By the late 1880s, Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848–1926) had established himself as the leading Russian painter of folk tales. He was living in Kiev, in the Ukraine, where he worked with Mikhail Vrubel on the decoration of the interior of the Cathedral of Saint Vladimir. He travelled to Italy in 1885, and later that year designed sets and costumes for Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden, for its Moscow première. For that, he worked with Isaak Levitan and Konstantin Korovin.
Vasnetsov painted many religious works too. Among the more narrative of those is his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from 1887, which refers to the well-known passage in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6, which has long been a popular theme for paintings. In this case he shows, from the left, Death, Famine, War and Conquest, each on their correctly coloured horse, with the Lamb of God seen high in the heavens.
Bogatyrs, painted at some time between 1881-98, shows three of these knightly figures from East Slavic legend.
In 1889, Vasnetsov returned to a later section in the story of Ivan Tsarevich on the Grey Wolf.
By the time that Ivan had reached the stables, he and Helen had fallen in love, so the Grey Wolf turned into a princess, whom Ivan exchanged for the Horse with the Golden Mane. Ivan and Helen rode that horse back towards the Firebird. During that journey, the Grey Wolf rejoined them, having escaped from the king with the stables.
Ivan asked the Grey Wolf to change into a horse with a Golden Mane so that he could exchange it for the Firebird. This allowed Ivan, Helen, the Firebird, and the horse with the Golden Mane to set off back to Ivan’s father. When they reached the point at which the Grey Wolf had eaten Ivan’s first horse, the wolf left them.
The Grey Wolf carried Ivan to the castle where Helen the Beautiful lived, and carried her away with Ivan.
Sirin and Alkonost – Birds of Joy and Sorrow (1896) are taken from another Russian folk story. Alkonost, on the left, is a bird with the head of a woman, who lives in the underworld and sings beautifully like a siren. Anyone who hears her voice forgets all that they know and has no need for anything ever again. Her counterpart Sirin, on the right, is similar in appearance, and her song tells of eternal joy. They are thought to have been derived from the sirens of Greek mythology.
Gamaun, The Prophetic Bird (1898) shows a Slavic relative of Sirin and Alkonost, also known as the Gamayun, who lives on an island close to paradise, and spreads prophecies and messages about the whole of creation.
Vasnetsov’s striking Mary Magdalene from 1899 is more typical of the religious paintings which he made for churches. She is shown bearing her attribute of a pot of myrrh, and behind her are myrrh trees, some in full blossom.
Between 1882-1911, Vasnetsov designed a series of buildings, including a church, and in 1904 the façade of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, for which he later became one of its regents.
In 1904, he turned to a popular theme throughout the history of Christian religious art, The Last Judgment, again drawn from the Book of Revelation. The righteous are shown on the left side, and the damned on the right, descending into the flames of hell at the lower right corner. In the upper tier is Jesus Christ, with the Virgin Mary on the left, and Saint John the Baptist on the right. Behind them are the massed apostles and saints.
Perhaps the best-known folk tale which Vasnetsov painted is that of the Sleeping Princess (1900-1926), known in the West as the Sleeping Beauty. This complex of stories and variants centres on a princess who is supposed to die when she pricks her finger on a specific item, such as a spindle. Instead of dying, though, she and her entire court fall into a deep sleep. She is then roused by a prince or king. This must be one of the most elaborate and detailed pictorial accounts of this story, which incorporates an extensive symbolic lexicon drawn from Russian and Slavic folk tales.
Some of his paintings are contrastingly simple, such as this portrait of a Guard from 1914.
The Frog Princess (1918) shows a Russian version of the Brothers Grimm folk tale of the same name. In this, a king’s three sons are challenged to shoot an arrow to find themselves a bride. The youngest, Prince Ivan, lands his arrow in the mouth of a frog in a nearby swamp. This frog turns out to be Princess Vasilisa the Wise, who is being punished by being turned into a frog for three years. When Ivan burns the frog’s skin, he thinks that he has lost her, but eventually, with the involvement of Baba Yaga, she is turned back into a princess and becomes his bride.
Shown in Sivka-Burka (1926), one of Vasnetsov’s last paintings, is another folk tale based on Prince Ivan and his two older brothers. After a convoluted story involving the prince eating with his resurrected father, this takes Ivan on a magic horse named Sivka-Burka to kiss the Tsar’s daughter then marry her.
Vasnetsov died in Moscow in 1926.