Russia • 1848−1916
Vasily Surikov (12 (24) January 1848, Krasnoyarsk —6 (19) March 1916, Moscow) was Russian artist, master of historical painting. Vasily Surikov’s art revived the world of the bygone eras of Russian history. Surikov’s mastery as a subtle colourist and an artist who perfectly knew the composition (his friends even called him Composer) made him one of the main figures of Russian painting. For over 25 years he has been a member of the Society of Wandering Exhibitions.

Features of Vasily Surikov’s art: polyphonic, always carefully verified composition; masterly ability to paint crowds, with each character individual; subtle sense of colour and thoughtful colour scheme of paintings; appeal to Russian history, recreation of historical situations.

Famous paintings by Vasily Surikov:The Morning of the Streltsy Execution”, “Boyarynya Morozova”, “Menshikov in Berezovo”,The Capture of the Snow Town”.

Vasily Surikov was able to say no. He refused a retirement trip to Europe at the expense of the Academy of Arts (although it was offered to him not immediately after graduation, but six months later), preferring to paint the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Europe still remained where it was, but Surikov wanted first to gain financial independence (it began with Pavel Tretyakov who bought Vasily Surikov’s “The Morning of the Streltsy Execution” for 8 thousand roubles, the enormous money at that time). Three times he refused to teach at the Academy of Arts and the Moscow School of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture. And there is a story that Surikov turfed down the stairs Leo Tolstoy, who came to his dying wife too often “to talk about death”.

Vasily Surikov was born in Krasnoyarsk and throughout his life he was extremely proud of his belonging to the old Cossack families. The cousin of his paternal grandfather, Alexander Surikov (1794-1854), was the chieftain of the Yenisei Cossack Regiment, one of the islands on the Yenisei was named after him. Surikov’s mother, Praskovya Torgoshina, also came from a Cossack family. The artist’s father, Ivan Surikov, served as a college registrar. He died when little Vasily was only 11 years old. After the death of his father, the family found themselves in a bad financial situation. The Yenisei Governor Pavel Zamyatnin and the Siberian gold miner Pyotr Kuznetsov took an active part in his further education. Kuznetsov appreciated the paintings by Vasily Surikov and took on all the costs of his training and living in St. Petersburg.

Surikov arrived in St. Petersburg in early 1869. The first time he failed to enter the Academy, but the young man did not despair and began to study at the drawing school of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists. In autumn, Surikov audited at the Academy of Arts, and a year later he was admitted to the Academy and got into the class of Pavel Chistyakov. His talent was repeatedly noted by the Academy management. Surikov was awarded four times with a silver medal and with money prizes. However, the Big Gold Medal still remained unattainable; later Surikov refused the pensioner trip himself.

The first major work of Surikov upon the completion of his training was not a painting, but frescoes in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This also allowed him to find his place in a geographical sense – Surikov stayed in Moscow, this city was really close to him, there he painted his most famous paintings. In Moscow he found his only love: his wife Elisabeth Charais gave birth to their two daughters (the eldest one later married the artist Pyotr Konchalovsky). The premature death of his wife became a real tragedy for Surikov, he did not take his brush for two years, and only a trip to his native Krasnoyarsk gave him the lost inspiration: the picture by Vasily Surikov “The Capture of the Snow Town” is like a photo of his own carefree childhood.

Music had a great influence on Surikov’s work, both literally and figuratively. Even at the Academy he was given a very musical nickname Composer, for his masterful composition of paintings. Surikov was very fond of opera, he played the guitar. Among the few portraits created by the artist are the portraits of his friend and music teacher, guitarist Fyodor Peletsky.

Back in Moscow, Surikov continued to work actively. In 1881, he became a member of the Society of Wandering Exhibitions. Within the cooperation with the Wanderers, Surikov demonstrated his famous paintings at the Society’s exhibitions, including his canvas “Menshikov in Berezovo”, which Pavel Tretyakov acquired for his collection. Surikov spent the money for a visit to Europe. He visited museums in Italy and France, Germany and Austria.

Upon his return, Surikov began his work on the “Boyarynya Morozova”, which critics perceived far ambiguously. It was followed by historical canvases “The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak Timofeevich”, “Suvorov Crossing the Alps”, “Stepan Razin”. In 1893, the artworks by Vasily Surikov were highly appreciated by the art community – he became a full member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. In 1907, Surikov left the Wanderers and joined the Union of Russian Artists.

A few years later, with the direct participation of Vasily Surikov, a drawing school was opened in his beloved Krasnoyarsk. There, in the city of his youth, he painted several landscapes of Krasnoyarsk and the beautiful Yenisei.

The artist died in 1916 from heart disease. Vasily Surikov is buried in Moscow at the Vagankovo Cemetery next to his wife.

On the Arthive portal you can see high resolution images of Vasily Surikov’s paintings.

Written by Aliona Esaulova
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