It was Somov who invited the Lanceray brothers and their sister Zinaida Serebriakova to join in the exhibition as fellow miriskusstniki. It was a difficult period in Serebriakova’s life. Her husband had died in 1919 and with little means to support herself, she and the four children had moved into her mother’s house. In the face of the advancement of the Red Army, she had been forced in November 1919 to abandon their beautiful estate of Neskuchnoe in Kursk province (now in the Kharkiv oblast in Ukraine). It was there she had spent her happiest years with her husband and children, and produced some of her most famous paintings such as Harvest (1915) and Bleaching Linen (1916-17).
Serebriakova and the children lived for over a year in Kharkov, then in December 1920 moved to Petrograd and settled in the Benois household. Serebriakova had to earn her living through the occasional portrait commission, but she was fixated by the idea of going to Europe to make her fortune, inspired no doubt by her uncle, the artist Alexander Benois, as well as the success that both Roerich and Sorin had found in the United States.
‘If you only knew, my dear Uncle Shura’ she wrote in a letter to Alexander Benois on 17 December 1923, ‘how often I dream of leaving and somehow finding a way to turn my life around, a life without that single overriding daily worry about food (of which there is never enough and is always bad anyway), a life where my earnings are not so hopeless that we can’t even afford essentials. Commissions for my portraits are very infrequent indeed and hardly pay. The pennies I earn from them are normally spent on food even before the pictures are finished. If only something would sell at the American exhibition…’
In the Autumn of 1923 Somov had helped Serebriakova to select fourteen works for the exhibition. These were sent to Riga in December and then shipped via Sweden and England to arrive in New York in January 1924. On 8 March 1924, ‘The Exhibition of Russian Art’ opened on the top floor of the New York Grand Central Palace. Works from 1921–23 were presented by 84 Russian artists.
Study of a Sleeping Girl is the first of Serebriakova’s works listed in her section of the catalogue. It was also one of the highlights of the exhibition reproduced on individual photographic prints; other highlights included Kustodiev’s Portrait of Feodor Chaliapin and The Coachman and paintings by Arkhipov, Polenov and Nesterov. These prints were in great demand according to Grabar and sold ‘like hot cakes’ as did everything that seemed 'very Russian' to the American public and could be considered a Russian souvenir (see Grabar’s correspondence, 18 March 1924). The demand for the paintings themselves was slower however, and Grabar wrote gloomily that they ‘hadn’t realised that the golden days of the American art market were long gone. Around twenty years ago, or perhaps even twelve or fifteen, the art market in America reached its peak but then sank dramatically”. On 28 March 1924, Somov wrote to his sister A.Mikhailova: ‘I do feel sorry for artists like Zina who are waiting to get some support.’ But almost a week later on 4 April, he makes a more optimistic note that ‘there are still great success stories, even if only for some: a wooden sculpture by Konenkov and two works by Serebriakova (a still life and Sleeping Girl).’
The beauty of the female body was one of the leading themes in Serebriakova’s work. While she was working on the Bath-House in 1912 at Neskuchnoe, Serebriakova would ask young village girls from nearby to acts as models so she could practice drawing life studies. In Petrograd, she would use her children as models. Nude portraits of her daughter Katya can be found in the collections of the Peterhof Museum (figs.3 and 4).
On 19 April, the penultimate day of the exhibition, Boris Bakhmeteff purchased four paintings from the show, including the present lot. On 1 May Somov wrote to his sister, ‘I am so happy for Zina, she has finally sold a work - Sleeping Girl. I think it comes in her hour of need in fact - with her mother’s illness she is going out of her mind.’ Though she had earned no great fortune, the proceeds from the exhibition allowed her to support the family with enough to spare that in August that year she was able at last to set out for Paris in search of work.
Sleeping Girl is one of the last masterpieces of Serebriakova’s Russian period and can be seen as a prelude to the series of stunning nudes which she would go on to produce in France.
We are grateful to Pavel Pavlinov for providing this catalogue note.
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