In 1914 Alexander Benois was invited to design a decorative scheme for a first-class restaurant at the new Kazan Railway Station in Moscow. Benois was one of the most colourful and influential figures of what is now called the Silver Age of Russian art. A founder member – together with Diaghilev and Léon Bakst – of the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) movement, he belonged to a celebrated family of architects and artists, and had achieved an international reputation for himself with his book illustrations, ballet designs, monumental murals and critical essays. In the Kazan Railway Station project he saw an opportunity to bring together some of the most exciting artists from Mir Iskusstva in a group endeavour. The theme of the decorative scheme was to be the position of Russia (and the Kazan Railway Station) as a bridge between East and West. And, in realising this vision, Benois secured the enthusiastic collaboration of the painters Yevgeny Lanceray, Boris Kustodiev and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. He also approached his 29-year-old niece (and Lanceray's sister), Zinaida Serebriakova.
Serebriakova had had an informal training in several artists' studios, as well as spending three years in Paris. She came to prominence, though, in 1910 with a playfully luminous self-portrait, At the Dressing Table. This was followed by a succession of scenes of peasant life and – more arrestingly – a series of beautiful nudes, radiating a neoclassical grace and purity. The depiction of the female nude was to become her signature and speciality. It was an under-represented motif in Russian art, due – according to one Russian art historian – to "the traditionally bashful... nature" of the Russian public. There was nothing bashful about Serebriakova's frank and sturdy Amazons, but there was nothing prurient or titillating either. The assured golden-limbed figures of her 1913 masterpiece, Bathhouse, display a poise and naturalness that suggests both the healthy peasant and the goddess of classical antiquity. For the wall panels of the Kazan Station restaurant she began a quartet of allegorical figures – beautiful, scantily draped women representing India, Japan, Turkey and Siam. The pictures were never completed. The October Revolution of 1917 overtook the project, and the new regime did not want such images of Romantic exoticism.
In 1924 Serebriakova, by then widowed and out of favour with the Communists, went into exile in Paris. She lived in the city until her death in 1967 at the age of 82. Throughout the years in France she continued to work and to follow her own vision – influenced more by Ingres, Renoir and Degas than by International Modernism. Although she had to take on fashionable portrait commissions to support herself, she also went on painting and drawing her beloved nudes. And despite the fact that her models tended to be Parisians, Alexander Benois (by then a fellow exile) was delighted by what he considered to be the 'Russian nature' of these studies: "It is something special, something known from our literature, music and personal experience. It is the flesh of our flesh."
At the Midi Fair in Brussels in 1928 she met the Belgian industrialist, Jean de Brouwer. He became her patron, commissioning her to paint a group portrait of his family, and suggesting a trip to Morocco, where he owned a plantation. To the amazement of her friends (Serebriakova was notorious for getting lost even in Paris), she set off alone for North Africa. She loved the colour and light of Morocco, and painted numerous pictures of the Arab and Berber women. It was a difficult business overcoming the women's religious scruples about posing – let alone in the nude. Nevertheless, she overcame their reluctance by offering to pay them and by working very quickly.
Delighted by the pictures that Serebriakova brought back from Morocco, de Brouwer then asked her to paint a series of panels for the salon of a new villa he was building, the Manoir du Relais in Pommeroeul, Mons, on the Franco-Belgian border. There were to be two horizontal pieces with elaborately embellished maps of the lands from which de Brouwer derived his wealth (Flanders, India, Morocco and Patagonia) and four large vertical panels depicting allegorical females standing in niches. Using her ballet-dancer daughter as the model for all four nude figures, Serebriakova created representations of Jurisprudence, Flora, Light, and Art – to reflect de Brouwer's interest in law, horticulture, power generation and the visual arts.
They are wonderful images, monumental yet also curiously intimate. Their neoclassical purity, rendered in restrained ochre tones, is touched with a hint of that 1930s Art Deco glamour found in artists of the period from Dod Procter to Tamara de Lempicka. But, above all, these works – which are offered in the Russian Sale in New Bond Street – convey the personal vision of the artist.
Sadly, Serebriakova never saw them in situ. Having delivered the panels in 1937, she fell out with de Brouwer over the payment. She then assumed that the works had – like so much else – been destroyed during the war. But, in fact, they – and the Manoir du Relais – survived. In 2005 they were rediscovered – overlooked but intact – by an amazed Russian art historian. Serene and commanding, these figures, completed in a Paris studio and lost for three quarters of a century in a Belgian suburb, still glow with the brightness of Russia's celebrated Silver Age.
Matthew Sturgis is author of award-winning biographies on Walter Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley. His most recent book is When in Rome (Frances Lincoln).