30 Nov 2016
Gypsy Girl with Flowers, signed and dated 1907.
Oil on canvas, 127.5 by 87 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, UK.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Literature: O. Sugrobova-Roth, E. Lingenauber, Alexei Harlamoff. Catalogue raisonné, Düsseldorf, Edition A. Harlamoff, 2007, p. 206, No. 166, pl. 158, illustrated.
Gypsy Girl with Flowers is one of Alexei Harlamoff’s celebrated Italianate portraits. The artist first started to dabble in this genre as early as the 1870s, when, returning from a European tour to France, he painted a whole series of pictures of southern-European girls. These portraits are variously titled: Mordovian Girl (The Radishchev State Art Museum, Saratov), Little Italian Girl, Gypsy Girl (both in the State Russian Museum), Little Head (The Penza Picture Gallery), Portrait of a Little Girl (The Perm Art Gallery), but all indisputably have similar traits that have a definite kinship and bring to mind Italian works of the 17th century.
Léon Bonnat, Harlamoff’s teacher in Paris, was then considered to be the unrivalled master of the Italianate portrait genre, and had many imitators. However, despite the fact that these latter works were entirely in the spirit of French Salon works, very few artists achieved the level of their idol. Among those who did was Alexei Harlamoff, who interpreted in an original manner the achievements of Russian art in the first half of the 19th century, particularly those of Karl Briullov, Orest Kiprensky and Feodor Moller, amongst others.
Harlamoff remained true to his chosen subject for many years, adapting and perfecting it right up to the end of his life. However, works from around the turn of the century, in which he incorporates flowers, mark his creative peak. In this tender and thoughtful image, of a teenage girl with southern-European looks, painted in 1907, Harlamoff strives to achieve a specific psychological depth. The palette generally consists of brown, subdued “museum-tone” colours, but at the same time his technique is now lighter, and sketchier and “pure” colours have disappeared, giving way to a fine chiaroscuro modelling of the girl’s clothes, typical of his early 20th century output. Thanks to the style of her simple clothing – a blouse and skirt with an embroidered apron – we are able to see in this portrait a certain and recognisable “ethnic” flavour.
This same costume, with minor variations, features in several other works, such as Sisters (1894) and Gypsy Children. It is possible that the model for Gypsy Girl with Flowers was one of the many female students of Pauline Viardot, who became Harlamoff’s close friend in Paris. The same model reappears in several known portraits.
The artist Ernst Lipgart, a friend of Harlamoff’s from the colony of Russian artists in Paris, recalls that “everyone considered it an honour to sit for Harlamoff. In his portraits, which stood out for their close resemblance to the models, Harlamoff sought to achieve the overall painterly effect. Details were of no interest to him: for instance, if, due to overhead lighting, an eye would be lost in deep shadow in the eye socket, Harlamoff would make do with a half-shadow, which allowed us to see the pupil and the lively expression of the gaze”. It is exactly this attention to the model’s eyes, as noted by his colleague, that we see in Gypsy Girl with Flowers; these deep, dark eyes that become the main focus of the painting, attracting the viewer like a magnet.
Among those who admired and purchased Harlamoff’s portraits were Russian and European aristocracy and royalty, including the Empress Maria Feodorovna and Queen Victoria.
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