The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev was something of a connoisseur of visual art but tended to be damning of his compatriots' work. In his novella Smoke, he has a character dismiss the very idea of Russian painting: "Russian art, indeed! Russian impudence and conceit, I know, and Russian feebleness, too, but Russian art, begging your pardon, I've never come across. For 20 years they've been fancying that we've founded a school of our own and that it will be better than all others... Russian art, ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho!"
As a collector, Turgenev favoured 17th-century Dutch painting, notably landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael and Aert van der Neer, as well as Théodore Rousseau's unromanticised vision of rural northern France.
It is therefore a credit to the great Russian painter Vasilii Dmitrievich Polenov that Turgenev was prepared to champion his work, along with that of his exact contemporary Ilya Repin, in an effort to find patrons for them in Paris, where Turgenev was living and the two young artists, both recent graduates of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, had ateliers during the early 1870s.
It was an admiration Polenov was glad to reciprocate. The Dutch art historian Sjeng Scheijen describes how Polenov's interest in landscape painting "had been largely influenced by reading Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album". The inspiration for some of his greatest paintings – Moscow Courtyard, Grandmother's Garden and Overgrown Pond, all of which now hang in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow – "came from the poetry and intimate motifs" of Turgenev's work, the artist wrote. Indeed, a copy of Moscow Courtyard, a gift from the artist, hung in Turgenev's study until his death.
Born in St Petersburg in 1844, Polenov is one of the greatest Russian painters of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During his time in France, he was much influenced by the French artists of the Barbizon school. Indeed, as Scheijen wrote, it was thanks to him "that plein air painting became an established tradition in Russian art".
On his return to Russia, Polenov joined the Peredvizhniki, or Wanderers, a society of realist painters, whose aim was to mount exhibitions of their work that toured Russia "in order to bring art to the people", and whose members included many of the finest Russian painters of the 19th century, Kuindzhi, Levitan, Leonid Pasternak, Repin, Savrasov, Serov, Shishkin and the Vasnetsov brothers.
Like Repin, Polenov began to concentrate on genre and historical themes, bringing figures and stories into his landscapes. He continued to travel, particularly in the Middle East, and to paint en plein air, but the result of these peregrinations were not exotic Orientalist scenes of the type made popular by Vereschagin, another contemporary. Rather, they were preparation for perhaps his signal achievement, a series of 60 canvases known as From the Life of Christ (Iz Zhizni Khrista), two of which are offered for auction at Bonhams in November.
As with his earlier landscapes, Polenov again found inspiration in prose, this time in Ernest Renan's controversial bestseller La Vie de Jésus, in which Renan sought to scrutinise the life of Christ, as a biographer might approach any historical figure of signficance: as a man rather than a messiah. Polenov hoped to capture this same realism in his paintings.
Despite his prolific output, it's very rare for paintings by Polenov of this scale and quality to come on to the market. But if the two masterpieces that Bonhams is offering seem familiar, it is because another version of He is Guilty of Death hangs in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, no less, owns an early (1884) sketch for He That is Without Sin, though they call it Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery.
The seven-figure guide price for this painting, dated 1908, is also unsurprising in light of the prices paintings by Polenov have risen in recent years. In London, a much less mature work, The Egyptian Girl (1876), sold for £1,049,250 against a much lower estimate of £250,000. It is proof that it is not just art historians but collectors who regard Polenov as one of the true masters of 19th-century Russian art. As the great landscape painter Levitan (like Korovin, a student of Polenov's) wrote to him in 1896: "I am convinced that the tradition of painting in Moscow would not have been the same without you."
Polenov, however, was modest about his achievements, insisting he preferred music to art. Something of a polymath, he wrote operas as well and loved to design for the stage. "Art has to promote happiness and joy, otherwise it is not worth anything," he once wrote.
Perhaps this explains why, despite an oeuvre rich in religiously themed works, his greatness as an artist was acknowledged by the state in 1926 when he was made a People's Artist of the USSR, despite the state's avowed atheism. Two years earlier, in 1924, also in recognition of his achievement, the Council of People's Commissars had granted him and his family 'lifetime use' of his handsome riverside estate in Borok, 130km south of Moscow, where he lived until his death three years later. Now known as Polenovo, it is a museum devoted to his life and work.
But he was not a difficult, or a controversial artist. And nor is there anything mystical about his religious works. Indeed, to some extent He That is Without Sin prefigures the essential tenets of what became Socialist Realism, the ideological style enforced by the Soviet government that "demanded of an artist honesty, truthfulness and a revolutionary realism in the representation of the proletariat", as determined by the article in Literaturnaya Gazeta that spawned the movement. Polenov's Jesus is not remotely the westernised Renaissance ideal of most religious painting. Rather he is older, rougher, more ravaged than you might expect and definitely Semitic, no different from the Pharisees and villagers he's addressing.
When the painting was first exhibited in Russia, in a Peredvizhniki exhibition that toured the entire series to Orel, Kharkov, Kiev, Ekaterinoslav and Kazan in 1909, one critic observed that Polenov's "underlying aim was a philosophical one. [He] wanted to depict Christ within the landscape, to make nature integral to his being. Christ's character seems to fade into the surroundings and fall into the background [...], but in the landscape his presence can be sensed all around."
Claire Wrathall writes for the Financial Times.
Sale: The Russian Sale
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Wednesday 30 November at 2pm
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