Description of the artwork «At the Dressing-Table. Self-Portrait»
In 1910, the At the Dressing-Table self-portrait became the main event of the Union of Russian Artists spring exhibition in St. Petersburg. It surprised both the critics and the audience, and Alexander Benois the uncle of Zinaida Serebryakova.
How did this sweet, shy and uncommunicative girl, who raised children and enjoyed her happy family life instead of actively participating in the “artistic life”, manage to make inveterate visitors to art salons and the artists themselves talk about her work? Perhaps the freshness of her perception was the point. The picture gives the feeling of youthful, causeless joy, not because of a reason, but from the very process of being.
The portrait is very light — both in the chosen colours and in the mood. A beautiful young woman holds a shock of thick hair with one hand and combs it with a comb in the other one. A somewhat sly, joyful look seems to say: “How good it is!” All this is good — to be beautiful and young, to feel the weight of the hair in your hand, to sparkle with your eyes, to just live! The picture fascinates with vitality, optimism. And yes, this is not a self-portrait of the artist, as, for example, Yellow Lilies by Natalia Goncharova. Serebryakova would have similar ones, when she paints not out of an excess of happiness, but flees from the harsh world and strives to earn money to feed her children.
In the meantime, the artist depicted herself among the attributes of female beauty — flasks, bottles, beads, hairpins. Even a candle in front of her mirror, a familiar symbol of secret mysteries and gloomy deeds, here speaks of the young woman looking in her mirror in the evenings, still happy, still beautiful. The elongated candlestick engages rhythmically with the graceful figure of the subject. By the way, in the Self-portrait with a Candle", the candle is only shown as reflections on the subject’s face, but is also seems to be a symbol of warmth and comfort.
The famous art critic Dmitry Sarabyanov called natural beauty the main aesthetic value of this painting. Zinaida Serebryakova spent the winter at her husband’s estate in Neskuchny that year. Boris went on a business trip, and she and her children stayed at the hamlet. It snowed a lot, but the house was hot, warm and cozy. The writer Efim Dorosh draws an analogy between the self-portrait by Serebryakova and Pushkin’s Tatyana Larina, implying not a literary image, but the very poetics of the Russian village, which was discovered and shown by Pushkin. By the way, Pushkin remained Zinaida Serebryakova’s favourite poet throughout her life. The purity and charm of the unspoiled youth also makes the subject of the picture related to Tatyana, but she has much more perky joy and delight from life than Tatyana Larina.
Serebryakova portrayed herself in front of the mirror. The mirror creates a kind of border that separates the subject from the viewer, notwithstanding that it is implied, virtually invisible to the viewer. And this allows us to say that, contrary to the conscious views of the artist, who was absolutely intolerant of all sorts of revolutionary, avant-garde art trends, she intuitively embodied the elements of modernity in her painting. Despite the obvious realism of the image, the isolation, the separation of the model from the world, that is created by the mirror and the game of reflection, embodies the simultaneous being “in the otherworldly and this-worldly reality”, according to Sarabyanov. Alexandre Benois also found the elements of Art Nouveau in the work of his niece, although she herself did not think so.
Brought up on the ideals of the Mir Iskusstva, Zinaida Serebryakova turned out to be “more royalist than the king himself”, as someone from their network joked when comparing the artistic views of Serebryakova and Benois.