The Moscow Courtyard is the most famous painting of Vasily Polenov. An idyllic view of old Moscow, where the slender architectural beauty of churches coexists with patriarchal everyday life, the tent-shaped bell tower stands peacefully near a rickety barn, and everything depicted is immersed in a single air environment permeated by the sun: a two-storey mansion with an Empire façade and tin drain pipes, a cheerful green lawn in the backyards, paths in the grass, the horse waiting for its owner, a hurried female figure with a bucket in her hand, busily stepping chickens, a well, burdocks under the fence, clothes on ropes, roof slopes in the background and trees growing chaotically without any intervention of a gardener, as well as children playing and a desperately crying baby that does not disturb the general good mood, birds in the sky and rare clouds. The bright plein air painting, which is so different from Polenov’s contemporary genre painting by the Itinerants, makes one speak of the Moscow Courtyard as the first proto-impressionist painting in Russian art.
The Moscow Courtyard was created almost by accident and in spite of the circumstances
Perhaps the most surprising thing in the history of the creation of the Moscow Courtyard is that it was painted not by a Muscovite, but by a man who did not even know Moscow at that time. Polenov was born in St. Petersburg, where he studied at the Academy of Arts and at the Faculty of Law in the University, then he lived abroad for 4 years, and the most authoritative Russian art critic of that time, Vladimir Stasov, convinced Polenov: “You don’t need Moscow for anything, just as the whole Russia in general. Your soul is not at all Russian, it is not only non-historical, but not even ethnographic. It seems to me that it is best for you to live permanently in Paris or Germany.”
After all, what brought Vasily Dmitrievich to Moscow?
Polenov had long been looking for his own path in art. He graduated from the Academy as a historical painter. His father, historian and archaeologist, idolized Alexander Ivanov and wanted his son to become his follower, and his mother, a student of Karl Bryullov, pressed on Vasily in her letters: “Do not exchange yourself for trifles, I bless you to paint a big picture.” His parents expected something academic and large-scale from him. At that time, landscape was not perceived as an equal artistic genre, and Polenov was a little ashamed of his inner inclination towards landscape. Therefore he decided to take on the big historical picture, The Tonsure of an Unfit Princess. The subject was borrowed from Russian history: when Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s wife, Maria Miloslavskaya died, a bride show was announced for the beautiful boyar daughters — who would be most suitable for the role of the new queen. Instigated by boyars (apparently, the Naryshkins), the most pretty contender was “incapacitated”: the nanny, who dressed the girl before the final show, squeezed her head with her kokoshnik so hard that she fainted and was recognized as spoiled. The tsar married Natalia Naryshkina (she gave birth to the future emperor Peter I), while the “unfit” bride, as usual, was sent off to the monastery.
For this picture (only its name came down to us, not even a sketch of the composition has survived) Polenov needed Moscow. He spent many days sketching the cathedrals and towers of the Moscow Kremlin (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and found housing for himself near the Arbat. The apartment in Trubnikovsky lane seemed gloomy and uncomfortable at first. Polenov intended to take his leave, but at the last moment, he looked out of the window, saw a courtyard with outbuildings and domes a little further away, and stayed. “This house is no longer there,” the artist wrote later. “It was at the corner of Durnovsky and Trubnikovsky lanes. I went to look for an apartment, saw a note on the door and entered to look, and right from the window I saw this view. I immediately sat down and painted it.”
Experts clarify: in 1877, Polenov did not paint the picture that became so famous, but drew a vertical sketch, in a slightly different angle and with a less radiant colour. We know today, that the artist returned to the Moscow Courtyard almost a year later, in March 1878, when he got back from the Russian-Turkish war. Polenov was personally summoned to the battle ground by the Grand Duke and future emperor Alexander III. Polenov would bring awards from the war, a medal and a gold cross, but not paintings. Whereas the family, proud of the imperial attention, waited for canvases by Polenov about the valour of Russian weapons. His friend Repin scolded him for boasting (Repin was the only one who thought so) of his close relations with the autocrat and for not bringing sketches of military operations. However all these other people’s demands and aspirations did not coincide with Polenov’s inner mood. He felt a vocation for landscape painting. He returned to the same apartment in Moscow, put his last year’s sketch on an easel. He expanded the composition, added some figures, but most importantly, he saturated his landscape-genre painting, his Moscow Courtyard with such light, such a real feeling of summer air and such immediacy of happiness, which is even now experienced by the visitors of the Tretyakov Gallery. “It seems to me that art should give happiness and joy, otherwise it is worthless,” Polenov was convinced.
Interesting facts about the Moscow Courtyard by Polenov
• The Moscow Courtyard was the artist’s debut at the 1878 Travelling Exhibition. The painting was an unexpectedly great success with the public and Tretyakov immediately acquired it.
• The Moscow Courtyard was replicated on stamps and postcards, it became a kind of Moscow emblem, but Polenov himself did not immediately realize that he had created a masterpiece. In his letter to Kramskoy, he seems to apologize for his painting: “Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to do a more significant thing, but I wanted to appear at the travelling exhibition with something worthy. In the future, I hope to make up for the time I wasted for art.”
• Polenov is rightfully considered one of the best colourists of his time, he was the first to abandon the dominant brown tone in Russian art to bring pure and bright colours. In the Moscow Courtyard, his colouristic skill is manifested, for example, in the way the roofs are painted: Polenov deliberately made them light blue with a green tint, thereby creating a subtle and smooth transition from the green of the foreground to the blue of the sky.
• Did Polenov portray a boy or a girl in the foreground? The question is confusing. In the detailed biography of the artist by Mark Kopshitzer, we find the following description of the Moscow Courtyard painting: “In the foreground, a light-headed boy fiddles with something he has in his hands. Another, younger one, sits on the grass, crying loudly.” On the website of the Tretyakov Gallery we read: “With equal tenderness the artist’s gaze stops at the chamomile rim, the girl’s golden head and the shining dome of the church...”.
• The Church of the Savior on the Sands (now the Church of The Saviour Transfiguration of Our Lord) from Polenov’s Moscow Courtyard painting has survived to this day and is now a functioning church. In the Soviet years, for almost forty years since 1956, the puppet department of the Soyuzmultfilm studio was located in the church.
• For the writer Ivan Turgenev, who lived in France and yearned for Russia, whom Polenov met during his abroad retirement, the artist made another version of this painting, which was close in composition to the 1877 sketch.