Boyarynya Morozova

Vasily Surikov • Painting, 1887, 304×587.5 cm
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About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Historical scene
Style of art: Realism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1887
Size: 304×587.5 cm
Artwork in selections: 80 selections
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Description of the artwork «Boyarynya Morozova»

The Boyarynya Morozova painting by Vasily Surikov was included in the list of the masterpieces of art along with The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn and The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov. The artist spent four years creating this brilliant work, drew hundreds and thousands of sketches, made hundreds and thousands of corrections. The huge canvas 3 by 6 meters became the chronicle of Russia in the middle of the 17th century: the czardom of Alexei Mikhailovich, church reforms, schism and persecution of the Old Believers. The Boyarynya Morozova is not just a reflection of the events of the epoch, the Surikov’s painting is a group portrait of the representatives of the Moscow social strata.

The artist spent his childhood in Siberia, which was dwelled by many Old Believers. The Surikov’s godmother introduced the future painter to the manuscript, The Story of Boyarynya Morozova. The young man was impressed by the fate of the rebellious schismatic sisters Feodosia Morozova and Evdokia Urusova. The representatives of the ruling Romanov family owned a huge fortune, lived in luxurious mansions with three hundred servants and travelled in the carriages decorated with silver and mosaics. The refusal to accept the church reform of Patriarch Nikon cost too much for the noble and influential boyarynyas: they were subjected to arrest, interrogation, confiscation of their property to the royal treasury, strappado torture, exile in Borovsk prison and painful starvation in a ground pit. The recalcitrant women were not broken by persuasion, torture, or the threat of execution at the stake. The episode from The Story of Boyarynya Morozova told about the exile of the sisters to the Chudov Monastery: when the sleigh with the chained rebel drew level with the monastery, Feodora raised her right hand and made a sign of cross with two fingers, according to the Old Believers — the symbol of the disgraced faith. Surikov chose this last daring and desperate gesture of the Boyarynya for the subject of his picture.

The painter was looking painstakingly for the prototypes for the picture main subjects and dozens of minor figures for three years. The artist settled in Mytishchi and enthusiastically painted wanderers and pilgrims, looking for vivid types. Surikov painted the holy fool in fetters from a drunkard peasant; the laughing cucumber merchant — from the deacon of the Trinity Church; the wanderer with a stick — from a pilgrim. Inhabitants of the Old Believer community at the Preobrazhensky cemetery posed for the portraits of the women in the crowd, young girls and elderly maidens. Surikov waited impatiently for snowfalls and followed wagons for a long time, persuading drivers to turn into yards and carefully sketching fresh tracks; he created an ingenious “colour symphony” of dozens of shades. “To paint in the snow — everything appears different,” said the artist. “They draw silhouettes in the snow. Whereas in the snow, everything is saturated with light. Everything is in lilac and pink reflexes, like the clothes of the Boyarynya Morozova — the top black coat; and a shirt in the crowd...”. Next to the sleigh, the artist drew a running boy to endow the street scene with dynamics.

In 1886, Surikov’s work was almost complete — the secondary figures, the street, houses and churches, as well as the sledge running through the snow with the disgraced Boyarynya were already painted. The key image, Feodosia Morozova, was missing. The spiritual mentor, Protopope Avvakum, wrote about the schismatic Boyarynya: “Your fingers are delicate, your eyes are lightning fast, you rush at your enemies like a lion...”. Surikov painted the portrait of the Boyarynya from his own aunt, Avdotya Vasilievna Torgoshina, but the character of Morozova got lost in the motley crowd. The painter could not find that very expressive, bloodless, fanatical face of a woman who preferred exile and martyrdom to renouncing her faith. Surikov was saved from despair, when Anastasia Mikhailovna, a teacher from the Ural, arrived to the Old Believer community; two hours later, the portrait of the Boyarynya Morozova, daring and strong woman, was ready.

The artist recalled that the black crow fluttering in the snow inspired the image of the main subject. The triangular figure in the sleigh cuts the crowd like a black arrow, serves as an allegory of the religious division of society and attracts the eye, dominates the characters and objects on the canvas. On the left side of the picture, there are joy and mockery, on the right side are fear and sympathy. The dyaki laugh at the seditious woman, the children have fun and support adults in blissful ignorance. Representatives of the nobility look with horror at the fanatical gesture, burning eyes and chains on the hands of the influential noblewoman. The Tatars look at the fearless woman carefully and respectfully from the crowd. Tension, anxiety and fear obsessed the Old Believers hiding in the crowd; women express grief and sympathy — from representatives of the noble classes to poor peasant girls. Only the holy fool does not show fear and repeats the forbidden gesture after the heretic.
Laughter and sobs, hooting and groans, chain ringing and the cries of the holy fool can almost be heard from the Boyarynya Morozova canvas; they tell about the beginning of the Russian schism and bring immortality to Vasily Surikov.