In the summer of 1888, Valentin Serov was visiting Domotkanovo, the estate of his friend and relative Vladimir Derviz (who married Serov’s cousin, Nadezhda Simonovich). He was 23 years old. He had returned from Italy and was full of impressions and strength. Serov longed for pleasant things — love, joy, simple sunny subjects. Once walking in the park, he sat his other cousin, Maria Simonovich, on a bench under an oak tree. Admiring how intricately the sun rays sifted through the foliage played on the girl’s face, he rushed for the canvas.
The traditionally unhurried Serov worked even slower than usual. Domotkanovo was one of his most favourite places on the planet, and if he could, he would remain in that carefree sunny day forever.
He has been painting the portrait for three months, taking breaks only during cloudy weather. Maria, who was studying to be a sculptor, was familiar with the peculiarities of the profession, and did not grumble. “The sessions took place in the morning and afternoon
,” she later recalled. “All days long, I happily posed for the famous artist, which we considered him to be, however, not yet recognized in society, but long recognized in our family... We worked hard, both equally carried away, he by good painting, I by the importance of my mission”.
After all, Maria Simonovich made an important contribution to the work: she declared that, in her opinion, the portrait was finished, and prepared to go to Petersburg. Perhaps, if not for her volitional decision, Serov would have “overdried” the picture and lost that magical play of light and shadow, which made him a worthy successor to such recognized “sun worshipers” as Aivazovsky and Kuindzhi and gave rise to talk about Serov as an artist who invented his own impressionism.
Grateful for her patience, Valentin Serov gave his sister 3 roubles for the journey. It was a serious amount for both of them, young and not yet on their feet.
Half a century later, in Paris, a Russian engineer visited Maria Simonovich-Lvova and her husband. He noticed a reproduction of the Sunlit Girl on the wall and asked whose portrait it was. He confessed that the heroine of the picture was his first love, and he went to the Tretyakov Gallery every day to admire her.
Serov himself considered the Sunlit Girl one of his most important successes. According to the recollections of Igor Grabar, shortly before his death, Valentin Alexandrovich looked at his painting in the Tretyakov Gallery for a long time, and then waved his hand and said as if to himself: “I painted this thing, and I made nothing more in my life, no matter how I puffed up, I wasted out here”*.
*Serov painted his Girl with Peaches before the Sunlit Girl, when he was 22 years old. And he would portray his cousin Maria Simonovich (married to Lvov) more than once; one of her portraits is now kept in the Museum d'Orsay.
Written by Andrii Zymogliadov