Vasily Surikov – great Russian artist

Vasily Surikov. Painting “Conquest of Siberia by Ermak Timofeevich”, 1895.
Vasily Surikov. Painting “Conquest of Siberia by Ermak Timofeevich”, 1895.

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (born January 24, 1848 – died March 19, 1916) is a truly great Russian artist of the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, who managed to embody the very essence of folk character in his historical works. In addition to monumental paintings, Vasily Surikov also painted excellent chamber portraits and was a master of landscapes.

Vasily Surikov. Painting Capture of a snow town 1891
Vasily Surikov. Painting Capture of a snow town 1891.

Biography of Vasily Surikov

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov was born in Krasnoyarsk on January 12 (24), 1848. His family traced its ancestry back to the Don Cossacks. At the age of 6, the child drew Tsar Peter the Great. This drawing became a kind of prologue to one of his most famous future paintings. The formidable ruler was depicted in pencil. Little Vasya didn’t have any paints at his disposal, so he invented them himself: he painted his uniform blue and the lapels with crushed lingonberries.

Vasya’s first “teacher” was a simple peasant. Noticing that the horses drawn by the boy had straight legs, the Surikovs’ employee Semyon taught the child a lesson in horse anatomy. Vasily Surikov was lucky with a mentor at the district school. Nikolai Grebnev, an art teacher, immediately recognized the boy’s talent. The teacher cultivated the teenager’s artistic taste with the help of masterpieces of old masters, took him out of town to sketch, explained the laws of perspective and the specifics of plein air painting, and taught watercolor techniques. The first serious attempt of Vasily Surikov’s pen was the watercolor “Rafts on the Yenisei” (1862).

Vasily Surikov. Painting Menshikov in Berezov, 1883.

After graduating from college, Vasily Surikov worked in the provincial administration as a scribe – having lost his breadwinner father in 1859. The young man, quick to come up with inventions, drew a fly on a blank sheet of paper, and his clerk placed this paper on the table of Governor Zamyatin himself! After fruitless attempts to drive away the painted insect, the governor, shocked by the “liveness” of the fly, hired Vasily Ivanovich Surikov as a teacher for his daughters, and later found a philanthropist who took upon himself the payment for further education.

Vasily Surikov. Painting Menshikov in Berezov, 1883
Vasily Surikov. Painting Menshikov in Berezov, 1883.

Education

In December 1868, the young man went to St. Petersburg. At the Academy of Arts, the aspiring painter ends up with the famous teacher Pavel Chistyakov, who gave a start in life to many recognized geniuses. Chistyakov highly appreciated the abilities of the “Siberian nugget,” whom he called “a rare specimen.” A strong friendship bound the student and teacher all their lives. The young artist’s first serious claim to genius was “View of the Monument to Peter I,” written in two versions.

In 1875, the young man completed the course and two years later moved to Moscow, where he was expected to work on frescoes for the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Vasily Surikov. Painting Stepan Razin, 1906
Vasily Surikov. Painting Stepan Razin, 1906

Family life and career

On January 25, 1878, Vasily Surikov married the French noblewoman Elizaveta Share. It was a union concluded out of passionate love. Fate gave the artist 10 long years of cloudless happiness. During this period he created his most wonderful, truly monumental works. Fame came with the painting “The Morning of the Streltsy Execution.” This is painting number one in the historical trilogy dedicated to the era of Peter I. Presented at an exhibition in St. Petersburg on March 1, 1881, it created a sensation. Pavel Tretyakov bought the painting right there at the exhibition, paying as much as 8,000 rubles.

Vasily Surikov. Sketch Rower in a boat, 1905
Vasily Surikov. Sketch Rower in a boat, 1905.

“Menshikov in Berezovo”, considered the most beloved painting of its author, and then the painting “Boyarina Morozova” strengthened his fame.

The heaviest grief for Surikov, dividing the world into “before” and “after,” was the death of his wife on April 8, 1888. After it, he was never able to fully recover. Never again will Vasily Ivanovich try to arrange his personal life. And he will never again paint a picture equal in its piercing power to “Boyaryna Morozova.” The artist was overcome by depression and he seemed to have completely lost interest in painting. The genius did not pick up a brush for more than a year…

Vasily Surikov. Painting View of the monument to Peter I on Senate Square in St. Petersburg, 1870. Version 1
Vasily Surikov. Painting View of the monument to Peter I on Senate Square in St. Petersburg, 1870.
last years of life

The symbol of the beginning of spiritual restoration was the work “Healing of a Man Born Blind by Jesus Christ,” where the features of Vasily Ivanovich Surikov himself are captured in the image of the cured man.

Subsequently, the artist’s life focused on his daughters, Olga and Elena. In the 1910s, Surikov traveled a lot: together with his son-in-law Pyotr Konchalovsky he went to Spain, then in 1914 he visited his native Krasnoyarsk, where he painted landscapes, and in 1915 he went to Crimea. In his work, he again and again turns to events that showed the power and strength of spirit of the Russian people.

The morning of the Streltsy execution.
The morning of the Streltsy execution.

The First World War was a painful blow for Vasily Surikov; heart problems immediately made themselves known.

The artist died on March 6, 1916 in Moscow, quietly saying: “I am disappearing…”. The master’s grave is located at the Vagankovskoye cemetery. Vasily Surikov is a phenomenon in Russian painting on the same scale as Alexander Pushkin in literature or Mikhail Glinka in music.

Visit of the princess to the convent.
Visit of the princess to the convent.
Evening in St. Petersburg.
Evening in St. Petersburg.
Great masquerade in 1722 on the streets of Moscow with the participation of Peter I and Prince Caesar I. F. Romodanovsky.
Great masquerade in 1722 on the streets of Moscow with the participation of Peter I and Prince Caesar I. F. Romodanovsky.
The Yenisei River near Krasnoyarsk.
The Yenisei River near Krasnoyarsk.
View of the Kremlin in winter.
View of the Kremlin in winter.
Zubovsky Boulevard in winter.
Zubovsky Boulevard in winter.
Illumination of Moscow.
Illumination of Moscow.
Izba.
Izba.
Bell tower of Ivan the Great and domes of the Assumption Cathedral.
Bell tower of Ivan the Great and domes of the Assumption Cathedral.
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice.
St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.
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