by Cathy Locke
It was March 8, 2012 and I was in Moscow boarding a train for St. Petersburg. It was freezing cold, well below zero. I remember looking out onto the platform and seeing all these beautiful women dressed in stunning fur coats. Such an odd sight for this pro-animal-rights girl to see, but it made total sense to wear fur in such weather. My dear friend Taia and I settled into our seats located in the middle of our carriage with a table separating us from other travelers. We noticed that the ladies next to us had brought an ample supply of champagne and chocolate. Their conversation was lively, filled with lots of laughter. In a short amount of time we had joined them, filled our glasses with champagne and pulled out our stash of chocolates to share. Though neither of us spoke the other’s language we were able to find out that they were celebrating International Women’s Day (March 8), a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. I had made it through over 50 years of life and never known there was such a holiday! I was really struck by how unknown this holiday is in the United States, while in other places in the world it is well established.
In celebration of International Women’s Day this year, I wanted to take a little time to share with you the story of a courageous and incredibly talented Russian female artist, Zinaida Serebriakova. I was so impressed the first time I saw her painting The Bath (1913) that she has become a beacon of inspiration to me as an artist. Her work radiates strength while at the same time being deeply feminine.
Zinaida Yevgenyevna Serebriakova was born in 1884 on the Neskuchnoye estate in modern-day Kharkov, Ukraine, into the Benois-Lanceray dynasty of artists. The Benois family had fled the French Revolution and were drawn to Russia by tales of Catherine the Great’s patronage of the arts. Serebriakova’s uncle, Alexandre Benois (1871-1960), became an influential Russian artist, a founding member of the Mir Iskusstva art group, and went onto write a number of important publications about Russian artists. Her mother, Yekaterina, also a gifted artist, was Alexandre’s sister. Serebriakova’s father, Yevgeny Lanceray (1848-86), was a renowned sculptor. When she was barely two years old, her father died of tuberculosis and the family was forced to move into her grandfather’s apartment in St. Petersburg. Her grandfather, Nikolas Benois (1813-98), was a famous architect and his apartment was near the equally famous Mariinsky Theatre — which was designed by architect Alberto Cavos (1800–63), the father of Serebriakova’s grandmother Camilla. Serebriakova was surrounded by artists of all types, from whom she was able to learn painting, music and dance. In 1900, she enrolled in Princess Tenisheva’s private art school, where she met Ilya Repin (1844-1930), considered the Rembrandt of Russia, who became one of her early mentors. In 1903, Serebriakova entered the studio of Osip Braz (1873-1936), a Russian realist painter and fellow Mir Iskusstva member.
The family spent their summers in Neskuchnoye, where Serebriakova mastered landscapes and scenes of peasant life. By the time she was twenty-one she had meet Boris Serebriakov (1880-1919), her cousin and future husband. Boris, a railway engineer, spent his summers alongside Zenaida at the family estate. In 1905, the couple married.
By mid-October 1905 massive unrest had spread throughout Russia. Over two-million workers were on strike and most of the railroads had shut down. The situation was so bad that in November the family left for Paris. Serebriakova had hoped to continue her training there alongside her uncle Alexandre Benois. While in Paris, Serebriakova and her mother studied at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Outside the classroom, they found inspiration at the Louvre and Luxembourg Palace. In April 1906, the family returned to St. Petersburg, where her first child, Yevgeny, was born one month later. The artist entered the happiest time of her life. When the couple’s second son, Alexander, was born in 1907 they decided to make Neskuchnoye their primary residence.
One morning in the winter of 1909 Serebriakova began working on one her best-known paintings, At the Dressing Table, an intimate portrait of a young mother. She painted herself as seen in her dressing mirror, with the frame of the mirror creating a frame for the painting. She entered the work, along with twelve others, in the 1910 Mir Iskusstva exhibit of Contemporary Russian Women’s Portraits. It was an immediate sensation among St. Petersburg art critics, and the Tretyakov Gallery, one of Russia’s most distinguished museums of fine art, purchased the portrait along with two other of her paintings Green Autumn (1908) and Peasant Girl (1906).
Between 1911 and 1913 Serebriakova worked on her most critically acclaimed group of paintings, known as her Bath Series. During this time that her daughters Tatiana and Ekaterina were born, and Serebriakova started focusing on females and their work. For more complicated pieces, such as The Bath (1913), Serebriakova would ask the same model to pose for multiple positions on the canvas. With this series the artist embraced a style known as Neoclassical Revival, which was a return to classical painting with a conceptual twist. The role of color was reduced to a monochromatic palette, which allowed the form within the painting to become more austere and stylized. Serebriakova painted on a larger-than-life scale and placed her figures inside a small environment to make them seem even larger. Although she was using classical painting techniques, their importance was secondary to the concept. This genre marked a noted shift in the world of art, to which Serebriakova was a key contributor.
In 1917, at the highest point in Serebriakova's career, the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg nominated her for the rank of academician. The Bolshevik Revolution interrupted her opportunity at the academy, as it became necessary for her to flee, opting instead to rent an unheated three-room apartment in nearby Kharkiv. In 1918, her beloved Neskuchnoye was looted and burned to the ground. In 1919, her husband was arrested in Moscow during the Red Terror, then died of typhus while incarcerated in a Bolshevik jail. Widowed, with four small children and an aging mother, Serebriakova returned to St. Petersburg. This was a turning point in her career; without Boris’s salary there was no money for oil paints or time to do more finished work. Serebriakova looked for any work she could get to keep her family from going hungry. It was at this time that she produced her most somber work, House of Cards (1920), featuring her four children going through the motions of playing a game. When we compare this to her earlier painting At Breakfast (1914), we see a stark contrast to a much more finished piece depicting her happy young family.
Post-revolutionary Russia rejected Serebriakova’s feminine perspective, opting instead for propaganda posters in the style of the avant-garde. In December 1923, Serebriakova sent fourteen paintings to a travelling North American exhibition; two of them sold and she used the money to travel to France. Serebriakova hoped Paris would bring more portrait commissions she could use to support her family. This decision, though seemingly prudent, proved tragic. Serebriakova left the USSR on August 24, 1924, just before the Soviet government tightened travel restrictions. When she tried to reenter, she was refused. She continued working abroad and sending nearly everything she made home. In 1926, the Soviet government permitted her youngest son, Alexander, to join her in Paris, and Ekaterina followed in 1928. Alexander sketched views of Paris and painted illustrations for books and magazines, as well as maps of Paris for tourists; while Ekaterina modeled for her mother and took care of domestic chores.
In 1928, Serebriakova participated in a Russian Art Retrospective in Brussels. It was there that she met Belgian industrialist Baron Jean de Brouwer (1872-1951). He commissioned her to produce two sets of four decorative panels for his country home: the first, reclining nudes representing the seasons; the second, upright nudes representing de Brouwer’s main interests: justice, nature, art and light. It had been over a decade since she'd had the financial backing to produce a polished body of work. Here again, Serebriakova turned to the style of Neoclassical Revival to create her standing goddesses. She used her daughter Ekaterina as the model, turning her stance in each panel slightly. True to the genre of Neoclassical Revival, Serebriakova reduced the importance of color, working primarily with a monochromatic palette. She increased the monolithic effect by taking a worm's-eye view and looking up at her model as she painted.
In her letter to her friend Alexei Savinov she wrote: “The assignment was to paint decorative geographical maps in the 18th-century style, single-toned (my son did the maps); and I painted in the corners of the maps, against that background, the images of the ‘four seasons’ (summer with a sheaf, spring with flowers, etc.), and four figures standing in ‘niches’ on another wall. I painted all this in Paris and, unfortunately, did not see how all this looked on the walls, because the house was not quite ready yet, and the residents were yet to move in ... during the war the area was a battlefront, and de Brouwer’s summer house was destroyed.”
It is true, sadly, that the baron and his wife did not have much time to enjoy the murals, completed in 1938, as both died in World War II. However, Serebriakova was mistaken in her belief that their house had been destroyed. In fact the de Brouwers had several houses; in an interesting turn of fate, another residence, called the Frigate, suffered during the war, while the Manoir, the one with the murals, survived. The murals remained untouched for over seventy years. Curiously, the new owners did not recognize the work as being done by Serebriakova; they thought the murals had been executed by an unknown Flemish artist. Eventually, these murals made their way to Russia for an exhibition of the artist’s work in Moscow in 2008.
Eventually Serebriakova found a reliable customer base of Russian émigrés in Western Europe, including Paris and the French countryside, Switzerland, England, and Belgium. She participated in solo and group exhibitions throughout Europe to much critical acclaim. Portrait commissions declined as World War II engulfed the entire Western world. Although Serebriakova had maintained close correspondence with her children and relatives while abroad, communication ceased with the 1940 German occupation of Paris and subsequent Siege of Leningrad. During the occupation, Nazi leadership threatened Serebriakova with concentration camps for her communications with the Soviet Union, so she renounced her citizenship and, along with it, hopes of reuniting with her family. She was required to stay in Paris and adhere to a strict curfew, but still managed to eke out a meager subsistence with the occasional commission. With Khrushchev’s Thaw in the late 1950s she was finally recognized for her solidarity with the masses, and in mid-April 1960, her daughter Tatiana received permission to visit her mother in Paris. Mother and daughter, now 74 and 48, respectively, reunited for the first time in thirty-six years.
In 1966, a large exhibition of Serebriakova’s works opened in Moscow, moving on to Leningrad and Kiev. Tatiana helped her mother organize the retrospective of more than two-hundred and fifty artworks. Serebriakova arrived in Moscow in May 1965, her first time on Russian soil since her involuntary emigration. The works received rave reviews and Serebriakova rejoiced at success in her homeland. In September of the following year she died in Paris at the age of 82. She was buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Orthodox cemetery in Paris, a burial place for more than 10,000 Russian emigrants, including the celebrated ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93).
- Serebriakova, Zinaida. Letters. Memoirs about her. — Moscow: Izobrazitelnoe is-kusstvo (Visual Art Publishers), 1987, p. 206.
About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. Cathy lectures on the art in Russia and is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.
Cathy Locke’s artwork – www.cathylocke.com