The epic works of Vasily Surikov are a magnificent manifestation of the creative genius of the Russian people. In breadth and power of imagery, his canvases are a match for the musical images of Glinka and Mussorgsky.
Surikov came of Cossack stock and was born in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk. His father’s family came to Siberia from the Don area, with Yermak; his mother came from the old Cossack family Torgoshin, and it was from these roots that the artist inherited his proud, freedom-loving character. Pyotr and Ilya Surikov and Vasily Torgoshin are mentioned among those who took part in the Krasnoyarsk uprising of 1695-98. Surikov was proud of his origins and wrote: ‘I am a Cossack through and through, with a pedigree going back over two hundred years.’
His parents were also artistically gifted, in a broad sense. His father, a passionate lover of music, played guitar excellently and was considered the best amateur singer in Krasnoyarsk; his mother, a wonderful embroideress, had inborn artistic taste. The source of Surikov’s conception of beauty was Siberia, with all its severity, with its sometimes cruel customs, its courageous people, the ‘old Russian’ beauty of its girls, its majestic scenery and its living history. ‘Siberia,’ he recalled, ‘brought me up from childhood with the ideals of historical types.’ His first attempts at drawing also took place in his early childhood: ‘I was six, I remember—I drew Peter the Great from an engraving. The colours I did myself: blue for the uniform and crimson for the lapels.’
The first person to notice the boy’s abilities was N. V. Grebnev, the teacher of drawing at Krasnoyarsk district school, which Surikov finished in 1861 with a certificate of merit. Grebnev set him the task of copying etchings from the old masters. Surikov later spoke with gratitude of his first tutor: ‘Grebnev nearly wept over me, teaching me to draw.’
In order to support the family after his father’s death Surikov had to work as an office clerk. Sometimes, as he recalled later, he even had to ‘paint Easter eggs for three roubles per hundred’ and once he took a commission to paint an icon entitled The Holy Virgin’s Feasts.
Surikov’s drawings attracted the attention of the governor of Krasnoyarsk, P. N. Zamyatin, who put in a word for him at the Council of the Academy of Arts. From St. Petersburg came a positive response, but with the reservation that he would not be provided with a scholarship. The rich gold-mine owner P. I. Kuznetsov, an art lover and collector, came to Surikov’s aid and offered to pay for his studies and upkeep. In the middle of December 1868 the young artist set off on a two-month journey to the capital with a string of carts transporting Kuznetsov’s merchandise. Surikov proved to be insufficiently prepared for the Academy examinations. He entered M. V. Dyakonov’s class at the school of the Society for the Furtherance of the Arts and in the three summer months mastered a three-year course. On 28 August 1869 he passed the Academy’s entrance examinations and was accepted as an external student. By the following autumn he was already at work on his first independent work: View of the Monument to Peter the Great on Senate Square in St. Petersburg (1870, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG).
Surikov made great progress at the Academy, extracting the maximum benefit from the lessons. His achievements were particularly spectacular in composition—so much so that his colleagues called him ‘the composer’.
The development of his natural gifts owed much to Pavel Chistyakov, who trained many masters of Russian art. At the Academy Surikov successfully executed a series of compositions on classical themes, and also a picture from early Russian history—A Prince’s Judgment (1874, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW).
In April 1875 the artist embarked on a programme work for a gold medal—The Apostle Paul Expounding the Dogmata of Christianity to Herod, Agrippa, His Sister Bernice and the Roman Proconsul Festus (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW). Compositionally, the picture does not venture beyond academic canons, but it does already show the artist’s interest in his characters’ psychologies. In Chistyakov’s words ‘the antediluvian dunderheads failed the best pupil in the whole Academy, Surikov, because he didn’t manage to finish a few details of the picture’, and the gold medal, which also gave the right to a trip abroad, went to someone else. When six months later, ‘by way of an exception’, he was given a chance to travel abroad he asked instead of this to be allowed to carry out a commission to decorate the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Surikov did the preparatory work for this in St. Petersburg and only added the final touches in Moscow. From June 1877 the artist lived permanently in Moscow, having spent two years doing frescoes depicting the four oecumenical councils. Thereafter Surikov took on no more commissions for work.
In 1878 Surikov married Elizaveta Share, grand-daughter of the Decembrist P. Svistunov. The artist’s happy family life and relative material security allowed him to ‘do his own thing’, and that was to paint scenes from Russian history. ‘Arriving in Moscow, I found myself in the centre of the life of the Russian people and immediately found my bearings,’ he recalled subsequently.
It seems the very walls of the ancient city spoke to him. Figures from the past rose up in his imagination, followed by the plan of a picture which was for him ‘staggering’. The Morning of the Streltsi’s Execution (1878—81, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) is truly staggering. Not because of the horrors of death, but because of the power of the characters and the tragic nature of one of the crucial periods in Russian history. The subject of the picture comes from the Petrine age and reflects one of the episodes in the struggle for the throne between Peter the Great and his sister Sophia, the upshot of which was the defeat of Sophia and the streltsi who supported her. ‘It was not the execution I wanted to convey, but the solemnity of the last minutes,’ wrote Surikov about this painting. The streltsi are full of dignity as they go to meet their deaths; they have lost the fight and ask for no mercy. In the crowd, ‘which is agitated like “the noise of much water” ’, Surikov singles out interesting characters. Particularly expressive is the ginger-bearded strelets whose wrathful gaze—almost the axis of the whole composition—meets Peter’s eyes.
The architectural landscape, with St. Basil’s Cathedral which seemed ‘blood-stained’ to Surikov, is more than a historical background: it is compositionally tied in with the motion of the masses. The artist conveys the ‘solemnity of the last minutes’ not only in the proud beauty of the Russian people, but in the picture’s colour-scheme, which captures the shades of the dawn sky, the colours of the clothes and the cathedral, the patterns on the shaft-bows and even the sparkling rims of the cartwheels. This picture already manifested the great merits of Surikov as a colourist. ‘When I thought up the picture,’ he wrote, ‘all the faces emerged at once, and the colouring along with the composition. Everything springs from the canvas itself’.
The painting was bought by Pavel Tretyakov as soon as it was exhibited, and the artist immediately set about other themes that appealed to him: ‘I thought of Boyarynya Morozova even earlier than Menshikov, straight after the Streltsi; but then I started Menshikov, to give myself a break.’
While Streltsi showed the tragedy of the masses, made up of the fates of individual people, in Menshikov in Beryozovo* (1883, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) Surikov concentrated his attention on one strong character whose personal drama echoed the tragedy of Russia. However localised the episode may have been which suggested to Surikov the subject of his future picture, the image he went on to create assumed historical importance . . . We see the interior of a low wooden cottage dimly lit by a candle, with a tiny window covered in whimsical frosty patterns. Menshikov’s huge figure seems cramped in this enclosed space, under low ceilings: this strong and imperious man is accustomed to a different scale of life. With him are his three children, who were to have been the perpetrators of his ambitious designs. Were to have been . . . The situation is dramatic. And Surikov brilliantly catches in it the beauty and subtlety of human feelings, conveying them in the appearance of the characters and in the colouring. ‘Of all Surikov’s dramas, Menshikov is the most “Shakespearean” in its treatment of man’s eternal, inexplicable fates,’ wrote Mikhail Nesterov.
The first study for Boyarynya Morozova appeared in 1881; Surikov began work on the picture itself three years later, having meanwhile painted Menshikov in Beryozovo (Menshikov, a Russian military leader and statesman, was one of Peter the Great’s closest allies. In the struggle for power after Peter’s death, he was exiled, together with his family, to Beryozovo. Surikov’s painting epitomises the end of the Petrine age.—Ed.) and made a trip abroad. Here the artist chooses as his heroine Feodosiya Morozova, a fanatical follower of archpriest Avvakum, an active adherent of the Old-believer movement in the Russian church. Once again, the tragic fate of a strong, passionate figure is, for the artist, indivisible from the fate of the people, who opposed the church reforms introduced by Patriarch Nicon, seeing in them an encroachment on the customary run of their lives, on their rites and—in the final analysis—on their spiritual freedom.
In this picture Surikov wished to show a person who was not only herself capable of strong feelings but could also arouse such feelings in others. The artist wrote: ‘I cannot understand the actions of individual historical figures without the people, without the crowd. I have to drag them onto the street.’ The ‘crowd’, however, is not faceless, but is made up of vivid individuals.
All the components of the picture—form, colours, linear composition—have a tremendous emotional effect. The work is national not only in subject (based on events of the seventeenth century) but in its national types, its architecture, its winter landscape, and its treatment of colour, whose rich, limpid strength is akin to the Russian people’s sunny perception of the world! In Boyarynya Morozova (1887, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) Surikov succeeded in expressing the inner firmness, selfiessness, courage and beauty of Russian man.
The painting was first shown at the Fifteenth Peredvizhniki Exhibition and was showered with the highest praise. Vladimir Stasov wrote: ‘Surikov has now produced a painting which in my opinion is foremost among all our pictures on subjects from Russian history. Nothing in that sphere of our art which sets itself the task of illustrating Russian history has gone as far or as high as this picture.’
In early 1888 the artist suffered a grave shock: his wife died. Consumed by grief, he almost abandoned art. A testimony to Surikov’s state at that time was the painting The Healing of a Man Blind From Birth, which was first seen at a Peredvizhniki Exhibition in 1893.
Heeding the advice of his relatives, Surikov and his daughters went to Siberia, to Krasnoyarsk. ‘I moved on from dramas to the great joy of living,’ wrote the artist in retrospect. ‘I have always had leaps like that into cheerfulness. I painted the genre picture of the game village at that time. I returned to my childhood memories . . .’ Noticeable in the picture The Taking of a Snow-Built Fortress (1891, RUSSIANMUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), which appeared after three historical canvases, were the roots of the artist’s great love of living, which helped him overcome grief and adversity. The heroes of his works are also endowed with this love of living.
In 1891 Surikov returned to Moscow, bringing with him, in his own words, ‘an incredible strength of spirit’. Now he began work on a new canvas—Yermak’s Subjugation of Siberia (1895, RUSSIANMUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG). ‘Two elements encounter one another’—these words of Surikov’s stick in one’s mind when one sees the grand battle scene depicted here. The people appear in all the grandeur of their exploit. The army is led by the legendary Yermak, whose figure is at once singled out and indivisible from the Cossacks. The distinguishing feature of the Cossack force is its unity, its oneness. In contrast, the army of Kuchum, seized by panic, appears disconnected. While glorifying the courage of the Russians, Surikov also sees deserving features in the enemy and stresses the distinctive beauty of the ‘aliens’. Modelling them from living Khakass and Ostyak people, Surikov remarked: ‘They may have snub-noses and high cheek-bones, but everything is harmonious.’
The epic character of the picture derives not only from the import of the subject (the clash of two historic forces) and not only from the concise expression of the movement of an enormous mass of people, but also from the manner of painting. In Nesterov’s assessment, Surikov’s painting was ‘firm, thick and rich, seized out of the essence of the action, flowing by necessity’.
Suvorov Crossing the Alps (1899, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) developed the theme of the military heroism of the Russian people, which was started in Yermak’s Subjugation of Siberia. The appearance of the painting at the Twenty-seventh Peredvizhniki Exhibition coincided with the centenary of the event which it depicted. Surikov had begun work on it in 1895, and in 1898, at the site of the historic crossing in Switzerland, he made etudes for it.
‘The main thing in the picture is the movement,’ wrote the artist, ‘and the whole-hearted bravery of the men, obedient to the command of their general.’ The landscape—mountain-peaks disappearing in a shroud of clouds, some dark, some shining with a pale cold blue—allows the spectator to sense the difficulty of the crossing and to feel the significance of the feat achieved by Suvorov’s men.
Surikov spent several years working on his last large-scale work, Stepan Razin (1907-10, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG). This painting caused him some trouble, and he returned to it even after it had been shown in public. In 1909 the artist wrote in a letter: ‘As far as Razin is concerned, I am still working on it, emphasising the characterisation of Razin. I went back home to Siberia and there I found the realisation of my dream of him.’
The picture impresses one by its sense of freedom and space. Its beauty lies in the rippling mother-of-pearl colours, in the air suffused with sunlight and in the overall poetic quality. The beauty of nature helps to bring out the deep pensiveness of the ataman, isolating him in a way from the tipsy merriment of the Cossacks. Evidently Surikov’s aim was to convey the inner state of this strong, rebellious character, and this fact is borne out by his words to the artist Ya. D. Minchenkov: ‘Today I painted Stepan’s forehead: he’s got much more pensiveness about him now, hasn’t he?’
The last historical figure to be painted by Surikov was Pugachov. A study dating from 1911 shows the leader of the eighteenth-century peasant uprising locked up in a cage . . .
An exhibition mounted in 1912 by the Union of Russian Artists included Surikov’s The Tsarevna Visits a Nunnery (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW). The fusion of historical and genre art in this picture sets it alongside similar works by Andrei Ryabushkin and Sergei Ivanov.
Surikov’s work as a portraitist is of considerable importance, especially his wonderful etudes for his historical canvases and for The Taking of a Snow-Built Fortress. The characterisation in Portrait of Doctor Yezersky (1911, private collection), Portrait of a Man with a Sore Arm (1913, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) and his self-portraits of the 1913 (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) and 1915 (RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) is powerful, and his female portraits are extremely beautiful.
Surikov died on 6 March 1916 and was buried beside his wife in the VagankovskoyeCemetery in Moscow.