In my brief account of the life and art of Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854-1917), I mentioned that one of his teachers at the Imperial Academy in Saint Petersburg was the great Ukrainian landscape artist Volodymyr Orlovsky (1842–1914). Today, it’s the master’s turn.
Orlovsky was born in Kyiv in 1842, when the city was much smaller and of little commercial importance. It was a time of developing national identity, and he was influenced by Taras Shevchenko, who laid the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature and painted as well. Although he started his training in Kiev under Ivan Soshenko, at that time the only way ahead was to study at the Imperial Academy in Saint Petersburg, where he was admitted in 1861, at the age of nineteen.
When in Russia he was taught by the great landscape artist Alexey Bogolyubov. Orlovsky graduated from the Academy in 1868, winning a gold medal, and with an award of travelling funds to take him to France, Switzerland and Italy. He returned to Russia in 1872, established himself as a leading realist landscape painter, and in 1876 he was appointed professor of landscape painting at the Academy.
Harvesters (c 1878) shows labourers cutting a crop with scythes, on the elevated bank beside one of the major rivers in the Pontic Steppe of Ukraine or south-western Russia. In the right half of the painting, seemingly endless wetland stretches to the horizon. The river could be the Dnipro or the Don, perhaps.
Harvest in Ukraine (1880) shows laborious hand-cutting of grain on the steppe.
Harvest from 1882 is another view of the steppe, this time with a heavy rainstorm threatening.
Ukrainian Landscape from 1882 shows one of the distinctive windmills on the elevated bank alongside one of the major rivers and its more populated floodplain to the right.
As with all his finished landscape paintings, Orlovsky based this pastoral view of the River Gnilitsa (1885) on a series of sketches and studies made during the summer months. A lone hunter is walking the bank of this river with his dog. This is thought to show the countryside near Podolsk, in Russia, and is one of a group of his landscapes that established his reputation.
In 1886, Orlovsky returned to Kyiv, where he taught at the Drawing School and co-founded Kyiv Art School in 1900.
Orlovsky painted extensively in Crimea, where he captured this view of the Seashore near Sudak (Crimea) in 1889. This is a small town on the south (Black Sea) coast of the Crimean peninsula. This looks to the west, towards the cliffs beyond Alushta and Yalta, along the southern tip.
In 1890, Orlovsky painted Calm, a richly lit view of a small farmstead, with its family and their gaggle of geese.
His remaining paintings are unfortunately not dated.
Mending Fishing Nets by the Crimean Coast is another view of the rugged coast of Crimea, this time with a few fisherfolk repairing and preparing their nets on its stony beach in the warm light of the late afternoon.
Steppe shows a river in summer, with levels at their minimum. Cattle are taking the opportunity to drink and cool off in the water. In the distance is the plume of smoke from a railway train, probably carrying grain and other produce from the countryside to one of the growing coastal cities for export.
Orlovsky’s Troika in the Snow shows a group travelling in a traditional sleigh drawn by three horses, hence the name. The road they’re using has been built on an embankment to ensure it remains passable even when the river is in flood.
Unlike the paintings above, which were produced in his studio, this Landscape appears to be an oil sketch made in front of the motif, another part of the steppe.
Late in his life, perhaps as a result of a bout of typhoid, Orlovsky moved to Genoa, Italy, where he died a few months before the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914.
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.