5 June 2019
Young Dreams (Tsesarevich), signed and dated 1918 and 1922.
Oil on canvas, 107 by 67 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, Europe.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Exhibited: XVII vystavka kartin Soiuza russkikh khudozhnikov, Moscow, 31 December 1922–22 January 1923.
The Russian Art Exhibition, Grand Central Palace, New York, 1924.
Literature: Exhibition catalogue, Katalog XVII vystavki kartin Soiuza russkikh khudozhnikov, Moscow, 1923, p. 5, No. 42, listed.
Exhibition catalogue, C. Brinton, The Russian Art Exhibition, New York, Grand Central Palace, 1924, No. 812, listed.
N. Morgunov, N. Morgunova-Rudnitskaia, Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov. Zhizn i tvorchestvo, Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1962, p. 443, listed.
Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov. Mir khudozhnika. Pisma. Dnevniki. Vospominaniia. Suzhdeniia sovremennikov, Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1987, p. 449, mentioned in the text.
L. Gladkova, E. Paston, “Dve raboty Viktora Vasnetsova”, Russkaia galereia, No. 1, 2001, pp. 48–50, illustrated and mentioned in the text.
Viktor Vasnetsov’s painting Young Dreams (Tsesarevich), offered here for auction, is one of the artist’s finest romantic images of children, images that evoke the patriarchal atmosphere of the royal court of Muscovy. The artist dated the work 1918 and 1922, but it is most likely the product of a much longer period of creative search. It is plausible that its initial versions were created while Vasnetsov was working on another painting, Boyan (The Bard; 1910), the idea for which seems to have been originally conceived at the end of the 19th century.
Vasnetsov would often spend years painting his iconic epic canvasses, and Boyan (The Bard), which was displayed at an international exhibition in Rome in 1911, is no exception. One of the central protagonists in the picture, a boy listening to the singer of heroic ballads together with members of a prince’s retinue, was painted by the artist from portrait sketches that he made of his son Vladimir. The youngest of Vasnetsov’s sons, he was born in 1889 in Kiev, while his father was working on the murals of St Vladimir’s Cathedral, and often sat for his pictures on historical and Gospel subjects at the turn of the century. Vladimir most certainly was a model for the presented for auction work as well.
A fair-skinned boy with light-brown hair, he was, as Mikhail Nesterov aptly put it, “Vasnetsov’s type”, and was perfectly suited for portraying the characteristic “Old Russian” personages, whose authenticity was always a matter of meticulous concern to the artist, as was the overall historical ambience of his compositions. In particular, after deciding to send Boyan (The Bard) to Italy, Vasnetsov anxiously awaited news of the public and critical reaction: “I am sending my new work abroad for international judgement, being greatly apprehensive about disgracing the Russian land”.
Vasnetsov’s House-Museum in Moscow preserved two childhood portraits of Vladimir, made while the artist was still contemplating the Boyan (The Bard), which are directly related to Young Dreams (Tsesarevich). The first of them features the boy sitting on a chair and wearing a white canvas shirt, trimmed with red threadwork. The second shows him clad in the red kaftan, similar to the coat of a young prince in the present painting, possibly sewn by Yelena Polenova from Vasnetsov’s sketches for Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Snow Maiden, performed in Abramtsevo. In terms of its composition, the first version comes closest to the work in this catalogue. The boy is sitting on a chair three-quarters turned towards the viewer, with his hands calmly lowered and eyes fixed on something outside the picture.
However, the twenty years separating these studies, made in 1899, from the painting Young Dreams (Tsesarevich), to which the artist only returned in the late 1910s, had not passed without leaving their mark, and had clearly brought about a change in the artist’s conception of the subject. Despite a lack of enthusiasm among critics and the artistic community, who focussed in the first decade of the 20th century on the avant-garde struggle to revitalise the art, Vasnetsov remained true to himself and continued to produce pictures on religious and folklore themes. However, World War I that started in 1914, the subsequent revolutions and the civil war and, most importantly, the reflections that they prompted about Russia’s national development, aim and identity, reawakened the societal interest in the epic tales of the past — and in Vasnetsov’s work. The artist perceived the historic events of the first two decades of the 20th century as a personal tragedy, and they were clearly at odds with his political ideals: “I have been, and still remain, an uncompromising monarchist,” he wrote, “in accordance with time-honoured Russian principles; i.e. I stand for the Orthodox faith, for an autocratic, absolute tsar and for the great Russian people.” (cited in: L. Korotkina (ed.), Viktor Vasnetsov. Pisma, novye materialy, St Petersburg, ARS, 2004, p. 210).
Accordingly, in the late 1910s, the artist not only produces on commission versions of earlier paintings, but also remains true in these newer works to his enduring source of inspiration, his “spiritual home” — Old Russia and ancient Russian art. As Vasnetsov works on the series of paintings known as The Poem of Seven Fairy Tales (1900–1926) and on the present work Young Dreams (Tsesarevich), he seeks to distance himself from the erroneous ideas of the new century and reverts once more to themes drawn from folklore and Christian iconography.
The walls of the chamber where the young prince sits on a fabric-upholstered chair, dreaming wistfully of the unattainable, as well as the arches of the royal palace in another Vasnetsov picture from the same period, The Princess Who Never Smiled (1916–1926), display the images of ancient church murals, including Saint George, the Temple of Heaven and others. Virtually all of the artist’s paintings in those years reflect an attempt to restore the idyllic world of Old Russia, a kind of escapism in an artist who had cast life’s hardships aside and immersed himself in a world of fairy tale dreams. After all, according to Vasnetsov himself: “I have always only lived and breathed Old Russia. As for how I stopped being a genre painter and became a historian in some fantastic way, I can’t give any precise answer. I only know that at all times ... I have always had historical and fairy tale dreams.” (cited in: L. Korotkina (ed.), Viktor Vasnetsov. Pisma, novye materialy, St Petersburg, ARS, 2004, p. 117).
At the same time, Young Dreams (Tsesarevich) may have had a personal biographical subtext arising from the artist’s worries about the fate of one of his sons. His middle son Mikhail was a professional astronomer and taught at the White Army’s flying school in Kiev. When the Red Army took over the city, Mikhail, extremely worried for his family, sent his wife and son Viktor to live with his father in Moscow, while he himself was obliged to leave the country along with his unit in 1920. The family knew nothing about the fate of Mikhail until 1922, when he was able to send the first letter to his father. That is why the subject of a child day dreaming about his lost home may have been especially relevant to the artist at that time.
The life of Vasnetsov himself in the post-revolutionary years was not easy, but it was relatively secure. He continued to take part in exhibitions and even displayed Young Dreams (Tsesarevich) in 1923 at the last show of the Union of Russian Artists in Moscow, later sending the picture to the 1924 Exhibition of Russian Art in New York.
Notes on symbols:
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