Poet of sorrow

Different strokes

Poet of sorrow

When he died on June 10, 1882, Vasily Grigorievich Perov was only 48. At his funeral, renowned novelist of the day, Dmitry Grigorovich (1822-1900), hailed him as “the first Russian artist to give an accurate representation of everyday life.”

While acknowledging the contributions of other great artists, he claimed that “Perov alone had painted Russian life as it really was.” Making a special reference to Perov’s 1865 oil painting ‘Accompanying the Deceased’, he explained how it had moved the spectator “without any external theatricality, without trying to impress with external signs of poverty.”

The painting (also called ‘Companions for the Last Journey’) shows a horse-drawn sleigh with a wooden coffin driven by an old woman under dark clouds and icy weather. Two little children perched close to the coffin (presumably that of their father) and a pet dog following the funeral cortege complete the poignant picture.    

Perov’s many paintings including ‘Troika: Young Apprentices carrying Water’ (1866) and ‘The Last Tavern at the City Gates’ (1868) carry the same artistic and emotional control.  ‘Troika’ shows two boys and a girl tugging a huge cart with a giant ice-covered barrel of water through a city street. In ‘Last Tavern’, Perov depicts a bleak winter scene with a solitary figure of a woman in a sledge, waiting patiently for her companion(s) before embarking upon a cold journey home.

Perov was undoubtedly one of the finest ‘genre’ painters of his time. His images, which carried strong social connotation, are important landmarks in the history of Russian painting. He devoted the best years of his life depicting scenes from everyday life and portraying characters in a socially sympathetic but non-political manner. Adhering steadfast to the principles of critical realism, he followed an unswerving humanistic and progressive method of art creation.    “Only an artist who fully understood the task and responsibility of portraiture could have achieved this characterisation, passionate and devoid of everything vain and contingent,” wrote a historian of Perov. “In his portraits we see a brilliant combination of a faithful and at the same time critical rendering, and a profound delineation of character.”

Painting Dostoevsky

Perov, who was equally adept in producing outstanding landscapes and history paintings, was a gifted and competent teacher at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture. One of his students, Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov, himself an artist of eminence, was not only highly influenced by his favourite teacher, but also came under his spell.  He would call Perov a ‘poet of sorrow’; he would also admit that the main lesson he learned from his mentor was the ability to reveal the ‘soul of the matter’ and the ‘living human soul.’

Interestingly, Perov was the artist who painted the only portrait of the Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky in 1872. The portrait was pronounced a masterpiece and exhibited in St Petersburg later in Moscow in 1874 and in Paris in 1878 as part of the International Artists Exhibition. It became the most celebrated portrait of the writer, reproduced around the world as the truest image of the Russian novelist. Russian and international devotees of the novelist said that it revealed his prophetic soul. Considered a Russian national treasure, the Dostoevsky portrait is said to have left the country on loan on only very few occasions.

“It is the sort of picture that every single Russian schoolchild knows,” said Rosalind Blakesley, the curator of the exhibition ‘Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London (17 March – 26 June 2016). “By the time he was painted by Perov in 1872, Dostoevsky was a seminal figure in the nation’s cultural consciousness,” explained Dr Blakeslely. “He had been arrested in 1849 and sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted just as he and his collaborators were about to be shot by a firing squad. They were exiled to Siberia for a decade instead. He later returned to write novels as gripping as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. This portrait, the only one painted from life, shows the ambition of the show.”

Perov’s portrait of a serious, unsmiling and rather exhausted 51-year-old Dostoevsky is haunting in structure, composition and psychological penetration. “Dostoevsky stares downwards, at a bizarre angle to the picture surface, into a darkness only he can see,” observes The Guardian’s critic Jonathan Jones about the painting. “His skin is a taut nervous membrane stretched across the rugged bones of his skull. His hands are clasped all too firmly. His clothes seem thrown on. In short, he resembles one of his own literary characters: an underground man, a guilty criminal, a desperate fellow.”

Benevolent connoisseur

It was at the instance of art collector Pavel Tretyakov (1832 – 98) that Dostoevsky agreed to pose for Perov in early 1872. A businessman and philanthropist, Tretyakov admired both the novelist and the artist immensely. He had started collecting art in 1854 at the age of 22. He would buy paintings at exhibitions and directly from artists’ studios; sometimes he bought the whole series, including that of Perov. 

A kind-hearted connoisseur, Tretyakov is said to have never refused monetary help to needy artists and the other applicants.  In his will, he provided large sums for a school of deaf-mutes. Half of his estate was bequeathed to charitable purposes — for building shelter for widows, juvenile children and unmarried daughters of deceased artists.

In the summer of 1892, Tretyakov decided to donate his entire collection of Russian art (nearly 1,300 paintings and more than 500 drawings) to the city of Moscow, combining it with his late brother’s collection of European art. He continued to be a trustee of the State Tretyakov Gallery till the end of his life. (Today, the gallery is said to contain more than 1,70,000 works by Russian artists from early religious paintings to modern art.)

Pavel Tretyakov died on December 4, 1898 at the age of 66. His last words addressed to his relatives, were: “Take care of the Gallery and be well...”

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