2 December 2009
Girl with a Pearl Necklace signed and dated 1881
Oil on canvas, 66 by 51 cm.
In the 1870s, alongside works of the domestic genre and portraits, Harlamoff began working on his so-called “heads” and their related genre compositions, which became predominant and now represent the bulk of the artist’s creative legacy. This proved to be an astonishingly lucrative enterprise for the artist, which to a large extent explains why he painted so many of these compositions. It is true that Harlamoff struggled financially during the first few years of his sabbatical. The funds sent to him by the Academy were scarcely enough to support even the most modest lifestyle. Ilya Repin wrote that “The Academy’s scholarships were sufficient to enable the recipients to get to some town or other and then sit there doing nothing in some cheap cramped room”, barely making ends meet. So Harlamoff, to quote Repin, “for two or more years could only afford to dine in cheap eating houses; then, after he received fifteen hundred roubles for a copy, he started painting items for sale for the first time and is now selling little heads ...”. Among the buyers of these “little heads” were members of Russian and European nobility and royals, including Empress Maria Fedorovna and Queen Victoria.
Harlamoff ’s early “heads” included his Head of a Gypsy Boy, which was painted before the artist’s trip to Belgium. Subsequently, in the 1870s, after returning to France, he created his Mordovian Girl (the Radishchev Saratov Museum), Little Italian Girl and Gypsy Girl (both held by the State Russian Museum), A Head (Penza Picture Gallery), and Portrait of a Girl (Perm Museum of Art), amongst others. These seem to have been painted by Harlamoff so as to invoke associations with the works of Italian artists of the 17th century.
What distinguished Harlamoff ’s “heads” genre from the multitude of other portraits of the same period? One of the artist’s contemporaries wrote that “the head and the study [for the head] are nothing other than ‘uncommissioned’ portraits, portraits under which not only do the first name and surname of the original artist not appear, but we do not have even the inevitable X., N. or Z. The artist executes his head and the study from life in exactly the same way as that in which he paints a portrait from life. However, his choices are not diffident ones, and that is the reason all his heads are beautiful ...” To put it succinctly, this approach provided the artist with a rare opportunity to freely juxtapose his ideal of beauty against real life.
The unrivalled master of this genre was considered to be Leon Bonnard, Harlamoff ’s teacher in Paris. However, despite the fact that such works were integral elements of the works of the Paris Salon, only a few artists managed to reach the standard of the master’s work. Harlamoff, who in his works provided his own unique interpretations of the achievements of Russian artists of the first half of the 19th century – most notably Bryullov, Kiprenskiy, and Moller, amongst others – was one such artist.
Girl with a Pearl Necklace is one of the artist’s best “heads”. In his delicate, thoughtful image of a young girl, Harlamoff attempts to express certain psychological characteristics. The canvas as a whole contains a brownish “museum-like” colour spectrum; at the same time, however, Harlamoff is not afraid of providing a combination of resonant, “pure” white and red colours in the model’s clothing, and this was characteristic of his work in the late 1870s through early 1880s. The style of her simple dress – a blouse and a sarafan [Russian peasant tunic dress] – creates the impression that there is something Russian about the portrait, despite the fact that the painting was executed in France. The model for Girl with a Pearl Necklace was possibly one of the many female pupils of Pauline Viardot, with whom Harlamoff was very friendly in Paris. In any case, she can by no means be described as incidental to the artist’s work, as we certainly know of a number of works which had as their subject the same model as Girl with a Pearl Necklace. Moreover, one of them – The Girl with Brown Eyes – is virtually an exact copy of the composition of Girl with a Pearl Necklace, with the same angle of the head, the same cloak, and the same hands crossed on the chest.
Diverse stylistic trends are interwoven in both of these canvases. Here, as in many of Harlamoff ’s other portraits, we have romantic or even sentimental reminiscences (it was not for nothing that his contemporaries remarked upon their “daydream” origins), features of realism, and, finally, allusions to the paintings of the “old masters”. After all, in the majority of his works Harlamoff continues to be a good colourist and a master who has a marvellous command of painting techniques.
According to the recollections of the artist E.K. Liphart, who was one of Harlamoff ’s and Bogoliubov’s friends amongst the community of Russian artists in Paris, “everyone considered it to be an honour to pose for Harlamoff. In his strikingly similar portraits, what was important to him was the overall effect of the painting, and the details did not interest him – for example, if – as a result of being lit from above – an eye appeared to be sunken into the deep shadow of the eye socket, Harlamoff would satisfy himself with a half shadow, which would allow the pupil to be seen together with the vivid expression of the model’s gaze”. It was precisely this intense interweaving of light and shadow, as a contemporary artist noted, that created a certain sense of intrigue and mystery in Girl with a Pearl Necklace.
Notes on symbols:
* Indicates 5% Import Duty Charge applies.
Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
† Indicates Standard VAT scheme applies, and the rate of 20% VAT will be charged on both hammer price and premium.