Although this week’s Ukrainian artist, Mykola Pymonenko (1862–1912), is usually described as a Realist, I hope to persuade you that he was a Naturalist, following in the style of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who died prematurely in 1884.
Pymonenko was the son of one of the leading icon painters of the day, and was born and brought up in a village then on the edge of the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv. He initially followed in his father’s footsteps, training first in father’s workshop, then in one of the leading centres of icon painting at that time, the monastery of Kyiv Pechersk Lavra.
After his talent was spotted by Mykola Murashko of the Kyiv Art School, he studied there between 1878-1882, then progressed to the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Poor health and lack of funds forced him back to Kyiv in 1884, where he taught drawing.
Pymonenko’s painting of Jews Carrying Things Bought at Auction from 1885 shows a small group emerging from an auction with their purchases. These include a clock tucked under the arm of the man at the left, crockery and a chair. That foreground group are painted in fine detail, and edges are all crisp. The figures behind them, and the building, are less detailed, and their highlights, such as the bright reflections on the large cup held by the woman, are slightly blurred.
Yuletide Fortune Tellers from 1888 shows two young women playing a shadow game with a candle, which brings its own shadowplay in the magnified head and shoulders cast on the wall behind them. Pymonenko paints fine detail in their faces and jewellery while their skirts are far more sketchy, and the jug at the right is quite vague and blurred.
Reaper (1889) is one of Pymonenko’s portraits of peasants working on the land. This young woman brandishes the sickle she is using to laboriously cut the wheat. Again, there is fine detail in the figure’s head, upper body, and the cut wheat, but that rapidly becomes sketchy and blurred around her, and into the distance behind.
Wedding in Kyiv Province from 1891 shows the bride and groom walking at the front of a drunk and disorderly procession of relatives and well-wishers. To the right of the groom is a fiddler, and another man is holding up a tambourine behind the groom’s head.
Waiting for the Blessing (1891) shows the scene at a country church at dawn on Easter Sunday. The local population is crowding inside, while the women gather with their Paska, traditional ornamental bread that must be blessed before it can be eaten as a brunch. Note how defocussed the crowd in the background appears relative to the women and children in the foreground.
Pymonenko’s classic view of Harvest in Ukraine from 1896 follows Bastien-Lepage’s compositional formula to the last detail. Its horizon is high, about three-quarters of the way up the canvas. The women in the foreground and the child’s cradle, are painted in fine detail, and their edges are so crisp that they pop out. As the figures and fields recede into the background, they rapidly lose detail and their edges blur. The effect is of a vivid reality at the focus of the image, with deep recession to the far horizon.
His undated view of Haymaking is more sketchy, and shows an ox-cart loaded with freshly cut hay.
Although best-known for these idyllic views of life in the country, Pymonenko sometimes took on more controversial issues. His Victim of Fanaticism (1899) tells a true story of persecution in the city of Kremenets in the west of Ukraine. The young Jewish woman with her back against a fence on the right was unfortunate enough to fall in love with a boy who came from an Orthodox Christian family. She is converting to Christianity, and wears a cross at her neck, but members of the local Jewish community are abusing her as a result.
Pymonenko builds tension with a dark stormy sky, crows above, and sharp focus on the crowd attacking the woman.
Evening, from 1900, returns to a more peaceful view into the setting sun, of a young girl and her little brother tending the family’s flock of geese.
The following year, Pymonenko’s Ford (1901) is another example of his skilled use of defocussing the background in an almost photographic way.
Jealousy (1901) is more sketchy, and shows a jealous woman, perhaps a younger sister, watching a couple as they walk together towards the bright-lit field in the distance.
In 1901, Pymonenko moved to teach at the Polytechnic Institute, then at the Kyiv Art School from 1906. Among his most successful students there was Kazimir Malevich, whose paintings I will show in a future article in this series.
Flower Girl (1908) is a late and sketchy portrait of a woman selling flowers on a street corner, probably in the city of Kyiv in the early evening.
Mykola Pymonenko won a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1909, but died in Kyiv in 1912, at the age of only 50.
For comparison, I show two examples of similar techniques used by other artists.
In 1878, Jules Bastien-Lepage enjoyed great success at the Salon in Paris with what’s now sometimes known as October or Potato Gatherers, but was originally shown as Saison d’Octobre: Récolte des Pommes de Terre. This is a good example of his compositional scheme: high horizon, fine foreground detail, deep recession here enhanced by distant figures, and broad land.
Eugène Burnand’s Bull in the Alps from 1884 uses similar optical effects coupled with extreme aerial perspective. Not only are there marked contrasts between the foreground and background in terms of chroma, hue and lightness, but Burnand has used defocussing in a photographic manner. The crisp edges of the bull stand proud of the softer edges and forms in the mountains behind. His edge hierarchy is sharpest for the bull’s head, and softest in the most distant mountain.
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.