Ukraine, Russia, France • 1884−1967

Biography and information

Zinaida Serebriakova was born on the 10th of December (O.S. 28 November), 1884 in the estate of Neskuchnoye (which belonged to the Kursk and Kharkiv provinces in different periods of time), the Russian Empire (now Kharkiv, Ukraine) and died on the 19th of September, 1967 in Paris, France.

Zinaida Serebriakova was a Russian painter, a representative of neoclassicism, and a member of the “World of Art” movement. She immigrated to Paris after the Russian Revolution.

Features of Zinaida Serebriakova’s artworks: simplicity, elegance of lines, restraint, plasticity and clarity. Zinaida Serebriakova had been painting during the appearance of many avant-garde movements, but none of them pulled her in. Her artworks stood apart. Numerous self-portraits and portraits of children, nude paintings, as well as folk art paintings, (which became mythological when painted by her) especially stood out in Serebriakova’s legacy and turned into the mode of life instead of just being the representation of the everyday life.

Famous paintings by Zinaida Serebriakova: “At the Dressing-Table. Self-Portrait”, “Bather”, “At breakfast”, “House of cards” and “Whitening canvas”.

Zinaida Serebriakova was destined to live “two lives”. In the first one, she was a descendant of an art family, a happy, beloved and loving wife, a mother of adored children and a talented artist who entered Russian painting with her self-portrait in front of a mirror in which it seemed that happiness, love, contentment, freshness and joy of life were concentrated. And in her second life, she was a widow separated from children, bending over backwards in order to earn her daily bread, not finding a place in a foreign land and losing her homeland, torn apart by anxiety and devoured by hopeless longing. The happy life of Zinaida Serebriakova Zinaida Lanceray was destined to paint, probably not by fate, but rather by family. Zina’s father, Eugene Lanceray, was a famous St. Petersburg sculptor; his mother (nee Catherine Benois) was the sister of Alexandre Benois. Zina was the youngest child; she was not even two years old when her father died of consumption. From the Neskuchnoye estate (then the Kursk province of the Russian Empire, now the Kharkiv region of Ukraine), the mother and her children moved to St. Petersburg to their parental home.

Against the background of sociable cheerful brothers and sisters, Zina appeared to be wild and withdrawn. It seemed that she was the only one whose character was very similar to her father’s, and not to her cheerful, friendly motherly relatives. She studied at the gymnasium, went to art exhibitions and theater premieres with her mother and she painted, of course – it couldn’t be otherwise in that family. The only thing that bothered her mother was the poor health of the girl. Of all the children, she grew the sickliest.

At the age of eighteen, Zinusha, as her relatives called her, went with her mother to Italy to regain health. Soon, Alexandre Benois joined them; Zina called him “Uncle Shura”. He arranged magnificent art and cultural excursions for the ladies! On the way back, they purposely went through Vienna in order to visit some museums. In St. Petersburg, Zinaida, following the advice of “Uncle Shura”, visited the studio of Osip Braz - a famous portrait painter, academician of the Imperial Academy of Arts. She wasn’t excited for ceremonial portraits, which Braz loved a lot, and that was why Serebriakova did not say anything good about that stage of her studies afterwards. But the time spent in the Hermitage, where she was almost daily, she considered very important.

Aside from the joy of painting, the girl’s life was illuminated by another great joy - love. The family spent the summer in Neskuchnoye, where their relatives Serebriakovs lived in the neighboring estate. With Boris, her cousin, Zina was familiar from childhood, over time, their friendship grew into love. The young people made a decision to get married, but they had to go through some obstacles. Their parents supported the idea, but the church was against that decision because of kinship of the lovers. However, 300 rubles and an appeal to the third priest, after two refusals, allowed them to solve the problem. In 1905, they got married. They were a very beautiful couple. Both of them were tall, beautiful, fervent, in love and a bit idealistic. It seemed that they had a very happy life. And they had, but not for as long as they dreamed to.

Shortly after the wedding, the newlyweds left for Paris. Zinaida was waiting for the birth of her first child and improved her painting skills at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière (again, on the advice of Benois). She highly admired the paintings by Monet and Manet, Sisley, was delighted with Degas - and carried the love of the latter through her whole life, entering into the dialogue with him with a series of her ballerinas (1, 2, 3, 4).

Since her marriage and until the Russian Revolution, Zinaida Serebriakova was the happiest she had ever been. Their life was simple, calm and joyful. They lived in St. Petersburg in winter, and when it was pretty warm, they stayed in Neskuchnoye. They did not particularly partake in social entertainments; Zinaida’s interests revolved around her children, her beloved husband and painting. Even when she went for a walk with the children, she would certainly take a sketchbook with her.

In 1910, Zinaida Serebriakova amazed not only the audience, but also her relatives, including “Uncle Shura” at the exhibition of the Saint Petersburg Union of Artists. Her self-portrait “At the Dressing-Table. Self-Portrait” truly made a splash. Such freshness, such sincerity and joy of youth came out from the painting that no one had any doubts: a new artist appeared in Russia. Her style was defined as neoclassicism.

By 1913, the Serebriakovs had already had four children: the older boys – Zhenya and Sasha, and the girls – Tata and Katya. Zinaida was very fond of the estate in Neskuchnoye, she even preferred to give birth to her children there, despite her mother’s anxiety about it. In Neskuchnoye, she led a simple life, wore wide skirts and light blouses and painted every free minute – her children, her husband, peasants and landscapes.

Zinaida and Boris got along with the peasants. If Boris had found out that someone had pulled a wheel or a box for pickling from the owner’s yard, he would have gently chided the culprit: “Why didn’t you ask, I would give it to you anyway”. And when the fatal volley from the “Aurora” had thundered, Zinaida, smiling, sincerely rejoiced for the peasants on the estate: “Well, Nikitishna, congratulations, now you are not just a peasant, now you are a citizen!” And there a volley was After the Russian Revolution, probably, everyone faced life changes. But in the case of Serebriakova, that was not simply a “change,” it was before and after, two different lives. Happiness remained with that woman who was before the volley. Boris was arrested; the estate in Neskuchnoye was burned. Fortunately, their peasants were warned, so the Serebriakovs left for Kharkiv on time. Having released, Boris died from typhus in his wife’s hands, leaving her in the newly built “people’s country” with four children.

In Kharkiv, Zinaida got a job at an archaeological institute, made sketches of archaeological finds and was worn out by the desire to get out of that darkness, which her previously happy life had turned into. “Miserable, helpless and lonely. She says that life is over. She lives only in the past,”- her contemporaries described the experience of meeting her at that time. However, she did not have the opportunity to become completely wrapped up in longing - she needed to feed her children as well as her mother. The help of the peasants was very important: they sometimes brought lard, cereals, carrots - they made tea from the latter and that helped them get warm.

Only in December 1920 it became possible to go to Petrograd. Things were getting a little bit better. Children went to schools, paintings by Serebriakova partook in exhibitions, sometimes portrait paintings were ordered to her. But life still was on the brink of survival. It was surprising that no matter how hard her life was, her paintings were mostly bright and joyful, although she created the early ones from an excess of joy, and in the later ones she escaped from difficult reality.

Alexandre Benois procured a niece a free pass to the Mariinsky Theater. Her daughter Tatiana was engaged at the theatre at that time and Zinaida painted her lovely ballerinas there as well. In 1923, her works participated in the exhibition of Russian artists in the United States. She got $500, but that amount of money could not plug the holes in the family budget. Zinaida made a decision to leave for Paris to improve her financial situation. The cell slammed shut Tatiana Serebriakova recalled that she was only 12 years old when her mother left. She left for a short while, but Tata was very scared. As if she had a presentiment that they would see each other next time only in 36 years.

Contrary to Benois’ assurances, Serebriakova didn’t receive success in Paris. Firstly, the avant-garde was at its highest peak, but she did not share its values at all, adhering to the classical approach to painting; and secondly, Serebriakova was very awkward at doing things and completely did not know how to “rotate” – those were the echoes of the life of a happy woman living with her family and her art. Paris, having a large immigrant population, was so different from the city she once went to after her marriage with her husband and mother, being pregnant with her eldest son!

The artist Konstantin Somov, who oftentimes helped Zinaida Serebriakova in Paris, said: “She is so miserable, unhappy, and awkward, everyone offends her.” Unsociable in life, she did not leave direct followers in terms of creativity. Contemporaries mentioned the artist’s difficult personality. But one had to take into consideration the circumstances of her life. She failed to earn money for the year, as was planned. “No one understands that starting out without a penny is insanely difficult. Time is passing by, and I am still in the same place,” she wrote to her mother in despair. She missed her children very much. After a while, Katya came to her mother and, in 1927, Sasha also arrived. And then the cell slammed shut.

Serebriakova did not dare to return, because there were two of her children in Paris, and she could not run the risk of taking them to the USSR, where they could be declared the “enemies of the people”. In Paris, she could not fully immerse herself into a new life, because half of her heart remained there - with Zhenya, Tatiana and with her mother, whom the government refused to let go abroad.

At the slightest opportunity, Serebriakova sent them money, but that was not always possible. In 1933, her mother died of hunger in the Soviet Union.

The brightest event of that “life after life” for Zinaida Serebriakova was, perhaps, a trip to Morocco. The Belgian Baron de Brouwer saw her paintings at one of the exhibitions and offered her to pay for the trip so that he could pick up any paintings he liked that were painted there. In 1928 and 1932, Zinaida traveled to Morocco. Subsequently, she wrote to her daughter Tatiana: “In general, 34 years of life here are all fuss, nervousness and despair ... But how can an artist create without a “joyful excitement”? Except that one month spent in Morocco in 1928, and then a month and a half there fascinated me completely with its immediate lively beauty...

Only during the Khrushchev thaw, in 1960, Tatiana, and a few years later, her son Eugene, were able to come to his mother. They managed to organize her exhibition in Moscow six years later. The success was deafening! But Serebriakova herself did not dare to come to the USSR. She wasn’t young anymore, besides, she couldn’t imagine returning to a place where she was once very happy, knowing that it was all gone.

Written by Alena Esaulova