Vasily Tropinin (30 March 1776, Karpovo, Novgorod Governorate — 15 May 1857, Moscow) was Ukrainian and Russian serf artist. In his youth, he painted portraits of his owners, members of the family of Count Morkov, colourful Ukrainian old men and big-eyed peasants. He designed a church near the Kukavka estate and covered its walls with frescoes, while in between he did his housework, painted wells and gates. Having attained his freedom only at the age of 47, he became the main Moscow portrait painter, the favourite and demanded. Vasily Tropinin’s paintings can be used to enumerate wealthy famous Moscow men and women who lived in the first half of the 19th century.
Peculiar features of Vasily Tropinin’s art: Muscovites nicknamed the painter “a robe portraitist”, because those who came for a portrait for a family gallery asked to paint themselves or their relatives exclusively in robes. Unlike metropolitan artists from St. Petersburg, Tropinin created personal, home, “disheveled” portraits of his clients, and this intimacy was much valued by Muscovites.
Famous paintings of Vasily Tropinin: Lacemaker, Portrait of Alexandr Sergeevich Pushkin, Elderly Ukrainian Peasant, Portrait of Karl Pavlovich Bryullov, Portrait of Arseny Vasilyevich Tropinin.
Vasily Tropinin was the main Moscow portrait painter of the early 19th century and the most touching Ukrainian genre lyricist, academician serf and pastry artist. While Dominique Ingres travelled to Italy, Delacroix made his debut at the Salon, William Turner taught a course in perspective to the students of the Royal Academy and boldly removed the yellow-brown patina of “antiquity” from the surrounding world, Francisco Goya received an impressive salary from the royal court and bought his second house, Vasily Tropinin continued to serve at the lord’s table, being already a recognized and sought-after artist.
Once a learned guest from somewhere in Europe came to the owner of Tropinin, Count Morkov. The foreigner was taken to the studio, where he talked with Vasily Andreevich for a long time, admired his paintings and expressed every respect for the talent of the painter. When it was time for dinner, the guest was invited to stay. In the dining room, he saw a familiar face and rushed to Tropinin, offering him a place at the table next to him. The whole family of Morkovs looked away in confusion and waited for the stupid scientist visitor to finally understand that he was talking to a lackey. After this story, Tropinin was relieved of the duty to serve at the table in order to avoid such misunderstandings. However, no one was going to free him from drawing Count’s coats of arms on carriages, from painting fences and baking cakes — the artist would only attain his freedom at the age of 47.
Shoe polish and lubok
Vasily Tropinin was a serf boy with a special position. His father, the manager of Count Minikh, attained his freedom at a venerable age for his special merits and devoted service. However, this privilege did not extend to children. Moreover, the special status of his father did not promise the boy any concessions — the courtyard people worked off their grievances on him, frankly and cruelly taking out on him for the strictness of Tropinin Sr.
At school, Vasily studied grammar, arithmetic, calligraphy and reading, but the only school activity that fascinated the boy was drawing. Returning home, in the absence of the owners, he asked to spend an hour in the rooms of the courtyard girls and sketched the lubok prints that hung on the walls. One day the boy got a lot of it when he was caught cleaning the lord’s shoes for a long time. Instead of giving a high polish to the Count’s boots, he took the shoe polish to paint on the walls of the servants’ hall.
When Count Minikh’s daughter Natalia Antonovna married, Tropinin left to her new house in Moscow as her dowry with her dresses and jewellery, dishes and lace, chests and boxes.
“He’s good for nothing!” replied the new owner, Count Morkov, when the older Tropinin requested to send his son to study at the Academy of Arts. He’d better learn from the pastry chef in St. Petersburg: making cakes and jam is much more useful. A skilful pastry chef capable of drawing embroidery patterns or painting kitchen utensils was a valuable property. Tropinin was meek and obedient to his master, but incredibly stubborn in his passion. In St. Petersburg, he not only found an artist in the neighbourhood and took several lessons from him, but also managed to visit the Academy in his free time. The lessons on drawing and copying ancient statues were opened for everyone, of any class and age, for three hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. The poor were even given a pencil and paper — they were looking for talent.
The sovereign Irakli Ivanovich had no choice but to surrender to the persuasion of his relatives, and a year later he sent Tropinin to study in St. Petersburg again, this time to the Academy of Arts. For five years, the young man would live in the academic apartment of Professor Shchukin. Greedy for new knowledge, he would visit all the famous workshops of the capital, delightfully enjoy his access to the Hermitage collection.
Girls from Podillia and the church
Vasily Andreevich just copied the portrait of Rembrandt in the Hermitage, but he had to leave it unfinished, as his master was leaving for his new Ukrainian possessions and demanded the serf Tropinin to go home urgently. He would go with him to build and paint a church.
It was the time when Kukavka was freed from Catholic Poles, and in order to demonstrate the mercy of the new Russian landowner concerning the Orthodox peasants, Morkov decided first to build a church there, and then an estate. During construction work, Tropinin lived in the village on himself, in one of the peasant houses. Young dark-eyed podillian girls, quaint wise old men, strong tanned men — the artist painted them all with delight and gratitude, collecting his own character gallery that would last for a lifetime. Later he said that he had learned much more in Kukavka than in the capital’s Academy.
The church would open, and the first wedding to take place there immediately after the consecration would be that of Tropinin. Hanna Ivanivna Katina was a free resident of Kukavka. And when she married a kind, intelligent, educated, even a superbrilliant, but serf artist, she lost her freedom. The Tropinins have lived together for over 50 years (1, 2, 3).
War, freedom and the door
Morkov appreciated the talent of his estate artist, entrusted him with important family affairs, and eventually freed him from any other occupation besides painting. But Tropinin was probably also the most reliable person around the count.
For example, when the war of 1812 began, the count selflessly jumped into his saddle, because the emperor appointed him to lead the Moscow militia, took his sons with him and only managed to give the order to Vasily Andreevich: to take care of the property, people and other matters. He forgot to leave money in a hurry, but all the same, falling under suspicion, passing some road sections with an escort, listening to curses from the peasants on their way, Tropinin was one of the first to drive with the master’s train to burnt-out Moscow and prepare the house for the arrival of the owner.
Even when the pressure of Muscovite friends, publishers, war heroes and writers left Morkov no choice but to make his artist free, he would persuade Tropinin to stay in the house, already free.
Vasily Andreevich’s wife and son received freedom only after 5 years, and therefore he settled not far from them, right there, in Moscow, but in his own house. Tropinin made every effort to never depend on anyone else. He refused to become a metropolitan academician and receive state commissions from the Academy of Arts, he did not participate in large secular exhibitions. But he painted all the Muscovites, his portraits may be used to make a census of merchants and nobility of the early 19th century.
There was a famous door in Tropinin’s Moscow apartment. Visitors who did not find the artist at home left inscriptions on the door: “Bryullov was here”, “Svinyin came”. For several years it has been covered with messages from friends and admirers. Vasily Andreevich especially missed this door when he bought a small house across the Moskva River and went there to live with his son. All his friends, artists, admirers and relatives gathered at the door of this house on 3 May 1857 to escort the best Moscow portraitist to the Vagankovskoye cemetery. “There has never been such a large gathering of people in the dwelling of a venerable artist who spent his whole life modestly, in a noble, vigilant, and active way; as many as two or three close people could come to talk and listen to his wise speeches — and on that day, there was a crowd that was silent...” (from the memoirs of Nikolai Shikhanovsky)
Written by Anna Sidelnikova