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Russia's Greatest Fantasy Artist and His Iconic Paintings (Viktor Vasnetsov, 1848-1926)

If Russian children born outside of Russia manage to carry one Russian artist’s name into adulthood, preserving it amid the din of cafeterias and Hunger Games, chances are it is the name of Viktor Vasnetsov.

This is because the artist speaks a bewitching language that predates and outdates literacy, the language of stories and images. Simultaneously and beautifully, he weaves the two, narrative and image, into a powerful, unbreakable knot in each painting.

Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) was one of the first Russian artists to stretch the boundaries of genre beyond pure realism. Joining a trend in Russian art at the time, he became part of a group of talented artists that searched for a national artistic identity, one that rang true with peasant culture, poetically if not factually; an art that, though informed by European technique, was truly Russian in spirit. To do so, Vasnetsov eventually turned his attention to telling folk tales and epics through painting.

The Knight at the Crossroads, 1877

He, the son of a priest, grew up in the harsh picturesque Vyatka region in Russia. The chatty cook of the family entertained the children with folk tales, as well as random stories she had heard from the wanderers who roamed the countryside and would stop for a night’s lodging. According to the Vasnetsov, it was she who “made me love my people’s past and present for the rest of my life.”

Eventually he moved to the St. Petersburg to receive an official education and join the rigorous art scene of the capital . His paintings, initially historical and realistic, were largely successful among viewers.

Yet his talent began to shine most radiantly when he turned to telling the stories of the collective Russian poetic past as seen through the prism of his fanciful and unparalleled imagination. Here are just a few examples:

The Sleeping Beauty, 1900-1926

Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf

Vasnetsov created the famous canvas “Ivan the Prince and the Grey Wolf” was in 
1889, during the time that he was painting the interior of the magnificent church of St. Vladimir in Kiev. During the year, he paused his colossal and overwhelmingly serious work in the church to draw this whimsical masterpiece, which was exhibited at the next exhibit of a tight-knit, intensely philosophical and energetic independent artistic society called ‘The Wanderers”  (more about the Wanderers here)

It was based on the plot of one of the most famous and popular fairy tales of the time. In it, a wolf helps a dashing but traditionally haphazard Russian prince save a princess from an unwanted, unattractive and malicious suitor.

The artist actually endowed the moonshine heroine with the features of a ruddy, real girl named Natalia, the niece of hugely influential art patron Savva Mamontov.

Famous painting of Vera Mamontova

Yet the dash of realism only adds to the undeniable magic of the painting. A grey wolf streaks through the dark forest, a vicious predator with shockingly soft human eyes; the princess clings with gentle submissiveness in Ivan’s hands, and the pair together shows a strange and complete trust in the wild animal. Meanwhile, amid an eerie background, spring breaks through, sparked by the unlikely love of the trio dashing through the darkness.

Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf, 1889

The Flying Carpet

In 1880, the government, actively engaged in the construction of a national railway system, put in an order for a painting to decorate the new office directory of the railway in Donetsk.

Savva Mamontov, a famous philanthropist, approached Viktor Vasnetsov with the project. Vasnetsov soon came by with a result: “The Flying Carpet” (translated literally as Carpet-Airplane), one of Vasnetsov’s first works in the fantastical style that would bring him national love and worldwide fame.

According to Vasnetsov, the picture was supposed to express victory and movement, as well as the greatness of Russian traditions.

The Flying Carpet, 1880

However, the painting puzzled the board of the railroad. They would have understood a train puffing through clouds (the sign of a progressive future) or even a postal carriage drawn by sage horses (a symbol of a venerable past), but a soaring carpet! After a meeting, they refused to accept the work due to its excessively fantastical character.

Thus, it never adorned the industrial project’s sanctuary, but Mamontov himself gladly bought the painting. Meanwhile, Vasnetsov had discovered a new world of that welled potential for his art…and in it there was little room for the ordinary.

Many decades later, Vasnetsov returned to the same image that began his journey into folklore.

The Flying Carpet, 1919-1926

The Fool Alenushka

Viktor Vasnetsov began painting his favourite and most nostalgic painting, “Alenushka” in the summer of 1881.

Vasnetsov was then visiting a picturesque estate called Ahtirka, owned by the aforementioned patron of art Mamontov. The estate often hosted many prominent artists, turning into a hub of comradeship and creativity.

During one of his walks around the estate, Vasnetsov stumbled across a peasant girl sitting on the bank of a pond. The vision inspired him and haunted him, and he soon began drawing a series of sketches which led to the famous painting called “Alenushka”.

Sketches of the Ahtirka pond

He wrote the following about the meeting:

“ It was as though the image had existed in my head for a long time, but I really saw it for the first time when I came across one bare-headed girl. How much melancholy, loneliness and purely Russian sorrow there was in her eyes … her figure breathed with some uniquely Russian spirit”

Vasnetsov first named the painting “The Fool Alyonushka”, but there was nothing offensive or ironic in the title. In Russian tradition, the word “fool” referred to holy fools, who were people who willingly renounced all material goods and even their rational thinking for the sake of God. The word also referred orphans, abandoned by the world, the responsibility of no one in particular and therefore the direct moral responsibility–even if it was ignored–of the collective everyone.

It was only later that people began to associate the painting of the peasant girl with an old Russian tale. In the story, Alenushka and her brother Ivan are orphans, attempting to make their way in the world together. The painting recalls the moment when Alenushka loses her disobedient brother somewhere in the forest, and sits down to mourn, now utterly orphaned and alone.

The Three Bogatyrs

Perhaps Vasnetsov’s most beloved painting is a massive canvas that portrays Russia’s most powerful legendary protectors, the Knights Ilya, Dobrynya, and Alesha. They each represent the pillars of Russian strength: the wisdom that combines with moral strength and tradition; simple and upright faithfulness to the family and country, unto the death; and finally, wit and intelligence, with a note of poetry. But the full story of this painting is a journey for another day.

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Sources:

https://ukrburshtyn.com/blog/vasnecov-tri-bogatyrya.html

https://kulturologia.ru/blogs/061115/27061/

https://artgalereya.mirtesen.ru/blog/43347969222/Skazochnyie-kartinyi-Viktora-Vasnetsova

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