During this period Makovsky executed a group of works referencing widely-known historical figures and specific events, but equally he revelled in portraying the rituals of ancient Rus' and its poetic nature. Among Makovsky’s literary sources at the time was Alexei Tolstoy’s Prince Serebrenni. Set in 16th century Russia, it inspired a number of paintings including The Kissing Rite (fig.2). Makovsky often represented the old Russia not through its important historical events but rather through intimate scenes set in chambers and terems which brought to focus the old customs and traditions of the Russian people. Such works included A Boyar Wedding Feast (fig.3), Before the Wedding (fig.4) and the almost identical The Russian Bride's Attire (1887, The Legion of Honour, San Francisco), Sprinkling the Hops (1901, collection of Dr. Sukarno, President of the Republic of Indonesia) and Christmas Eve Fortune Telling (1905, Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, St Petersburg). Part of the same cycle of works, Blind Man’s Bluff depicts an old children’s game often played in Russian izbas and terems. Makovsky fills the scene with a cast of lavishly dressed characters as well as a still life of silverware, old furniture, rugs, and richly decorated walls. The wealth of the setting was no doubt inspired by the artist’s vast art collection.
A passionate collector, Makovsky was particularly drawn to everyday objects, jewellery and costumes which he used as props in his historical paintings. In her memoirs, Makovsky’s daughter Elena recalls 'a large, antique glass and ebony cabinet […] bursting with carefully arranged boyar garments and accessories: from brocades and patterned sarafans to pearl-encrusted cuffs and kokoshniks. Interwoven with silver, the luxurious blue-and-rose-gold silk shone wonderfully and the mantelpiece was adorned with old crockery. What a delightful sight it was! Silver kovshs, nautilus goblets, charkas, bratinas, washbasins and fans formed a medley of the boyar era objects most admired by father'. According to Elena, Makovsky was a true devotee and connoisseur of Russian antiques, and he never skimped on such purchases. Objects from his collection lent his boyar scenes not only a sense of opulence but also a degree of realism. Makovsky’s cast of characters were often inspired by the facial features of his family members and friends. The children depicted in Blind Man’s Bluff, for example, bear a striking resemblance to his children from his third marriage to Maria Matavtina.
In 1900 Blind Man’s Bluff was exhibited at the Imperial Academy of Arts, and the following year at the St Petersburg Society of Artists. It was reproduced in the catalogue of the latter as one of Makovsky’s chief exhibits (fig.6), also appearing in the 1 March 1900 issue of the newspaper Novoe vremya.
In 1915, Blind Man’s Bluff was published as an illustration to Makovsky's obituary in Niva which lamented his tragic and unexpected death (fig.7). The author of the piece wrote the following: 'Makovsky demonstrated a deep interest in 'boyar scenes', choosing to depict the colourful and elegant aspects of the old Russian way of life. He took great pleasure in portraying boyars and boyarinas, tsars and tsarinas clad in opulent period costumes and surrounded by sable fur, satin and jewellery. He idealised the beautiful past of ancient Rus' and the old way of life, lovingly setting his historical events in the context of lavish boyar costumes and lush domestic interiors.' Blind Man’s Bluff is a testament to Makovsky’s dedication to and passion for the era of Russian boyars.
We would like to thank Dr Elena Nesterova for providing this catalogue note.
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