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Russian Art

A Remarkable Rediscovery from a Forgotten Russian Master

Sotheby's Bella Radenovic explores the fascinating story behind one of the highlights of the upcoming Russian Pictures sale, and the artist who painted it.

 

Petr Smukrovich’s painting Toilette from our forthcoming Russian Pictures sale (London, 5 June) is a truly remarkable rediscovery. Widely reviewed and rapturously received in 1913, the painting and the artist have since been largely forgotten. When I first encountered this sumptuous and beautifully detailed work it conjured up some of the best-known Russian artists of the early 20th century.

I embarked on my research in the hope of finding a whole array of relevant literature and exhibition references, only to discover that the artist was completely written out of the history books, having fallen out of favour after the Bolshevik Revolution. With limited information available in literature, I had to look for alternative sources, and eventually tracked down the descendants of the artist. Not only did they inform me that Toilette was Smukrovich’s graduation piece in 1913, they also supplied me with a whole array of exciting visual material which included a preliminary drawing and photograph of the model for the maid.

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Smukrovich was born in 1878 in Reval (modern day Tallinn) and enrolled in the Baron Stieglitz School for Technical Drawing in St Petersburg in 1897. His earliest commissions were for decorative designs for the city’s churches including doors for the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. From 1905 he studied under Dmitry Kardovsky at the Imperial Academy of Arts. His sanguines from this period compare very closely to those by his fellow students Alexander Yakovlev and Vasily Shukhaev.

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SELF-PORTRAIT, LATE 1910S © PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE ARTIST’S FAMILY

Although Smukrovich never became an official member of the World of Art, his creative pursuits were inevitably shaped by the aesthetics of this hugely influential group, which embraced the aesthetic ideals of Art Nouveau and the poetics of Symbolism. In Smukrovich’s diploma work one instantly recognises the refined eroticism of Konstantin Somov and the rococo romanticism of Evgeny Lanceray, key members of the group, whilst the subject of a disrobed lady in her boudoir evokes Boris Kustodiev’s wonderfully indulgent merchant’s wives at their toilettes.

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STANDING NUDE, 1910S © PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE ARTIST’S FAMILY

Soon after graduating from the Academy Smukrovich was conscripted and joined the Izmaylovsky regiment, the same regiment in which Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin served. The watercolours that he brought back from the Turkish front were published in Niva and Lukomorye. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the artist returned to Petrograd where he worked on designs for public celebrations including those produced for the first anniversary of the Revolution in 1918.

Under Bolshevik rule his noble ancestry hindered his career, proving problematic for his advancement as an artist. He could not paint and exhibit freely and without any means to emigrate to Europe as many of his fellow artists did in the 1920s, he eventually resorted to teaching. He died during the siege of Leningrad in January 1942.

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