The present collection of 97 sketchbooks and journals by Alexander Yakovlev documents the artist’s extensive travels and adventures around the world. Around half of them relate to his various journeys across Asia and Africa, the remaining to his travels in Europe. While single sketchbooks have appeared on the market, never has there been a more complete representation of Yakovlev’s life and work. Martin Birnbaum, Yakovlev’s biographer and friend, remembers his fascination with these very sketchbooks on seeing them in the artist’s Paris studio:
In the cabinets, Jacovleff (sic) stored a fine collection of antique iridescent glass and other treasures…but the most exciting incident of this first visit was the privilege of examining the artist’s innumerable pocket notebooks. These disclosed the fact that his artistic career, although carefully and intelligently disciplined, had obviously been no dreary monotonous treadmill. Every step in his evolution was an adventure…These notebooks were a practically complete artistic diary which bore eloquent testimony to his inquiring mind and his amazing gifts as a draftsman. They were not unlike some of Delacroix’s journals, artistic reportage of a unique kind. His notation was as vivid and even more rapid and exact than the French romantic master’s and you became Jacovleff’s travelling companion as you turned the pages. They reflect the sunny disposition of the artist who was interested in every activity of his fellow-men (Jacovleff and Other Artists, New York: Paul A. Struck, 1946, pp.4-6)
Birnbaum himself wanted to purchase a sketchbook on the spot, but Yakovlev declined, explaining ‘Even though I am now a French citizen, I am a Russian artist, and if in the course of time my work will prove to have value, these notebooks will show how my art developed’ (ibid., p.6).
The earliest sketchbooks in the group date from Yakovlev’s trip to the Far East (1917-1919). The young artist travelled first to Peking, and then on to the Chinese provinces, Mongolia and Japan. He was enchanted with the ancient culture and traditions, and even adopted a Chinese stamp with a phonetic transcription of his name - Ya-Ko-Lo-Fu - (Fu meaning ‘happiness’), which he used on numerous sketches and paintings from this period. The artist was particularly drawn to Chinese and Japanese theatre, impressions of which fill his sketchbooks.
Upon his return to Europe, Yakovlev settled in Paris and held his first one-man exhibition. The response was enthusiastic and immediate, and Yakovlev’s fame began to grow. He became the official artist of the Croisière noire (1924-25), Georges-Marie Haardt’s expedition across the African continent on eight half-track Citroen vehicles. Yakovlev sketched constantly, filling sketchbook upon sketchbook with portrayals of the local people and their rituals and customs. ‘Those who were fortunate to see him at work…say that he would fill pages with notes when the motor cars were racing through unfamiliar regions, and he turned out magnificent studies without any apparent effort while the caravan was pitching tents…he never suffered from ennui’ (ibid., p.9).
The success of the Croisière noire led to the Croisière jaune (1931-32) across Asia. Again, Yakovlev sketched furiously, filling his notebooks with depictions of the people and the landscape, despite the hostile conditions. Birnbaum remarks that ‘Nomad chiefs who would have warred on the expedition allowed it to pass unmolested in exchange for a pastel of the local ruler by the Russian magician…' (ibid., p.10).
In 1934, Yakovlev accepted a position at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, and while his fame continued to grow in the United States, he found the demands of academia stifled his creative output and he spent increasingly more time in Capri. Indeed, a significant number of the sketchbooks herewith depict drawings from Yakovlev’s time on the island, a place where he found particular solace and artistic inspiration.
Following the artist’s death in 1938, the sketchbooks were left to Yakovlev’s sister, Sandra, a highly acclaimed opera star in Paris. They were purchased from her by the present owner in the 1970s in Paris and have remained out of public view until now.