Vasili Dmitrievich Polenov
- Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov
- Egyptian Girl
- signed in Cyrillic and dated 1876 l.l.
- oil on canvas
- 88.5 by 118cm., 34 3/4 by 46 1/2 in.
Marshall Galleries, Los Angeles
Private Collection, USA
St. Petersburg, Imperial Academy of Arts, Autumn 1876
Yem. [A.Matushinsky], 'The Exhibition in the Academy of Arts [II], The Voice, No. 358, 29 December 1876
Profan [A.Prakhov], 'Post-graduate Exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts', The Bee, 1877, No. 46, p.15
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Egyptian Girl was painted sometime between late 1875 to early 1876, during Polenov's post-graduate studies in France. Upon his return to Russia, Polenov exhibited the painting in the autumn of 1876 at the Saint-Petersburg Academy of Arts amongst several dozen works painted abroad.
It is probably this very work which Polenov mentions in his letter of 18 January 1877 to Vladimir Stasov, the well-known art-critic. Egyptian Girl appears as number 22 in a list of female studies exhibited at the Academy. The painting appears in a number of highly regarded reviews in the contemporary press. A detailed description of the work, allowing us to identify the offered lot, appears in the article of Adrian Prakhov:
"Mr Polenov was interested in model's qualities as a black woman. He posed her seated and half naked, wearing a few pieces of an Egyptian costume, by the wall of an Egyptian temple or palace; he made her sit this way so as to allow her sensuousness to come through most strongly... ...To excite the viewer and engage them in the fantasy he surrounded her with an Egyptian décor: the sun's rays stream across the wall which is painted with lotuses, having infiltrated the canvas awnings which are hanging somewhere above; the white ibis steps meditatively across the flagstone; painted crockery is scattered around the floor; a sunlit courtyard is just visible in the distance" (Profan [A.Prakhov], 'Post-graduate Exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts', The Bee, 1877, No. 46, p.15)
It is interesting to note that Ilya Repin probably painted the very same model simultaneously with Polenov. Repin's study, titled The Negress, was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1876 as well as the afore-mentioned exhibition at the Academy of Arts; it is currently in the collection of the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg (fig.1). Such an exotic subject for a painting in Russia at that time attracted the attention of critics and gave them the opportunity to compare and analyse in detail the works by Polenov and Repin. Eduard Matushinsky, the reviewer, wrote:
" [Polenov's] Negress is pictured sitting on the ground, with her back against the wall of some Egyptian building. She is surrounded with painted crockery, which is probably displayed for sale. Nearby an ibis is standing thoughtfully like a guard. If I am not mistaken, we have already been fortunate enough to acquaint ourselves with this very Negress in the painting by Mr Repin...A more interesting question perhaps is why these talented artists have chosen to depict a black creature in their paintings? Which aesthetic thoughts led them to decide to paint an Ethiopian beauty?...(Em.[A.Matushinsky], 'The Exhibition in the Academy of Arts [II], The Voice, No. 358, 29 December 1876)
The work is also referred to in literature by another title, Nubian Girl in an Egyptian Temple. Polenov and Repin were inspired to choose such an extraordinary subject by the Africans studies of Mariano Fortuni (1838-1874). The oeuvre of this Spanish artist was widely represented at his posthumous exhibition in Paris in 1874. Fortuni enjoyed exceptional success among his contemporaries, including the entire Parisian community of young Russian artists. In letters to his colleagues from the French capital Polenov confessed that at that time he was "enraptured by an artist ...whose paintings represent the highest achievement of our art". That artist was Fortuni. Polenov admired the luxurious style of Fortuni's paintings, the originality of his colours, his realism, and at the same time his emphatically eye-catching subjects and style.
Polenov demonstrates all these characteristics virtuously in the present lot. The fate of this painting was unknown for a very long time. Now newly rediscovered, Egyptian Girl, is without doubt an extremely interesting composition by Vasily Polenov, and rare not just for its subject, but also the manner in which it has been painted.
We are grateful to Dr. Galina Andreeva for providing this note.