because he blamed the President of the Academy – The Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich. At such moments Serov could not be silent.

Chasing the sun

At the very beginning of his journey while traveling around Italy, the 22-year-old Serov wrote to his future wife, Olga Trubnikova: “It was easy for them (for Italian painters - ed.) to live so carefree. I want to be like that; they paint really dark things, nothing pleasant or encouraging. I want something encouraging and I will paint only encouraging things!

This somewhat naive desire was fully embodied in such famous paintings by the artist as “The Girl with Peaches”, “Girl in the Sunlight. Portrait of Maria Simonovich”, “In Summer”. Valentin Serov was looking for the same “encouraging” moments with the same unquenchable thirst in his own life. But it was in vain.
Being a world-famous painter, a recognized master who got unquestioned authority among his colleagues, and a man surrounded by the love of friends and relatives, he often felt unhappy. And he could not explain the reasons of his blues - neither himself nor others could.

Almost 20 years after the first trip, Serov came back to Venice, in the hope of returning that carefree and sunny feeling of "pleasant and encouraging." The artist's wife was surprised by the metamorphosis that happened to him during trips abroad: Valentin Aleksandrovich came to life noticeably in France or Italy, but, returning home, he became gloomy instantly.

After a serious illness, which the artist suffered from in 1903, hypochondria was added to his usual “gloominess”. Serov became superstitious. Once a parrot flew into the window of his Moscow apartment. The bird, to which Valentin Aleksandrovich became strongly attached, soon died, and he perceived it as a bad sign.

Serov constantly asked his mother about how his father died - he was worried by the heart problems, and he suspected that the illness was hereditary. One day, after a rehearsal in the theater, one of the actresses offered to give Serov a lift, and he, telling the address, joked: “Just don’t confuse. Vagankovsky lane, not Vagankovsky cemetery”.

Valentin Serov died in November 1911. He was only 46 years old. In a posthumous speech, his old colleague, Dmitry Philosophov, said: "We have lost not only a remarkable artist, but also a tremendous moral force. With his death, the artistic family can disintegrate. There is no longer a link, a living moral authority, which both old and young people would equally admire.

Author: Andrey Zimoglyadov
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