His heroic actions survive today in the form of numerous folk sayings and his story is recorded in literature. Most famously of all, his legend is preserved in Mikhail Glinka’s 1836 opera ‘A Life for the Tsar' with a libretto by von Rozen, which remains as popular today as when it was first performed in 1836. The premiere took place in the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg with the famous singer Osip Petrov in the role of Susanin. Konstantin Makovsky twice painted the portrait of this bass-baritone in 1870 (State Tretyakov Gallery) and 1871 (State Russian Museum).
It is not unusual to find historical events depicted in Konstantin Makovsky’s painting through the prism of opera. Indeed, his contemporaries noted that his sense of history was often shaped by famous literary works and theatrical performances. Famously musical, Makovsky had a good round baritone voice and had performed on the professional stage. Music was his second element and it is safe to assume that he had listened to Glinka’s opera. Just as in Act IV of the opera, Makovsky sets the scene of the attack in a forest with the exhausted Poles asleep by a campfire waiting for the snowstorm to end. On waking, they begin to suspect that perhaps Susanin is tricking them. He admits that he has led them astray, upon which his enemies fly into a rage and murder him. In the epilogue to the opera the final chorus sounds ‘Slavsya’, as the people of Moscow greet the Tsar in Red Square to the sound of chiming bells.
Makovsky ingeniously conflates both scenes into the present canvas, with the dramatic death of Susanin in the foreground and the ceremonial welcoming of Mikhail Romanov in Red Square top right. This unusual compositional device, the complex illumination and the slightly theatrical expressions of the characters, together with the realistic costumes and ‘props’ show the immense professionalism of this great master even towards the end of his career.
The impressive dimensions of the present work suggest that the artist would have painted it in his Paris studio which was specially equipped to accommodate large-scale canvases. Both the size of the painting and Makovsky’s demise soon after completing the picture most likely prevented him from exhibiting the work in Russia, which explains the lack of any responses to the painting by contemporary Russian critics. After Makovsky’s death in 1916, plans were underway to mount a large retrospective of his work in the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. Although the exhibition never took place, a list of works intended for the show survives which notes the titles of three works on this subject: Sketch for Susanin (no.115), Susanin in the Forest (no.222) and Susanin (no.280). It is not known whether or not the present lot was one of these three. We do know however, that in 1926 it was exhibited in London in Spring Gardens Gallery (fig.6). The exhibition was comprised largely of important paintings by Makovsky, though other Russian artists were also included: Vladimir Orlovsky, Franz Roubaud, Nikolai Fechin, Nikolai Dubovskoy, Rudolf Frentz, Andrei Schilder, Nikolai Samokish and others.
The re-appearance of Makovsky’s last large-scale canvas is a major rediscovery.
We are grateful to Elena Nesterova for providing this catalogue note.
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