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Girl with peaches (Portrait of Vera Mamontova)

Painting, 1887, 85×91 cm

Description of the artwork «Girl with peaches (Portrait of Vera Mamontova)»

Anatomy of a masterpiece: Girl with Peaches

The summer of 1887 was very special in Valentin Serov’s biography. Having returned from Italy, he all of a sudden exploded with Girl with Peaches, the portrait that shifted the artist from from the category of "promising" paiters to the rank of a master. 22-year-old artist managed to find something that made the works of his former teachers looking as the lifeless images next to the "Girl". It was an intuitive insight, a state of "creative intoxication", which Serov himself described "It is necessary at times: to become crazy for a while. And it won't work the other way".

1. The girl


Serov’s model was Vera Mamontova, the daughter of Savva Mamontov, entrepreneur, collector and philanthropist. She was 12. She would have preferred to frolic with his peers outside. But instead, for more than a month she was patiently posing. She and Anton (that was how Valentin Serov was called in Abramtsevo, the estate of the Mamontovs) were friends. Besides the artist bribed her as she promised Vera to ride horses together for any time she would wish. It was her mom Yelizaveta Mamontova who gave permission for riding, and Serov managed to grant it. The portrait was meant as a gift for Yelizaveta, and a surprise was thus ruined. However, no one regretted that.

Little Vera was a perfect model. She had an unconscious confidence, beauty and naturalness which is possible only when you are 12. She was natural in the way she dressed, in her hairstyle, her look and pose. Not accidentally thirteen years later Serov would ask Nicholas II to sit in the same pose, which would add vitality to the portrait.

2. The peaches


The peaches on the table are local, from Mamontovs’s greenhouse. The peach trees were purchased at the estate of Artemovo 16 years earlier. The Mamontovs invited the gardener from Artemovo who took care of the trees. This wasa usual practice for the estate of Abramtsevo – many of those who once visited this hospitable house remained there for a long time or came back again and again.  

3. The window


The window behind which August in Abramtsevo was feasting with its gardens, alleys, river, boats, dogs and horses was a silent reproach to the painter, who tormented the child with sitting all days long on those delightful sunny warm days - tormented child.

Serov reached a fantastic effect of lightness and freshness by placing the light source behind the model. Shining through the leaves, the sunrays reflected from tablecloths and the girl’s blouse, it adds pink and gold to the space around the subject. Warm and delicate coloring, soft reflected light, plenty of air was unusual for Russian painting of those years – all that was characteristic of the Impressionist artists (Serov knew little about them in 1887). Serov’s friends and fellow artists repeatedly claimed that if Serov had painted his Girl with Peaches not in Abramtsevo, but in Paris, then he would have wake up famous the following morning.

4. A doorway or part of a chair


Another detail that reflects an outstanding intuitive impressionist in Serov is as if a random edge of the composition. The doorway to the right of the girl, a half of a chair that is cut off by the frame make the picture look as a piece of reality, spontaneous and relaxed. As the art historian Mark Copshitzer remarked, "the chair, a part of which is captured on the canvas, has its continuation beyond the space of the painting, it marks the beginning of the whole world that did not appear on the canvas, with its chairs and tables, and other peaches, and the other girls". What the convinced impressionist did intentionally, Serov created on a whim, as at the age of 22 he was hardly thinking about what would later be called the "reverse composition". His hand was guided not by knowledge, but inspiration.

5. The table



The table at which Vera sits was the heart of the Abramtsevo estate, the Mamontovs and their numerous guests used to have lunch there. Earlier, when the estate was owned by the writer Sergey Aksakov, Turgenev and Gogol were the guests there. The Mamontovs kept on the tradition and Abramtsevo became a second home for Valentin Serov and Mikhail Vrubel; Ilya Repin and Fyodor Chaliapin were frequent guests in the estate. Over time, there was a tradition: the Mamontovs’ friens put their signatures on the table cloth with chalk, and Vera embroidered them capturing a unique collection of autographs. In the Serov’s painting the table cloth is still white. Perhaps, the visiting celebrities began to sign on the tablecloth later, or the artist did not want to overload his airy masterpiece with unnecessary colors.

6. The leaves


Serov began working on the painting in August and finished it in September. Yellow maple leaves on the table add a touch of melancholy to the subject. It is a reminder that neither summer nor childhood, alas, are not eternal.

7. The plate


The Abramtsevo workshops were famous for the decorative ceramics, including majolica. Especially succeeded Vrubel, who at one time managed the local production. However, Vrubel will have get acquainted with Mamontov only two years after, so he had nothing to do with this plate.

8. The grenadier


The toy soldiers (behind Vera’s right shoulder) was purchased by Savva Mamontov in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra in 1884. The Grenadier was made of unpainted wood, it was painted by Valentin Serov. This is an important detail. Everything in this house was for familiar and friendly in the house. When visiting the Mamontovs as a 10-year-old boy, Serov immediately fell in love with Abramtsevo. He loved Savva and Elizaveta Mamontovs as is they were his own mother and father. Their children were his friends, he spent the best years of his childhood there. Only in a house like this, where he knew every nail, only surrounded by the people whom he considered his family, Serov could paint such a carefree and sunny portrait.

Writen by Andrew Zimoglyadov
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Portrait

Style of art: Impressionism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1887

Size: 85×91 cm

Artwork in selections: 163 selections