MacDougall's Russian Art Auctions 8-9 June 2011

8 June 2011

Artist Index / Full Catalogue

The New Bracelet,

* 9. SEMIRADSKY, GENRIKH (1843-1902)

The New Bracelet, signed and inscribed "Roma", c. 1883.

Oil on canvas, 80 by 57 cm.
250,000-300,000 GBP

Provenance: Acquired by the great-grandfather of the present owner, possibly directly from the artist.
Thence by descent.
Private collection, USA.

Authenticity certificate from the expert Dr T. Karpova.

Authenticity of the work has also been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.

Literature: S. Lewandowski, Henryk Siemiradzki, Warzawa-Krakow, 1904, p. 32, illustrated.
T. Karpova, Henryk Siemiradzki, St Petersburg, Zolotoi Vek, 2008, p. 107, illustrated; p. 385, listed.

Related literature: For a pencil study, see S. Lewandowski, Henryk Siemiradzki, Warzawa-Krakow, 1904, p. 5.
For an oil study, see T. Karpova, Henryk Siemiradzki, St Petersburg, Zolotoi Vek, 2008, p. 106.

Genrikh Semiradsky's painting The New Bracelet, also known as Dolce Far Niente, is a rare and happy discovery, not only for the art market, but also for the academic world. Painted in 1883, it was published as a splendid example of a "Classical idyll" in the first monograph about the artist, written by his friend, the Polish sculptor Stanislaw Lewandowski. An unknown collector later bought the work from the artist's studio in Rome; it then disappeared from view, after which it was only known from a lithograph produced before the Revolution.

The same motif of an ancient fountain in the form of a cornucopia, with the head and body of a hippocampus, is also found in The Conversation (c. 1883, in a private collection) - an exquisite piece of easel work, which was certainly painted as a study for The New Bracelet - as well as in several versions of this artist's extremely popular painting At the Fountain (c. 1890).

Genrikh Ippolitovich Semiradsky (1843-1902) was one of the pivotal artists of late 19th-century Academicism, figuring in both Russian and Polish culture and, above all, in the cosmopolitan world of European Neoclassicism. He was known as "the last classicist" of 19th-century art, but this classicist lived and worked in an epoch when Realism reigned supreme. In both his large and small-scale canvases the distant world of ancient civilisations is brought to life by the illusion of sunlight and this polymath artist's thorough knowledge of history, and, with his brush, he bestows a polished artistry upon this distant world. He easily persuades us that antiquity is no golden vision dreamed up by man, but palpable reality. The tangible, sensu ous, colourful image of antiquity created by Semiradsky became a kind of standard and his pictures served as source material for works of literature set in "antiquity".

In The New Bracelet, landscape plays a major part in the pictorial execution, which is characteristic of the Classical idylls of this artist. Semiradsky's plein-airist landscapes and the illusionistic authenticity of his subjects convince the viewer of the reality of this long-gone ancient civilisation. The consistent set of motifs and themes, and the autonomy of the depiction of the Mediterranean countryside in his pictures allow us to speak of Semiradsky as a landscape painter. The azure of a bay, plane trees offering the shade and coolness so greatly desired on a hot day, distant mountains with pink and lilac ridges, a high blue sky, flowers growing in the rock and glinting like little flames, the "architecture of small forms" (marble fountains, benches and steps), skilfully painted into the landscape and functioning as part of the composition, greenish marble of the fountains, jagged old stone steps hot from the sun - these are the elements which make up the artist's captivating landscapes, and most are present in The New Bracelet.

This image of the Mediterranean countryside was, it transpired, close to the hearts of collectors of Semiradsky's work in Russia, northern Europe and America, for it was the visual embodiment of the image of the south that they had gleaned from Romantic literature, as a place where "the sun shines brightly". The Italian atmosphere - the colours, the shadows, the sounds which perfuse it -inspire in foreign visitors an inexplicable feeling of happiness: this permeates Semiradsky's canvases and is still winning hearts to this day. One of the attractive qualities of Semiradsky's landscapes is their expansive panoramic viewpoint. The artist achieves an impression of space somehow unfolding before our eyes, creating up to five different planes. In his landscapes there is no firm demarcation between near and far. He opens up a vista as if inviting us on a journey.

One favourite motif which is constantly present in Semiradsky's work of the 1880s and 1890s is the act of contemplation, of admiration: the perfect beauty of a mortal woman (Phryne at the Feast of Poseidon in Eleusin), a work of art (The New Statue, The Vase Painter, The Vase Seller, The New Bracelet), a dance (Dance Among Daggers, Roman Dances, Dancing to the Harp); or the act of listening intently to something: a flute melody (By a Spring), or songs from another land (Song of a Slave Girl). For Semiradsky, the ability to feel beauty, to open oneself up to it, was inseparable from an understanding of the fulness of life, happiness and harmony.

In the picture The New Bracelet, Semiradsky achieves the impression of a completely natural scene. We feel we have before us a freeze-frame from a film about a time long since past, but also a time which we understand and with which we are familiar. In some magical way, Semiradsky removes the centuries-long barrier which had separated us from these people and their lives and transports the viewer, as if in a time machine, to that small marble fountain, where two girls have settled themselves in the shade of a plane tree, captivated by the fine work of an ancient jeweller. A grateful public appreciated the artist's talent, not only for his virtuoso technical skill but above all for the sense of "being there".

On the one hand, such pictures diverted their audience from the hardships of existence and, on the other, gave meaning to their own lives. Semiradsky's sun-filled canvases inspired them to find beauty and value in the everyday. The artist invited his viewer to discover anew an "eternal truth", that the secret of harmony is simple: peace and repose in the soul, a simple, ethical life in the bosom of nature without an excess of luxury. With these intimate works, the artist seems to say: "people, love life, look after your loved ones, bring up your children with care and affection, love art, open yourselves up to the beauty of the world and providence will not abandon you. Heaven did exist on earth and it is still possible: man can be happy."

A natural life in the bosom of nature turns any insignificant everyday activity, every moment of existence into a celebration. In Semiradsky's idylls, these moments look like sparkling jewels: Ancient Rome. A Village (c.1899, Omsk M. A. Vrubel Museum of Fine Arts), Rest (1896, Lviv Art Gallery), By a Spring (1898, Lviv Art Gallery), To Morning Market (1890s, Taganrog Picture Gallery); Roman Peasant-woman (Fishing) (1890s, National Museum, Warsaw), Playing Dice (1899, State Tretyakov Gallery). The recently discovered The New Bracelet (1883, private collection) makes a fitting addition to that group of Semiradsky's acknowledged masterpieces.

Dr Tatiana Karpova, art historian

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.