An inspirational artist’s house

“The landscapes along the Oka River… are beautiful. I wish we could settle there,” wrote Russian painter Vasily Polenov in 1887. In the spring of 1890, he bought an estate in the village of Byokhovo overlooking the wide water. As he got to know the area, he came to love the views from a nearby hill, and in 1892 he built a new house there, which became a museum while he still lived in it. Decorated with works by fellow painters like Ilya Repin and Polenov’s pupil Isaac Levitan, the house attracted tourists from nearby towns.

Photos by Phoebe Taplin



“My wish came true when we succeeded in building a house on the bank of the Oka, fit for putting up collections, and I am extremely glad to see the visitors coming and examining them,” wrote Polenov about his home.

The three-story white mansion where the family lived is made of plastered wood and modelled on the home of Polenov’s parents near St. Petersburg. Repin’s oval portrait of Polenov hangs over the door. The portrait room, covered with paintings and photographs of the extended family, also contains collections from Greece and Egypt, assembled by the painter’s father, Dmitry. Next door, the library, with its painted fireplace, carved wood, stained glass and crowded gallery of masterpieces, embodies the spirit of this exceptional house. Creative flower arrangements and huge windows with views of the surrounding countryside add to the charm. Polenov’s study is hung with his own works, including views of the Oka, which you can glimpse through the windows. Upstairs, a huge sketch for his famous painting of “Christ and the Sinner” dominates one end of a light-filled hall, which also features a wall covered in delicate studies.

Vasily Polenov (1844-1927) was one of the great nineteenth century Russian landscape painters who formed the Peredvizhniki (“wanderers”) movement. You can see more of his work in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, including the famous “Moscow Courtyard,” showing an idyllic grassy field behind a whitewashed church that still exists near Arbat Street.

Behind the house, the gardens slope down to the river. In 1904, Polenov decided to build an orange-roofed studio next to the main house.

“This summer I was building a studio, but for some reason it turned out to be an Abbey. Nevertheless I am extremely pleased: the window is large, the light is wondrous,” he wrote to his friend Ivan Tsvetaev, the founder of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.

Inside, the artist’s brushes, compounds, oils and stove are laid out like an apothecary’s kitchen. The side room has an exhibition about the estate’s theater, including some brilliantly spooky puppets. Polenov started a long-running tradition in 1910, when he invited local people to a play he had staged with his children.

There are changing exhibitions from the museum reserves in the old barn. The current display is of paintings and fairytale illustrations by Polenov’s talented younger sister, Elena Polenova. A path leads from the studio door, past the boathouse towards a sandy beach on the river. A spectacular view opens up in both directions and it is even possible to swim there. From a little way above the beach, another path leads along the riverbank all the way to the Trinity Church at Byokhovo where a steep flight of steps leads up to the ancient, cliff-top graveyard. Polenov and his family are buried under simple wooden crosses above a flowery bank near a small chapel. From this hill, the views over the meandering river are better than ever.

Polenov designed the picturesque church and friends and family helped to decorate it. He called it “our church which celebrates painting, music and poetry … a Temple of Art.” Nearby there are cottages with flowering gardens.

A visit to Polenovo estate allows you to walk through the dreams of an extraordinary artist. As Polenov wrote when he had finished building his studio:

“I’ve been dreaming of it all my life and now I can hardly believe that this has come true.”

Getting there

Polenovo is 100 kilometres south of Moscow. Trains are relatively infrequent; the weekend 8.34am might be a good option. The journey from Kursk Station to Tarusskaya (212 rubles one way) takes a bit more than two hours, and the 10 minute taxi ride from there to the estate-museum (pronounced “PaLYENava”) will cost around 250 rubles. Tarusskaya station has a statue of the artist and a small museum. Trains back to Moscow currently leave at 4pm and 6pm. You can take a later train if you don’t mind changing at Serpukhov.

Refreshments

There is a lovely café in the visitors’ centre, which does coffee and homemade cakes. This is still a welcome rarity in Russian estates and – with luck – an example for other museums. If you need to wait at the station, there is a bar on the top floor of the neighboring shopping centre, which serves half litres of beer for 60 rubles.

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