8 Jun 2016
Cassis, signed and dated 1928.
Oil on canvas, 72 by 125.5 cm.
Provenance: Russian Art. Paintings, Sotheby’s London, 10 June 2009, lot 388.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Private collection, USA.
Vasily Shukhaev’s work Cassis belongs to a series of canvasses that he produced over the summers of 1927 and 1928 during his regular trips to the Mediterranean coast in the south of France.
Shukhaev first visited the south of France in the early 1920s at the invitation of his friends Marceline and Marcel Henry, who owned half of the island of Port-Cros and supported the artists and writers whom they invited to spend their holidays there. Shukhaev quickly became an habitué of this bohemian group, and in 1925 wrote enthusiastically about his time in France in a letter to Dmitry Kardovsky: “This year, we lived in the same place where we have spent the summer nearly every year, staying with a French friend of ours, a lady who owns a derelict port on an almost uninhabited island not far from Toulon… Our hostess is a fairly wealthy woman: she has yachts, a motorboat and several rowing boats and sailboats. We use this fleet to maintain ties with the coast, and all the food is brought in from there. Apart from the six of us, there are also five staff (a captain, a mechanic, a sailor, a cook and a maid). They are the only people living in the fort, and there are a further 50 or so fishermen on the island. That is the whole population of the island, which is also very beautiful and is covered with maritime pine and various fragrant shrubs.”
It was during one of the boating excursions from the island to the mainland coastline that the artist took a fancy to Cassis. Nowadays, it is a popular resort between Toulon and Marseille, where the famous French Riviera begins, but in the 1920s Cassis was just a tiny fishing village with a fine bay and picturesque rocky calanques – small, white limestone fjords that cut their way into the coastline. Renowned for its coastal headland, Cap Canaille (the largest of its kind not only on the Mediterranean coast but in France as a whole), Cassis has been a place of pilgrimage for artists and writers since the beginning of the 20th century. Cassis has been painted by Georges Braque, Paul Signac, Raoul Dufy, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and others, who were all captivated by the beauty of the locality.
Once in the French Riviera, Shukhaev, who had hardly ever painted city views in Paris or St Petersburg, created landscapes, one after the other, of the fishing villages of Collioure and Cassis and their surroundings. He was enthralled by the unhurried rhythm of provincial life, the charm of 16th–17th century rural architecture, and the colours of the little houses with their turrets and tiny balconies – houses that hid their time-darkened roofs in the tender greenery of their gardens. All these pictures are lacking in movement; you hardly encounter a single person in them, but they delicately convey the special, meditative and harmonious atmosphere stemming from the coexistence of human history with the majestic world of nature.
In Cassis, Shukhaev’s attention was drawn to Cap Canaille, ochre-and-white and overgrown with vegetation, and to the terraced vineyards and silvery olive trees nestling at its foot. The landscape presented here, like other views of Cassis that Shukhaev painted, is panoramic and characterised by a conceptual monumentalisation. The vista is depicted in a brownish-green range of colours, wrapped in a summer afternoon’s slumber; yet, despite the apparent desolation, it radiates a profound tranquillity. The splendid view opening up beyond an enormous tree, which is disproportionately large compared with the rest of the natural world around it, seemingly sheltering the little town with its leafy crown, has served repeatedly as a model for the artist. General outlines of the rocky slope and shore can be found in a 1928 canvas of similar format, created as an accompaniment to our work, in which the panorama becomes so distant and extensive that it takes in not only the coastal part, but also the lighthouse, the bay and the neighbouring headland.
The tiny fishing village, so dear to the artist’s heart, has been the subject of Shukhaev’s painterly touch in at least a dozen other works. In the winter of 1929 he presented his Cassis landscapes at a personal exhibition in the Kodak gallery in Brussels. Unfortunately, the uninformative exhibition catalogue (which omits the sizes) does not enable us to determine exactly whether the work now offered was featured in it. Nevertheless, the actual scale of the canvas and, at the same time, the fine execution of the details of the composition allow us to rate it as one of the most significant works by Shukhaev the landscape painter in the late 1920s.
Notes on symbols:
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§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
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