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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Konstantin Makovsky

You have to love an artist of any nationality or era who paints lovely ladies so beautifully.
The central figures is the Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna;
all are by Konstantin Makovsky.
Konstantin Makovsky Self-portrait, 1856
Right now, Russians (or more particularly their leaders) are not very high on any American popularity list. Although international tensions eased for a while after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia, called by whatever name, has ranged from an ally during WW II to a bitter, hated, and fearful enemy over most of the past hundred years. Thus, our knowledge and understanding of Russian art from all eras is "spotty" at best, totally lacking at worst. I keep coming upon the names and paintings of some very good (often excellent, in fact) Russian and eastern European artists on a par with any ever produced by the U.S. or western European countries, whom I've never heard of before. I find such "holes" in my art history background disturbing. One such artist (right) from the Russian pre-revolutionary or imperial era, is Konstantin Makovsky.

The Russian Bride's Attire, 1889, Konstantin Makovsky
Portrait of the Artist's Father, 1856,
Konstantin Makovsky,
Nothing delights a portrait artist more than being paid to paint an attractive face (of either gender). Konstantin Makovsky, one might think in looking back over his life's work, painted little else. There are hundreds of them, mostly elegant, upper class Russian ladies, including his own wife and daughters, which are not just lovely to look at, but in fact, hard to stop looking at (top). They go on and on; and surprisingly, each bears a great deal of individuality and variation. These are not "formula" faces as have so often been painted by other artists during the 18th and 19th-centuries. Makovsky, was not necessarily the greatest history or genre painter of his time. His The Russian Bride's Attire (above) from 1889 and his The Kissing Custom (below) are highly respected, nostalgic peeks at Russian life as well as being impressive to look at, but for the life of me, I can't figure out precisely what's going on in either case. Yet, when it came to portraits such as that of his father (right), Makovsky could match or surpass the work by Sargent, Whistler, Zorn, or any of the best French academics working anywhere during his lifetime.

The Kissing Custom, Konstantin Makovsky
False Dmitrys Agents Murdering
Feodor Godunov and his Mother,
1862, Konstantin Makovsky 
Konstantin Makovsky came from Moscow, born in 1839. His father was an amateur painter, his mother composed music. His two brothers and a sister all went on to become artists. Makovsky studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture starting in 1851. There he easily won every student award in sight, considered by far the most talented artist in the school. There also he picked up his Romantic stylistic inclinations. Following graduation, probably at his mother's behest, Makovsky spent time in Paris studying painting, but also music. Then in 1858 Makovsky began his "graduate work" at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg (the capital of Russia at the time). There he painted works such as False Dmitry's Agents Murdering Feodor Godunov and his Mother (left) dating from 1862. His historic narrative is a little stronger in this case than in earlier works.

Grandfather Stories, 1881, Konstantin Makovsky (Wanderers genre).
Maria Alekseevna Makovskaya
Konstantin Makovsky
Konstantin Makovsky did not graduate from the Imperial Academy. One year short of graduation, Makovsky and thirteen other students abandoned the school rather than paint competitive paintings on the theme, Scandinavian Mythology. Instead, he and others formed a group calling themselves the "Wanderers" painting the lower classes daily life (genre works). Makovsky's Grandfather Stories (above) dating from 1881 is typical of Makovsky's genre paintings and that of the group in general. A few years later, the Wanderers evolved into the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions. Then around 1870, Makovsky seems to have undergone an artistic "mid-life crisis." He traveled to Egypt and Serbia. His paintings changed from those dealing with social and psychological problems to the purely artistic problems of colors and shape--Manet's art for art's sake. Makovsky's portrait of his wife, Maria Alekseevna Makovskaya (left) is from this period.

The Death of Ivan the Terrible, 1889, Konstantin Makovsky, (recently stolen).
Children of the Artist,
1882, Konstantin Makovsky
Makovsky's historic works began to win international prizes starting at World's Fair of 1889 in Paris where he won a "large" gold medal for three of his paintings, The Death of Ivan the Terrible (above), The Judgment of Paris, and Demon and Tamara (not one for each painting). For these works he was criticized by some for abandoning Wanderers' ideals while others look upon the paintings from the latter part of his life as forerunners of Russian Impressionism. Makovsky's 1882 portrait of his daughters (right) would seem to indicate an aversion to such classifications and the versatility to work in any style he chose. His Happy Arcadia (below) painted in 1890, likewise defies both categories. It could pass for a Rococo work done a hundred years earlier. Makovsky was killed in 1915 when his horse-drawn carriage was hit by an electric tram on the streets of Saint Petersburg. He was seventy-six.

Happy Arcadia, 1890, Konstantin Makovsky, one of his more vapid undertakings.


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