Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!

Russia's Greatest Painter of Nature Ever (Ivan Shishkin, 1832-1898)

This article from our archives was first published on RI in March 2019

Tretyakov, the greatest Russian art collector of all time, had one criterion for art. He wrote:

“I do not need any rich nature, no great composition, no spectacular lighting, no miracles, give me even just a puddle of mud, but let there be truth in it, poetry …”


Just Give Me Truth

That’s exactly what Ivan Shishkin, the famed Russian landscape artist did from childhood until death. He drew poetry from puddles. 

He had quit school at the fresh age of 16, so as “not to become a civil servant” and come home to Yelabuga in rural Russia, to his mother’s intense irritation. 

There weren’t stupendous snow-capped mountains in Russia, no Grand Canyons, no oceans or volcanoes, so for four years straight Shishkin drew exactly what he saw: swamps, felled trees, endless dry grass, midday sunshine and always, roads.

Ivan would wake and leave before dawn with his drawing bag. He came back after dark.

His love affair with nature started then and kept growing deeper throughout all of his life. Friends would later say

“And when he is in front of nature … he is exactly in his element, here he is both bold and nimble. Here doesn’t have to stop to think;  he knows how what and wherefore ..” 

Ivan came from a strict and traditional merchant family. His relatives bristled against his shenanigans and wanted him to pursue a stable career, complaining that he was a worthless, gloomy loner. 

Only his father understood and quietly sympathised with his son. He finally blessed his wayward 20-year-old son to leave the village and study art first in Moscow, then in St. Petersburg.

“Midday. Near Moscow” 1869

A Stoic Philosophy of Art

Having finally been allowed to follow his passion, Shishkin threw all his passion into his studies. 

For four years in Moscow (1852-1856) he worked under the guidance of the renown artist A.N. Mokritsky, who taught that the way of an artist is work, restraint, and sacrifice.

“Who wants to be a true, that is, a great artist, must follow Christ – take up the cross and bear it, renounce the worldly goods and love art”

Later, Shiskin himself would tell his students:

“The artist’s characteristics are sobriety, moderation in everything, love of art, modesty of character, conscientiousness and honesty …  

He deeply believed that art, true art, could only be born from a moral character, toughened by restraint and honesty. He approached it as a duty and an act of love, one which would be defiled by a shade of pretence or dishonesty. 

Professional Success and Personal Struggles

After Ivan finished in Moscow, he studied industriously in St. Petersburg (in the same academy that his future friend left with a scandal) and received a scholarship to go study in Europe.

Success came relatively easily to Shishkin. In Europe, he quickly gained acclaim and when he returned to Russia, he joined a famous art society called “the Wanderers.” Artists, Russian and European, and public were charmed by his work and his paintings sold easily. 

Shishkin’s personal life followed a more tumultuous path. In his 30s, he married his friend’s sister and fully dedicated himself to his young family. However,  within the span of three years, he lost two sons and his first wife, who died of tuberculosis. 

Some time afterwards, as he slowly regained a semblance of normalcy, he fell in love with his talented female art student, Olga Lagoda. They soon married and had a daughter. However, a year later, Olga, too, died.

The twice-widowed man was beyond himself from pain. He moved back to his homeland and spent time in nature, struggling to not succumb to alcoholism. It was nature and his deep-rooted sense that he had to continue working always that helped him resurface and, once again, throw his energy into art.

“the wilds” 1981, the year that Shishkin’s second wife, Olga, died

Here, too, perhaps his faith came into play. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who were toying with alternate faiths and atheism, Shishkin consistently believed in God throughout his life.

From his correspondence with his parents in 1956:

“But what about God? He has showed me the way which I am pursuing now. It is He who guides me and, as God does, will all of a suddenly lead to my goal.

A firm hope for God comforts in such cases, and throws off shell of dark thoughts off me

Art and Science Are Partners in Truth

Many of Shishkin’s ideas were surprisingly modern, such as the belief in the artist’s close connection with the scientific discoveries and technologies of the era.

Shishkin was not just a landscape artist–he was an avid learner of science, technology and photography.  He believed that an artist had the duty to understand, to the furthest possible extent, what he was trying to depict, and to depict it as precisely as possible.

Once, he came to his friend’s, Repin’s, art studio, (another very famous artist) and carefully looking at his new painting of raft on a river, asked what which wood it was built from.

“What’s the difference?” Repin asked in surprise.

Shishkin answered very simply. If you build a raft from one tree, the logs swell. If you use another other, they sink. It’s only from the third, the right one, that you can get a buoyant sturdy raft.

It is this attention to details, precise, perfect details, that characterizes Shishkin’s art. His fellow artist friend Kramskoy said called him “a realist, a realist to the very marrow of his bones” but one who “deeply felt and heatedly loved nature.”

Indeed, one can tell that Shishkin had touched moss and bark with his hands, that he had examined the texture of what he drew intently and passionately, with both the rigorous mind of a scientist and the singing heart of a  poet.

Just truth for the realist

Unlike many artists of the time, who produced lavish, saturated, over-romanticized nature scenes, Shishkin’s paintings give off an earthy believability.

In fact, his tenacious insistence upon portraying reality annoyed some of his contemporaries, who believed in more abandon and free interpretation of the natural world. 

But Shishkin had an almost reverent approach to nature, as though it had the right to be represented exactly as it was, a perfection that man couldn’t improve. He believed that even the smallest things held the grandest idea, the reflection of the grand scheme.

In it, as in the artist, there is no pathos, but only a deep and sincere admiration of the greatness of the earth, his country. 

His close friend, a priest-academic named Nevostroev, wrote to Shishkin that:

“The beauty surrounding us is the beauty of the divine thought diffused in nature, and the artist’s task is to convey this idea as accurately as possible on his canvas.”

That’s why Shishkin is so scrupulous in his landscapes.  He was not trying to make nature reflect his own individuality or genius. He wanted to use his drawing to bring about the moment for when the great creating power he so worshipped, would touch the hearts of the viewers.

He was waiting for the moment when:

 “Russian nature, alive and spiritualized, peers out from the canvases of Russian artists”

“Rye” 1978. In a draft’s margin “Expansion, space, land, rye, the grace of God, Russian wealth”.

Where Did All the People Go?

People don’t show up often in Shishkin’s landscapes, and when they do, they are but a humble, though lovely, chord in nature’s grand symphony, a symphony he believed was conducted by God.

Towards the end of his life, Shishkin’s always triumphant, sun-drenched paintings sometimes gave way scenes of more gloomy forests and even of winter.

It seems that a sense of foreboding shadowed Shishkin’s final years, as his reply to questions posed by a newspaper in 1893 suggest:

“The main feature of my character: straightness, simplicity.

My main virtue: Frankness.

My current state of mind: Anxious “[6].

Shishkin was deeply concerned by the “fermentation of minds” that characterized the last decades of his life, the decades that were swiftly bringing the nation to the catastrophe of the Revolution of 1917.

New, materialistic, heated, revolutionary ideas were crowding out ancient traditional values. The growing tendency for ‘utilitarian insanity” (an expression coined by Shishkin’s contemporary philosopher Leontiev) viewed everything as a means for progress.  

Perhaps this human-oriented, disrespectful, and conflicted approach to nature that threatened to disrupt the peaceful interaction between man and nature that Shishkin so valued was what made him more reticent about inviting humans to his later canvasses.

Shishkin very rarely expressed his worry, but he did say: 

“The kingdom of mediocrity is coming in. And after all, it happens for one reason, for one reason – the person departs from the Church and forgets the idea, the ideals of the nation.” 

The Death of an Artist

Ivan Ivanovich died, like a true artist, with a brush in his hand. On March 8, 1898, aged 66 years, Shishkin was sitting at the easel and working on a new painting “Forest Kingdom.”

His student, who was working with him in the studio, said that the artist raised his hand to make a stroke on the canvas, when his head fell helplessly on his chest. The doctor named the cause of death as a heart attack.

Shishkin’s last painting was ‘the Animal Kingdom”

“The Animal Kingdom” 1898

At the exhibit a few days before, a critic had exclaimed:

“The picture plays, a strong, wonderful note – I congratulate you, I’m not alone, everyone is delighted, bravo …

It smells of pine at the exhibit! Sun, light has arrived! .. »


Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!
MORE: Culture

Our commenting rules: You can say pretty much anything except the F word. If you are abusive, obscene, or a paid troll, we will ban you. Full statement from the Editor, Charles Bausman.