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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Andrei Ryabushkin

Esther Before Ahasuerus, 1887,Andrei Ryabushkin
Andrei Ryabushkin Self-Portrait
There was a time when I used to paint primarily children and adults at moments when unexpected circumstances caused them to be and behave in a manner reflecting their true character rather than that which we all "wear" when we think others are watching us. I enjoyed capturing quiet, intimate moments of people alone or in small groups, in effect, being themselves. Some might consider such works to be modern-day genre, though that label tends to conjure up the kind of more general "scenes," the American vignettes, for which Norman Rockwell was justly famous. And while I admire Rockwell, and like so many Realism painters of my generation, I undoubtedly exhibit in my work some degree of Rockwellian influence (whether conscious or unconscious), my genre seldom depicted more than one or two figures and were never quite so "orchestrated." I just realized it's been several years since I've done any works of that nature, having moved instead toward Postmodern landscapes and still-lifes. Aside from sporadic complimentary references to Rockwell, my work has long been pretty hard to categorize in that it lacks consistency as to content. I recently stumbled upon a late 19th-century Russian artist with much the same problem--Andrei Ryabushkin.

Tea Drinking, 1903, Andrei Ryabushkin.
(Notice, the guy on the far right seems to prefer his "tea" from a bottle.)
A Deacon, 1888, Andrei Ryabushkin
How do you categorize an artist born in 1861, painting from around 1880 until his death in 1904, whose works run the gamut from as Esther Before Ahasuerus, (top) painted in 1887, to Tea Drinking (above) from 1903? There's the pomp and circumstance of all the great Russian history painters in the first image juxtaposed with a sort of dry, Grant Wood style and humor in the latter. Of course, there's seventeen years between the two works, and artist are prone to evolve over such a period of time, but there's also half a lifetime (in Ryabushkin's case) of other equally varied works in between the two. Ryabushkin's Christ-like A Deacon (left), for example, from 1888, came just a year after Esther Before Ahasuerus, yet there is nothing to suggest they were even done by the same artist.

The Feast, 1888, Andrei Ryabushkin
In a similar vein, Ryabushkin's deeply shadowed, but boldly lit The Feast (above) also from 1888, bears little in common with either of the other two, suggesting that the artist may have studied under some Russian incarnation of Rembrandt. It has a striking resemblance to some of Rembrandt's group portraits. And then, there's Peasant Wedding in the Tambov Guberniya (below), from 1880, painted while Ryabushkin was still a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Granted, it's a student work, lacking the clarity and polish of the artist's paintings after studying for ten years at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, but it also underscores the broad range of style and content which makes him just as difficult to "pigeon hole" today as it did during his own time.

Peasant Wedding in the Tambov Guberniya, 1880, Andrei Ryabushkin
Though Andrei Ryabushkin died of tuberculosis in 1904 at the age of forty-three, he had a rather long painting "career," from around age ten until his death. Ryabushkin was born not far from Moscow where his father and brother were engaged in probably the most traditional of all forms of Russian art--icon painting. His first training undoubtedly came as he learned to help in his father's studio. However, Ryabushkin became an orphan at the age of fourteen. Nonetheless, his talent had bloomed well before then to such a degree that he was accepted as the youngest student in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where he attended from 1875 to 1882. His dark, monochromatic Noah's Ark (below) came in 1882 as he was graduating from the Moscow school before moving on to St. Petersburg. Though his style and content seems set, Ryabushkin's palette, at that time, seems to have been very much in a state of flux.

Noah's Ark, 1882, Andrei Ryabushkin                              
In the latter years at the Imperial Academy, and in those which followed, Ryabushkin seems to have rebelled. His diploma painting, Descent from the Cross (which has apparently disappeared) did not receive the award he and others expected, but it did impress the Grand Duke Vladimir Konstantinovich, who, from his own funds, awarded Ryabushkin a stipend to travel around Europe in furthering his studies. However, in a surprise move, the artist chose instead to travel about Russia, visiting the ancient Russian towns of Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow, Uglich, and Yaroslavl where he studied the architecture, folk crafts, weapons, fabrics, tapestries, embroidery, and icons from the 17th-century and before while also painting the local natives as they went about their daily lives. Here was a man who broke the mold, fully trained in the finest traditions of Russian history and religious painting, yet he chose instead to paint peasants.

Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich with the Boyars in his Throne Room, 1893, Andrei Ryabushkin
Moreover, it wasn't simply that he chose to paint peasants, Ryabushkin preferred 17th-century peasants. And when, on occasion, he chose to paint Russian history, it was invariably 17th-century history, as in his Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich with the Boyars in his Throne Room (above), done in 1893. In many ways, Ryabushkin might be termed the Russian version of the British Pre-Raphaelites, though there's no evidence to suggest he had any personal contact with Hunt, Millais, Rossetti or the others. It is very possible, however, that he knew of their work and was sympathetic to their ideals, if not actually influenced by their movement. Although today, an artist which paints "outside the box" is often praised for his creativity and daring, the successful artist of the late 19th century was expected to do what was expected of him. As a result, Ryabushkin was not very successful. History paintings were not considered "living room" art at the time, and certainly not peasant history painting. Had Ryabushkin lived to a ripe old age, as was expected of him, art history and appreciation might have eventually caught up with him. Today, Ryabushkin is appreciated simply because he was not your typical Russian history painter. As for his 17th-century Russian portraits (below)...not so much.

Merchant Family in the 17th century, 1896, Andrei Ryabushkin


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