1 December 2010
View of Valaam Island. Kukko signed and dated 1860
Oil on canvas, 104.5 by 141 cm.
Provenance: Acquired at the graduation exhibition at Academy of Arts in 1860.
Private collection, USA.
Private collection, Finland.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Authenticity has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Authenticity has been confirmed by the expert E. Basner.
Exhibited: Exhibition of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, St Petersburg, 1860, No. 25.
Literature: Exhibition catalogue, Exhibition of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Gottenfeld Publishers, 1860, No. 25, listed.
Painted in 1860, View of Valaam Island. Kukko was Ivan Shishkin’s graduation piece for the Imperial Academy of Arts, where the work earned the large Gold Medal, first class, and became the first acknowledged masterpiece by the young artist. It is extremely rare for a work of such quality and importance to appear on the market.
Immediately after the Academy exhibition of 1860, which showcased the work of the best graduates, View of Valaam Island was acquired by an American collector and since then has been thought lost. However every single monograph on this artist has mentioned this work and given a detailed account of the history of its creation.
It is well known that, for three years in a row — from 1858 to 1860 — Shishkin spent the summer months on Valaam Island. In a letter to his parents in early 1858 the artist wrote that, at the Academy of Arts "They suggested to us two friends [Shishkin and Gine] that we should go to Valaam, on Lake Ladoga. There is a monastery, the location is magnificent and they often send our students there and there is rarely a year that no one goes. They often send students to harden them up. Because the nature there is so varied, so wild and therefore tough…"
The variety and richness of Valaam’s nature had made it the northern Mecca for Russian landscape painters by the mid-19th century, and young artists coming to the island were bowled over. Its sunlit meadows, variety of grasses, gloomy pine thickets, impassable, wind-felled trees, precipitous rocks and the smooth surface of the lake stirred the imagination of the romantically-inclined Academy students. Shishkin’s letters to his parents show that his artistic interests became distinctly two-fold, focusing both on ordinary, everyday natural phenomena as well as nature’s more dramatic effects and stormy conditions. Very typical in this respect is his description, in a letter to his father, of the storm the artists experienced on the island in summer 1859: "The weather here is still horrible, the wind and rain are dreadful. Today some trees came down in front of us and also — such a shame — two enormous maples broke off, probably about 150 years old, and they brought down with them lots of young ones as well because they were on the great cliff above the garden… I’d never seen anything like it before — I couldn’t even conceive of such a thing."
After the first summer spent on Valaam, Shishkin could already present three pen-and-ink drawings and eight oil paintings for the examination at the end of 1858. The drawings made a great impression on the academic board. Large, measuring up to 70 centimetres, they were immediately accepted for engraving. The members of the board said they had never received work of this kind from Academy students. Shishkin told his family in an exuberant letter that the "[Moscow] professors came and… wanted [the drawings] in Moscow… I agreed, of course." And, after the exhibition at the Academy of Arts, Shishkin’s drawings were sent to Moscow for exhibition there, after which they were all sold. In April 1859 Shishkin was awarded the Gold Medal second class for his picture Ravine on Valaam, and by early summer he had already been assigned a programme for his diploma picture, allowing him to make a bid for the large Gold Medal and the three-year travel bursary, followed by a further three years in Russia, all expenses paid, which went with it. Since the choice of location to work on his diploma programme was made by Shishkin himself, he went again — by his own admission, "without much thought" — to Valaam together with Gine.
Shishkin’s letters and sketches are testament to the difficulty he had in finding a place on Valaam which might inspire him to create a masterpiece and also in making his choice of composition for the large painting which the artist intended for his Academy graduation piece. Even once he had found a suitably picturesque corner of the island, called in Finnish "Kukko" ("cockerel"), the artist simply could not decide whether to favour the gleaming surface of the water and the gaunt granite rock-face, or the mighty, virgin forest and the unfathomable extent of the skies.
One version of his diploma composition is the pencil drawing Rocks on Valaam Island. Kukko (1859, the State Tretyakov Gallery). In this Shishkin portrays not the thicket but the shore. Before our eyes, fabulous rock formations rise majestically, the distribution of their mass geometrically regular, the contrasts of the Valaam landscape sharply delineated. Another sketch, Deciduous Forest on a Rocky Shore. Valaam (1859, the State Russian Museum), portrays thick forest undergrowth, growing profusely on primeval glacial boulders. It seems that the artist, having finished the first sketch, immediately started work on the next, trying to find the composition he needed. He wanted to reveal as convincingly as possible in his diploma work all the varied beauties of Valaam, to show on his canvas the uniqueness of the natural world on this extraordinary island. As well as the drawings, Shishkin did two painted versions of the landscape, presented in autumn 1860 at the exhibition of the Academy of Arts, View of a Place, Called “Kukko” in Finnish, on Valaam Island and another variant of the latter work. It was for these two landscapes that he was awarded the Gold Medal.
One of these, the smaller (69 by 87 cm), is now in the collection of the State Russian Museum. The second — the larger (104 by 140 cm), and with the more interesting composition — we are now offering for auction. The theme Shishkin found for his diploma work is a total success. The dense, deciduous forest extends all the way to the lake, while a mighty ridge of reddish crags rears up nearby. This formula allowed the artist to show in the foreground forest thickets bathed in sunlight, age-old boulders nestling in their midst. Furthermore, he has used academic painting techniques to bring weight to the right-hand side of the picture, concentrating here the great, bulky mass of rock, and finally balancing the composition by opening up the space on the other side, where the mirror-like surface of the water becomes visible, and the broad expanse of sky above it. He has also introduced into both landscapes a modest genre motif to bring life to the composition. In our painting it is a boat at the shore with two figures, a monk-ferryman from the monastery and his passenger in a yellow waistcoat and black hat, in which we may choose to recognise one of the Academy artists on his way to a remote, wild corner for some plein air work. Indeed, Shishkin recounts how "for their more remote studies they took the boat, sometimes accompanied by Abbot Damaskin. When they left for home they would cover their unfinished studies with oil cloth and hide them under the rocks with their boxes and paints. So that no one would touch them (no one could walk around the island except the monks)." The development of that motif is evident in the landscape in the State Russian Museum, where the artist has climbed onto a boulder on the shore and is waving his hat towards the boat, which has already disappeared from view.
Despite their similarity, a comparison of the two pictures shows clearly, in the authoritative opinion of art historian Elena Basner, "how the artist refined the composition, removing the birch trunk, dividing the picture’s expanse into two in the original version and creating an unexpectedly integrated, lively view of the lake, filled with light and air, framed, in the best classical tradition, with dark 'coulisses' of trees and massive boulders." View of Valaam Island. Kukko is consummate in conception and immaculate in execution, anticipating all the later masterpieces of this celebrated landscape painter.
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