Portrait of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy

“Portrait of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy” are two paintings simultaneously painted by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi in 1873.

On each of them the writer is depicted sitting at ease in a chair, with his hands folded on his knees. He is wearing a simple gray-blue loose-fitting blouse, similar to a peasant shirt. The direction of its folds draws attention to the ascetically stern face of the model. From under thick overhanging eyebrows, a steady, piercing gaze is directed directly at the viewer, as if into the soul.

Ivan Kramskoy, painting Portrait of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1873.
Ivan Kramskoy, painting Portrait of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1873.

The large facial features, tightly compressed lips and deep-set eyes reveal the intellectual and moral strength of this person. The restrained tonal palette only emphasizes the significance of the hero of the work, his inner concentration and depth, and also conveys the rigor of the aesthetic tastes of the artist himself, indifferent to the colorful tinsel of life.

Title of the painting: “Portrait of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy.”
Author: Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy (1837-1887).
Year of writing: 1873
Size: 98 x 79.5 cm.
Style: Realism.
Genre: Portrait.
Technique: Oil painting.
Material: Canvas.
Location: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy is an outstanding figure in the cultural life of Russia in the second half of the 19th century.

Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy is the organizer of the St. Petersburg artel, one of the founders of the Peredvizhniki association, a subtle art critic, passionately interested in the fate of Russian art. He was the ideologist of a whole generation of realist artists, developed national consciousness and painted portraits of the best representatives of his era.

Ivan Kramskoy, second painting Portrait of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1873.
Ivan Kramskoy, second painting Portrait of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1873.

The painting “Portrait of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy” was commissioned by Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov to Kramskoy. But the task was not easy. Before this, the famous collector and philanthropist approached the writer many times with a request to pose for a portrait. But Lev Nikolaevich stubbornly refused, considering this activity immodest and unworthy. Even attempts to enlist the assistance of Afanasy Fet, to whom the writer was friendly, did not give the desired result. However, Tretyakov, who was collecting a collection of images of prominent figures, continued to insist. Tolstoy by that time was already widely known throughout educated Russia.

The author of “Sevastopol Stories” and “War and Peace”, he was known as the national pride of the Russian people. And Pavel Tretyakov ardently wanted to have his portrait in the gallery. Being a subtle psychologist, Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy managed to fulfill the long-standing dream of a philanthropist. Possessing an extraordinary mind, he endeared himself to the writer and convinced him to change his mind. True, this did not happen right away. The conversation lasted more than two hours. The artist returned to the theme of posing four times without success. But Tolstoy remained unshakable in his refusal; no arguments had any effect on him.

Finally, reasoning logically, Kramskoy assumed that the portrait of such a famous writer years later would still be painted by someone. But then all that remains is to regret that they did not do it in a timely manner. Consent was obtained only after Kramskoy suggested that the work would be created and destroyed if the writer did not like it for any reason. During further communication, it turned out that Tolstoy would like to have a portrait for his family, but does not know how to do it. To which the artist immediately offered to write two works at once, one of which the writer could keep for himself, and the second would go to Tretyakov.

Sessions began on September 6, 1873. Kramskoy painted two portraits at the same time, but from different angles. Alternately improving both options, he tried to make choosing the best picture difficult. The painter revealed the writer’s closeness to the people through a vivid national image. His high cheekbones, wide nose, and thick beard gave him a resemblance to a simple village peasant. But despite all the apparent simplicity, the hero’s appearance retained an aristocratic appearance.

The paintings “Portrait of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy” by Ivan Kramskoy were completed on October 3 of the same year. The works became the first and best of all subsequent images of the classic. Currently, the works are on display at the Tretyakov Gallery and the Yasnaya Polyana Estate Museum.

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