Female and group portraits form a significant part of Konstantin Makovsky's oeuvre. He was particularly skilled at these compositions, and this elegant depiction of two young women studying engravings is in every way typical for the artist. Although it has not been possible to identify the girl in the blue dress, the lady in the dark dress, however, bears a great resemblance to Makovsky's first wife, Elena Timofeevna Burkova (1848?-1873). The offered work was included in Fedor Bulgakov's 1892 monograph on Makovsky as Two women leafing through drawings in a case (although more accurately it is a portfolio and not a case). Bulgakov notes that it was sold in 1872 through the Society for the Encouragement of Art, which dates the work precisely. If this is the case, then we are able to date another portrait of Elena Timofeevna illustrated by Bulgakov also to1872 (fig.1). The oval face, sharply-curving brows, dark eyes, straight nose, small mouth and the shape of the chin in that portrait correspond to those of the lady in the dark dress in Two Ladies Looking at Prints.
Elena Timofeevna's life was short but brilliant. She was the illegitimate daughter of Count V. Adlerberg, Nicholas I's Court Minister. Educated in Switzerland, she returned to Russia and worked under the stage name Elena Cherkasova in the Imperial Theatres of St Petersburg. Her marriage to Makovsky was a happy one. Sergei Makovsky recorded her effect on his father thus: "Lenochka brought a great deal of love and a keen sociability into his dissolute, Bohemian life. She was frail, and could hardly be called beautiful, but her whole being radiated an inexplicable charm." Sergei never knew Elena personally, but he recalled his father's first wife from the family portrait At Tea, which hung in his nursery. "Elena Timofeevna's face intrigued me above all - it was pensive, tender and sickly pale, with narrow black eyes and childishly plump lips. Her face expressed tenderness, wisdom and a presentiment of her death. Such was her life, cut short within four years of her marriage". Makovsky's first wife died of tuberculosis, which she contracted after the death of their first child. She died and was buried in Cairo, where she and her husband had gone, hoping that the warm climate would benefit her.
Elena Timofeevna drew well and was passionate about music. "Composers, singers and pianists loved to spend time in Makovsky's studio, simply because it was filled with music and song, and its atmosphere suited them" wrote Sergei Makovsky.
The portrait is set in an artist's study, by all appearances Makovsky's own. A luxurious carpet covers the whole floor; an antique tapestry on a mythological theme hangs on the wall. After Konstantin Makovsky's death most of his belongings were sold, and the tapestry hanging here was listed among them.
A male portrait, a peasant judging by the hair and beard, stands on the easel in a gilded frame. Makovsky worked a great deal on peasant subjects in the 1870s, and in 1872 he won the Society for the Encouragement of Art's first prize for the best work of landscape and genre painting with Peasant meal at harvest time.
The women are leafing through engravings from a large portfolio. The artist's father, Egor Ivanovich Makovsky, was a passionate collector, and had a large number of antique engravings, which the young Konstantin Makovsky copied at the beginning of his creative life. Everything in the portrait is therefore intimately linked with the artist and his family, which makes the work of particular interest. This canvas is from the early period of Makovsky's career, even though he was already well-known and a professor of the Academy of Arts.
We are grateful to Elena Nesterova for providing this note.
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