Narkiz Nikolaevich  Bunin (Russian, 1856-1912) Fishing
Lot 18*
Narkiz Nikolaevich Bunin
(Russian, 1856-1912)
Sold for £ 25,000 (US$ 33,624) inc. premium

Lot Details
Property from a private collector, Northern California
Narkiz Nikolaevich Bunin (Russian, 1856-1912)
signed in Cyrillic and dated '1903' (lower left)
oil on canvas
75.6 x 106.7cm (29 3/4 x 42in).


  • Provenance
    Acquired by a private collector, early 1950s
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    Russian Artists Exhibit, Passazh, St. Petersburg, 1903
    Possibly exhibited at the World's Fair, St. Louis, 1904, no. 47, with the title In the lap of nature

    Narkiz Nikolaevich Bunin (1856-1912) was born to a noble family with origins in the Voronezh province of Russia. After graduating from the military gymnasium, he studied at the College of Mines and simultaneously attended classes at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts from 1881 to 1887. While still a student at the Academy he received minor medals (1884 and 1885) and was awarded a large honorary medal in 1887. He quickly gained popularity as a painter of battle scenes and military subjects and actively participated in academic art exhibitions as well as exhibiting at the Society of Russian Watercolourists. The subjects of his paintings depicted the daily life of the Russian Army and major battles from three wars: Officer of the Horse Guards Regiment on duty at the Winter Palace, Near Gornyi Dubniak, Chasseurs at the rest-stop during military manoeuvres, Portrait of Napoleon and Death of General Keller. Bunin's works were reproduced in numerous St. Petersburg publications including North, Fine Art Review and Neva, among others (1890-1910).

    However, the painting that attracted the most attention from the critics and thrust Bunin into the centre of public debate about art and the artist's moral responsibility had nothing to do with military subject matters. In March 1903, at an exhibition at Passazh, Bunin presented a charming genre painting entitled Fishing. The scene is centred on a group of fisherman pulling the day's catch out of the water. On the left, a young boy seated sorts through the still-flailing crucians and throws them into a bucket. Three men, dressed only in peasant linen shirts, fold up the netting. Two of them are still standing in the water. The water in the river is calm and clear; its peaceful flow along the shores covered with reeds draws the viewer's eye toward the green grove in the background and the golden meadows receding behind the horizon. Prima facie, this idyllic country scene would not be considered provocative by visitors to the exhibition. At second glance, however, viewers were shocked to discover that the central figure depicted is the legendary novelist Lev Tolstoy, and that the rightmost figure was none other than the well-known painter Ilya Repin. To depict the great, respected Russian novelist without proper attire and baring his legs, to Bunin's contemporaries seemed the pinnacle of artistic vulgarity and a deliberate attempt to stir controversy.

    Rumours about the painting with the 'naked Tolstoy' spread quickly. Press reviews of the scandal-inducing work attracted further attention and doubled the number of visitors. At first, Bunin argued that the resemblance of the subjects to Tolstoy and Repin was purely coincidental, admitting several days later that the portrayals were, in fact, intentional. He explained that he considered Tolstoy's eccentricities to be ludicrous, and that the fanatical worship of the famous writer looked 'wild and laughable'to him. Bunin cited Repin as one of the 'Tolstoy-obsessed' followers and noted that Repin, with his numerous grand and imposing portraits of the Russian writer, contributed to his exaggerated popularity. In turn the press reminded the public that only two years ago, Repin had depicted the genius of Russian literature barefoot, and surmised that in this sense Bunin sought revenge on Repin for taking unseemly artistic liberties. The St. Petersburg newspaper Citizen declared the preview 'the week of the nude Tolstoy', while other newspapers carried on lively discussions debating : 'Is it acceptable to depict celebrities in the nude?' and 'Does the vegetarian Tolstoy ever go fishing?' Several days after the opening of the exhibit one of the journalists, Simon Lyuboshits, publicly vandalized the painting by writing in red pencil the word 'abomination' across the entire canvas [Fig.1]. On March 3, 1903, the paper Stock Exchange News described the incident:

    'Exhibition judges rushed to Lyuboshits, wishing to apprehend him, but Lyuboshits energetically exclaimed "I shall strike the first person to lay hands on me! I did this on purpose! Yesterday I spent the entire day with Count Tolstoy. Today I visit an exhibit with this revolting smear! Nobody shall dare to arrest me. I shall surrender voluntarily. Call the police!" The police was called...Some members of the public immediately wrote a petition against the presence of the painting in the exhibit and handed it to Lyuboshits. The petition was signed by 40 attendees.'

    Lyuboshits was consequently sentenced to six days in prison. A heated debate ensued. Fedor Sologub, a prominent publicist, spoke in defence of the painting. Journalists recalled a short story by Afanasii Fet in which a poet recalled that he personally saw Count Tolstoy up to his knees in water fishing. Count Tolstoy himself was contacted for comment, but refrained from getting involved, noting : 'My life for some time now has been open to public scrutiny, and for this reason I have ceased to be surprised by anything'. Ultimately, Bunin's work was removed from the exhibition and gradually, the passionate debate surrounding the 'naked legs of Lev Tolstoy' died down and the artist was able to restore his reputation with both the public and among critics. After Bunin's death, a posthumous exhibit was organized in St. Petersburg and his paintings were acquired by many museum collections. However, no other work earned Bunin such a degree of public acclaim as Fishing.

    The fate of this curious, and at one time notoriously famous, painting was unknown for many years. It was rumoured that Bunin took the painting out of Russia and successfully sold it. Others were convinced that the artist destroyed the scandalous canvas. The appearance of this painting at the present auction finally resolves the uncertainty of its fate which had remained unknown for many years. It appears that Bunin indeed took the painting out of Russia and evidently, successfully sold it in the United States, most likely after the 1904 World's Fair exhibit in St. Louis. It is likely that after the scandalous attention surrounding the painting at the Passazh exhibit, Bunin changed the title of the work so that it would no longer be marred by negative associations that might harm its chances of selling well in America.

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  1. Daria Khristova nee Chernenko
    Specialist - Russian Paintings and Works of Art
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
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