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Monday, February 10, 2014

Pavel Fedotov

Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich Visiting the Camp of the Finland Regiment of Imperial Guards on July 8, 1837, painted in 1838, Pavel Fedotov--boorring. 
Pavel Fedotov Self-portrait, 1840s.
He's captured the look of boredom well.
Sometime around 1977, the country singer Johnny Paycheck (no relation to Johnny Cash) had a hit record written by David Allan Coe, titled, Take This Job and Shove It. My guess is there's not a single one of us who, at one time or another, hasn't had the urge to sing that song to our boss--or at least silently mouth the words. In 1844, a Russian artist named Pavel Fedotov did just that. Pavel was the regimental painter for the Finland Regiment of the Imperial Guards in St. Petersburg. That position would, today, be filled by a photographer or videographer, but back then the painted or drawn pencil image had to suffice. His job was to paint pictures of anything officially important that happened, and when not occupied by that, to paint portraits of any important official who happened by. His painting of Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich Visiting the Camp (top) gives some idea of the stifling routine he endured. Although Fedotov began as a something of a rank amateur, he studied briefly at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. He gradually got pretty good at what he did simply because he did so much of it. In fact, Fedotov became quite a master at painting watercolor portraits. I've tried it. Believe me, it ain't easy.

The Difficult Bride, 1847, Pavel Fedotov--the type of work he longed to do.
Even after moving on, Fedotov was still
in demand for his characteristically
insightful portraits. This one dates
from 1846.
Portrait of N. P. Zhdanovich at the
Harpsichord. c.1849-50, Pavel Fedotov.
The neck seems a little long and
slender, but quite elegant.
Even though the job paid quite well, had good job security, combined with lots of perks, and likely the 19th century version of a good medical plan, for a creative individual like Pavel, it was nothing more or less than a colossal bore. So, perhaps in an impulsive moment of pique, he quit. History doesn't record his exact words but he might well have been the inspiration for David Allan Coe's country music classic. It was probably not the smartest move any artist ever made. Fedotov did, after all, have a wife and kids back in Moscow to feed. But congratulatory crowd scenes and pompous, portraits of buttoned-up Russian army officers was not his cup of vodka. The two portraits above (left and right) are typical of Fedotov's skill in capturing character, not just a likeness. Though portraits paid the bills, Fedotov wanted to paint genre, and specifically satiric genre such as his Difficult Bride (above) from 1847. It was something he had, in fact, been doing secretly for some years before quitting his "day job."

The Major's Marriage Proposal, 1851, Pavel Fedotov.
Though time and custom have obscured the humor somewhat,
it's unlikely the artist could have done such a painting as a regimental artist.

Fedotov's not-so-ringing endorsement
of the matrimonial state.
A necessary trait for any good satiric artist is a sense of humor, preferably one with a well-honed cutting edge. Fedotov seems to have honed his to a nearly lethal level. If the satiric humor is not obvious in his The Major's Marriage Proposal (above) from 1851, it's quite obvious as he depicts the dubious delights of family life in his cartoon-like Get Married, Gentlemen! That Would Come in Very Handy (right) from around 1840. Even today, 175 years later, we "get" the joke. Several of Fedotov's paintings from the early 1850s recognize his new freedom to lampoon the officers he knew without much apparent love from his days in the military. His 1850 The Office and his Orderly (below) are couched in a biting wit which, to us, seems funny, even "cute." I doubt if the army officer would be amused, though.

The Officer and his Orderly, 1850,
Pavel Fedotov. The "orderly" is the
standing figure in the foreground.
Fedotov's Newly Decorated (The Morning after the Official Has Received His First Decoration) (below), from 1846, painted shortly after his leaving the military, is even more mocking and hilarious. Such an image could have gotten him court martialed or even made him the subject of target practice just two years before. However, Pavel Fedotov's downfall was not artistic, or even satiric. The Russians, after all, are possessed with a sense of humor not unlike the rest of us. No, Fedotov's problems were political. He was associated with the Petrashevsky social-democratic group, which went on trial for their democratic social views, persecuted and prosecuted by the Russian government. Though Fedotov was never tried himself, the fear of prosecution was enough to land him in a mental institution where he died in 1852 at the age of thirty-seven.

Newly Decorated (The Morning after the Official Has Received His First Decoration). 1846, Pavel Fedotov


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