This monumental painting by Vasily Polenov, He Resolutely Set Out for Jerusalem belongs to Polenov’s cycle of paintings, From the Life of Christ. The artist wrote that this was “the work to which I devoted almost all my life”. The present work encapsulates its essence and is one of the most significant of the Gospel episodes, portrayed by the artist.
The appearance of this picture on the art market is a unique event, since the greater part of the 72 known works from the cycle have long adorned the collections of Russia’s largest museums. Only a few remain in private collections, many of them via the famous Exhibition of Russian Art, held in New York in 1924. Several canvases, including Guilty of Death (1906) and Who Among You Is Without Sin (1908), were acquired at that time by the renowned American industrialist and diplomat, Charles R. Crane.
Work on the Gospel cycle extended over many decades of Polenov’s cre- ative career. Inviting Sofia Tolstaya, the wife of Leo Tolstoy, to visit his studio in Moscow in 1908, the artist wrote, “I will be most glad to show you my pictures from the life of Christ, my ‘Gospel cycle’ as I call them,” and Polenov added, without exaggeration: “I have been working on them for about forty years [...] I will ask you [...] to take a look at the work, to which I have devoted nearly all of my life.”
This vast creative labour was finally accomplished in 1909. The completed cycle of works was shown to the public first in St. Petersburg (February– March 1909, 58 paintings), then in Moscow and Tver (May 1909, 64 paintings). The picture He Resolutely Set Out for Jerusalem is Number 41 in the catalogue of the Moscow exhibition in 1909. The picture was also shown at exhibitions in 1914 (Moscow) and 1915 (Petersburg). In the handwritten, complete register of Polenov’s works, prepared by the artist himself, the picture now presented for auction is Number 90.
Another smaller and earlier version of the composition is now known. It is held by the Samara Regional Art Museum and entitled They Resolutely Set Out for Jerusalem. In this version the Saviour is not alone, but is accompanied by one of his disciples. He makes us view the events at a remove – from afar, – then draws our attention to the poses and gestures of the figures which can be distinguished in the picture, and then, finally, confronts the viewer face to face with their deep, inner feelings. The artist often shows the same theme in several treatments, achieving a maximum of efficiency and expression. Some later versions, painted when the whole series was ready, are much more profound and successful than their initial versions.
He Resolutely Set Out for Jerusalem is not only on a larger scale, but is also more compositionally expressive than the picture in the Samara Museum. It is remarkable for the brevity of its composition, the unusual purity and freshness of its semi-transparent, luminous colours, and the artistic thought, which Polenov has devoted to the depiction of Christ. The painter’s decision to discard the second figure accompanying Jesus allows him to concentrate completely on the image of the latter and lends to the composition a power of symbolic generalisation. We can gain insight into the artist’s intention from the words of the French philosopher and writer, Ernest Renan, whom Polenov valued and respected: “Those mountains, that sea, that azure sky, those high plains in the horizon, were for him not the melancholy vision of a soul which interrogates Nature upon its fate, but the certain symbol, the transparent shadow, of an invisible world, and of a new heaven.” (Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus, 1863).
Polenov’s gospel narrative covers the full extent of Christ’s earthly life from birth to ascension. The artist divides the works into six main sections: Childhood and Youth, By the Jordan, In Galilee, Beyond Galilee, In Jerusalem and The Last Days. In accordance with the logic of the gospel narrative, the picture He Resolutely Set Out for Jerusalem is the fifth episode in Beyond Galilee and depicts the decisive moment in Christ’s earthly life. He decides to go to Jerusalem, where death awaits Him. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus knows His destiny and accepts it from God.
It is not recorded from which city or village he set out. The evangelists only tell us that the route passed through Samaria by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is here on the shore of the Sea (also called the Lake of Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias) that Polenov shows us the Saviour. The portrayal of Christ matches the other pictures of the cycle. He is a man of wiry build, with pronounced eastern features, meek and wise. But He is not shown here communing with people – Christ is alone with himself, with his grave thoughts and with nature. He advances with measured steps along the lakeside path, looking inward, knowing in advance the end of his journey. His figure seems unaware of its own movement, as if motionless – Christ does not seem to notice that he is walking, so deep is his state of self-absorption. The world of nature around him, with its silence and detachment from earthly troubles, corresponds so remarkably to the internal structure of Christ’s image that one cannot but feel how nature subjugates man, how it evokes consciousness of the beauty and harmony of existence, banishing purely human doubts and thoughts to leave an overwhelming sense of oneness with and dissolution in the world.
Polenov shows us a natural world that is deserted and majestic. The distance is taken up by a stretch of high country: the horizon is marked by a chain of low mountains; their soft, smooth outlines silhouetted against the sky. The sun has withdrawn its merciless, scorching heat from the earth, and the distances sink into the soft, gentle pink of an early evening haze. We see an ideal landscape with the sandy, lakeside path, ageless boulders and the play of turquoise water in the middle and far distance, against a backdrop of majestic ancient architecture. Revealing the pristine beauty of the world, the artist at the same time seeks to convey the material texture of the earth in all its variety of qualities. The canvas uses a free, slightly coarse painting style, the brushstrokes create relief. Advancing along a narrow path, the figure of Christ, in its physicality and ethnographical detail, fits naturally and organically into these material surroundings. There is no trace here of the otherworldliness of Alexander Ivanov. On the contrary, Polenov’s Christ is earthly: he dwells on the earth and steps on the earth, and so is not free of its physical influence: his face and hands are heavily tanned, he shows the fatigue of a man who has walked far under the hot sun. Because the plastic movement of the picture is governed by strict adherence to the truth of life, pride of place is given to what is authentic, actually observed and realistic: Christ holds a staff, such as helps the traveller on a long journey by foot, or as used by shepherds – a detail unknown in the gospel text. The picture sounds a tragic note, despite its plein-air content, as if real life was correcting the dream of a universal religion of love and forgiveness, cherished by Polenov himself. The artist renounces both the heroic pathos of academic painting and the distinctive psychological tension of the Peredvizhniki. The influence of modernism and even of symbolism is palpable in the work.
When in 1908 work on the Gospel series, which Polenov considered the main work of his life, was complete, he sent a hand-painted album of reproductions of the works to Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy wrote back that the “beauty of the pictures” and the attitude of the artist to his subject (close to the writer’s own) had made a great impression on him. The importance of the cycle for the instruction of children should be emphasised, Tolstoy thought, because “it is impossible to find a better means than your pictures for imparting the story of Christ to children” (cited in: in Natalia Budur, The Bible and Russian Painting, 2003, p. 21).
Although conceived in the context of other works of the cycle, the painting He Resolutely Set Out for Jerusalem undoubtedly has great artistic value in its own right, because it fully conveys the exalted mood, which possessed the artist during his work on the project. What it shows is perhaps best expressed by the notes made by Leonid Pasternak (artist and father of the writer) during his own expedition to Palestine: “The huge breadth and power of the Lake of Gennesaret stretched out before me; the town of Tiberias respired in the shimmering white heat of its mosques and houses, gently, as if tracing the outline of the coastal surf. The purple-pink chain of mountains lay before me with the towering shape of Mount Hermon just visible. And such silence all about, such inexpressible and solemn tranquility! ‘My God!’ I exclaimed involuntarily, ‘But this is all – Polenov!!! … All this harmony of colours, which so moves me, everything around me – it is Polenov’s artistic palette!”