Emily Shanks, “In the flowers (Portrait of the artist's daughter Vasily Polenov)” (1890-1900), oil on canvas, 26.3” x 18.5”, private collection
by Georgia Modi
Emily Shanks (August 1st, 1857 – January 13th, 1936) was renowned for her work within the Russian Realism movement, becoming the first-ever woman elected to the Russian Society of Traveling Art Exhibitions or Peredvizhniki (known in English as the Wanderers).
Both she and her sister Mary became students at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. They were often found painting together at the home of Yelena Polenova and Vasily Polenov, siblings who both became distinguished artists in their own right. Yelena, an artist in the art nouveau style and one of the first illustrators of children’s books in Russia; and Vasily, a landscape and figurative painter, who was a member of the Peredvizhniki and Emily Shanks’ mentor.
In 1890, her school awarded Shanks with a large silver medal for her painting Reading a Letter, which allowed her to graduate that year with the rank of artist. Only a year later, the painting Older Brother was accepted by Peredvizhniki for exhibition. From there, she continued to show her work 19 separate times within their exhibitions until 1915.
Emily Shanks, "New Girl At School" (1892), oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
The followings years proved to be monumental for Emily, with another one of her paintings being accepted by the Peredvizhniki in 1882. New Girl at School is regarded as one of her most important works, so it came as no surprise when she was able to sell the piece to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow after Ilya Repin highly commended it. More recently, in 2012 New Girl at School was included in a touring exhibition of works from the Peredvizhniki. However, while this piece has garnered much praise for Emily, there is a possibility that she is not the sole artist. Perhaps her friend Yelena had a hand in its completion?
It would only take another two years before Shanks would be elected into the Peredvizhniki as an official member for her painting Ink Spot. Fifteen votes are what decided her membership, one more than the acclaimed artist Valentin Serov had received. Emily’s mentor, Vasily Polenov, had been a member of the Peredvizhniki since 1885 and was undoubtedly a supporter of her bid.
Emily Shanks, "Nanny" (ca. 1900), oil on canvas, private collection
The Shanks Family
James Steuart Shanks (1826-1911) was a British merchant living in Moscow. He came from a family of coachmakers and had gained his trade knowledge as a cloth merchant when he worked for the textile wholesaler Bradbury Greatorex & Co.
In 1852, only five years before Emily was born, her father James established Shanks & Company – Magasin Anglais with his partner, Henrik Conrad Bolin, who had made his fortune in the jewelry industry. They moved to Moscow because of the city’s long-standing silversmithing tradition and its many talented silver artisans. James was the director of the company, while Bolin led the jewelry department. According to Bolin, “Magasin Anglais sold silverware which complemented exquisite, elegant accessories for women – handbags, purses, fans, gloves, plumes, hair decorations, laces and fur details. The spacious, lavish shop also offered a range of exclusive jewelry and gemstones from Bolin in St. Petersburg.
Mary Shanks, "Temptation" (1896), oil on canvas
Sisters – Mary & Louise
Mary Shanks (1866-1949) was an artist in her own right. Like her sister, she studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where she graduated within only one winter. While at school, Mary befriended a woman named Tatyana, the eldest daughter of writer Leo Tolstoy. She also was close with Yelena Polenova, mentioned above. Yelena wrote about Mary’s success and how Mary had won two medals for life drawing while still enrolled.
Records from the Peredvizhniki show that on February 3rd, 1896, Mary’s piece Temptation was approved to be exhibited later that same year.
Another significant work by Mary is I Await Your Verdict (1894). This piece shows art critic and advocate for women artists, Vladimir Stasov, contemplating a completed work while Shanks stands behind him.
Mary Shanks, "I Await Your Verdict" (1894), oil on canvas
The eldest child of James Steuart Shanks, Louise Shanks (1855-1939), was known for her translations of Tolstoy directly from Russian to English, done as a team with her husband, Aylmer Maude (1858-1938). These translations were published by The Oxford University and are still considered some of the best translations to date. Even Tolstoy himself thought highly of their translations, saying better translations “could not be invented.”
However, the connection to Tolstoy runs deeper than just these translations. While friends with his daughter, Mary Shanks became Tolstoy’s disciple, eventually ending in her exile from Russia. She would hold Tolstoyan discussion groups at the Shanks’ family home – that was, until the authorities caught wind of them.
Being a follower of Tolstoy meant that you were someone “…who advocates and practices manual labor, simplicity of living, non-resistance, etc., holds that possession of wealth and ownership of property are sinful, and rejects all religious teachings. Not coming directly from Christ.” These ideas were controversial during the years leading up to the turn of the century, seeing as how the five-day workweek was not even implemented until 1908.
Antonia Rzhevskaya, "A Merry Moment" (1897), oil on canvas, The State Duma, Moscow
The Other Peredvizhniki Woman
Antonia Rzhevskaya (1861-1934) was the only other woman to become an official member of the Peredvizhniki. She was born to impoverished noble landowners and moved to the city of Tver upon her father’s death.
In 1880, she began to take classes at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture under the direction of Vladimir Makovsky. It only took seven years before she exhibited with the Peredvizhniki with her piece A Merry Moment. Rzhevskaya was concerned with how being a woman might affect the reception of her work, so she often signed paintings as “A.L. Rzhevsky.”
Finally, in 1899, nearly 20 years after she began her art career, Antonia Rzhevskaya became an official member of the Peredvizhniki, only to later resign due to disagreements with their program .
Despite the hardships that being a woman presented Emily Shanks as an artist, she continued to produce piece after piece that met the standards of the Peredvizhniki exhibitions for 19 iterations. And while much of her work seems to have been lost to the years and private collections, we know that her place is cemented within the history of Russian realism.