Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897)

Lake in the mountains of Switzerland. Alexei Savrasov

Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov (1830-1897), one of Russia’s most remarkable landscape painters, who proceeded from romantic traditions in his never ending searchings, was first to produce what one could term the lyrical landscape. However, since he often anticipated future developments in both concept and realisation, his creative career was no bed of roses, for which reason his oeuvre confronts the art student and historian with perplexing problems. Many of his singular salient features derived from his artistic talent, his heightened sentivenses. Yet, he shows us a vital aspect of nature, namely its bond with our intellectual senses, that as such was unquestionable influenced by the overall philosophies of the time.

It should be noted that the 1840s, a time in Russia when its progressive critics highlighted the visual arts and especially landscape painting, were a most auspicious period for Savrasov to embark upon a painting career and find outlet for his unique gifts. In 1848 he enrolled as a student at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture and in the same year was allowed to join the special studio of perspective and landscape painting under K.I.Rabus, an erudite, great-hearted person who was conspicious for his teaching talents. Indeed, besides giving special classes in painting, draughtsmanship and the theory of perspective, he concentrated on character formation and intellectual development. In all likelihood Savrasov, who continued to paint under his teacher’s supervision even after graduation, was greatly indebted to this man’s personal influence.Yet it would be wrong to think that Rabus could thereby curb the independent searchings of his younger colleagues or confine them to the painting of views which he preferred and which with him were still steeped in the atmosphere of academic romantism.

Savrasov’s efforts of the 1850s, which are illustrated in this article, most pulpably reveal that intricate process he was going through of rising above the very principles of adherence to tradition. Indeed, in every piece we discover in equal measure signs of the budding painter’s exceptional gifts and the boldness with which he realised his conceptions. Despite the traditional manner of dividing planes, despite the conventional handling, espacially pronounced in his maiden efforts of 1851, notably “View of the Kremlin from Krymski Bridge During Inclement Weather”, these works reveal a firm link with the natural environment.The expirience thus gained enabled Savrasov to masterfully execute with his characteristic romantic uplift such a study as “Pine Trees”.

In 1852 the artist travelled to Ukraine where he produced a series of views of its rolling steppelands, which reflect the various aspects of his favourite subject of wide open spaces. Later he moved to the shores of the Gulf of Finland in the neighbourhood of St.Petersburg, to Oranienbaum, where he was invited by the Grand Duchess Maris Nikolayevna, the then President of the RussianAcademy of Arts. Though the scenery there was alien to his spirit, he was able to pinpoint for future efforts aspects never encountered earlier in academic landscape painting. Thus, his drawing “Seashore. Twilight” furnishes not only the compositional idea but the entire overall poetic mood of his “Saeshore in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum”. After completing studies of the entire environment for the next painting namely “View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum” which he created in 1854, the artist, though retaining a traditional title characteristic of academy views, was nonetheless able to transcend the limitations of that genre and charge his representation with profound emotion. In the autumn of that year he submitted both artworks to the Academy of Arts and was duly awarded the title of Fellow of the Academy.

Savrasov spent the second half of the 1850s painting views of landscapes outside Moscow, to which end he most likely drew upon studies of the actual scenery. Thus, the study Oaks which he did in 1855 for his View of Kuntsevo Outside Moscow well illustrated his skill. His efforts are now increasingly more expressive and the conspicuously lit central planes are more often than not seen as naturally conveyed lighting. Also gradually incorporated are distant backgrounds, now the fringe of a forest or, perhaps, tiny villages on a river bank. In short, the landscape with Savrasov assumes an increasingly pronounced life-like simplicity.

In 1857 Savrasov shouldered the mantle of the recently deceases Rabus as head of the Landscape Studio at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture where he was to teach for the next 25 years. For his students he procured special premises and besides getting them to work out in the open air executed his own efforts in their presence, thus encouraging them to more fully display their own proclivities and abilities. Incidentally, in a memo submitted to the School Board upon his appointment, he welcomed the inclusion in the syllabus of disciplines of a general educational nature and in the footsteps of Rabus attached vast significance to the intellectual advancement of his pupils and the fostering within them of what he termed “their own beliefs.”

The artist’s Landscape with River and Angler, done in 1859, beautifully illustrates the heights reached towards the end of the 1850s. In his endeavour to preserve the freshness of the immediate impression caught in the study, he, though still unaware of the system of plein-air painting, intuitively hit upon colouring which simultaneously imparts perfection and evokes a lyrical admiration for the beauties of nature. In this picture the light and the air appear to be in full accord with its radiant colouring, and the figure of the angler, too, reveals complete harmony with the manner in which the scenery has been conveyed.

Although little is left of Savrasov’s efforts of the 1860s, their innovative imagery manifestly reveals traces of his efforts to adapt his Weltanschauung to the overall philosophies of that remarkable period. Like other landscape painters he discovered in the day-to-day realities of Russian scenery a natural means of involvement in the life of his people. It is characteristic that he was already in a position to define in his artistic effort his own very special mood. Nature was still a highly lyrical subject, yet his landscapes seemed to more profoundly and vigorously incorporate everything inducing him to meditate about life’s meaning and especially the basic purpose of his own creative searchings. Hence, the complexity of content, of the emotions that his pictures arouse, inducing the viewer to see through his eyes, heart and mind everything reflecting village life. Despite the introduction of genre scenes he often pictured exclusively one salient feature that in itself was already a manifestation of the rustic way of life.

However, as we said earlier the artist’s attempts at innovation were of an unusual order, with the result that landscapes unlike those executed in the 1850s appeared only towards the close of the 1860s. This happened after Savrasov went to England to the World Fair there in 1862 and spent some time in Switzerland painting mountains. In all probability his introduction to English landscape painting was most instrumental. Nor could his Swiss studies pass without trace, definitely enabling him to evolve his own approach to scenery which he had seen before only in the traditional type of Academy painting. Although his inimitable singularity was fully manifest only in the 1870s, the several works painted at the close of the 1860s and reproduced in this book provide an illustration of the utterly novel approach. The entire pattern of imagery is now geared to an assertion of the aesthetic price of externally simple subjects with nothing of those signs of traditionally conceived beauty. Programme works of that period setting out the basic principle of the Russian materialistic philosophy of the 1860s to the effect that “the beautiful is life inself” include Losiny Ostrov (Elk Island) in Sokolniki (1869) and A Moonlit Night. Swamp (1870). Though they make no attempt to hide an ordinariness, that fleeting instant of radiant nature which the artist has trapped induces a feeling for the beautiful and noble in the prose of life. It should be noted that the tonality of Losiny Ostrov is most pleasing, as too is the near-monochromatic yet emotionally complex colouring of a Moonlit Night with its endless plains in the pale glow of a moon peeping out from behind clouds.

The inspiration in life is incarnate likewise in two semigenre landscapes, namely A Rustic View (1867) and Rafts (1868), in which a generalised pictorial representation of nature is conveyed through the medium of a bountiful palette of radiant tints fused into a colouristic amalgam, as the result of which the briefly noted genre aspect is constructed as implicit.

Savrasov’s exhibition of The Rooks Have Come, painted in 1871, at The First Travelling Show—the first held by the group known as the Peredvizhniki or Itinerants from their idea of arranging travelling exhibitions—best illustrates his philosophical affinity with Russia’s progressive movement. This extremely simple landscape, in which chiaroscuro has been employed to great advantage, is understandable, even familiar by virtue of the typical character of the subject selected which arouses a legion of both visual and auditory associations as well as emotions that the coming of spring invokes in every breast. Outwardly the episode appears of little significance; yet it enchants by virtue of the poetry inherent in this renascence. A new type of landscape this, pioneering the way towards a lyrical conception, a point appreciated not at once and even then by few. The purity of feeling permeating the picture, along with the subtle lilt presenting the barely perceptible signs of nature’s awakening, preserve that sempiternal idea that is at the root of life.

Other works produced in the same year as Rocks and conceived while the artist was living in Yaroslavl, even though they were executed upon his return to Moscow, already exhibit his diversity of interests. He reveals a special proclivity for the theme of Spring, particularly after his Rocks, which he conveys in different ways, possibly due to his desire to cope with the tasks of plein-air painting. This is well instanced by the two studies reproduces, namely, Willows by a Pond (1872) and Spring (1874). It was now of moment for the artist to feel at home in all the emotionally rich possibilities that painting offered. As a result, the landscape as such comes to play a role of increasing significance in both narrative and genre pieces. Indicative in this sense are his Evening. Moonrise (1872) with its herd of cows trundling along in the gloaming, and his celebrated inimitable representation of the typical Russian plain in Country Road (1873) with its muddy ruts so characteristic of backwoods villages. His intuitively evolved approach to plein-air painting is exemplified by the manner in which he has conveyed the transient states and conditions of nature observed. Gone is the current notion of the despondency of a muddy country road; rather does the polychromatic representation invoke a stirring sense of nature’s eternal yet so frequently unnoticed appeal.

It is quite possible that while working on his Country Road Savrasov also painted the Volga landscapes that were shown at the Third Travelling Exhibition in January 1874. He was attracted to the impressive scenery of this part of Russia at the outset of the 1870s, as he found there everything enabling him to express in landscapes a sense of wide open space, the lure of distant radiance, the bustle of the villages along the banks of this great Russian river, and the appeal of the architectural monuments to be found there. The landscapes has something that evidently long needed to be pictorially represented, which was why these Volga pictures were acclaimed by the artist’s contemporaries. Employing for the most part tonality, the artist provides a restrained, often near-monochromatic composition, totally unlike his Country Road; yet the viewer always senses both the different lighting of the clouds inmotion and the fusion of the basic components of sky, water and detail.

Conspicuous among the Volga series is Grave on a Volga Bank (1874), whose depicted drama, partly linked with the artist’s life and sufferings, is presented through intricately reinterpreted generalised imagery. The artist’s contemporaries well sensed its profound meaning, its fervour of the struggle between the good and the evil in life. True enough, it presents a key to an understanding of the lyricism of Savrasov’s art. Also one should note one more landscape, Evening. Birds in Flight (1874), a possibly still more daring conception. Though the two differ in subject matter they share a common unusual imagery and character. Evidently, it had taken the artist long painful searching to evolve the laconicism by means of which he conveyed both his own torment and a philosophy of generally human significance. Fully appropriate as regards the second landscape is what the artist was fond of telling his students, namely: “Nature always sings and its song is one of triumph.”

The lofty philosophy of these efforts climaxed, in effect, the crucial chapter of the artist’s work as expressed in bold innovation stemming from the aesthetical experience accubulated, and encouraged by the ideals of the time and the national self-awareness. Indeed, a comparison with the small landscapes executed at the close of the 1870s will throw that into particularly bold relief. In place of profound psychological probing we now see a strongly manifest lyricism and desire to convey the immediate freshness of impression. Accordingly, we now have a different choice of subject matter, a certain fragmentary compositional arrangement and a tonality that displays an increasingly closer affinity with the light and colouring of plein-air painting now and again accentuated by a heightened resonance. Characteristic in this respect are his study Avenue and small Provincial Cottage, Spring (1878). Totally unexpected, as one would think, are his excellently executed A Winter Day. Hoarfrost and the small landscape Yard with its fragmented composition and subject that seems diffused in a light and air conveyed by means of a colour scheme of ashgrays and ochre yellows. One of the best efforts produced during this period is the small landscape Rainbow (1875) which evokes a sensitive feeling for the freshness of the tiny rain-swept village and the radiance of the rainbow which seems to enclose the cottages.

The ordinariness of life depicted in all these efforts is charged with a highly emotional lyricism conveyed through the very manner of painting. It appeared as if these small landscapes had brought the artist towards a solution of objectives that would rise up to confront landscape painters only in the 1880s. They indeed anticipated future trends, well revealing Savrasov’s keen vision and sensitivity.

However, though he seemed to break new ground, by the early 1880s the artist had been totally crushed by life and only his talent and will-power enabled him to break out of the clutches of the crisis that had overtaken him. Thirsting to express feeling and suffering he worked with a furious intensity and though his manner modified, early spring in the countryside remained his favourite subject. His misfortunes plus an awareness of his tragedy had an inevitable pernicious impact on the professional aspect of many of his landscapes. Yet we must not forego this final chapter of the artist’s career as many of his efforts of this period are deserving of the highest commendation. Apart from his Early Spring. Vistas and Field of Rye (1881), a view of a rolling plain before an advancing storm, the 1880s provide us with more daring pieces necessitating a full re-evoluation of this final chapter. The best efforts were partly imagined and partly based on the immediate impression of scenery newly reinterpreted; they demonstrate once again the solidity of the artist’s potential. They appeal by virtue of their innovation, the diversity of subject matter, the complexity of emotion conveyed, and the free handling, distinguished by the search for a heightened expressiveness. Alongside of the romantic landscape Summer Night (1883), we notice herein the tense autumn landscape Field of Crows and the drawing done from nature, The Village of Volynskoye (1887). Special note should be taken of the moonlit night-time landscapes and finally the totally unexpected—from the angle of subject matter and technique—Twilight. The artist’s final Sea of Mud (1894), which again reveals that invariable searching to present an unpretentious depiction of the bleakness of nature before the coming of spring and the first stirrings of its awakening.

Savrasov’s entire oeuvre is permeated with that search for the ennobling spirit of life, which imparted to it the intellectuality so characteristic of Russia’s national culture. Despite its chequered pattern of development and changing interests, Savrasov’s art represents a true milestone in Russian landscape painting.