Contemporary critics not only singled out Semiradsky’s paintings among his Russian colleagues, his monumental canvas The Torches of Nero, seven meters long, was considered to be among the very best pictures exhibited that year, and Semiradsky was awarded the medal of honour, the highest decoration at the Exposition Universelle, as well as the Légion d'honneur. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the other main representative of European Academism who made his name with depictions of scenes from Classical antiquity (fig.4), received only a first class medal that year (La chronique des arts et de la curiosité. Supplément à la gazette des beaux-arts, No.33, 2 November 1878, p.258). He would eventually receive a medal of honour at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889.
The Torches of Nero had already brought Semiradsky instant fame in Rome, where he had settled in 1872, having successfully graduated from the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg in 1870. Semiradsky’s studio became a place of pilgrimage for his admirers, including Alma-Tadema, who wanted to see the painting even before it was finished (T.Karpova, Genrikh Semiradskii, St Peterburg: Zolotoi Vek, 2008, p.79). But even next to such a spectacular canvas, Semiradsky’s other two paintings exhibited in Paris attracted extensive comments nonetheless. As Clovis Lamarre and Louis Léger noted in their review of the Russian section, both La coupe ou la femme and Un naufragé mendiant merit attention even beside this enormous painting (C.Lamarre and L.Léger, La Russie et l’Exposition de 1878, 1878, p.141). In fact, Un naufragé mendiant left such a lasting impression on the French public that it is mentioned as one of the artist’s principal work in several encyclopaedias published towards the end of the 19th century (Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, Vol. 17, 2nd supplement, Paris, 1890, p.1844; Dictionnaire universel des contemporains, Paris: Hachette, 1893, p.1439).
Un naufragé mendiant is an exceptional example of an idealised genre scene set in Classical antiquity for which Semiradsky became celebrated throughout Europe. In a letter to the eminent art historian Andrei Somov, the artist explained that the painting shows a Roman beggar who passes himself as a castaway, having a picture of the shipwreck around his neck. The underlying theme of the painting is the vicissitude of life. The beautiful young woman is being lowered onto her luxurious barge, worthy of Cleopatra’s as one critic noted (L’Exposition universelle de 1878 illustrée, no.160, 1878, p.840), as she glances at the old beggar who has lost everything (T.Karpova, Genrikh Semiradskii, St Peterburg: Zolotoi Vek, 2008, pp.131-132). The painting is a tour de force of light, colour and different textures, allowing the artist to demonstrate his technical virtuosity. The use of plein air effects in the landscape make the scene more palpable, as does Semiradsky’s attention to the details of dress and décor. A contemporary critic noted the 'lucid, fresh and elegant colours' and admired Semiradsky’s knowledge of classical furniture and costumes (L’Exposition universelle de 1878 illustrée, no.160, 1878, p.840).
Born into a Polish family near Kharkov, a graduate of the Imperial Academy of Arts and resident of Rome, Semiradsky, like the Dutch-born British painter Alma-Tadema, was a truly pan-European artist, who in his works brought to life a Golden Age of European civilisation. The Russian Imperial family was among his patrons, and sadly many of his monumental works, such as his murals for the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, are now lost. Un naufragé mendiant is without doubt one of Semiradsky’s most significant works to remain in private hands. The present whereabouts of the third painting exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1878, La coupe ou la femme, is unknown. A study for it, measuring 99 by 155.6cm, was sold at Sotheby’s New York in October 2005 (fig.1).
The painting is in overall excellent condition; the canvas is not lined, does not show any repairs and is on its original stretcher, which is very unusual for a painting of this size.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale