1 Dec 2011
Merchant's Wife, signed and dated 1923.
Oil on canvas, 97.5 by 77 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, 1924-1998.
Anonymous Sale; The Russian Sale, Sotheby’s London, 19 February 1998, Lot 90.
Authenticity certificate from the expert V. Petrov.
Exhibited: The Russian Art Exhibition, Grand Central Palace, New York, 1924, No. 421 (label on the reverse).
Literature: Die Dame, No. 19, June 1924, p. 11, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, The Russian Art Exhibition, New York, 1924, No. 421, listed.
V. Voinov, B.M. Kustodiev, Leningrad, Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1925, p. 87, listed.
M. Etkind, Boris Kustodiev, Moscow, Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1982, p. 232, No. 645, listed.
Russian merchants’ wives are without doubt among the most memorable and recognisable images in Boris Kustodiev’s oeuvre. Painted in 1923, the present work was conceived as a kind of continuation and development of the celebrated 1915 work of the same name, which now occupies pride of place in the Russian Museum. The subject is recognisable, as is the protagonist’s pose — as if in a state of suspended animation before the viewer — and even the details: a shawl over her shoulder and handkerchief in her hand. However, what we have before us is not merely the artist’s retrospective attempt to outdo himself at a successful subject. His pictures of merchants’ wives of the early 1920s, painted at a time of tumultuous and dramatic events in Russia, play a far more symbolic role and are of far greater significance than would at first appear. Imbued with nostalgia for the dignified patriarchal society that was by then gone for ever, these portraits of archetypes became a kind of symbol of early 20th-century Russia.
Of course, Kustodiev’s romantic view of his homeland, based on an aesthetic fondness for the past and a poetizing of its images, is interwoven with elements of stylisation, as were the images of his old World of Art comrades. Kustodiev’s languid, contented merchants’ wives are as different from their real-life prototypes as Somov’s saucy marchionesses. Boris Kustodiev’s bright, festive, carefree, big-hearted peasant Rus became for him a kind of dream of Russia, as she had at no time, in no place existed but as she unwittingly appeared when looking back from the bleak, cold-hearted Petrograd of the 1920s. For this very reason the best-known merchants’ wives works were done during the Civil War and the destruction that followed when the Kustodiev family, like many others in Russia, were forced to sell their belongings and queue for bread. The hunt for a ripe watermelon in that half-starved city, for the famous Merchant’s Wife Drinking Tea, was a real feat for the artist’s wife Yulia Yevstafievna.
The artist had long dreamed of creating a universalised image of Russian beauty, for in the 1910s none of his contemporaries had set themselves such a task. When Kustodiev found his ideal of female beauty he was already an established and recognised artist, and he invested all of his creative genius and the searing power of bright, full-blooded colours into these merchants’ wives. Once seen, you cannot forget these magnificent, corpulent women, their figures towering majestically over a Volga townscape, which fades into the background, eclipsed by their ripe beauty.
Yet, at the same time Kustodiev’s beauty is only a fruit of the imagination, a splendid mirage appearing before a European, a World of Art member, along with the legends of the city of Kitezh and the firebird’s feather, from the exotic life of the deep provinces. It is no accident that the ladies who modelled for the sketches of practically all Kustodiev’s merchants’ wives were members of the intelligentsia. One of the models for the Merchants’ Wives of 1912 was the European-educated Natalia Zelenskaya, whom Kustodiev had met in Switzerland. He used a pencil and sanguine sketch of the young actress Faina Shevchenko, done at a premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre, as the basis for his picture Beauty (1915); for Girl on the Volga (1915) the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, Pazukhin, sat for him; the model for Merchant’s Wife Drinking Tea (1918) was Galina Aderkas, a student at the medical institute, who lived nearby; and, finally, the model for his celebrated Russian Venus (1925-1926) was his own daughter Irina. However, when sketching a real individual for one of his protagonists, Kustodiev would always create the specific character he needed and which was frequently rather different from the original. The Merchant’s Wife of 1923 belongs to this group of splendid female types.
It should be noted that all the artist’s paintings of this subject, in their various guises and different formats and sizes, were not conceived as parts of a single, unified series. So it is that each one of them — be it the 1920 Merchant’s Wife Taking a Walk (Russian Academy of Fine Arts Museum) or the 1923 Merchant’s Wife — represents an intrinsically valuable and unique variation on the composition, of which Kustodiev painted many. All, with the exception of the work offered here, are either long settled in museums and private collections or lost without trace. Today Kustodiev’s various merchants’ wives adorn the collections of the Russian Art Museum in Kiev, the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery and several other Russian museums, as well as the best private collections. The portrait of collector and painter Isaak Brodsky attests to the popularity of this image. Kustodiev depicted him walking in a Petrograd in the grip of famine and destruction during the terrible years of the Civil War. Lost in thought and with a dreamy expression on his face, the artist carries a Kustodiev Merchant’s Wife under his arm, oblivious to what is going on around him.
The Merchant’s Wife of 1923 was already widely-known during the artist’s own lifetime. He showed the work a year after it was painted, at the celebrated Russian Art Exhibition, organised by Igor Grabar and Sergei Vinogradov, which was housed at the Grand Central Palace in New York, before travelling around a good many of the central and southern states. The exhibition opened on 8 March 1924, and many of the paintings sold successfully, including the Merchant’s Wife, which was acquired by a private collector. Soon after the exhibition, the much admired picture of the young and smartly dressed beauty out for a walk, appeared in the pages of the popular German women’s magazine Die Dame. The picture remained out of public view until 1998, when it sold successfully at Sotheby’s. Today, for the first time in many years, it is again offered for sale and presents a rare opportunity for even the most exacting collector of Russian art. This painting is undoubtedly among Kustodiev’s most iconic works.
Notes on symbols:
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