Sometimes labels can be very misleading. I saw the Russian artist Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848–1926) labelled as a Symbolist, but then when I looked at his paintings more closely I saw one of the finest collections of paintings of folk tales. In this article and the next, I show a small selection and try to give their narrative context as well as I can discover.
Vasnetsov was born the son of a priest, in a remote village in central European Russia. He taught a younger brother, Apollinary, who became an accomplished landscape painter and illustrator. During his teens, he learned to paint religious frescoes as an assistant to an exiled Polish artist. In 1867, he moved to Saint Petersburg to study at its prestigious Imperial Academy of Arts, and allied himself with a rebellious group of realists there. He also made friends with the renowned realist Ilya Repin.
In the early years of his career, Vasnetsov painted several genre scenes showing the poor, including Children Raiding Nests in the Forest from 1874. This shows a large group of children of the rural poor in the act of bird-nesting, to steal eggs which could then be eaten to supplement their meagre diet. This coincided with the rise of social realism, leading to Naturalism, in France and other European countries.
In 1876, Ilya Repin invited him to move to Paris, to join the group of Russian realist artists there. Vasnetsov also modelled for Repin, appearing in the latter’s Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom. After a year in France, Vasnetsov moved back to Russia, and set up his studio in Moscow.
Russian Preference (1879) shows another theme featured later in Naturalist painting, that of entertainment and card games – in this case the game known as ‘Russian Preference’ or Preferans. According to the Grandfather clock at the right it’s just after four o’clock, which could be in the afternoon or the small hours of the morning. Cast natural light in the doorway suggests it’s still daylight outside, though, as the three play cards to while away the time. The cast shadows are also fascinating.
Vasnetsov soon started to paint from Russian and Slavic folk tales. He was commissioned to paint Three Princesses of the Underworld in 1879 by Vasnetsova Savva Ivanovich Mamontov, the chairman of the Donetsk Railway. Folk tales include two such princesses, of gold and precious stones, shown at the left and centre. He added the third princess of coal, at the right, for his patron, whose steam engines burned plenty of it.
He also painted some fine landscapes. This shows Alenushkin Pond or Pond in Akhtyrka (1880), which was on or near the estate of Prince Nikolay Trubetskoy, in Moscow province. Alenushkin published a collection of folk and fairy tales which became popular with children.
After Prince Igor’s Battle or After Igor Svyatoslavich’s fighting with the Cumans from 1880 is a history painting showing dead on the battlefield after one of the battles won by Prince Igor Svyatoslavich the Brave (1151-1201/2) against the Cumans. For this, Vasnetsov’s literary reference is The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, the most celebrated epic of Rus. This was almost certainly set in what is now the Ukraine.
Vasnetsov painted scenes from the story of Ivan Tsarevich, of which the Firebird and the Grey Wolf is perhaps the best-known. This was first collected by the pioneer ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Each night, one of the golden apples on the king’s tree was stolen, reportedly by the Firebird. The king offered his two oldest sons half his kingdom if one of them caught it, but both fell asleep. The youngest son, Ivan Tsarevich, asked if he could try, and managed to capture one of its feathers. This made the king want the bird even more.
The older brothers set out in pursuit of the Firebird, but confronted with a crossroads they didn’t know which of the arduous roads to choose, so gave up and became idle. Ivan begged to go, and chose the second road, which a nearby stone promised would let him live but his horse would die. Sure enough, as he pressed on down the road, a large grey wolf killed and ate his horse. Ivan carried on walking with the wolf, which eventually offered to carry him.
The wolf brought Ivan to a garden, where the Firebird was kept in a golden cage. The wolf told him to capture the Firebird without touching the cage. When Ivan tried to take the cage as well, bells rang and he was captured. He was told that he could have the Firebird only if he brought back the Horse with the Golden Mane.
The Grey Wolf carried Ivan to the stables where that horse was kept, but warned him not to touch its golden bridle. Once again, Ivan gave way to temptation and touched the bridle, causing alarms to ring and his capture. Now his challenge was to bring Helen the Beautiful back to be the wife of the second king, who kept the horse with the Golden Mane.
Vasnetsov’s first painting of the tale of Ivan Tsarevich shows him riding on a Flying Carpet (1880), together with the Firebird in its golden cage. This was commissioned by his rich industrialist patron Mamontov, and influenced by stories of flying carpets from the Thousand and One Nights.
For those not familiar with the Slavic folk tales of Baba Yaga, Vasnetsov’s oil sketch of a Hut on Chicken’s Legs (1875-85) refers to the dwelling occupied by that supernatural being, who is traditionally shown as a fierce-looking old woman flying around in a mortar.
Most of Vasnetsov’s paintings from folk tales are based on recognisable events or scenes. Alyonushka, from 1881, is perhaps an attempt at a more generalised representation of the soul. This young woman sits, abandoned and alone, as the first brown leaves of autumn are gathering on the pond in front of her. Above her head are swallows, representing good messengers, while the young aspen trees are a symbol of hard luck. There are obvious links to his earlier landscapes.
For Knight at the Crossroads (1882), Vasnetsov turns to the folk tale of the Three Journeys of Ilya Muromets, the weary knight shown here contemplating which way to go. The stone in front of him apparently advises “If you go straight ahead, there will be no life; there is no way forward for he who travels past, walks past or flies past”. A human skull and part of the skeleton of a horse aren’t encouraging, as crows or ravens wait for his carrion.
In 1884, Vasnetsov was commissioned to paint frescoes in the Cathedral of Saint Vladimir in Kiev, in the Ukraine, and moved there for the following five years.
I am very grateful to Marina for identifying the card game being played in ‘Russian Preference’, thus making sense of its otherwise cryptic title.