The Appearance of Christ to the People by Alexander Ivanov

The Appearance of Christ before the People by Alexander Ivanov (1837-57)

How would you feel if you had spent almost half of your life on one painting and then after all that effort it was not well received?   This is what happened to Alexander Ivanov and his monumental painting The Appearance of Christ to the People.  This oil on canvas work measures 540cms x 750cms (18ft x 24ft 6ins).   Ivanov started on the painting in 1837 and did not complete and exhibit it in St Petersburg until 1858.  This is My Daily Art Display featured painting for today.

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov was born in St. Petersburg in 1806.  He studied art at the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts under his father, the painter Andrei Ivanov.  At the age of twenty-five he went to live in Rome where he studied the arts of the classical world.   Coincidentally Ivanov was a contemporary of the Scottish painter William Dyce whom I featured yesterday and like Dyce when Ivanov was in Rome he became friends with Friedrich Overbeck, a German painter and leading member of the Nazarenes.  The Nazarenes were a group of young and idealistic German painters of the early nineteenth century who believed that art should serve a religious or moral purpose.  The name Nazarenes was given to them facetiously because of their devout way of life and the propensity to wear their hair in biblical hairstyles.  It was because of this friendship and exchange of views with the Nazarenes that Ivanov concentrated on religious paintings.

One of hundreds of preliminary sketches

Ivanov’s fame is inseparable from this great masterpiece of his,  which I am featuring today.  The finished painting is based on hundreds of preparatory studies he made over twenty years, many of which are gems in themselves and are considered by art historians as masterpieces in their own right.  This painting and about 300 preparatory sketches are housed in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.  Art critics believe that the preparatory sketches reveal greater expressiveness and psychological depth than the finished painting itself. 

 Ivanov believed the Gospels to be historical rather than religious and therefore considered that the subject of this painting to be more historical than religious.  The scene is set on the banks of the River Jordan and is based on the Gospel of Matthew 3:13-16:

“…Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’  But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.  And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’…”

In the middle ground we see the solitary figure of Christ on a rocky mound approaching the gathering.  Behind him in the background is a wide plain and the distant mountains.  His figure is small in comparison to the others but nevertheless stands out because of it being a lone figure.  In the foreground of the picture there are a number of male figures of varying ages, some of whom are already undressed waiting to be baptised.  The main figure with his wavy black hair,  dressed in his animal skin under a long cloak is John the Baptist, with a crosier in his left hand.  He raises his hands aloft and gestures towards the approaching solitary figure of Christ.

John the Baptist

To the left there are a group of disciples who will soon move on and spread the word of the Lord.  To the right we have the Pharisees and scribes who unbendingly reject the Truth.  In the centre of the group the artist has painted a haggard old man struggling to his feet buoyed by the words of John the Baptist.     

This is a beautiful painting, full of colour and meticulous detail.  In 1858, Alexander Ivanov went with his beloved painting to St Petersburg where it was exhibited. Its lukewarm reception must have been heartbreaking for Ivanov.  He died a few months later of cholera aged 52 not knowing that some years after his death his work of art would be hailed, by the likes of Ilya Repin, the most celebrated Russian painter of his day, as “the greatest work in the whole world, by a genius born in Russia”.

Girl with Peaches by Valentin Serov

Girl with Peaches by Valentin Serov (1887)

Valentin Alexandrovich Serov was born in St Petersburg in 1865 and was to become one of the foremost portrait artists of his time.  He was the only-child of Alexander, who was an operatic composer and mother Valentina, who was also a musical composer.  He was  brought up in a musical and artistic household.  At the age of six his father died and his mother and he went to live in Munich and later Paris, which was then considered the centre of the Art world.  It was here that once again Serov came into contact with the great Russian artist Ilya Repin who took over the art tutelage of Serov.   He also studied art at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.  Serov was very interested in the Realism genre of art and was greatly influenced by what he saw in the major galleries and museums of his home country and those of Western Europe.

On returning to Moscow from Paris, he and his mother were invited by Savva Mamontov to settle at Abramtsevo, an estate located north of Moscow, on the Vorya River.  This estate had  become a center for the Slavophile movement ,  an intellectual movement originating from 19th century that wanted the Russian Empire to be developed upon values and institutions derived from its early history.  The property was originally owned by the Russian author Sergei Akaskov.  On his death the property was purchased by the wealthy railroad tycoon and patron of the arts, Savva Mamontov.  Through his efforts, Abramtsevo became a centre for Russian folk art and during the 1870’s and 1880’s the estate was to be home for many artists who tried to reignite the interest, through their paintings, in medieval Russian art.  Workshops were set up on the estate and production of furniture, ceramics and silks, ablaze with traditional Russian imagery and themes, were produced.   It was during his time here that Serov came into contact with the cream of Russia’s artistic and cultural talent.

During his time at the Abramtsevo Colony, Valentin Serov met and painted the portrait of Vera Mamontov, the twelve year old daughter of Savva Mamontov and it is that portrait entitled, Girl with Peaches, which is My Daily Art Display painting for today.  It is said that this painting launched Russian Impressionism.  Serov exhibited this painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, St Petersburg and received great acclaim and it is now looked upon as one of his greatest works. The painting which hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is a more relaxed study and is breathtakingly beautiful.  Serov pieces together fragments of the interior scene and still-life.  The light pours in through the window and dissolves the contours of the objects.  Serov uses warm tones for the girl which in some way contrasts with the colder tones of the space.  The black eyes of the girl look out at us,  thoughtful but slightly impatient.

During the 1880’s Serov travelled abroad and came into contact with French Impressionism and the Impressionist painters such as Degas.  Due to his family background and the popularity of his paintings, Serov never struggled financially.  He was the foremost portraiture artist of his time and his subjects included the Czar.  In 1887 he married Olga Trubnikova and their children featured in many of his portraits, such as the picture-portrait Children (1899), which show his sons Yury and Sasha.   In 1905, on his fortieth birthday, he was elected as an academic of the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. 

Sadly his life was cut short at the tender age of 46 when he died of a heart attack.   The reason he never achieved the fame similar to a number of his Western European artistic contemporaries is probably because of where he lived and spent most of his life.