Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky. Part 1. School Days

Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky (self-portret).jpg
Self portrait by Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (1915)

Today I am talking about Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky, who was one of the great nineteenth century Russian painters. The visual expression of the artist’s painting has its roots in realism, the desire to depict the reality of life. 

Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov was born on December 6th, 1868 in the small rural village of Shitiki of the Belsky district of the Smolensk province (today, the Oleninsky district of the Tver region) in the west of Russia, some 360 kilometres west-south-west of Moscow, and 60 kms from the border with Belarus.  The second part of his name was attached only in 1905 when the artist received the title of Academician. Bogdanov-Belsky recalled this momentous event:

“...My common name was as though ennobled by the Emperor himself, writing it personally in a diploma with a hyphen – “Belsky…”

Nickolai came from a poor peasant family which in a Russian-language site was described as:

Он, внебрачный сын батрачки,

He’ the illegitimate son of a batrachka

A batrachka is defined as an order of amphibians which includes the frogs and toads.  So, I guess that means his family was harshly classified as the lowest of the low !  Nikolai was born into a life of abject poverty and his childhood was harsh and unforgiving.  He lived with his mother at the house of his uncle, where they were unwanted guests and merely tolerated. According to church records, Bogdanov-Belsky began learning to read and write from a bell ringer. He continued into the 2nd grade of the Shopotovsky primary school where the local priest was also the teacher. The boy’s artistic abilities began to manifest themselves from the age of six and he was noticed by Sergei Alexandrovich Rachinsky, the founder of the folk school in the village of Tatevo, and from the autumn of 1878 to the spring of 1882, Nickolai Bogdanov-Belsky attended this school. The boy worked hard and was helped along by Sergei Aleksandrovich Rachinsky and lived in the Rachinsky household. Rachinskyi was a legendary and wealthy man, who was a professor of biology, who lived on a large estate.  Racznski had been Professor of Botany at Moscow University but left the scientific department in 1867 and created a school for peasant children on his estate in Tatev. However, to gain entrance to this school one had to pass an exam and in the case of Nicholai, he had to draw one of the school’s teachers in profile which is quite a difficult task for a child but his test piece was good enough for him to be accepted into the Sergei Aleksandrovich Rachinsky People’s School.

An der Schulschwelle von Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov Belsky
On the Threshold of School by Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (1897)

What was it like for Nickolai to face his first day at this new school?  The answer probably lies in his 1897 autobiographical painting which he painted, aged twenty-nine.  It was entitled On the Threshold of School.  In it we see a boy holding his breath as he stood outside his classroom, plucking up the courage to enter.

Writing by Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (c.1908)

Another schoolroom scene was painted by Nikolai in 1908 simply entitled Writing.

Nikolay Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky. Verbal counting
Oral Counting by Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (1895)

One of Nickolai’s well-known works featuring school life is his 1895 painting entitled Oral Counting which is also referred to as Verbal Counting or Mental Arithmetic.  This is also Nikolai’s dedication to Sergei Aleksandrovich Rachinsky, a university professor and hereditary nobleman, who had befriended young Nikolai and set up a school which gave him and other barefoot peasant children from the village a start in life in the form of a decent education.  In the painting, we see the figure of a schoolteacher, an intellectual in a bow tie and a black tailcoat seated among ordinary rural boys who have come to learn mathematics.  The school room in the depiction is part of the school built with funds from Rachinsky in his ancestral village of Tatevo.  It became the first Russian educational institution with full board for children of peasants. Nickolai Bogdanov-Belsky himself was fortunate enough to study there.  Throughout his life, Nickolai would return with thoughts of gratitude remembering the warmth of school life and he devoted more and more of his new canvases to the teaching profession, and the process of schooling.  There is no doubt that his years spent at the Rachinsky school left an indelible mark on his soul  Rachinsky was very definite as to what the peasant classes needed, saying:

“…The first of the practical needs of the Russian people … is communication with the Divine…….The peasant is not drawn to the theatre in search of art, but to the church, not to the newspaper, but to the Divine Book…”

The reasoning behind this was that Rachinsky also believed that Dante and Shakespeare would be available for understanding to those who learnt Church Slavonic writing, while Beethoven and Bach would become closer to a person familiar with church chants. 

Nicolai Bodanova-Belsky’s depiction testifies to Rachinsky’s main passion – mathematics, and the emphasis that was placed on it in his teaching. Rachinsky created the textbook entitled 1001 Problems for Oral Counting, and the puzzle seen on the blackboard in the painting is one such problem. Apparently, this example seen on the blackboard can be solved by knowing about the regularities of adding squares of some two-digit numbers named after the famous Russian teacher. So, according to Rachinsky’s sequences, the sum of the squares of the first three numbers on the board will be equal to the sum of the next two. And since in the first and second cases this number is 365, the answer to this already classical problem is extremely simple….. 2, but you knew that !!!!!!!!!

Nikolay Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky. Future monk

Future Monk by Nickolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (1889)

In 1881, Rachinsky sent thirteen-year-old Nickolai to receive an initial art education at the icon-painting workshop at the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, where the boy studied for two years. In 1884, after two years studying at the monastery school Rachinsky enabled Nickolai to enrol at the Moscow School of Painting and Architecture.  He thrived at the school and achieved many commendations for his landscape work.   He remained there for five years, and at the end of the course he had to produce a diploma painting, so as to receive the title of “class artist”.  He was unsure what to paint although his fellow students and teachers presumed it would be a landscape painting.  He decided to go back to the village of Tatevo to visit Raczynski and ask for his advice.  Together they come up with the idea that the painting should feature monks.  The painting he completed was entitled Future Monk.  It seems the young teenager in the picture has set his sight on becoming a monk and to go to the monastery.  The eyes of the “future monk” stare out at us with grim determination.  He is already dreaming of monastic life and spiritual feats that it will bring.  The work was approved by the examiners and bought from the exhibition by Kozma Terentievich Soldatenkov, the largest collector of works of art, and then given to by Empress Maria Fedorovna. Immediately the artist was ordered to paint two more versions of the painting. The painting had been an absolute success!

Sunday Reading by Nickolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (1895)

In 1890 Nickolai travelled to Constantinople and Mount Athos, a mountain and peninsula in northeastern Greece which is an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. On Athos, Bogdanov-Belsky met Filippe Malyavin, who is engaged in icon painting there. He also met sculptor Vladamir Beklemishev, a professor who later became the rector of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts.  Between 1894 and 1895 Nickolai is in St Petersburg where he continues his art studies at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts.  One of his lecturers was Ilya Repin.  In 1895 Nickolai completes one of his best loved paintings, Sunday Reading.  The painting is well received and is sold and with the money raised he goes to Paris, where he attends the private studios of Fernand Cormon and Filippo Colarossi.

Country Boys by Nickolai Bogdanov- Belsky (1916)

There can be no doubt about the love Nickolai had for painting children of peasant stock.  He would travel back and forth between St Petersburg where he rented an apartment and the village of Tatevo where he had his studio.  He once wrote:

“…I spent so many years in the village, so close to the village school, so often I watched peasant children, so loved them for their spontaneity, their talent, that they became heroes of my paintings…”

In my final look at Bogdanov-Belsky’s peasant children paintings I want to show you his 1916 work entitled Country Boys. The main characters in this depiction are two bare-footed boys, one of whom is sitting on a rickety wattle-fence which appears to be just strong enough to support him. He wears a peaked cap on his head, which was a typical head gear of the 19th and early 20th centuries and sported by people in towns and rural settings alike. He is wearing a patched shirt and ill-fitting trousers with a hole at the knee.  Something has distracted him making him turn to the side but we are unable to elicit what has caught his attention.  His friend, standing beside him, is also wearing shabby clothes which could well have been “hand-me-down” ones from an elder brother. This is a Realism painting.  The artist is simply depicting how things are for the rural poor.  This is not a painting denouncing social inequality.  In a way it is a poetic and lyrical depiction in the way Nickolai has given us a setting, a resplendent representation of nature, in which, behind the fence we see a chamomile field, forest and an overcast sky.

………………..to be continued.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)

In past blogs I have featured Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting jolly peasants as they happily amuse themselves at work or at play.  I can think of many paintings by the likes of the Bruegels, Jan Steen and Adriaen van Ostade which gave us the rosy cheeks of the well-fed peasants and maybe we were lulled into the thought that a peasant’s life wasn’t too bad and maybe one which may have suited us.  Today I am going to feature a painting which looks at the reality of peasant life.  It is a fine example of naturalism in art, which was a type of art that depicts realistic objects and people in their natural settings.  In most cases, naturalism depicts characters in situations over which they have little or no control and where they appear to be at the mercy of powers outside themselves.  Artists who practiced naturalism in their art wanted to ensure that their depictions of life were done with absolute honesty.  Their artwork was to have almost photographic accuracy rather than simply an artist’s interpretation of what was before them.  Naturalist painters often concentrated on the life of the lower working classes and in many works of art we see that the people portrayed have little or no control of their destiny.

My painting today is not from an artist who is famous for his depiction of peasant life, nor is it an artist who is renowned for his somber-coloured works which categorises today’s featured work.  In fact, quite the contrary, today’s artist is known for his bright yellows and blues and the magical swirls of his brush-strokes, none of which can be seen in today’s painting.   Today’s artist is Vincent van Gogh and My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled The Potato Eaters which he completed in 1885.  This painting by Van Gogh is now looked upon as his first masterpiece and it was his hope that it would establish his status as an artist.

One should remember that as far as art was concerned van Gogh was a late starter.  When he was young, like most children, he would enjoy drawing but he never seriously considered taking up painting as a career.  However, through some of his uncles who were art dealers, Vincent became immersed in the world of art.  However it was not until 1879, when he was almost twenty-seven years old, and living in the village of Cuesmes, in the coal mining district of the Borinage that he became progressively more interested in the people and scenes around him and began to create a pictorial record of his time there and it was around this time that his brother Theo’s encouraged him to take up art in earnest.

A peasant woman by van Gogh

Five years on, at the age of thirty-two, he painted today’s featured picture and this was at a time when he had only just mastered the art of painting.   It makes it all the more amazing that he would take on such a large project so early on in his artistic career.   Just remember what he had to achieve.  He had to paint five figures and make each one look natural and because he had decided the light source was to be central he had the difficult task of achieving the effect such light would have on the room and the figures.

Preliminary sketch for The Potato Eaters

As a prelude to this painting he made many studies of each of the peasants, some in charcoal, and others in oil.

The painting is naturalistic.  It depicts a truthful representation of the peasants and where they live.  It is both realistic and naturalistic.  The peasants are as they are.  This painting highlights the sad reality of a peasant existence.  There has been no exaggeration by the artist in the way he has painted them in order to gain certain effects although it is said that he carefully chose the people to model for his painting so as to illustrate them at their purest and most primitive, as representing the ancient, traditional values of rural life.  Of his choice of models, he wrote to his brother Theo:

“..I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned…”

The painting before us depicts a dark room which is only illuminated by the oil lamp which is hanging from the beams of the ceiling.   It is a very dark painting which has been achieved by the artist’s use of murky colours.   The ceiling is low and one imagines that it allows little headroom for the peasants.  It is a tiny space and van Gogh’s use of colour has highlighted its shabbiness.  The murkiness allows us to understand the oppressive nature of their life.     It is not hard to imagine the sort of life the peasants lead in these damp and clammy squalid surroundings.

The whole of the painting is monochromatic, in other words van Gogh has just used shades of a limited number of colours.  The colours he has used are mainly dark and dull such as black and brown and this adds to the morose and moody feel to the painting.   In contrast to the dark room the faces of the peasants sitting around the table are illuminated by the oil lamp and shine out brightly enabling us to explore their emotions.  There is symmetry about the way van Gogh has arranged the people around the table.  A man and a woman sit on either side of the table framing another man and woman who are seated behind the table

The faces of the peasants are sunburnt from the hours they have worked in the fields under the unforgiving sun during the summer months.  Five people sit around a square table eating potatoes; three are men, two are women.      We look at them eating baked potatoes from a potato tray as the woman on the far right of the painting is pouring a black liquid, maybe coffee, from a teapot into the cups on the table.   They are clothed in thick garments to keep the cold out, once the sun has gone down and the wind scurries across the low-lying fields.  Their heads are all covered with either caps or kerchiefs.

Look at the way van Gogh has depicted their facial features.  They have thick lips, protruding cheekbones and low, flat foreheads. Their mouths and cheekbones look almost larger than life.   The male and the female on the left of the painting have bulging eyes and this gives them a look of people lacking intelligence.  Their eyes, in some way, are blank and unseeing and it is difficult to imagine what is going on in their minds.  Look at their faces.  How would you describe their expressions?  To me they are solemn expressions.  The people do not exude an air of happiness or contentment.  Their facial expressions look almost as if they are very wary of each other.  There does not seem to be a close and loving connection between those who are sharing a meal.  There is no sense of communication between the diners.  They are wide-eyed and their thoughts seem to be in a place far from the dingy room.

When we look at this painting we are not seeing the fat ruddy faced peasants of the Bruegels.  These are not the jolly peasants we are used to seeing in paintings such as The Peasant Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (My Daily Art Display, March 27th 2011).  Look carefully at the physical characteristics of the people we see before us.  They have protruding features.  Observe the way Van Gogh has clearly depicted their hands and fingers.  They are gnarled and wizened.  These are coarse working hands and these very fingers will have scratched and dug at the soil to free-up the potatoes they now hold and eat.  This is naturalism at its best.  In this painting, Van Gogh has cleverly and effectively portrayed the poor and harsh lives the peasants had to endure.  Van Gogh defended the way in which he depicted the peasants saying:

“…..if people prefer to see them with a sugar coating, let them. I personally believe that it is better in the long run to paint them vulgar as they are than to give them a conventional charm…”

The artist again defended his depiction of the people in the painting saying that it was a “real peasant painting” and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:

“…I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land that they have toiled with their hands – that they have earned their food by honest means. One sees a kind of wild animal, male and female, all over the countryside, black, drab and scorched by the sun, bound to the soil which they dig and work with obstinate resolve; they speak with a single voice, and when they rise to their feet they reveal human faces, and they are indeed human. At night they retreat into caves where they live on black bread, water and roots; they spare others the effort of sowing, tilling and harvesting in order to live, and should therefore not want of the bread they have sown…”

To my mind although this may not be considered as a loving portrayal of peasants, it is probably a true one.  Gone are the smiling ruddy faced people one saw in many of the 16th and 17th century Dutch genre scenes.  There is nothing in this painting to suggest there is much fun in the life of these peasant workers.  A contemporary of van Gogh was the French painter Jean-François Millet, who was one of the founders of the Barbizon School in rural France and he was noted for his scenes of peasant farmers and was part of the naturalism and realism movements in France.  Millet had studied the peasant classes and would often depict them as coarse-looking, uncultivated people who led a feral existence.

Van Gogh defended his portrayal of the peasants insisting that he had never intended to malign them. As far as he was concerned he was simply painting them as typical of country people but maybe this notion should be questioned as a friend of van Gogh asserted that when the artist came to choose his models, he made a point of selecting ‘the ugliest of them’.

Vincent sent the painting to his brother to be exhibited at the Salon but Theo never did put it forward to the Salon juries, nor did he show it to the very influential art dealer of the time, Paul Durand-Rule, as Vincent had hoped.  Later Vincent sent a lithographic version of the painting to his good and close friend, the aristocratic artist, Anthon van Rappard.    Vincent was horrified and angered when he received a letter back from van Rappard, in which he declared the painting “a violence to nature”.  Those harsh words were to end their five year friendship and van Gogh and van Rappard never spoke to each other again.

The Potato Eaters now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Four Figures at a Table by le Nain Brothers

Four Figures at a Table by the le Nain Brothers (c.1643)

If I was an artist, which sadly I am not, I would always be sure to sign my name somewhere on my canvas after I had completed the work.  It would be a matter of pride.  It would be a matter of recognition even if it had not been the greatest work I had ever painted.  Today I am going to look at a painting which does not have an individual signature upon it.  It is not that it hasn’t been signed.  It is just that the signature is a kind of joint one, one signifying collaboration and it makes me wonder why that has been done.  Is it that the painting is a collaboration of three artists who each painted part of the work?  Was a decision made by the three painters that none of them should take more praise and recognition than the other two?  It is very strange.  My trio of painters are three brothers.  They are the Le Nain brothers. Louis who was born in 1593, Antoine  was born in 1599, although some art historians put his and Antoine’s birth date as “circa 1600”and the youngest, Mathieu, was born in 1607 and between them they created many amazing  genre and religious scenes as well as portraits.  Only 15 dated works survive, all executed between 1641 and 1648 and simply signed “Le Nain” but without a Christian name.

Their mother was Jeanne Prévost and their father was Isaac Le Nain who held the important position of Sergent Royal au Grenier à Sel in Laon.   The family were moderately prosperous and around 1615 had purchased a farm and some vineyards.  Historical records show that the le Nain brothers received their first artistic education from an “artiste étranger” which could mean that their tutor was from out of town or it could mean that he was a foreigner.  Unfortunately any of their early work, which had been kept in Laon like the fate of a lot art, would have been destroyed in the lead up to and during the French Revolution.

Sometime around 1629 the le Nain brothers moved to Saint Germain-des-Prés, a suburb of Paris and set up a studio, which because of its location, was outside the control and regulations of the Paris Guild.  Their business soon became very successful and they received many commissions, especially for their portraiture.  Surviving records show that in 1629, Antoine was admitted as master in the Corporation of Painters in Saint Germain and there is mention of a large commission he received from the Bureau de la Ville de Paris.  It is also recorded that Mathieu received many religious painting commissions and that in 1633, he was appointed painter to the city of Paris.  However the records mention little about the third brother, Louis.

All three brothers attended the initial meeting of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture held in Paris on March 1st 1648 and were admitted to the Society as founder members.  Sadly, two months later, both Antoine and Louis were dead.  They died within two days of each other in May 1648, probably of some highly contagious disease.  They are buried at the Saint Sulpice church in Paris, recently made famous for the church at the centre of the Da Vinci Code film.

There is another unusual fact about the brothers, or to be more precise, the surviving brother Mathieu.  Within ten years of the death of his two siblings, Mathieu’s financial situation had vastly improved and his social standing in the community had also risen.  Mathieu’s social pretensions also increased and soon he was referring to himself as Lord of La Jumelle, which was the name of his parents’ small family farm back in Laon.  More was to follow as four years later Louis XIV awarded him the collar of the Order of St Michel, a form of knighthood.   This honour was only usually bestowed on those of noble birth and not an unprivileged painter like Mathieu le Nain.  So why did the king bestow this award on him?  There is no definite answer to this although he had spent a lot of time as a military engineer which may have contributed to his “award for services in the armies of the King”.  However what is more strange is that a year later the king took back the award but Mathieu refused to stop wearing the regalia and in 1666 he was imprisoned for the offence of sporting the symbols of office when he wasn’t entitled to.   Historians have put forward the view that Mathieu had friends in “high places” which resulted in his initial award but he also had an equal number of enemies in the same high places and they persuaded the king to strip Mathieu of his honour.

Mathieu le Nain died in 1667 and was laid to rest with his brothers at the church of Saint Sulpice, Paris.

It has been difficult, if not impossible, to attribute certain works of art to certain brothers and the closest they have come is the belief that the small paintings on copper had been done by Antoine and the larger more austere peasant scenes have been done by Louis.  However it is agreed that this is not a foolproof method of deciding which brother did which painting.  It is also strange to note that because Mathieu lived on almost thirty years after his siblings died in 1648, any paintings with the le Nain signature after that date, could be attributed to him.  However there has never been a painting signed “le Nain” later than 1647.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Four Figures at a Table and was completed around 1643.  This small (44cms x 33cms) oil on canvas work is housed in the National Gallery in London.   The strong light emanates from the left of the scene and draws our attention to the darkness of the background in contrast to the pure white of the cloth and the cap worn by the mother.   There is a feeling of serenity and composure about the setting.  There is a sombre dignity to this painting of a peasant family at the meal table. Their clothes are of brownish-grey shades, which is in stark contrast to the white of the tablecloth.  I have featured many Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting peasants and in most cases there is a certain amount of squalor and drunken revelry associated with the scene.  Here it is quite different.  Here before us the le Nain brothers have given us a scene of tranquil dignity.  There is no sign of mockery with regards the characters depicted and there is no moralising symbolism.  This is simply a painting which exudes the quiet composure of the less well off.  Some art historians would have us believe that this is a portrayal of the Three Ages.  The old woman, hand on table, with her careworn face and look of resignation in contrast to the young woman, maybe her daughter, who is seated to the left, clay jug in hand,  with her fresh-looking face looking out at us questioningly and in the background the tiny girl staring out at us with wide-eyed fervour.

The under-painting

Strangely, when this painting was subjected to X-radiography in 1978 it was discovered that there was a bust-length portrait of a bearded man in a ruff wearing clothes which date back to the 1620’s, painted underneath the current work.  The X-radiograph exposed the man’s face and details of his costume with exceptional clearness. The underlying portrait, seen when the canvas was turned through 90 degrees, was thickly painted in colours containing a high proportion of lead white.  This colouration of the under-painting, in contrast to that of the final painting with its relatively thinly painted in colours containing little or no lead white, meant that it showed up strongly in the X-radiograph.   Why the original work was painted over by the brothers is not known and will never be known but where there once was a fashionable and wealthy citizen looking out at us, he has been replaced by four, less wealthy people sat at their meal table.

The subject of their painting, peasants, was an unusual subject for French painters at the time, most of whom were fixated with mythological allegories, and the “heroic deeds” of the king.  The paintings of peasant life by the three brothers have a realism unique in 17th-century French art.   However poverty and how to treat the poor was intensely debated especially by the Catholic movement in Paris.  It was much later, during the years preceding the French Revolution, that paintings of simple country life became popular.  So which of the le Nain brothers painted this work?  Or is this painting yet another collaboration by the three brothers?  We will probably never know the answer to that question but we do know that it was well received by the French Academy in 1648.