Russian Impressionist

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160 years since the birth of Konstantin Korovin

By Oksana Kopenkina, art analyst, founder of the Arts Diary & Pad website

Konstantin Korovin introduced a new aesthetic to Russian art – impressionism. More than that – he became the leader of Russian impressionism.

Certainly, we can observe periods of interest to this genre in works of other Russian artists, such as Valentin Serov and even Ilya Repin (who was a dedicated realist). Despite that, only Korovin continued being loyal to impressionism his whole life. His journey to that genre is very interesting.

If you are not familiar with Korovin’s biography, you might wonder, “It is obvious, the artist visited Paris and was impressed by French artists’ style, so he brought it to Russia.” Interestingly, such a suggestion would not be right. Korovin’s first works in impressionism style were made a few years before his first visit to France.

His work “Chorus girl” is made according to all impressionism rules. Distinct, obvious brushstrokes. Carelessness and ease of painting. Even the pose of the lady is “impressionistic” – she is relaxed and laid back.

Konstantin Korovin. Chorus girl.

Notice that the signature and date are different. Art historians have always wondered how Korovin was able to create such a masterpiece at the age of 22. It is supposed by historians that Korovin intentionally made us inquire about this, by signing an earlier date on the painting. By that, he gained a status of a first Russian impressionist, creating pieces in that style long before his colleagues. Even so, the fact remains that Korovin started experimenting with impressionism before he had visited France.

In 1875 Korovin was accepted into the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. His first teacher there was Alexey Savrasov. He did not object to his students’ experiments with style. Even when Korovin painted “River in Menshov”. Large space, light all over the canvas, and not one sharp line. No descriptiveness, only mood expression. Such style was very unusual for Russian visual art of the period since realists were praised and looked up to. The art of that time revolved around details, concrete plot, and formal figures.

In 1885, Korovin met Savva Mamontov, who invited Korovin to
decorate theatre plays. Scenography, undoubtedly, affected his works. For example, in one of his famous paintings “A Northern Idyll” we can notice how characters’ silhouettes lack three-dimensionality. It seems like they are part of a flat scene decoration, included in a wide, three-dimensional landscape.

“A Northern Idyll” is a masterpiece, created under influence of theatre work. However, Alexander Benua, an art historian, claimed that Korovin wastes his talent on subordinate jobs like theatre decorations and that it would be better for him to focus on his unique style.

Korovin enjoyed staying at a fellow artist Vasily Polenov’s summerhouse at Zhukovka. His great work “At the Tea-Table” was created there, at which we can see Polenov’s friends and family. It is remarkable to see how every detail on that painting is depicted in true impressionistic style. On the right, there is an empty chair, pushed back. As if the artist stood up and immediately captured what was happening. And those who were at the table did not even pay attention to it. They are busy with their affairs and conversations. No posing. Only a moment of life, captured and immortalized by the artist.

The painting “In the Boat” was also created in Zhukovka. The work shows the artist Polenov and his wife’s sister Maria Yakunchenkova, also an artist.

The painting can be viewed endlessly, while feeling the slow movement of water and the rustle of leaves.

Post-revolutionary Russia was not a very favourable place for Korovin. Listening to the advice of Anatoly Lunacharsky (one of the co-leaders of new Russia), the artist moved to Paris in 1923.

Korovin painted Paris selflessly. His brushstrokes seem to fall into a whirlwind, forming a colourful mass, where we can barely distinguish figures, shadows, windows of houses. Literally one step to abstraction, just pure emotions without admixture of the real world.

Unlike many impressionists, Korovin never gave up black paint, sometimes using it very profusely. For example, in the painting “Italian Boulevard”.

Once in Paris, while Korovin was painting on the street, a Russian couple stopped to watch the artist’s work. The man commented that the French are very strong in colour. To which Korovin retorted “The Russians are not worse!”

He was in the centre of secular society, worked a lot, painted. However, Russian artist Evgeny Lansere recalled that he once met Korovin at an exhibition in Paris. Korovin was stating by some Russian landscape, bursting into tears, lamenting that he would never see Russian birch trees again. Korovin was full of prolific sadness about leaving Russia.

The artist’s life ended in Paris on 11 September 1939.

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