30 Nov 2016
Bathing in Crimea, signed and dated 1891.
Oil on canvas, 97.5 by 127.
Provenance: Private collection, Europe.
Authenticity certificate from the expert V. Petrov.
Exhibited: Possibly, Vystavka kartin russkikh khudozhnikov v Obshchestve liubitelei khudozhestv, Dom Vasilievoi-Shilovskoi, Moscow, 25 May–10 September 1891.
Literature: Possibly, exhibition catalogue, Katalog kartin russkikh khudozhnikov na vystavke v Obshchestve liubitelei khudozhestv, Moscow, 1891, No. 83, listed as Kupanie v Krymu.
Bathing in Crimea is a unique work by Lev Lagorio, the outstanding Russian painter of marine and military subjects. It is Lagorio’s rare foray into the nude – a genre so intrinsic to European art – and as such he has created an idyllic composition against his favourite and celebrated backdrop – a seascape.
We cannot know for sure what prompted the artist, who only occasionally included small genre scenes in his pictures, to choose this subject. The incentive may have come from one of Lagorio’s many patrons, whose palaces and summer-houses were being built on the Crimean coast during the late 1880s and early 1890s. At this time, Lagorio had his studio in the Crimean seaside town of Sudak, where he worked on commissions from his aristocratic and noble neighbours.
At that time, Lagorio mainly painted canvases depicting scenes from the Russo-Turkish war, a subject which had brought him widespread acclaim. However, he also produced works that revealed his indisputable talent for beautiful and striking “small genre” works. Unlike Aivazovsky, who painted his spectacular sunsets and sunrises from memory, Lagorio always used sketches painted en plein air, which left out any unusual light effects, but made his pictures more realistic. Instead of panoramic views, he often chose secluded quiet inlets and bays, surrounded by high cliffs.
Bathing in Crimea is one of those compositions. The subjects seem to be shrouded in a transparent veil, while the sunlight emerges from a haze to lend the picture a “gentle, soulful poetry”, as an Art Journal critic wrote of Lagorio’s work. But, simultaneously, everything, even the smallest detail, is meticulously rendered: one can make out the tiny leaves on the small tree clinging to the rocks, and the emphasised ruggedness of the cliffs. This ambivalence of the artist’s gaze may have had something to do with his short-sightedness. As a fellow student, Alexei Bogolyubov used to poke fun at him: “Lagorio was considered the most gifted among us as a landscape painter, though he was always short-sighted and made his sketches using binoculars”. According to another commentator, this idiosyncrasy of Lagorio’s technique made his paintings instantly recognisable, as his “soft, velvet brush ... conveyed on the canvas, as if by magic, the changing colours of the sea, the grey-blue tones of the cliffs and the haze of the distance.”
In Bathing in Crimea, a soft evening light plays upon the rocks and illuminates the transparent ripples of the receding wave, the figures of the bathers are emphasised with a sculptural grace as they move towards each other in the water and a certain mystery is imparted to the friend, seated in the shadow of the cliffs. Although the artist’s palette is restrained, it is highly expressive and varied in its tones.
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Lagorio’s romanticised landscapes, occasionally adorned with small genre scenes, could be seen to be the antithesis of his battle paintings. They brought him numerous commissions and inspired an obituarist to call Lagorio “a genuine poet of the south, of the southern sea and sky, a poet of the Crimea and the Caucasus, all of which he so lovingly depicted.”
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