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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Vasily Tropinin

Three young ladies...serfs? Perhaps. Two may even be the same model. Though
Tropinin painted the rich and famous of Russian Imperial society, he knew the plight
of the servant class well and depicted it with solemn beauty and empathetic understanding.
Art is uplifting. When we think of art is that sense, we usually contemplate the reaction of ourselves and others in viewing works of art. We seldom, if ever, think in terms of art being "uplifting" for the artist. Let's look at another term--slavery. I'm not sure about other countries, but I know in the United States we almost always think of slavery in terms of our own nearly two centuries battling this hated, immoral, demoralizing labor addiction. We think in terms of the tragic confrontation which ended it and, once ended, the hundred years or more which it took to recover from the stigma it cast upon both races involved. What do the two have to do with one another? First slavery was not limited to one nation. Various nations dealt with it in various ways; gave it various names; and abandoning it at varying times during the 19th-century. For instance, Russia banned it in 1861.

Boy with a Dead Goldfinch,
1829, Vasily Tropinin
In Russia, slavery was called serfdom, a relic of medieval times. There was little or no racial divide between master and slave but one far more universal, a division between rich and poor--those who owned land and those who didn't (or couldn't). The division between the rich and poor, grew from factors having to do with strength and weakness, literacy, as well as cultural and religious differences. Ultimately those who acquired the strength to subdue their fellow man were also (in the American cartoon vernacular) "smarter than the average bear." Vasily Tropinin was born a Russian serf. For him, art was uplifting in a literal sense. His Boy with a Dead Goldfinch (left), from 1829, is not literally a self-portrait, but captures in many ways the dreamlike determination that allowed him, through his art, to lift himself from abject slavery to freedom, and eventually, some degree of wealth and acclaim as a portrait artist.

Both self-portraits date from after the former serf attained his freedom.
Vasily Tropinin was born in 1776. He grew up in the small village of Korpovo of the Novgorod guberniya, an area in northwest Russia slightly southeast of the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The Munnich family which owned Tropinin's family, gave him as part of their daughter's dowry to the Morkov family. They apparently recognized his nascent talent and intelligence sufficient to send him to St. Petersburg to learn the trade as a confectioner (a maker of cakes, cookies, candy, and the like). There, in the heart of Russian artist culture, the teenaged boy secretly slipped into free drawing classes at the Imperial Academy of Art (a ruse that would have been impossible in America). In 1799, at the age of twenty-three, his owner allowed Tropinin to attend classes at the Academy as a non-degree student.

Storm over the Grove, 1818-21, Vasily Tropinin
The right-hand image is one of Tropinin's final paintings
dating from about a year before his death in 1857.
In 1804 Tropinin's Boy Griev-ing for a Dead Bird (probably similar to the later painting, above, left) was exhibited in the Annual Academy of Arts exhibition where it caught the eye of a Russian Empress. The President of the Academy tried to intercede on behalf of Tropinin to get him freedom. However, Count Morkov, his owner, afraid of losing such a valuable possession, instead recalled his artist from St. Petersburg to his Ukrainian estate. There Tropinin was crudely reminded that he was only a slave. He was ordered to copy the works of European and Russian painters and produce portraits of the Mor-kovs (bottom). During the fol-lowing years in the Ukraine, Tropinin continued to study art. He created a broad variety of portraits, landscapes (above) and genre paintings. The most notable works of this period are a portrait of his wife (above, left) from 1809, and Head of a Boy (below, left), a tender, loving portrait of his son from about 1818, as well as a second one done two years later in 1820 (below, right).

Tropinin's son, A.V. Tropinin also became a portrait artist.
Portrait of Alexander Pushkin,
 1827, Vasily Tropinin
As a result of continuous urgings from his friends, in 1823, at the age of 47, Tropinin was finally given his freedom. He immediately moved to Moscow where he set up a portrait studio. The same year he presented his painting, The Lace Maker (top, right), and two other works to the Imperial Academy of Arts, whereupon he received the official certificate of a painter. The following year Tropinin was elected an Academ-ician, which meant he could then teach painting at an academic level. One of Tropinin's most famous portraits, that of the famed Russian poet, playwright, and novelist,  Alexander Pushkin (left) de-rived from this period. Starting in 1833 Tropinin taught Public Art Classes which later became the famous Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He taught there until his death in 1857. During his lifetime he painted over three-thousand portraits.

Family portrait of counts Morkovs, 1813, Vasily Tropinin
Girl with a Pot of Roses, 1850, Vasily Tropinin


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