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Mikhail Nesterov, Artist of Abramtsevo in Search of Holy Russia

Until 18 August 2013 the Nesterov-retrospective ‘Mikhail Nesterov. In search of his own Russia.To the 150 anniversary’ can be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. An hommage to Nesterov and the Abramtsevo Artists' Circle (1870s-1890s).
Although memoirs, letters and chronicles, have been sidelined in academic art history to some extent, primary texts such as Elizaveta Mamontova’s personal memoirs, the chronicle of Abramtsevo’s circle and countless letters written by participants in the artists’ circle proved to be central to the entire literature on both Abramtsevo, Academic, and Realist art history. In combination with research conducted in situ and secondary readings, they not only gave me an insight into how this artistic community in Abramtsevo functioned and what the specific contribution of the different members consisted of but they also reveal the cultural significance of the choice of this site and its Slavophile legacy in relation to the circle’s artistic productions. With the aid of this material it can be demonstrated that Mamontov’s purchase of Aksakov’s Abramtsevo contained the germ for the circle’s articulation of a Russian folk, mythic and religious aesthetic. In this context, Russian religious aesthetic will be investigated in relation to the interaction with the geographical site itself, and its Slavophile legacy.
Purchase Because of Location and Legacy  
The Mamontovs purchased the estate of Abramtsevo on 24 March 1870 from Sophia Sergeyevna Aksakova. The Aksakov family had owned the land for almost a quarter of a century, but it had become impossible to maintain the estate after both Sergey Aksakov and his eldest son Konstantin died in 1859 and 1860 respectively. When the estate fell into decline, Olga Aksakova, the writer’s widow, turned to Fyodor Chizhov, who as a family friend of th knew of their plan to buy an estate and advised the couple to opt for Abramtsevo. Although they had other, nearer and more affordable offers – Elizaveta Grigorevna reveals in her memoirs that they had almost bought an estate along the Kursk road to Stolbovo – the Mamontovs did not hesitate to purchase Abramtsevo for 15000 roubles – then a large sum of money.The primary sources show that they cherished both the legacy of the former owner and its location. Now the following questions will be addressed: What was so special about Aksakov and this particular site, why Abramtsevo? To answer these questions, I will examine the significance of Aksakov’s legacy and scrutinize why the Mamontovs cherished the particular location of Abramtsevo, and how this location impacted upon the production of various landscapes with a religious connotation. Both legacy and location explain the circle’s organic development of a Russian religious aesthetic. 

Two days before the purchase of Abramtsevo’s estate, the Mamontovs visited the place for the first time. After an early morning train ride to Khotkovo – Abramtsevo’s train station did not exist at the time – they enjoyed a sleigh ride through the dense and snowy forest to the estate. Noticing Abramtsevo’s manor house on a hill, they were enchanted. When they arrived, Efim Maksimovich, the house servant of the previous owner, who was still residing in Abramtsevo, guided them around the ramshackled house, where artefacts of his former landlord, Sergey Aksakov, were still in place. The Mamontovs were touched by Maksimovich’ stories about the famous novelist and his guests, and became determined to buy Aksakov’s estate and preserve his remaining artifacts – books, engravings and furniture – in the house. These can still be seen in the current museum of Abramtsevo, where one part of the manor house is devoted to Aksakov’s time and the other to the Mamontov era.
‘загоpoдный’, ‘подмоcковный’ and ‘nearwater’  
Like Aksakov in 1843, the Mamontovs twenty seven years later, wished to buy an estate загоpoдный’ (exurban) and ‘подмоcковный’ (near Moscow), at which to spend their summers. Mamontov further specifies his wishes in the Letopis: ‘We […] wanted to buy some ten hectares of land with a modestly furnished house and most importantly near a river, or at least near a place with water.’Abramtsevo’s country estate is indeed situated in a beautiful natural setting in the woods, where the rivers Vorya and Yanushke pass its south-eastern borders. It was an ideal place for a family to withdraw from the city and enjoy the long Russian summers at their country-seat.

On Mamontov’s Trinity Railroad to Sergiev Posad (lit. settlement of St. Sergey) 

Beside the overwhelming experience of the first visit to Abramtsevo and its wished for rural location near a river, accessibility by train was another factor that determined the Mamontov’s choice to buy the estate. Abramtsevo is located 35 miles north east of Moscow on the railroad to Sergiev Posad, called the Trinity railroad. As Mamontov had partially witnessed the Trinity railroad coming into being, it was this exact connection via the Yaroslavl railroad, to which Mamontov related in a special way. 
In his youth Savva Ivanovich listened attentively to conversations about the idea to build the Trinity railroad, between his father and the historian Mikhail Pogodin (1800-75), who was writing a series of articles about the necessity of the railroad while staying on his father’s summer estate in Kireyevo.To Pogodin, a specialist in medieval Russian history and a professor in history and literature at the Moscow State University, the Trinity railroad was to be of tremendous importance, because it stretched from Moscow to Russia’s national religious centre in Sergiev Posad: the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergey, established in the late fourteenth century. According to Pogodin the accessibility of this Lavra or major monastery needed to be increased for the many pilgrims who wanted to undertake their compulsory once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Sergiev Posad. 
The Society of the Moscow-Yaroslavl Railroad was established and Savva’s father Ivan, together with Fyodor Chizhov, Baron Delvig, the Shipov brothers and Nikolai Riumin, were among the directors. By July 1859, the Society received permission from the Tsar and the old Metropolitan Filaret of the Trinity Monastery - who objected at first - and the Trinity railroad of 43.8 miles was constructed with a combination of high quality English girders, German locomotives and hard Russian labour, within a period of two years, 1860-62. When Savva Ivanovich was in Persia on business, he followed its construction, enquiring about progress during the last phase of its completion. He was obviously interested in its development, not least because he had become a stockholder. Because of this special association with the Trinity railroad, Savva Ivanovich was eager to use this particular connection to his summer estate, and sought and found an estate in the vicinity of this track. 
Moreover, the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergey, hereafter referred to as the Trinity or Trinity Lavra, at the end of the Trinity railroad in Sergiev Posad, was not only of great interest to befriended historians and medievalists, but to all religious practitioners who respected their Russian Orthodox Christian faith and the regulations of the Church. As the Mamontovs were practicing Christians, the location of Abramtsevo’s estate must have appealed to them even more so, because of this proximity to the Trinity, to which they became frequent visitors. For many visiting artists Abramtsevo’s nearness to Sergiev Posad was just as attractive and inspiring. 
For example, Ilya Repin valued Abramtsevo’s location, precisely because it enabled him to observe and portray pilgrims passing by on their way to Sergiev Posad. In a frequently quoted letter to the arts critic Vladimir Stasov that he wrote in the summer of 1878: ‘Most important there are hamlets nearby where the peasants, from young to old, men and women, are not afraid of me and pose readily. So I have done a lot of studies and drawings for several pictures.’ His famous painting Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk (1880-83) was indeed mainly the result of these observations of pilgrims going to the Trinity.

Whilst undertaking these preparatory studies, Repin stayed in a dacha in Khotkovo, near Abramtsevo, from which he left daily for the station and the surrounding villages in search of subjects and types of people to sketch from life.The artist purposely used the condition of living in close proximity to villagers in order to create authentic figures for his paintings. He sketched the village policeman, praying people, a peasant woman and a boy walking along the station begging for bread and money. This boy can be clearly identified as the model for the hunchback in the foreground of Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk. Repin, who had been working on the concept of this painting since his stay in his native town Chuguev, on his return from Paris in 1876, and again in Kursk, empowered this young boy.He posed him in a telling posture in his final painting, just as he had done with the young protesting boy in his Barge Haulers (1872, RM).                            

In the Religious Procession (1880-83), the young hunchback seems to be a passionate believer, eager to go on pilgrimage out of religious fervor, whereas the corpulent land-owning lady flanked by a bodyguard in the centre of the picture was there to flaunt her piety and wealth with the miracle-working icon in her hand. As Sarabyanov has noticed, with this detail Repin criticizes the hypocrisy of the rich, the nobility and corrupt clergy, contrasting them to the deeply religious Russian people, the exploited and impoverished Russian peasants: ‘that all these privileged people walking in the centre of the procession […] regard the procession as an everyday rite; they are devoid of piety [...] Their pompous hypocritical faces express base instincts and all manner of vices.’ According to Sarabyanov Repin, ‘not only showed the contradictions of the time and the hard lot of the peasants, but also asserted the splendour of the people and brought home to the spectator the necessity of changing life radically and of basing it on new laws.’

Another artist who was inspired by the Trinity, though in a different way, was Mikhail Nesterov(1862-1942), the neo-romantic religious painter of the late-nineteenth century. After his failure as a history painter and the death of his beloved wife in 1886, he found consolation and inspiration in what really mattered to him: religion, his native land and the religious practices of the Russian people, past and present. When he met Elena Polenova, Elizaveta Mamontova and their friends in the Trinity Lavra in the summer of 1888, he was at a turning point in his life. They invited him to visit Abramtsevo, where he found his own lyrical or what he himself called ‘poetic realist’ style. Here he painted a whole series of works about the life of St. Sergey of Radonezh, the founder of the Trinity.
On Radonezh Soil  
Beside the closeness to Russia’s religious centre in Sergiev Posad, the whole area in which Abramtsevo was located, was considered sacred as it was the place where Russia’s most revered saint, St. Sergey of Radonezh once lived. It is telling that when the Mamontovs resided in Abramtsevo, they not only attended services in the churches of the Trinity, but also in neighbouring villages. They went to celebrate Easter in the Mother of God Pokrov church in the Pokrov Convent in Khotkovo.According to St. Sergey of Radonezh’s will, all pilgrims to the Trinity were recommended to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of his parents St. Cyril and St. Mary in this place, where their mortal remains are kept, extremely close to Abramtsevo. It is believed that St. Sergey of Radonezh himself, then still called Bartholomew, took his vows in the Pokrov monastery and that his parents entered the monastery in their old age. They are now revered as saints and exemplary parents who taught their children the virtues of a Christian life.   
Abramtsevo’s estate then was situated on Radonezh’ soil: the soil on which the ‘holy feet’ of St. Sergey of Radonezh walked, his parents were buried in adjacent Khotkovo, and the Trinity Lavra was founded in Sergiev Posad. Since members of the Abramtsevo circle sought to formulate a Russian identity in the arts by affirming Russian culture, including its dominant religion, the whole area was of significance to them.    

These connections are perhaps illustrated most clearly in the work of Mikhail Nesterov, who upon Viktor Vasnetsov’s advice began to work on a second version of The Youth of Sergey of Radonezh (1892-97, TGM) in June 1892 in Khotkovo, where he noticed the ‘unhealthy fragile girl’ who served as one of the models for this painting. Apollinary Vasnetsov was the other and earlier model, another boy, praying was the third model. A curious synthesis of an innocent, sincere religious and feminine youth was the result. The question arises as to why Nesterov made all these changes, why this feminine outlook? 
Nesterov changed his picture, because his contemporaries (colleagues and Tretyakov in Moscow) did not approve of his first version. Vasnetsov even advised him not to exhibit his painting during the twentieth exhibition of the Peredvizhniki in 1892. Nesterov followed his advice, made some alterations, and postponed its exhibition. He reduced the proportions of the landscape to enhance the figure and kept searching for the right facial expression for his St. Sergey. It is fascinating that he found it in the look of the Khotkovo girl, whose facial expression shows a striking similarity to that of Mary in his Mother of God with Child, a sketch he simultaneously produced for the iconostasis in Kiev’s St. Vladimir cathredal. Nesterov was thus primarily looking for a facial expression of innocence and piety in his Youth. The fact that he also asked both Viktor Vasnetsov and Elizaveta Grigorevna to pose for the final version, seems to point to the insignificance of gender in this search, as well as his need for their approval. Luckily this time, his friends, Polenov in particular, approved of his work, although Polenov gave some hints to further improve it, which were followed up.   
In the final painting, we see the adolescent Bartholomew in a simple white monk’s robe standing in front of the wooden Trinity Chapel, which he and his brother Stephan had built in the depth of the forest which consisted of mixed trees (fir trees, a blossoming tree, etc.) and a little river. His companion, the bear, is lying at his feet. Bartholomew has entered the monastic order, as the title of the work and the monk’s dress suggests. When Bartholomew received his new name Sergey, he was then twenty three years old.         
Nesterov worked on this iconic representation in different places. He introduced alterations to the picture up to 1897. He succeeded in fulfilling his intentions to convey saint, bear and landscape as a harmonious, tranquil and sacred entity. When he began the project he wrote: ‘everything that is miraculous, everything that is peaceful in our northern nature must be in my landscape, it will be transfigured into a holy quiet, unearthly joy (…) with my flowers, woods, with the quiet little stream, I’m already launched on such a landscape.’ In the painting, the youth is surrounded by an air of saintliness. This effect was created by means of inserting a nimbus, a device derived from icons. His pious posture reflects Russian religious attitudes, where a passive submission to the Church and a humble openness to God are stressed. He is at one with the landscape, which is constructed through a series of almost decorative elements - single birch and fur trees, flowers, forest, and stream - rather than painted in a naturalistic manner, in order to make it look both sacred as well as Russian. The painting is of Radonezh’s soil: the same ground as viewed from Abramtsevo’s manor house!  
Source for this blog text
Excerpts from my doctoral thesis 'Abramtsevo. Multiple Cultural Expressions of a Russian Folk and Religious Identity' (2008, available in the UK, NL and Russia)      
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