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The right of the master

Painting, 1874, 120×174 cm

Description of the artwork «The right of the master»

The Tretyakov Gallery houses Vasily Polenov's The Right of the Master painting, which is rather unusual for him. This early work of the artist was painted abroad, where Polenov went on a 6-year pensioner's trip after graduating from the Academy of Arts.
Polenov himself told about what was happening on the canvas in his letter to Professor Fyodor Chizhov, a close friend of his father, who had not yet seen the picture:
After a good dinner, he went out to the courtyard of his hawk’s nest to look at the girls being brought to him for this night. He put his hand on his hips and chuckled a little when he saw that the girls were quite good and that they are worth that his baronial honour put some work into their enlightenment. The rearmost girl understands what the matter is, she blushes and looks down; the middle one stands as if superior and looks at him with slight contempt, while the third one is still inexperienced, she does not understand. The husbands, mothers, fathers who brought them stay away, at the gate, the soldiers did not let them in, and a young friend and the chaplain of the castle laugh upstairs: he’d not take all the three for himself and there will be our part”.
The subject is unexpected and, frankly, not quite decent for Russian painting of the 19th century, yet untouched by French frivolity.

Why did Polenov choose such an unusual theme?
Indeed, The Right of the Master is an unexpected picture for those who know the famous Polenov, the later one, the praiser of lyrical Russian landscapes. But, firstly, Polenov studied at the Academy of Arts in the historical painting class and tried himself in the historical genre earlier. Secondly, in parallel with the Academy, he received a legal education: Polenov’s parents insisted, they wanted their son to have an “essential” profession. As an educated lawyer, from his books, Polenov could be quite familiar with the relic of the feudalism — the right of the first night.
Together with another graduate of the Academy, Ilya Repin, Polenov arrived in Normandy in the mid-1870s. There he painted his best early landscapes (1, 2, 3), and Polenov himself was impressed by the gloomy, mysterious, and majestic medieval castles. Under the influence of the local architecture, he came with a subject for his genre work. At first, Polenov titled it bluntly, The Right of the First Night. However, later he experienced unforeseen difficulties with the title.

The three names of one painting
A pensioner of the Academy who received a scholarship for studying abroad, had to report in detail to his alma mater about the places he visited, the European artists he saw and the plans he had for himself. From France, Polenov sent the reports for the Academy secretary, Iseev. The idea could still be presented covertly, with some sophisticated equivocations, but the name, The Right of the First Night?!
Polenov’s parents, to whom the obedient and devoted son also wrote about his travels and creative ideas in detail, were horrified by such an idea. His father Dmitry Vasilyevich persuaded his son to change the title somehow, so that it be less defiant; he came up with a wonderful, as it seemed to him, name and imposed it on Polenov. The Arrival of Boarding School Girls or The Girls Graduating from the Boarding School — not bad after all, eh? Nice, patriarchal, and the meaning of the whole action is completely different, decent.
Polenov's mother and father knew why they worried so much: only 13 years had passed since Russian serfdom abolishment. God knows what hints of human lawlessness and other social ulcers the Russian censorship can discern in Polenov’s painting!
Polenov categorically disagreed with The Arrival of Boarding School Girls: what a nonsense, it definitely did not correspond to his liberal idea. But he acted like a lawyer (although he had not worked a day in his specialty): he found a compromise that would suit everyone. He renamed his The Right of the First Night painting to The Right of the Master. There is no longer the unambiguous frivolity associated with “bed law” and “first night”: you never know what other rights the master may have. Maybe it’s just the right to scold the negligent courtyard girls for something insignificant: the overroasted meat or giggles at mass. You never know...

Picture of discord

Repin and Kramskoy assessed The Right of the Master positively. Inspired, Polenov decided to take part in the qualifying round for the Salon des Champs-Élysées. He was lucky: his painting was selected for display among hundreds of others. They hung it, however, somewhere near the ceiling, so that neither the name of the aspiring Russian artist, nor the picture itself was particularly remembered by the public.
Meanwhile, a scandal was running high at the Academy of Arts, and it was by no means related to the content of The Right of the Master. It turned out that while Polenov was travelling abroad, the board of the Academy managed to adopt a tightening circular notifying that 1) the pensioners of the Academy were obliged to present all their works to the Imperial Academy of Arts, which would decide whether to place them at certain exhibitions ; 2) the pensioners of the Academy were definitely prohibited from participating in foreign exhibitions.
Polenov received a reprimand from the Academy. He was upset, depressed, he tried to fight, in his letters to the secretary of the Academy he referred that the artists of the previous generation (Goon, Bogolyubov, Vereshchagin) "were not bound by such a harsh rule that completely paralyses the purpose of our stay abroad”.
The Right of the Master did not get to the Itinerants exhibition — Polenov had not managed to finish it as he wanted. The academy was angry. The future of the painting as well as the youngest artist remain unclear... And suddenly Polenov received a letter from Russian collector Pavel Tretyakov, saying that he wanted to acquire The Right of the Master. Polenov set a price of one thousand roubles. Contrary to expectations, Tretyakov did not bargain, as he usually did, especially with the debutant artists — he paid the full thousand, and the painting was sent to Russia. Thus The Right of the Master found itself in the Tretyakov Gallery, where it is housed now.
Since then, the novice artist Polenov has become indifferent to moralistic genre scenes: he finally understood that his vocation was landscape.

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya

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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Genre scene

Style of art: Realism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1874

Size: 120×174 cm

Artwork in selections: 31 selections