Vasily Polenov (May 20 (June 1) 1844, St. Petersburg - July 18, 1927, Borok Estate, Tula Region) was an outstanding Russian landscape painter, a master of historical and genre painting, a teacher at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He was the student of Pavel Chistyakov, the teacher of Isaac Levitan and Konstantin Korovin. Vasily Polenov was a talented decorator and organizer of folk theaters as well.
Features of Vasily Polenov's art: Polenov’s paintings were easily distinguished by bright, pure colors, as well as an excess of sunlight and air which was quite unusual for Russian painting of the second half of the 19th century. The artist was considered to be the creator of the so-called “intimate landscape”, “lyrical landscape”, “mood landscape”; he was the first painter who presented the plein air painting as an independent work of art in Russia. Polenov was keenly interested in the problems of painting technique, chemistry of colors and color interaction. He conducted experiments aimed at the long-term preservation of the paint layer, due to which most of Vasily Polenov’s paintings were very well preserved.
In 1871, an unprecedented event took place at the Imperial Academy of Arts - a large gold medal was immediately awarded to five competitors: Polenov, Repin, Makarov, Zelensky and Urlaub. That caused some trouble including a scandal. It turned out that Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, who undertook to supervise the Academy, was simply not aware that the competition existed in order to choose the one, the best one.
The grand duke absolutely refused to change his rushed decision: it was not the king’s business to take the words back. All five received the right to overseas pension. But at a gala dinner, Vladimir Alexandrovich came up with congratulations only to Polenov’s father. “That was so touching!”, exalted ladies choked with delight. “The Grand Duke thanks his father for painting his son!” A certain Madame Brock spoke about the superiority of “Raising of Jairus’ Daughter”, a competition painting by the artist Polenov: “How noticeable that it was painted by a young man from a good family!” Even Vasily Polenov’s twin sister, Vera, supported that statement: “I didn’t like the rest of the paintings, each of them remind me of Russian artists (no offense intended), and even the vaunted Repin”.
Kramskoi (a commoner from Ostrogozhsk) dismissively told Repin (a soldier’s son from Chuhuiv) about a man from St. Petersburg and hereditary aristocrat Polenov: “This is a gentleman”. The critic Vladimir Stasov, who did not like the paintings by Vasily Polenov, was curiously proving to the artist that Polenov himself had a “non-Russian soul” and it would be better if Polenov didn’t return to Moscow, but settled somewhere in Paris or Berlin instead, he thought that would suit him better.
The entire Polenov’s biography refuted those ridiculous preconceptions. Certainly, he brought magnificent sketches from Palestine (1, 2, 3), and the paintings by Vasily Polenov created in Normandy and Greece, Egypt and Lebanon were really good (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). But the best ones, the most iconic and most famous paintings by the artist were precisely Russian views; his “intimate” landscapes painted in Moscow, and in all of those places where Polenov lived for a long time - the parental estate on the Oyat River, the legendary estate of Savva Mamontov called Abramtsevo and his own Polenovo estate on the Oka River, near Tarusa, which was called “Borok” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) - a distinctive local folk word.
“It seems like people in here, for some reason, consider me an aristocrat. This is some kind of misapprehension. I do not feel any noble qualities in myself. I’m constantly working, and I love what I do more than anything else”, Polenov complained in his letters.
“A young man from a good family”
Vasily Polenov was the rarest painter among all Russian painters of the 19th century when, as they say, “it was destined” for him to become an artist. Polenov’s beloved maternal grandmother, Vera Nikolaevna Voejkova, “babasha” as her grandchildren affectionately called her (despite her despotic disposition), was the daughter of the architect Nikolay Lvov (known from the portraits by Levitsky) and the student of the poet Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin. She loved poetry, was fond of telling tales, and quoted Karamzin’s “History of the Russian State” almost by heart. Many paintings by the artist Polenov owe their existence to those impressions of family stories, peasant life and the picturesque nature of the village of Olshanka, where Polenov visited his grandmother.
“Babasha” entertained her young grandchildren as following: she organized competitions for the best painting. Everything was for real, with all the awards (medals), just as in the Academy: Vasya got a “gold” medal, Vera got a “silver” one, and completely indifferent to drawing Alyosha and Kostya got nothing, while “bronze” went to little Lilya. And grandma Voejkova was not wrong, except that she made a mistake considering the girls: the beautiful Vera (Vasily and she were both born on the same day and at the same hour, though), didn’t possess any artistic inclinations, but the younger “Lilya” (Elena Polenova) would become the first professional female artist in Russia.
Polenov’s father Dmitry Vasilyevich served as a diplomat in Greece, collected authentic ancient artifacts, and was friends with Karl Bryullov. Dmitry’s wife, Marya Alekseevna (the artist’s mother), was even taught painting by Bryullov (but truth be told, just a little) - she painted with watercolors. She introduced her children to art from an early age. When the “The Appearance of Christ Before the People” was brought to St. Petersburg, on which the artist Ivanov worked in Italy for two long decades, the Polenovs with all five children went to see it and “join in” several times. That childhood memory became fundamental for the future artist. Polenov’s famous paintings on biblical themes (1,2, 3) received an impulse out of pure admiration and excitement when Vasily first saw Ivanov’s painting as a teenager.
“They are the colorist”: paintings by Vasily Polenov as “proto-impressionism”
Polenov’s parents invited Pavel Chistyakov to teach his son painting. Later, a famous teacher, Chistyakov was then a simple student. He immediately recognized and appreciated the gift of young Polenov for color harmony, magnifying him as “They” and explaining: “They are a colorist”.
Contemporaries and followers of Polenov would appreciate him, first of all, for the clarity and purity of colors, for the atypical excess of light and air that was extraordinary for Russian art at that time. The paintings by Vasily Polenov were literally full of those things. Not only the radiant “Moscow Yard” - even his “The Burnt Forest” impressed viewers with the festive brightness of greenery.
Very soon, buyers of paints in Moscow shops would naively demand: “Give us the paints, as in the paintings by the artist Polenov! Such, you know, bright, sunny, even if they will cost us a fortune!”
Polenov was not an artist-psychologist or an ideologist by nature, like many of his friends among the Peredvizhniki movement were. He was interested in the artistic side of things, the ratio of colors, and color harmony. At the Moscow School of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture, he began to introduce his students, among whom Levitan and Korovin especially stood out, to the “chemistry of colors”, to the secrets of mixing them and applying them to the canvas, to the possibilities and effects of the mysterious color interactions.
Different types of love in the artist’s life
In terms of love, Polenov turned out to be, indeed, a true aristocrat. He was nicknamed “the knight of beauty”; familiar ladies assured that Polenov was not engaged in any casual relationships, and he even peeled an orange elegantly, like a prince. When he first seriously fell in love, he was already about 30 years-old. It happened in Rome. Polenov often visited artistic social circles gathered at Emilia and Adrian Prakhov’s, Elizabeth and Savva Mamontov’s. There he saw the 18-year-old Marusya Obolenskaya for the first time, a Russian girl who studied opera singing in Italy. Polenov’s feelings were so strong that he was completely at a loss for words. He was called the “ascetic in love.” He did not dare to speak to Marusya. And then the irreparable happened: she died as a result of a medical error. The weakened Obolenskaya was mistakenly vaccinated against smallpox, which turned out to be fatal. Later, the death of Vera’s twin sister would lead to the creation of a gloomy painting by Vasily Polenov “The Ill Woman”. There were the features of both the artist’s beloved girl and his beloved sister in the painting.
The second love found Polenov even more suddenly: in the compartment of the train he met a charming woman. It turned out that her name was also Maria - Maria Klimentova, and – oh, goodness! - she was an opera singer, which Marusya Obolenskaya might have become. Amazed by the coincidence, Polenov fell in love passionately and quite quickly. Klimentova did not reciprocate his feelings, but she did not explicitly reject him either. She was bringing the artist closer to her, or pushing him away again. Later, a similar affair (based not on love, but on mere female vanity), that opera singer had with the writer Chekhov. Polenov, returning from his next trip abroad, learned with bitterness that Maria Klimentova was hasty - no, she didn’t die like Marusya Obolenskaya did, but married some lawyer, and subsequently began to drink out of dissatisfaction, and then joined the card game.
The artist sought solace, as always, from his friend, Savva Mamontov, in his estate Abramtsevo. Only there he could rest, surrendering to creativity. Many famous Polenov’s paintings were made in the open air at the Abramtsevo, where he created the scenery for the performances, as well as wrote music for them. Together with Vasnetsov and Repin, he developed the design and decoration of the famous Abramtsevo church - the “fabulous” Church of the Savior Not Made by Hands. Polenov did not immediately understand, and then for a long time could not believe that the relative of the Mamontovs, Natasha Yakunchikova, was really into him. She was 14 years younger than the artist, embroidered church banners according to his sketches and loved Polenov passionately and silently. When the cherished brainchild of all the inhabitants of Abramtsevo - the church - was completed, Natalya Yakunchikova and Vasily Polenov were the first couple who married in there.
Natalia Vasilievna was one of the most devoted wives of Russian artists: the oeuvre and paintings by Vasily Polenov became the meaning of her life. The Polenov family had six children. The Polenovs acquired the Borok estate near Tarusa (Polenov’s famous paintings depicting views of the Oka river were made there), they built schools and a church, they paid for the work of teachers in the neighboring villages of Bekhovo and Stakhovo, they organized a wonderful folk theater and a “diorama” from paintings by the artist Polenov (a kind of “travel around the world” for peasants who didn’t go further than their native village) - overall, they made every effort possible to ensure that the difficult and sometimes hopeless Russian life could become, at least, partly as radiant, bright and colorful as the best paintings by Vasily Polenov.