Arkhip Kuindzhi played a leading role in the formation of a national school of Russian landscape painting during the second half of the nineteenth century. Kuindzhi, who was of Greek origin and born in the Crimea, originally trained as a photographic retoucher, though in 1865 his passion for drawing led him to Theodosia where he studied under the famous painter Ivan Aivazovsky. In 1866, Kuindzhi went to St. Petersburg to pursue his dream of studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. Initially rejected by the Academy, he remained essentially a self-taught artist until he finally entered as a non-matriculated student, staying there for only two years (1868-70).
In 1875, Kuindzhi became a member of the Association of Itinerant Art Exhibitions, and that year he traveled to France, where he was introduced to Impressionist painting. Having searched for new, expressive ways of depicting nature, Kuindzhi arrived at a style that was criticized for its casualness of composition and for using what detractors described as a crude painting technique; this criticism finally forced him to leave the Itinerants in 1880.
He is remembered as one of the original masters of Russian landscape painting, for he was a courageous innovator and experimenter in his use of light and color. It has been claimed that he worked from memory, without recourse to sketches. In his landscapes, the commonplace is transformed into the mysterious and poetic, the forms of nature are simplified, and all elements are sculpted by light rather than drawn. Kuindzhi's emotionally charged interpretation of nature and intense contrast of light and dark make his landscapes similar to theatrical backdrops.
Despite the intense critical attention he received, his creations were exceedingly popular among the public during his lifetime, and even accomplished painters were drawn to his profound depictions of lunar and solar light. If the quintessential image of the magical beauty of the night became known in Kuindzhi's painting Lunar Night on the Dnieper (1880), then a clear sunny day was just as effectively and exceptionally manifested in his masterpiece Birch Grove of 1879. After this work first appeared at exhibition, the magazine Strekoza printed a friendly cartoon of the artist, in which he was portrayed with paintbrushes and a light bulb in his hands in place of a palette. The sun was grinding his paint and the moon was squeezing it from tubes. This caricature accurately portrayed the public's impression of Kuindzhi.
There are three completed variations of Kuindzhi's Birchtree Grove. The first is dated 1879 and is found in the State Tretyakov Gallery, while the third is dated 1901 and is found in the Art Museum of Belarus. The second, dated 1881, is the present lot. Kuindzhi painted this variation for the Ural miner magnate and collector P.P. Demidov San Donato, but the commission fell through and the canvas was acquired by a millionaire from Kiev—the sugar factory magnate, collector and philanthropist F.A. Tereshchenko—for a large sum that was unheard of for a landscape at the time: seven thousand roubles. The Tereshchenkos were a well-known Ukrainian family of entrepreneurs and philanthropists during the 19th century, and the core of the Kiev Museum of Russian Art was formed on the basis of their collection. The present painting from the Tereshchenko collection has been reproduced in various publications and is included in a list of Kuindzhi's artwork compiled by V. Manin in his monograph dated 1976.
Kuindzhi's decorative talent is expressed at its very best in this composition, where the beauty of nature seems to transform in sunlight. This transcendence is the extraordinary mark of Russia's greatest master of landscape painting during its golden age.
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