MacDougall's Russian Art Auctions 1 December 2011

1 Dec 2011

Artist Index / Full Catalogue


The Sermon at Capernaum

37. KOTARBINSKY, VASILY (1849-1921)

The Sermon at Capernaum, signed.

Oil on canvas, 79 by 120 cm.
170,000-200,000 GBP


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

Vasily (Wilhelm) Kotarbinsky’s The Sermon at Capernaum is an example of the biblical compositions for which the artist was famous during his lifetime. Having lived in Italy for many years and achieved renown in Europe for his popular mythological works set in antiquity, Kotarbinsky, now a mature and acknowledged master, turned to Old Testament and Gospel themes. This was to a certain extent accidental. In 1887 Kotarbinsky left for Kiev to assist in the fresco painting at St Vladimir’s Cathedral (1887-1895). Here, in the process of creating The Transfiguration of the Lord and, together with Svedomsky, The Days of Creation, The Last Supper, The Entry of the Lord Into Jerusalem, The Crucifixion and The Judgement of Pilate, Kotarbinsky became so captivated by the subject that he developed a genuine passion for religious pursuits. In tandem with the work on St Vladimir’s Cathedral, he painted monumental frescoes in private homes commissioned by the likes of Ivan Tereshchenko and Bogdan Khanenko, as well as a whole series of works on religious subjects for Catholic churches in Belarus.

In 1900 the artist took part in an exhibition at the Imperial Academy of Arts where his many sepia drawings (about 150) were a great success along with his large-scale oil paintings from the divine story. Notably, Pavel Tretyakov took a fancy to The Widow’s Mite for his gallery, but the purchase did not go through because Tretyakov demanded that the artist replace his usual Roman alphabet signature with one in Russian. Kotarbinsky categorically refused. Tretyakov’s wife was very disappointed about the purchase falling through and acquired, for herself, a sketch for that painting which she bequeathed to the gallery in her will.

This “trademark” signature is also to be seen in the bottom righthand corner of The Sermon at Capernaum. Conceived and executed on his return to Russia, this genre composition, with its deeply saturated colour, still bears definite traces of the artist’s “Italianate manner”. A master of composition and light, in The Sermon at Capernaum Kotarbinsky brought together architectural and landscape motifs with a subject from the Gospels, and slight touches of orientalism. Of all the miracles Christ performed at Capernaum — healing people, raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead, driving out the unclean spirit and, finally, finding the apostles Peter, Andrew, John the Theologian, Jacob and Matthew — Kotarbinsky chose what is, at first glance, the least spectacular moment: a sermon at a synagogue. However, this choice was not accidental. It allowed the artist to create the historical backdrop that he so loved.

The Sermon at Capernaum is without doubt a gem of this artist’s biblical cycle — on a par with The Crossing of the Red Sea, The Widow’s Mite, and Judas at the Cross, all now in museums or private collections — and occupies an important place in Kotarbinsky’s oeuvre.


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.