Viktor Vasnetsov is widely acknowledged as being the first artist to have formally introduced folkloric imagery into the canon of Russian realist art.
Wise Oleg is a larger version of a watercolour illustration from Vasnetsov’s lavishly decorated edition of Alexander Pushkin’s Song of Wise Oleg (fig.1). Both works date from 1899, suggesting that Vasnetsov chose to develop one of the most striking illustrations on a large scale as he had done earlier with other works such as Ivan the Terrible. It is believed that the offered work may have been on show with the Twelfth Exhibition of the Society of Russian Artists in 1923 entitled Veshchii Oleg (Ex.Cat. V.Vasnetsov, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 1990, p17).
First published in 1825, The Song of Wise Oleg is considered to be one of the finest Russian Romantic poems. It tells the tale of Prince Oleg, the leader of successful campaigns in Constantinople, as he faces his mortality. Pushkin uses the story to contemplate questions of human destiny and the pathways of history.
This would have particularly appealed to Vasnetsov, who, as a member of the peredvizhniki, strove to create art underpinned by moral and philosophical ideas.
Vasnetsov’s original watercolours illustrated the 1899 edition of the poem, published on the centenary of Pushkin’s birth, and skilfully combine early nineteenth century Romantic ideals with the quest for a national identity preoccupying Russian artists at the turn of the twentieth century. Wise Oleg recalls Vasnetsov’s earlier epic compositions, A Knight At the Crossroads (1882) (fig.2) and Bogatyry (1889), images of larger-than-life heroes stoically contemplating their fate in a hostile landscape where death is omnipresent.
Vasnetsov once wrote that his warriors reminded him of the powerful oaks that stood in the artist’s colony at Abramtsevo, indeed it was here that he began work on Bogatiry. Similarly, Vasnetsov depicts Oleg from below, emphasising his heroic stature and offering the viewer the perspective of Oleg’s warriors, two of which can just be seen in the lower left of the canvas. The offered work differs from the watercolour version in one important aspect, that of its closely-cropped upright composition, which focuses the viewer unmistakably on the dignity and importance of Oleg’s inner thoughts.
With gentle foot, and bowed with grief,
Touching the skull, Oleg then said:
“Sleep well, my friend! Our day is brief;
Though I live on; you’re with the dead”
And, even as these words he spoke,
From out the eyeless skull there shot
A ribbon-like black deadly snake,
Which stung his foot. “Is this my lot
By that old wizard prophesised?
Death ambushed in a lifeless bone!
Then, welcome death!” the brave Prince cried:
And sank to earth without a moan.
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