Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Bel'sky (Russian, 1868-1945)
A young sorceress signed in Latin (lower left) and in Cyrillic (lower right), verso further inscribed with artist's name oil on canvas 126 x 112cm (49 5/8 x 40 1/8in).
PROVENANCE: Purchased from A La Vieille Russie, 1986 Private collection of a New York financier Gift from the above to the present owner
EXHIBITED: XXXVII exhibition of Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), 1908-1909, organised in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the painting was only exhibited in St. Petersburg on February 6, 1909 - April 5, 1909
LITERATURE: Illustrated in Tovarishchestvo Peredvizhnykh Khudozhestvennykh Vystavok, 1871-1923, XXXVII exhibition, 1909, St. Petersburg, 2003, page 336, nos. 3-17
Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Bel'skii is one of the few Russian artists whose paintings convey unwavering optimism and positive emotions. His paintings joyfully celebrated universal values and the presence of beauty and happiness in everyday life, and from early in his career, the artist was celebrated for his enchanting genre scenes. Born and raised in the Russian countryside he created the most poetic images of the vanishing peasant culture and traditional rural way of life. A student of V. Makovskii, V. Polenov and I. Repin, the artist was brought up with the traditions of the late Wanderer's movement and joined the Society in 1895. A study trip to Paris at the turn of the century was pivotal for the young artist. He was captivated by impressionist masterpieces, and by the vibrant contemporary European artistic life. As a result, Bogdanov-Bel'sky brightened up his colour palette considerably, began painting with vibrant and expressive brushstrokes and infused his paintings with a warm light and brilliant magical glow.
Bogdanov-Bel'skii's reputation as a celebrated portrait painter was well deserved. The artist not only became a remarkably successful society portraitist, but also created an entire gallery of portraits depicting the most important Russian cultural and political figures of the second half of the 19th century. His portraits of the pianist Anton Rubinshtein, the artist Elizaveta Bem, the historian Nikolai Barsukov, and the professor Vasilii Sergievich are among the best example of period portrait painting. The artist was commissioned to paint two portraits of Emperor Nicholas II, a portrait of Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich, and of the young Grand Duke Dmitrii Pavlovich (who later participated in the assassination of Grigorii Rasputin), and he was invited to Yusupov's estate in Crimea to paint portraits of the young Felix and his mother, Zinaida Yusupova. Bogdanov-Bel'skii was invited to capture the likeness of the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna, Prince Mikhail Volkonskii, Princess Dolgorukova-Yurievskaia, the Minister of Finance Sergei Witte, the Governor of the Caucasus Prince Vorontsov-Dashkov, and many others.
The present portrait is among the best of the artist's early works. A beautiful young woman is gazing directly at the viewer; she is wearing a traditional peasant blouse and a western Ukrainian woven skirt, called 'poneova', with alternating red, pink and blue squares and a typical opening on the side. Her hair is loosely covered with a heavy red scarf. The woman's unbuttoned shirt which has slipped suggestively from her right shoulder reveals her sun-kissed rosy skin and draws attention to her shapely bust line. The young woman's confidence and self-assurance is underscored by her upright posture, the strategic placement of her arm and the direct engaging gaze. The entire image is sensual and seductive. The artist even entitled the work 'A Young Sorceress' or 'A Young Witch' (in Russian 'Molodaya Ved'ma') thus amplifying the dangerous erotic energy that the image projects.
The artist's model for the stunning and captivating image was probably Natalia Antonovna Toporova who was his muse, friend, constant companion and favourite model. She appeared in an equally picturesque portrait showing her reading on a garden bench and surrounded with yellow chrysanthemums (sold at Sotheby's, 26 April 2006, lot 79).
Painted around 1909, the portrait was exhibited at the XXXVII Annual Exhibition of Wanderers in St. Petersburg. The Ukrainian association is probably not coincidental, as in 1909 Russia was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Nikolai Gogol's birth and this portrait could have been associated with the seductress-panochka in Gogol's short horror story 'Viy' in which the encounter of the main character Khome Brut with a seductive and omnipotent young witch almost costs him his life.
Painted in an impressionistic manner, in deep saturated tones of red, maroon, grey and green, the painting is a sheer masterpiece of the celebrated colourist and master of genre painting.
The present painting will be included in the catalogue raisonné of the artist.