The latter half of the nineteenth century brought Ukraine many significant painters and other artists, most of whom are now referred to as Russian. Mykola Kuznetsov (1850-1929) is today better known by his Russified name of Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov, but was brought up in Ukraine and for most of his career kept his studio there too.
He was born in 1850 on his family’s estate at what was then known as Stepanovka in Russian; I believe this is the modern town of Shyriaieve to the north of Odesa. He was schooled in that city, where he also attended a local drawing school. At the age of nearly 16 he started his studies at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, although he continued to paint on the family estate as well.
In Celebration (1879-81) is a brilliant demonstration of his early skills. Although this farm labourer, caught relaxing in the flowers of early summer, might appear finely detailed, there are painterly passages throughout their white blouse.
After completing his training at the Academy in 1880, he became a successful portrait painter, as well as depicting genre scenes in the countryside of both Russia and Ukraine.
On Leave (1882) shows two horsemen with their hunting dogs. The rider of the black horse wears military uniform and is presumably the one who is on leave. The other rider is lighting a cigarette for the soldier.
Courtship (A Walk in the Countryside) from 1885 is a scene that Kuznetsov may have been only too familiar with, as a young couple dressed in their finest clothes walk together. As they emerge from this birch wood, the man’s left arm is being held by the young woman’s chaperone, perhaps her mother or nurse.
The passenger in the open carriage in his Arbiter of Peace (1887) appears to be a local official, who is arbitrating a dispute among the group of farmers from the small village behind.
During the early part of his career Kuznetsov visited a Slavophile artists’ colony at Abramtsevo, north of Moscow.
The farm shown in Pigs (1889) appears more substantial, and may be the manor on his family’s estate. Gathered below a ramshackle dovecote are several large pigs, who are being taunted by a dog.
In 1889 Kuznetsov had an accident which left him on crutches for several years. For that period he remained painting in his studio north of Odesa.
His Portrait of a Young Girl from 1891 is superbly lit, and shows how painterly his brushwork became in maturity.
Of all Kuznetsov’s portraits, his most famous sitter was Pjotr I. Tschaikowski, seen here in 1893, when he conducted five concerts in Odesa before returning to Russia, where he died in Saint Petersburg that November.
By 1893 his mobility had improved, and Kuznetsov moved his studio into the city of Odesa, where it became a focus for painters and other artists.
Between 1895-97 Kuznetsov taught as a professor at the Imperial Academy, then returned to paint in Odesa.
In 1900 he joined the group of artists known as the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. This group had started as rebellious students who left the Imperial Academy in 1863, in protest at its conservatism. It included most of the major Russian and Ukrainian painters of the day, including Ilya Repin and Isaac Levitan, and operated as an artist-led co-operative.
In 1920, with deteriorating conditions in Russia and Ukraine, Kuznetsov emigrated to Yugoslavia, where he settled in Sarajevo, and died there in 1929.
Andrey Kurkov and others (2022) Treasures of Ukraine, A Nation’s Cultural Heritage, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 02603 8.
Konstantin Akinsha and others (2022) In the Eye of the Storm, Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 29715 5.