Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov
- Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov
- The Lookout
- signed in Cyrillic and dated 1876 l.r.; inscribed N 83 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 127 by 91cm, 50 by 35 3/4 in.
Leo Maskovsky, Munich
Christie's London, 5 October 1989, lot 259
Christie's London, Russian Art, 9 June 2009, lot 27
Pchela, 30 January 1877, no.5, p.77, illustrated engraving titled Gertsegovinka v zasade s kartiny V.D.Polenova
E.Sakharova, A.Leonov, Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov, Moscow, 1950, pp.140 and 475, listed as Gertsegovinka
M.Kopshitser, Polenov, Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 2010, p.152
The present lot was a highlight of the 1876 Academy of Arts Exhibition in St Petersburg where Polenov exhibited almost 60 works alongside Repin's Negress, Sadko and Parisian Café among others. After the exhibition Vladimir Stasov wrote to Polenov with a list of paintings that a prospective buyer hoped to acquire, including the famous genre scene Le Droit du Seigneur; first on the list however was Gertsegovinka 'which I believe is the one he likes most of all' (Letter from V.V.Stasov to V.D.Polenov, 17 January 1877). In his diary, the newspaper editor and businessman Fedor Chizhov (1811-1877) remarks on Polenov's two Montenigrin female portraits: 'the one with the pistol in the ravine is really not bad at all'; the second, The Montenegrin Girl (1876, fig.2) was acquired by Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and exhibited at the 1878 Paris World Fair.
Pushkin's generation had supported Greece in its bid to overthrow Ottoman rule in the 1820s and the Byronic spirit of Romanticism resonated still with thousands of young Russians when Bosnia and Herzegovina attempted to establish their independence in 1876. The Lookout is a superb example of Polenov's Romantic interest in the exotic and 'the other' during this period reflected in his Egyptian Girl (1876, fig.3) and Odalisque (1875, fig.4).
It is striking how frequently the focus of Polenov's compositions is a female subject: The Raising of Jairus' Daughter (1871), Crossing of the River Oyat (1872), Le droit du Seigneur (1874), The Arrest of a Huguenot (1875), Sick Girl (1881-1886). The 1876 exhibition included 22 female studies. In several of his larger canvases the woman is a figure of suffering or oppression, but as Mark Kopshitser remarks, the present work is noteworthy in that the subject is neither submissive nor a victim, but armed and an agent of own fate (M.Kopshitser, Polenov, p.152).
The Lookout was painted in May 1876 at Polenov's studio in Paris at 72 Rue Blanche. During this period of study in the French capital, between November 1873 - July 1876, Polenov had encountered the work of several Western artists whose influence can be felt here. In a letter of December 1873, he describes his impressions from a trip to Munich (see O.Lyaskovskaya, V.D.Polenov, Izdanie GTG, 1947, p.7): among his favourite artists are the 'wild fantasist' Hans Makart (1840-1884), otherwise dubbed 'the magician of colours' for his use of a brilliant palette and fluid forms to convey drama; he was similarly impressed by the Swiss artist, Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), whose Romantic paintings echo the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. The exuberance of this exotic Makartstil is reflected in the bold red, patterned materials and glinting gold adorning Polenov's foreign women of the 1870s, tempered often by the uncertain beauty of the pre-Raphaelite models.
Ivan Kramskoi declared that Russia's support to the Balkans was a 'point of honour and goodness' and '1,000 times more popular that the Crimean war'; Pavel Tretyakov agreed: 'The conduct of Russia towards the Slavs is far from dishonourable... To be Russian fills one with pride these days.' Such was the weight of Russian public opinion that Alexander II sent General Chernyaev to go to the aid of the Balkan Slavs. Polenov was among the very first to join the volunteers who accompanied Chernyaev's forces. Such was Polenov's zeal that Repin wrote anxiously to Vladimir Stasov of his fears that his friend was perhaps 'no longer among the living'; and wrote to Polenov's sister Elena, begging her to use all possible means to save him from harm. Polenov was indeed in the heat of the fray and took part in the fighting and cavalry charges; for his bravery in action he was awarded the Order of the Takovo cross inscribed 'For Faith, Prince and Fatherland' (fig.6).
The following year saw several other artists travelling to the Bulgarian front, among them Konstantin Makovsky, Alexei Bogoliubov, Pavel Kovalevsky, Ivan Aivazovsky and Vasily Vasilievich Vereshchagin. But whereas these painters warmed to the bloody themes of war, Polenov's approach was different. 'The themes of injury and deaths are too strong in real life to represent on a canvas. At least, I feel something lacking when I attempt it. I can't represent it in its actuality when the reality is so awful and so simple'. (G.Churak. The Colours of War in the Balkans, 2003). His interest and indeed his talent, lay in landscapes, ethnographic records and depictions of camp life; his drawings and sketches from 1876-1877 were published in Pchela with his journal From Kiev to Deligrad describing his experiences on campaign. Vasily Vereshchagin was also interested in the ethnographic aspects of war; his Portrait of a Bashi-bazouk (fig.7) shows a similar interest in the ornate arms and fabrics of warriors in the Balkans.