Fedor Vasilyev in English
Болото в лесу.
Vasilyev spent the summer of 1870 near the Volga, together with the painter Ilya Repin. Those were months most favourable for the ripening of his talent. Living in new environments and seeing people natural in the vastness of the world contributed to the re-evaluation of his aesthetic concepts, enriched his experience, and widened the sphere of his artistic interests. All this was reflected in a lot of paintings and drawings.
The new subject matter required new methods of representation some of which were true discoveries. Of the paintings produced in the summer of 1870 the most striking in its profundity is undoubtedly the Volga View. Barges showing a group of barge haulers taking a rest on a bank. Vasilyev depicted the group within a landscape, bright and sparkling after a thunderstorm. The choice of the theme itself, its romantic treatment and the boldness of the rendering have resulted in a hymn to a man of labour. Socially biased, the picture affected most of Vasilyev's productions of the time and became a kind of a prologue to the theme of a deeper social significance that was to sound in full in the Thaw (1871).
The very motif - a dark muddy road receding into the distance - in combination with purely pictorial methods conveys the sense of deepness of space in the picture. The tense, almost monochrome tonality of the moist air, thawing snow, and the cold haziness at the horizon creates an atmosphere of gloom and depression. The man and the child walking along the road flooded with an overflowing brook seem lonely and lost amid the vast plain under the low cloudy sky. Just as lonely is the hut in the far distance standing off the road with no path leading to it. The allusion is apparent. The two motifs - the hut and the lonely couple - are linked by some inner psychological similarity revealed in the context of the picture and reminding one of countless villages lost in the expances of the country and of miserable wanderers on her endless roads.
The Thaw painted in the year of the First Exhibition of the Society of Travelling Exhibitions introduced Vasilyev into the avant-garde of Russian painting. He was admitted, as an extern, to the Academy of Arts and became a painter of the 1st degree. At the same time, the picture was to become the summing up of the St. Petersburg period of his life. His illness made him leave the capital for good and move to the Crimea.
The years spent in Yalta far from both the artistic milieu of St. Petersburg and the more familiar scenery of central Russia were most fruitful, though very complicated years of Vasilyev's life. During that period he produced a number of very important paintings, drawings, and sepias, some of these based on entirely new methods.
The adjustment to the new environment was difficult, therefore Vasilyev decided to rely on his memory and the sketches he had made in previous years and continue his work on Russian landscapes. The lasting memories of dawn over moors that had fascinated him once and forever materialized in a variety of works characterized by a new approach to the motif.
The series began with the Wet Meadow (1872) whose composition is based on a generalized central Russian landscape, a vast plain, open spaces, trees wet after a rain, and the sky with clouds. The light, as if permeated with moisture, enhances the effect.
The motif of a marshy landscape and the dawn over it is common to both this painting and the small unfinished abandoned Mill that completes the series. Based on the memories of the Ukraine, even of a definite locality (some place near Count Stroganov's Ukrainian estate), it contains an element that extends the subject matter making the real and imaginary blend into a romantic, almost fantastic harmony. The colouration and generalized technique serve to convey the enchanting mystery of pre-dawn light, aerial vast plains and the sky.
Simultaneously with the painting of Russian landscapes, Vasilyev began to feel the attraction of Crimean mountain views. Mountains distracted him in his depressed mood brought about by progressing illness, acute feeling of loneliness, and discontent at the futility and vanity around him. For Vasilyev the mountains were the embodiment of beauty and harmony, which he strove to achieve in his paintings. In this concept, though somewhat Utopian, the aesthetic and moral aspects of art are inseparable: «If there is nothing in a picture but this blue air and mountains, absolutely cloudless, and if this all is depicted the way it is in the nature - full of happiness and of nature's infinite triumph and chastity - then a man looking at this picture will put off any evil intention seen now in all its uncovered uggliness.'« These words from Vasilyev's letter to Kramskoy seem to have anticipated his last painting In the Mountains of the Crimea. The letter does not describe the details of the picture, then done in underpaint; actually it is quite different, but in these words the spirit that imbues the picture is expressed.
In spite of the disastrous illness, Vasilyev continued his work on the picture. Almost monochrome, it is striking in its rendering of the solemnity of the mountains with their peaks covered by clouds and the flood of light flowing from the depths of the sky above them. For the first time, probably, the painter's insight into the nature's mystery and his vision of its beauty and harmony materialized and became manifest.
In 1873 Vasilyev completed the painting and had it sent to St. Petersburg for participation in a contest. Kramskoy highly praised its fine technique and romantic spirit. In the same year Vasilyev was elected honorary member of the Free Society of the Academy of Arts. In September 1873, he died in Yalta.
At the posthumous exhibition in St. Petersburg all his works had been sold even before the exhibition opened. People who were able to appreciate the real value of Vasilyev's paintings belonged to the artistic avant-garde of Russia. Besides the painter's mastery, they saw that his art revealed the deepest emotions and ideals that were close to them but were expressed in a mode that was independent and original.