Valentin Serov:  The Master of the Psychological Portrait

by Cathy Locke

Sunlit Girl. Portrait of M.Ya.Simonovich
"Sunlit Girl. Portrait of M.Ya.Simonovich," 1888, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The background and life of Valentin Serov (1865-1911) exemplified the transition of Russian culture and art from the age of realism to Russia’s Silver Age. His father, Alexander Serov (1820-1871), was an upper class lawyer who became recognized as a music critic and composer. Although he had good connections with the ruling elite, Alexander was well known for his volatile personality. Valentine’s mother, Valentina Bergman (1846–1924), was an accomplished pianist who composed operas and who had also helped her husband complete his last works. Her parents were Russified Jews. She had strong opinions on politics and was very involved in populist causes. Alexander and Valentina quickly drifted apart when Serov was four. In addition to an age difference of twenty-six years, Serov’s father liked luxury and his mother preferred a simple, spartan life. When they broke up, Serov’s father took a mistress and died two years later.

In 1874, Serov’s mother moved the family to Paris. This is where he first met Ilya Repin, who become his teacher at his mother’s insistence. Repin had Serov draw plaster casts and street scenes. In 1879 the Serovs moved back to Moscow where Valentin continued his studies with Repin at a famous artists’ colony, Abramtsevo, owned by the Mamontov family who were distant cousins of Serov’s father. Saava Mamontov had gained great wealth building railroads across Russia. Serov’s mother provided little care for him, so Elizaveto Mamontov took him in as her son. She introduced him to the cultural elite, which later provided him with the patronage he needed to become successful.

At the age of sixteen, Serov entered the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg, where he was not considered a brilliant student. He was friends with fellow students Mikhail Vrubel and Issac Levitan, who were also at the Academy. Along with his friends, Serov joined the artist group called the World of Art. Repin was teaching at the Academy while Serov was a student there. It was through Repin that Serov learned to take a psychological approach to his work. In all of his portraiture, Serov always made a statement about the person he painted. At the age of twenty-two, Serov received his first taste of fame with his Impressionist painting Girl with Peaches, which was immediately purchased by Pavel Tretyakov.

In 1897 Serov began teaching at the Moscow School of Painting and in 1898 he transferred to the Imperial Academy. In 1905 Serov witnessed the killing of peaceful protestors, which became known as Bloody Sunday, from his studio at the Academy. After this event, Serov refused to paint any of the members of the Imperial family and returned to the Moscow School of Painting. Many of Serov’s students in Moscow were involved in a number of different Avant-Garde groups including the Blue Rose and the Jack of Diamonds. These students had an influence on Serov’s style. In the last few years of his life he worked only in tempera paint and began flattening out his subject matter as his subjects shifted from portraiture to themes from classical mythology.

In 1889 Serov married Olga Trubnikova with whom he had two sons, Yura and Sasha. By this time, Serov was becoming Russia’s preeminent portraitist. Serov was always very business-like and even wore a suit when he painted. He had a serious personality and had inherited some of his father’s temper. Once, while painting a portrait, he stormed out of his client’s house because he was not asked to join them for lunch. As a family man, Serov spent money very freely, often beyond his means. He traveled and exhibited extensively throughout Europe most of his life. In 1908 he became a full member of the Vienna Session. He also exhibited at the Royal Academies of Venice, Berlin and London. In 1900 he was awarded the Grand Medaille d’Honneur at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. When he died of a stroke in 1911, he left no money for his family and, in fact, it was his friends who had to pay for his funeral.

Serov’s Technique:

  • Serov’s style was very new; it was highly influenced by the Impressionist and what was coming out of France at the time.
  • First he created the shape and then with one color he filled in the shape, creating color blocking. Very similar to what Gauguin was doing at the time.
  • Serov always was searching for the right colors, composition and elements to use to show the true personality of the person.

Images of Serov's Paintings

By The Window. Portrait Of Olga Trubnikova
"By The Window. Portrait Of Olga Trubnikova," 1886, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Girl with Peaches. Portrait of V.S. Mamontova,
"Girl with Peaches. Portrait of V.S. Mamontova," 1887, oil on canvas,  Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Konstantin Korovin
"Portrait of Konstantin Korovin," 1891, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Serov painted this right after he and Korovin returned from their painting trip to the north country of Russia. You can see his sketches on the wall. Serov tried to copy Korovin's loose style with this painting. 

Portrait of Grand Duke Pavel Aleksandrovich
"Portrait of Grand Duke Pavel Aleksandrovich," 1897, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Sofia Botkina
“Portrait of Sofia Botkina,” 1899, oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

 Portrait of Sofia Botkina
She was the wife of a rich industrialist. Serov was always interested in the inner world of his models. This is not just a beautiful woman sitting on a sofa with her little dog; you can see her inner world through her eyes and by the way the background is painted. Serov uses color to express his feeling about this person; all the colors are very muted grayed tones, as if to say she wasn’t the most exciting person. The entire background is void of any descriptive background as if Serov was saying there isn't much there with this person.

“Children,” 1899, oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

These are Serov’s two sons Sasha and Yura Serov. Serov captures the pose and gestures of children.

Mika Morozov
"Mika Morozov," 1901, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Princess Zinaida Yusupova
Valentin Serov, “Portrait of Princess Zinaida Yusupova,” 1902, oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Portrait of Princess Zinaida Yusupova

She was Felix Ysypova’s mother and the Count Elston-Sumarokoff ’s wife. (See portraits below) It took Serov three years to complete this painting; a total of eighty sittings of two hours each. It is said that he so enjoyed her life style and personality that he wanted to extend the experience. The family joked that the dress she wore grew increasingly tight. The pose plays up her sexual attractiveness, which was thought to reflect her vacuous life. The critics called this painting “a bored bird in a gilded cage.” When compared to Serov's portrait of Sophia Botkina this portrait describes a person with a very full life. The enviornment includes a heavily decorated room, ornate furnishings and her pet dog sitting next to her on the couch.

Portrait of Count Elston-Sumarokoff
Valentin Serov, “Portrait of Count Elston-Sumarokoff,” 1903, oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

 Portrait of Count Elston-Sumarokoff
He is Felix’s father, Zinaida’s husband. You can get the sense that Count Elston-Sumarokoff does not have the patience that is required to have a portrait done by Serov, who was notoriously slow.

Portrait of Prince Felix Yusupov
Valentin Serov, “Portrait of Prince Felix Yusupov,” 1903, oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

 Portrait of Prince Felix Yusupov
The Yusupov’s were the richest family in Russia, surpassing the Tsar’s family. Felix killed Rasputin. The bulldog’s ears were actually dropped, but Felix had Serov paint them as the proper “bat” ears.

Portrait of Yevdokia Loseva
"Portrait of Yevdokia Loseva," 1903, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of the Impresario Sergei Diaghilev
“Portrait of the Impresario Sergei Diaghilev,” 1904, tempera on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev
Diaghilev was a composer, a talented musician and an organizer of artistic events. He wanted everything to be done his way; he could hardly stand it when someone would not listen to him. That is why Serov has him with this gesture of “Hurry up, I am a busy and important person.”  His eyes show his character, a person of contradictions. We also know that he was a homosexual. This painting was exhibited in Paris, but the public did not pay attention to it.

Portrait of Maria Nikolayevna Yermolova
"Portrait of Maria Nikolayevna Yermolova," 1905,  oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of the Actress Glikeria Fedotova
"Portrait of the Actress Glikeria Fedotova," 1905, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Fedor Shalyapin
"Portrait of Fedor Shalyapin," 1905, charcoal and sauce on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Henriette Girshman
"Portrait of Henriette Girshman," 1907, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Ida Rubinstein
“Portrait of Ida Rubinstein,” 1910, tempera and charcoal on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Portrait of Ida Rubinstein
Ida Rubinstein was famous actress in Paris. She tried to be a dancer but she did not have the talent. She started dancing in more free form type dances. She often preformed in ballet’s that Diaghilev organized. In this painting she has no womanly attraction, her skin is the same color as the canvas. When this was painted artists were starting to do unusual things, so Serov was experimenting with this. Ida rejected the portrait so the Russian Museum purchased it.

Rape of Europa

The Rape of Europa
Serov was starting to work on a series of fairy tales that he had been commission to do for someone’s home. Head of the bull was said to have been the symbol for Serov because he was often referred to as being bull-headed. In the story “The Rape of Europa” the woman is raped and is a victim. But in Serov’s version she has control of the bull. The woman represents a muse, and Serov’s muse was painting. So in this painting Serov is saying that the muse has control over him. Both of the paintings on this page by Serov show strong influences of Matisse’s work. Serov’s students at this time were all painting in the style of Modernism and the Avante Garde. This influenced Serov’s style. After 1907, Serov only painted in tempera, because he wanted to look and feel of a fresco.

Portrait of Princess Polina Shcherbatova
"Portrait of Princess Polina Shcherbatova," 1911, sauce on paper, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova
Valentin Serov, “Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova,” 1911, oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova
She did not like this portrait because she thought it showed made her look arrogant and cruel. She rejected it, so Serov gave this painting to the Russian Museum. As always, Serov painted his true feelings; he didn’t think much of her. Olga was not known as a beauty, but as the most expensively dressed woman in St. Petersburg. Serov dressed her in elaborate clothing with a showy hat. This portrait was known in St. Petersburg as “the portrait of the hat.” Critics said the portrait was aloof, cold and indifferent to the fate of the Russian people. This painting took over one hundred sittings.Olga is posed with her legs crossed and what is called an “aggressive knee.” This pose had been used since the Renaissance as the trait of a self-possessed, powerful man. This was one of the last paintings he ever painted.

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. She is the editor of
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