After the early death of Rufin Sudkovsky in 1885, his widow, the former Elena Petrovna Besnard, a prolific Russian illustrator, later married another Ukrainian artist, Mykola Samokish (1860–1944), a selection of whose paintings I show today. Samokish is remarkable for having remained popular and successful in Ukraine and Russia from the 1880s into the Second World War, a period during which so many artists fell foul of one regime or another.
Samokish was born into a Cossack family in Nizhyn, Ukraine, and spent his youth in the town of Nosivka near Chernihiv, in the north-east of the country. He studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg between 1879 and 1885.
In his early career, he painted several hunting scenes, including the painterly Hunters from 1885.
The same year, Samokish travelled to Paris, where he studied under Edouard Detaille, and returned in 1888.
In 1886, he painted A Group of Hunters with Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feodorovna on a Fox Hunt, showing the reigning Emperor and Empress. Alexander III lived between 1845-1894, and became emperor in 1881 following his father’s assassination. He remained in power until his death from kidney disease at the age of only 49.
Samokish may have travelled to one of the more Asian parts of the Empire to paint Shia Muslims Commemorate the Martyrdom of Hussein (Ashura) in 1887. Ashura marks the death of Husayn bin Ali, grandson of Muhammad, in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. As seen here, Shia Muslims commemorate this in a day of intense mourning, normally in group processions.
In 1888, he visited Tbilisi in Georgia, where he painted sections of a panorama in the city’s museum of military history. On his return, in 1889, he married Elena Sudkovskaya, whose own career as an illustrator flourished. The couple worked together on the illustration of some books, and murals for a railway station in Saint Petersburg.
Samokish specialised in equine and military painting. He painted these breeding Mares of the Novo-Tomnikovsky Stud Farm (1890) in the Tambov region in Russia. This stud farm had been founded in 1859 to supply trotters and thoroughbred saddle-horses. This work secured him recognition as an Academician at the Imperial Academy, where he taught from 1894 and was appointed a professor in 1913.
Although many of his paintings are Russian, he returned to the land of his birth not infrequently. This watercolour of a Ukrainian Cossack on a Horse, or Haidamak on a Horse from 1899 shows a haidamaka, a Ukrainian insurgent who took part in uprisings against the ruling Polish Empire that governed west Ukraine in the eighteenth century. They were immortalised in an epic poem in 1841 by the father of Ukrainian literature Taras Shevchenko.
In 1904, Samokish was commissioned to paint the Russo-Japanese War for a magazine.
In My Garden from about 1910 is a painterly oil sketch that contrasts with his more public art.
In 1915, at the height of the First World War, Samokish went to the Eastern Front with some of his students from the Imperial Academy and painted scenes from the fighting there.
The First Ones Broke In, a watercolour he painting in 1916, is an example of the more illustrative works he made of battle. Judging by the hats of the horsemen here, they’re both Cossacks who have arrived first on scene during the advance on a town.
Samokish became separated from his wife during the Russian Revolution; she fled to Paris and the couple remained apart. After the Imperial Academy was abolished, he went to live in Crimea, first with the army in Yalta, then in Simferopol, where he taught and organised an art school.
This watercolour sketch of Crimea. Landscape with a Windmill near Yevpatoria from 1919 shows a couple of windmills on a breezy day near this city on the west coast of the Crimean Peninsula.
This undated oil sketch of a Wayside Inn, or Horses at Rest is a good example of the many paintings he made while travelling.
In the East (Speeding Wagon with Eastern Women) is an oil sketch that resembles a watercolour in his handling of paint. It shows another scene in a more eastern part of Russia.
Cossacks in Bakhchysarai is an undated watercolour showing this town in the south of Crimea, which had been a former capital of the Crimean Khanate during the sixteenth century.
This painting of Bohuna at Chernets Monastery, 1635, from 1931, was perhaps destined as a book illustration. I believe it shows what became the Mezhyhirya Savior-Transfiguration Monastery, on the bank of the River Dnipro near Kyiv. This was destroyed by the Soviet authorities in 1935-36 to build accommodation for government officials. This had been a Cossack military monastery, and is mentioned in the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, and in Nikolai Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba.
Aksakal (Horseman against the Wall) is also undated, and shows a male elder and leader of a village in the Caucasus, better-known as an aqsaqal.
In the 1930s, Samokish painted this Summer Street Scene, probably in Simferopol, with its motor truck, open-top car, and contemporary fashions.
In his later years, Samokish worked at the Art Institute in Kharkiv, but returned to Simferopol, where he died in 1944.
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.