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« G and the Arts | Main | Fake Memoirs »

January 30, 2006

Peripheral Artists (3): Valentin Serov

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This continues the series about artists remote from both the main artistic centers of Europe and the Establishment narrative of 19th/20th Century art history. Previous posts are here and here.

I own a couple illustrated booklets on Serov that I cannot read because they are in Russian (got em for their painting reproductions). So I relied on Internet sites found here, here and here for the following biographical sketch.

Portraitist Valentin Alexanrovich Serov, son of opera composer Alexander N. Serov, was born in St. Petersburg 19 January 1865. Following his father's death in 1871 his mother took him to Munich and, later, Paris before settling near Moscow at the Abramtsevo estate as guests. Besides taking art lessons from important artists (including Ilya Repin), the young Serov was able to come in contact with Russia's artistic/cultural elite and gain familiarity with their milieu.

Trained at the Academy of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, he exhibited "Girl with Peaches" (1887) which was warmly received and became one of his most famous works. Biographies mention that he was unaware of the Impressionist movement at the time, yet was painting in a semi-Impressionist style. I find this assertion hard to swallow given his links to the cream of Russian culture (which was highly Francophile in those days) and the fact that Impressionist works had been painted in France for nearly all his lifetime.

Serov clearly was the antithesis of the proverbial "struggling artist," rapidly becoming a leading portrait painter whose subjects included the Czar (though he also painted landscapes and historical subjects) and being elected academician of the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts before his 40th birthday.

He married Olga Trubnikova in 1887 and they had children who became subjects for a number of his paintings.

The 1905 mini-revolution politicized him and resulted in art sympathetic to liberal causes. His painting began to take on expressionist trappings. But how his art would have evolved beyond that is unknowable because, on 22 November 1911, while hurrying to work at a portrait setting, he collapsed from a heart attack and died, age 46.


Girl with Peaches 2.jpg
Girl with Peaches: Portrait of Vera Mamantova, 1887. Not a good reproduction, but the others I saw on the Web were no better.

Serov - Portrait of Sergei Chokolov - 1887.jpg
Portrait of Sergei Chokolov, 1887.

Serov - Portrait of Maria Akimova - 1908.jpg
Portrait of Maria Akimova, 1908.

Serov - Abduction of Europa - 1910.jpg
Abduction of Europa, 1910. This hints at expressionism.

Serov - Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova - 1911.jpg
Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova, 1911. But Serov stuck to traditonal styles on commissioned works. Again, the reproduction does not do justice to the original.


Serov was an extremely talented painter. His abilities were apparent in childhood. And his blazing debut in his early twenties was noted above.

On the other hand, Serov was never an innovator of art movements unlike Manet, Monet or Picasso. This, plus the fact that he practiced in distant (from Paris) Russia, probably accounts for his footnote-status in art history.

I missed seeing his paintings in my mad dash through St. Petersburg's Russian Museum last fall. But I tried my best to recover from this error by ditching my tour group in Moscow to visit the Tretyakov Gallery which has a decent supply of Serovs.

Before continuing, I need to mention that I tend to look a painting from a technical perspective, having been an art student as an undergraduate (for more on this, see here). That is, I'm less likely when seeing a masterpiece to say "Oh wow!! What an experience!" than I am to think "Oh wow!! Look how he painted that silk gown!"

The nice thing about the Tretyakov was that I was able to flit from Serov to Serov within the confines of a couple galleries. This allowed me to keep my impressions fresh and quickly revisit a painting to re-evaluate previous impressions. What struck me via this process was Serov's treatment of skin color.

This is hard to explain because the reproductions shown above are too small. Actually, it likewise doesn't easily come across in the printed reproductions I have available. But the portraits I saw tended to have different colored backgrounds and Serov varied his coloration treatment of faces, hands, and so forth from painting to painting to fit the color key while keeping the flesh colors realistic. Possibly these color differences were simply what he found in the various sittings. Perhaps he was trying to stretch his already formidable skills by setting up challenges to resolve. Or maybe he simply sought different color keys in order to amuse himself.

(I know artists do this sort of thing all the time, but that concentration of Serov portraits made it easy to notice what was going on and to study how he did it. Plus he was so good at it! Told you Im a sucker for technical proficiency.)

It makes me wish I had a wall covered with Serov originals to serve as inspiration and guides the next time I try doing a portrait.



posted by Donald at January 30, 2006


What a great art-history series, many thanks. Tons of great info on talented artists I've had zero familiarity with. The arts world seems like a big and interesting place again, and a fun place to explore.

Just curious: Is there any one thing you can pinpoint that you find especially inspiring (or that you connect to personally) in Serov's work? Something technical? More the mood? The way he captures the people?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 30, 2006 11:13 AM

You're not alone, Donald, in wishing to have a wall of Serov's originals; I'm afraid I couldn't afford the renter's insurance if I had one though.

There was nothing Serov couldn't do, he was brilliant in any media, any style he fancied, not just Expressionism. Look at his portrait of Ida Rubinstein, or the pencil drawing of Tamara Karsavina (I had a repro of it above my desk for worshiping when I was 15; she was my idol) - or this "historicized" painting of Peter The Great, so very "Mir Iskusstva" and not at all in the manner of Repin circle he belonged to.

Some small corrections, if you don't mind?
- Serov and his mother lived as guests in the country estate of Savva Mamontov, a Russian industrialist and patron of the arts; I think it's his 12 yo granddaughter Vera is depicted on the Girl with the peaches. (and it's "o", not "a", after the second "m")
-I wouldn't call the Revolution of 1905 "mini". See for more information on his reaction to the shootings. There is nothing atypical in Serov's sympathies, as in the court painter - remember the biggest Russian industrialists, like Morozovs, were funding bolshevik revolution, and famous actress Maria Andreeva, 2nd wife of proletarian writer Gorky, served as a liason in the dirty deed.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 30, 2006 11:46 AM

Oops, didn't close the tabs. Here's the link I meant for you.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 30, 2006 11:47 AM


Very nice introduction to this great painter. Most people today would never hear about him. I envy you having seen so many of his originals.

Could you explain what his reaction was to the happenings of 1905? I'll find out on my own what the events were about.

Thanks again for a great post.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 30, 2006 03:58 PM

Brian Minder,
-"Most" people in former Soviet Union definitely heard about Serov, and the country is still takes up 1/6 of the land on the globe, so where are those "most" you refer to? It's like saying "most of the people never heard of N.Rockwell"
- If you'd take upon yourself clicking on the link I provided above, to another biography of the artist, you'll see explanation of Serov's reaction to Revolution of 1905, and examples of his paintings of the period.

You're welcome.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 30, 2006 04:22 PM

Looks great. As I scrolled down, the way the hat just clips the frame in the last painting BOTHERED me.

Posted by: john massengale on January 30, 2006 09:20 PM

John, the hat does nothing of the sort. May be you will see it better on the bigger scale. Wall with the painting is behind the white chair, good 5-6 meters away from the Princess.

(incidentally, whose painting is it, on the background, can anyone guess? J de La Tour? or somebody Florentine? hands look very familiar)

Posted by: Tat on January 30, 2006 09:55 PM

Michael -- Thank you for the encouragement. I'll likely be tossing out a few more from time to time. As for my reaction, I suppose it's mostly technical. (I just posted a short piece regarding reactions to art, etc. Check it out.)

Tatyana -- Thanks for the corrections and additions. I knew the "Peaches" girl's identity but didn't mention it in the interest of keeping the caption brief.

As for the 1905 revolution, I really couldn't come up with an apt short description. If there hadn't been all that fuss in 1917, I would have gone along with a capital-R revolution because it was a real break with Russia's past. But compared to the first and (especially) late 1917 events, it rates as more of a footnote. Well, that's my opinion, anyway.

John -- Hmm. I didn't notice the relationship between the hat and frame. But now that I study it, I think the overlap actually ties the painting together better than if there had been a gap. You see, the wall is comparatively light and the background painting is quite dark. Left to itself, the painting would have pulled the eye up into the corner and away from Princess Orlova and the rest of the composition.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 30, 2006 10:02 PM

Hey, Serov rocks.

A small point. By using the term 'peripheral artists' you are (albeit ironically and geographically, if I read you correctly) buying into the party line of Modernism. Another term for your 'peripheral' artists is "juste milieu" painters. The term is rather haughtily defined by Modernists as the artistic 'middle of the road' or artists 'who incorporated progressive and radical trends within the academic style.' In short, the Modernist party line classifies "juste milieu" artists (like Singer, Sorolla, Zorn, Bastien-Lepage, etc.) as imitators who filled the gap between the heroic Modernist Innovators and the reactionary Salon 'lions' such as Gerome, Cabanel or Bouguereau with 'watered down' versions of truly advanced painting. You might notice that such a term rather conveniently packages (and thus disposes of)a lot of artists who might otherwise appear to be pretty studly competition for the heroic Modernist Innovators, and helps to keep us all prisoners on the Modernist Historical Express, sweeping us "inevitably" on to abstraction and beyond...(BTW, have you ever noticed how much most Modernist art history comes down to "resistance is futile"?

In your series, please skip the Anglo-Irish painter Orpen. I'd like to do a post on him.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 30, 2006 10:31 PM

is French Revolution of 1848 was merely a footnote before the horrors of Paris Commune?

Posted by: Tat on January 30, 2006 10:37 PM

Friedrich -- I really haven't given Orpen much thought, so he's all yours.

Now that we're doing dibsies, I'm planning to get to Sorolla, Repin, Levitan, Vroubel, Bastien-Lepage, the Glasgow Boys (esp. Guthrie, Hornel, Henry and Lavery -- though I'm having trouble finding good Henry stuff on the Web). I also want to do something about the state of painting before Expressionism, Cubism and all that kicked in; I have the catalog on the "1900" exhibit, but for some reason I want to start with circa 1885.

I don't buy into the Modernist dogma on history. That "Peripheral Artists" title was just due to my fondness for word-play. This needs more study on my part (and I'm eons behind you on this), but I'm toying with an alt-hist thingy on what might have happened if Modernism never happened. Or if it had happened but Po-Mo hadn't.

For some reason, "juste-milieu" slipped passed by me (or I by it). Do you have a refernce or two? Actually, this is the group that could/should have prevailed had Modernism not intervened.

I'm pondeing other stuff, but that'll do for now. And given your deeper reading, I'd be willing to concede some of these topics to you or maybe set up a point-counterpoint set of posts.

Tatyana -- I suppose this reflects my spotty reading of history (1848 and most of the period 1815-1855 never much interested me for some reason), but I take 1848 to be more of a set of rebellions across Europe rather than a true revolution. Even in France, '48 soon led to Louis Napoleon. The main result was some reforms -- nothing so drastic as 1789 or 1917.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 30, 2006 11:23 PM

Donald--add this Swiss fellow, Albert Anker (1831-1910) to your list of minor-leaguers to investigate:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 31, 2006 12:22 AM


Sounds good to me.

In case anybody cares, my criticisms of Modernism are not the result of disliking the painting; I like a good deal of Modern painting. It's just that I think that forcing art history through the narrow straw of Dogmatic Modernism (and its offspring, post-Modernism) has impoverished contemporary art. The truth is, there were always many varieties of Modern Art (remember, Bouguereau and Monet were both painting when Picasso and Braque were inventing Cubism), and they reflected a variety of sincere feelings and ideas about the Modern Condition. But while many of these Modern Arts have been forcibly ripped out of the history book, I think it may be possible to understand what happened better if we go back and try to reassemble the original book...before its mutilation.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 31, 2006 01:32 AM

Serov is a recognizable figure in the history of Russian art but internationally, he has been completely overshadowed by his more revolutionary (art-wise), younger compatriots -- above all Kandinsky but also Malevich, Goncharova, Larionov, etc. Formal innovators tend to make pages in art history books while non-revolutionary fine artists (and Serov was in most respects a fine artist) go down as footnotes. Plus, they don't reproduce well in print.

Posted by: Alexei on January 31, 2006 03:52 AM

Friedrich -- I also like some Modern, though PoMo strikes me more as failed jokes (I have to assume some PoMo was never intended to be serious) or simply not art at all despite insistance to the contrary (a lightbulb that is switched on and off???).

The Frye Museum in Seattle had 3 Bougereaus from their collection on display recently, including one fairly late one. The subject of 2 was the wistful child (which I have trouble liking) but the background painting was quasi-Impressionist. I need to investigate further.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 31, 2006 11:17 AM


Just a question--what explains the dynamic you identify? Does it seem like a law of nature? Was this always true throughout history? (During the Renaissance Sodoma or Rosso, for example, were essentially more 'revolutionary' painters than Raphael--why are they not as well known?)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 31, 2006 11:20 AM

Friedrich -- surely this trend is not universal; I can only say that people who have to rely on books rather than museums for an introduction to fine arts, are tempted to value draftsmanship over coloristic finesse and, more generally, subtleties of composition and shape over those of color. (Isn't Picasso considered a great draftsman?) As a child, I found Serov's "Europa" more striking than his lovely but (I thought) unoriginal portraits, and not because of the former's eroticism. Likewise, I could not fully appreciate that quintessential Russian paiting, Savrasov's Rooks, without seeing it in person -- otherwise, the tints and hues of the sky don't come through.

"Wild" colors, of course, survive the printing press.

Posted by: Alexei on February 2, 2006 05:19 AM

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