Ivan Kramskoi, talented portraitist
Ivan Kramskoi has a place in the history of Russian culture as a talented portraitist, historical and genre painter, theorist, teacher and fervent opponent of dogmatism in art, and as one of the leaders of the Society of Peredvizhniki.
He was born in the village of Novaya Sotnya, near Ostrogozhsk in Voronezh Gubernia; he was the third son of a town council clerk. After his father’s death, the twelve-year-old boy could no longer continue his education, and his artistic interests, which manifested themselves very early, found no support among those near to him. His fortunes changed quite by chance, after he was recommended as a retoucher to a visiting photographer in Ostrogozhsk, Ya. Danilevsky. In October 1853 Kramskoi left his native village with Danilevsky and after itinerating around various Russian towns finally found himself in St. Petersburg. Here he found employment with the capital’s best photographer, Denier. His new friends, young artists, spotted his talent for drawing and advised him to study. In the autumn of 1857 he was accepted by the Academy of Arts.
Kramskoi’s years of study coincided with the rise of social-democratic thought in Russia. The spread of the ideas of the revolutionary democrats—Chernyshevsky, Pisarev, Dobrolyubov, Herzen—struck a chord in the hearts of the young non-aristocratic intelligentsia, including the students at the Academy of Arts. A group of talented young people formed around Kramskoi, who even in Ostrogozhsk had been fascinated by the articles of the critic Belinsky.
Almost every evening young people gathered in Kramskoi’s flat on Vasilievsky Island. In this little flat, something like a new Russian Academy was growing up, as yet small, but which would later develop into a large ‘Artists’ Artel’.
Meanwhile, the Academy maintained its former positions, but the bases of the old aesthetics were crumbling under the weight of new demands. The antagonism between the aspirations of Kramskoi’s group and the traditional academic system led to open conflict in the autumn of 1863. Fourteen competitors for a gold medal refused to paint pictures on the required theme —‘Feast at Valhalla’—and asked to be allowed to choose their own subjects. When the Academy Council turned down their request, they left the Academy, headed by Ivan Kramskoi. The artists were put under secret surveillance and the press was forbidden to mention them.
1863 saw the establishment of the Artists Artel; its leading figure was Kramskoi, the initiator of the first art exhibition outside Petersburg (in Nizhny Novgorod). The young artists’ protest found a sympathetic response in democratic circles. Kramskoi gave warm support to the Moscow artists (G. G. Myasoyedov, V. G. Perov, I. M. Pryanishnikov) who were founding the Peredvizhniki Society which for many decades following the signing of its Regulations in 1870 united Russia’s leading artists, and became a synonym for Russian realist art.
A sensitive, highly principled man, Kramskoi was one of the leading figures in the Peredvizhniki Society and became the intellectual father of a whole generation of artists.
Kramskoi believed that ‘only a sense of social purpose can give an artist strength and multiply his powers, only a mental atmosphere that is dear to him and healthy can inspire and elevate him, and only confidence that the artist’s work is needed and appreciated by society can help those exotic plants called pictures to ripen’.
Kramskoi always demanded a high level of formal perfection. ‘Without ideas there is no art, but at the same time without vivid, striking painting there are no pictures, but merely good intentions.’
The most valuable part of Kramskoi’s artistic legacy is the portraits of his contemporaries, including pencil portraits of М. M. Panov (1860, Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum), G. G. Myasoyedov (1861, RM), N. A. Koshelev (1866, RM) and N. D. Dmitriev- Orenburgsky (1861, RM). In the sixties he painted his wife, Sofia Kramskaya. The most expressive of all the portraits painted at this time was the oval Self-Portrait (1867, TG)—a vivid image of Kramskoi the man, artist and teacher ‘Just look at him!’ wrote Ilya Repin. ‘What eyes he has! You can’t get away from them, even though they are small and set deep in their hollow sockets, grey, shining.’
Simplicity, modesty, humaneness and perspicacity—the things that Repin saw in Kramskoi—were all characteristic traits of his personality and work. In the seventies and eighties he achieved great success not only in portraiture, but also in genre and historical painting.
At the First Peredvizhniki Exhibition his picture The Mermaids (1871, TG) attracted a lot of attention, while the big event at the Second Exhibition was his large painting Christ in the Wilderness (1872, TG), in which he used the well-known Biblical subject to comment on the drama of human life. In a letter to the writer Vsevolod Garshin, Kramskoi wrote that he had resorted to hieroglyphics, to the Gospel story, because for him Christ was a symbol of a man with a high sense of social duty. Even earlier, with the appearance of Alexander Ivanov’s famous painting, the Gospels lost their canonical meaning, and progressive Russian artists used religious themes in their work as a means of assessing contemporary life.
‘Influenced by a variety of things,’ Kramskoi wrote to Garshin, ‘I have come to a very distressing understanding of life, and I clearly see that there is a moment in every man’s life . . . when he is in doubt: whether to go to the right or to the left. This, then, is not Christ. Or rather, I don’t know who it is. It is an expression of my own ideas . . . Christ is alone and tormented by doubts: should he go to the people, teach them, suffer and perish, or should he yield to temptation and give it all up . . ‘
Not surprisingly, the reactionary press greeted the picture with hostile criticism. Kramskoi was accused of distorting the image of Christ and of expressing anti-religious feelings. The progressive generation, however, perceived it as a call to civic action. Lev Tolstoy wrote to Pavel Tretyakov: ‘This is the best Christ I know.’ Kramskoi spent the summer of 1873 with his family near Kozlovka-Zaseka in Tula Gubernia. Here he received news of the death of his young friend, the landscape-painter Fyodor Vasiliev. Kramskoi had shown constant concern for him and more than once he had asked Tretyakov to subsidise the dying artist on the security of his paintings. The loss of a close friend undoubtedly affected the emotional structure of Kramskoi’s unusual picture Inspection of an Old Manor-House (1873-80, TG). That same summer he wrote to Tretyakov: ‘I am doing my best to paint a portrait of Count Tolstoy, who turns out to be my neighbour: his estate at Yasnaya Polyana is only five versts from here.’ In fact, he painted two portraits—one for Tretyakov, the other for Tolstoy himself (1873, TG). Struck by the integrity of Tolstoy’s character, Kramskoi wrote, ‘I remember the pleasure of my first meeting with a man in whom all individual judgments are firmly linked to his general precepts, like spokes to a hub . . . For the first time I confronted a rare phenomenon—maturity, culture and an integrated character.’ Tolstoy also had a sympathetic attitude towards the artist. Moreover, Kramskoi served as the prototype for the artist Mikhailov in the novel Anna Karenina.
Kramskoi’s portrait of Tolstoy was commended by their contemporaries. ‘Of all the portraits of Tolstoy, including those by Repin, Ghe and others, Kramskoi’s is one of the most successful at expressing the brilliant writer’s complex, powerful character.’
At Kozlovka-Zaseka Kramskoi also painted a portrait of his friend Ivan Shishkin with a portable easel (1874, TG), and some years later he executed another (1880, RM), which is considered one of the most successful of the famous landscape-painter. For Pavel Tretyakov, Kramskoi painted a gallery of figures from Russian cultural life: Ivan Goncharov (1874, TG), Yakov Polonsky (1875, TG), Pavel Melnikov- Pechersky (1876, TG), Sergei Aksakov (1878, TG), Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1879, TG), Pavel Tretyakov (1876, TG).
One of the best works of this period is the picture-portrait Nekrasov at the Time of ‘The Last Songs’ (1877, TG). Kramskoi eagerly accepted the offer to paint a portrait of the sick Nekrasov. Sometimes he had to work in short bursts of ten or fifteen minutes, as the writer’s health was rapidly deteriorating. Kramskoi succeeded in bringing out the contrast between Nekrasov’s physical malaise and mental lucidity, creating a noble image of the citizen-poet, a man with a warm heart and great willpower, one of the leading representatives of the democratic intelligentsia of the 1870s.
The common folk are also well represented in Kramskoi’s portrait gallery. ‘The people,’ he wrote, ‘are an inexhaustible source of creative inspiration.’ Some insight into the artist’s attitude to this theme can be gained from his portrait Forest Warden (1874, TG), which portrays a wilful, indomitable character. With reference to this portrait, Kramskoi wrote: ‘The point of my etude was to depict one of those types (and they do exist in the Russian people) who have an understanding of social and political aspects of the people’s life and who have a deep-seated dissatisfaction, which borders, in critical moments, on hatred.’
Quite different—light and gentle—is the image of Mina Moiseyev (1882, RM), a well- known narrator of folk tales.
Kramskoi did not restrict himself to portrait painting. He also produced many multifigured narrative pictures. Upon finishing Christ in the Wilderness, he began a painting with the title Laughter. It remained unfinished, but it shows the artist’s continuing preoccupation with the idea of the conflict between the noble, bold man who lives for the good of others, and human self-interest. ‘This laughter has persecuted me for several years now. It’s not hard to be good because it’s hard, but because people laugh.’ The last years of the artist’s life were extremely burdensome. With deep sorrow he wrote: ‘I have fought honestly all my life, and only now, at the very end, have I grown tired.’ In the eighties he worked simultaneously on two paintings: Unknown Woman (1883, TG) and Inconsolable Grief (1884, TG). The latter was in many ways autobiographic: two of Kramskoi’s children had died.
Despite the misfortunes of his final years, Kramskoi believed in his strengths, and his artistic ideals remained unchanged. ‘I have confidence in Russian art: I know that sooner or later it will gain wide respect.’
Kramskoi kept on working to the very end. He died while painting a portrait of Doctor Rauchfuss, on 25 March 1887.
‘Rest in peace, mighty man,’ wrote his favourite pupil and friend Ilya Repin. ‘Having climbed out of the insignificance and grime of the backwoods, without a penny or outside aid, with only your ideals and aspirations, you quickly became the leader of the most talented and educated young people at the Academy of Arts. With tremendous energy you founded two artistic associations, one after the other, rejecting once and for all the outmoded classical authorities and demanding respect and recognition for national Russian art. You are worthy of a national monument, as a Russian citizen and artist!’
From: Fifty Russian Artists. Raduga Publishers. 1985. Moscow. (Translated from the Russian by Angus Roxburg)