Ukraine is part of the heart of the origin of much of European and Asian culture. It forms the western part of the Pontic Steppe, seemingly endless grasslands to the north of the Black Sea, between the Danube and Ural River. It was here in the early Bronze Age that the ancestor of many of our languages, Indo-European, developed and spread across much of Europe, northern Asia, and lands down to the Indian sub-continent. With it came domestication of the horse and, most probably, the first specialised wheels. Among the Indo-European family of languages are English, Ukrainian and Russian.
As with many of the lands in this part of the world, Ukraine has been divided between neighbouring empires, including those of the Polish monarchy and the Russian empire. Despite that, a distinctive Ukrainian culture has flourished, and in painting is represented by predominantly religious art for holy sites of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
As landscape painting became popular throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, painters from Ukraine were no exception. However, they faced unusual circumstances, as the Russian empire had centralised on the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, which was almost as far as you could get from Ukraine travelling north within the empire. Once thoroughly russified there, artists would move to Moscow to interest patrons like the banker and collector Pavel Mikhaylovich Tretyakov in their paintings; it was Tretyakov who founded the eponymous gallery which is now the Russian national treasury of fine art.
Perhaps the best-known painter born in Ukraine was Ilya Repin (1844-1930), who came from what is now the city of Chuhuiv in Kharkiv Region, in the east of the country. His father was a retired Russian soldier who dealt in horses, and the artist trained in Saint Petersburg. Although he painted a few landscapes near his birthplace, Repin was a Russian artist throughout his long and highly successful career.
Repin is better-known for his paintings of those working barges on the Volga.
The other well-known nineteenth century painter who was born in Ukraine is Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), the greatest marine painter of the century. Of Armenian descent, he was born in the port of Feodosia, in Crimea. He too trained in Saint Petersburg before being appointed the principal painter to the Russian Navy. Although he was based in Feodosia for much of his career, he was a Russian artist.
When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Aivazovsky painted from the beseiged fortress of Sevastopol, although he still found opportunity to show its beauty in his Crimean Coast by Moonlight (1853).
Aivazovsky went deeper inland for his Broad Landscape with Settlers (1856). This shows the steppe of Izumskaya, now on the border between Russia and Ukraine, where ‘salt farmers’ are seen migrating from the crowded lands of the Crimea into the interior of Russia.
Sunset over Yalta (1861) shows this popular resort city on the southern coast of the Crimean Peninsula. At this time, it was fashionable for the Russian aristocracy and gentry to spend their summers here, and many bought summer homes or dachas for the purpose.
Ukrainian landscape painting had, of course, started long before Repin and Aivazovsky. Here are a few of the artists who you almost certainly won’t have come across before.
Ivan Maksymovych Soshenko (1807-1876) was born in the city of Bohuslav, near the capital Kyiv in the north of Ukraine. After he had trained in Saint Petersburg, he returned to Ukraine, where he painted and taught. Among his pupils was Taras Shevchenko, whose career he assisted and encouraged his admission to the Imperial Academy.
Soshenko’s undated Selling Hay by the Dnieper is one of his few accessible paintings of Ukraine.
Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko (1814-1861), also known as Kobzar (‘bard’) Taras, is widely accepted as the founding father of modern Ukrainian literature, and a key figure in art more generally, including painting. He was also a pioneer photographer and etcher. Although a few of his watercolours are accessible, many of his paintings seem to have gone missing.
This view of Chyhryn from the Subotiv Way from a watercolour sketchbook of 1845 shows Chyhrynsky Convent in the background.
This is a watercolour view of Pochaiv Lavra from the east which he painted in another sketchbook the following year.
Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (1841-1910) was born in Mariupol, a city in the south-east of Ukraine, on the coast of the Sea of Azov, to a Pontic Greek family. The modern city still has a substantial Greek minority. Kuindzhi trained for a while in Aivazovsky’s workshop in Feodosia before making his way to Saint Petersburg, where he entered the Imperial Academy. Several of his paintings are now in the Tretyakov Gallery.
After a Thunderstorm (1879) is an oil sketch which captures the brilliant colour and light following heavy rain.
Dnieper in the Morning (1881) shows his fine control of detail and aerial perspective.
Landscape in Crimea (1896) is a wonderfully loose view of the rocky cliffs beside a rough Black Sea.
Red Sunset on the Dnieper (1905) is one of few Ukrainian paintings which have made their way beyond Ukraine and Russia: this is in the Met in New York, and is a fine example of Kuindzhi’s paintings of altered light. He was also famous for his nocturnes.
Volodymyr Orlovsky (1842-1914) was born in Kyiv, the capital, and trained in Saint Petersburg. In his day he was as famous as Aivazovsky, but has almost vanished now. Although he spent much of his career out of Ukraine, he did return to paint the country of his birth.
Harvest in Ukraine (1880) shows his detailed realist style, and laborious hand-cutting of grain on the steppe.
It was Harvest (1882) which apparently earned Orlovsky promotion to Professor in the Imperial Academy, although the dates don’t quite appear to tally.
My final artist is Pyotr Alexandrovich Nilus (1869-1943), who was born near Balta in the south-west of Ukraine, towards the border with Moldova. Although he started his training in the city of Odessa, he attended the Imperial Academy in Saint Petersburg.
His painting of two women in Autumn from 1893 is one of his few accessible works now.
I hope this has given you a few impressions of the work of painters from Ukraine, and a better picture of the nation, culture and people that are currently being barbarically destroyed in front of our eyes. My heart and prayers go to the people of Ukraine.