17 epic masterpieces by Russian realist Vasily Surikov

Vasily Surikov was born in 1848 in Krasnoyarsk. His strong desire to study painting led him first to St. Petersburg, where in the period 1869-1875 he was enrolled at the St. Petersburg Academy. // "The view of the Peter the Great's monument on the Senatskaya square, Saint-Petersburg", 1870
From 1877, Surikov lived and worked in Moscow, later joining the Association of Traveling Art Exhibitions. In Moscow, Surikov produced his most important works, including such monumental historical paintings as "Menshikov in Berezovo", 1883…
… and "Boyarynya Morozova", 1887. With the depth and insight of a veritable historian and religious visionary, the artist revealed in these paintings the tragic contradictions of history and the unearthly logic with which it advances, and shows the struggle of historical forces in the time of Peter the Great during the schism.
The main protagonist in these pictures is the Russian people, the masses in all their diversity, laying bare the Russian national character. // "The princess visiting women's monastery", 1912
Surikov is attracted by strong vibrant personalities in which the rebellious spirit of the people runs deep: the fierce determination and indomitable spirit of the red-bearded Streltsy in the "Morning of the Streltsy Execution" (1881), and the passion and fanatical asceticism of Boyarynya Morozova in the eponymous painting.
With great skill and love, this national genius vividly portrays the squares and streets of old Moscow, filled with crowds of people. The artist deftly depicts the intricate detail of clothes, utensils, embroidery, wood carvings, religious architecture, and rural barns. // "The steeple of Ivan the Great and the dome of Uspensky cathedral", 1876
After the sudden death of his wife in 1888, Surikov fell into a severe depression and lost interest in painting. No one knows the pain and mental anguish he endured. But his will was not broken. The painting "Jesus Healing a Blind Man," 1888, in which the recipient of the miracle betrays a certain likeness to the artist, is peculiarly symbolic of his own enlightenment and revival at that time.
Having overcome his spiritual angst (following a trip to Siberia in 1889-90), he created the unusually bright and cheerful canvas "The Taking of Snow Town", 1891, freeze-framing the classic image of the Russian people, full of daring, health, and joie de vivre.
In his historical paintings of the 1890s, Surikov once again revisits the theme of national history. The painting "The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak", 1895, depicts the heroism of Russian warriors in the name of liberating their native land. The painting was presented at the XXIII Traveling Exhibition in St. Petersburg. The exhibition was visited by Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Consort Alexandra, who bought the work for forty thousand rubles. At that time, the country was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the conquest of Siberia and the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway, so Surikov inadvertently "hit the spot," ending up in the awkward (for him) role of official painter.
In 1895, the Council of the Academy awarded him the title of academician. The canvas "Suvorov Crossing the Alps", 1899 celebrates the courage and bravery of the Russian army. However, these oeuvres lack the perfection of his masterpieces of the 1880s.
The artist's next historical work was "Stepan Razin" (1910). The first esquisses were presented in 1906 at the exhibition in Moscow, but Surikov was not satisfied with the results, he did not feel the unity between Razin and other personages, so he returned to the subject and tried to make it better.
The genre of historical painting was very popular in the 19th century. Typically, historical paintings adhered to all the canons of classical art: smoothly and beautifully executed, they were somewhat reminiscent of theatrical productions on historical themes. Surikov's paintings did not fit the mold: the authentic 17th century, formidable and ruthless, stared out at the viewer from the canvas. His power of expression was so extraordinary that no one doubted that somehow he had "seen it with his own eyes." // "Boyarinya Morozova's face" (close up), 1886
In addition to his grand works on subjects of Russian history, Surikov also produced some delightful chamber portraits, in which the master's talent for portraiture and profound interest in the spiritual world of the Russian folk manifested itself. // "The portrait of his daughter Olga" (NB: Olga is a future wife of another prominent Russian artist Petr Konchalovsky), 1888
Fully immersed in his pictures as if he were alive in them, Surikov suffered from "terrible nightmares... Every night I see executions. The smell of blood is all around. I'm afraid of night. I wake and rejoice, glance at the picture. Thank God, there's no such horror in it. It's all kept in my imagination, so as not to burden the viewer with it. So that calm can prevail. I take great pains not to upset my audience with unpleasant feelings. You could say I'm holy, but others... After all, the blood, the executions, I've been there, been through it." // "Julius Cesar's assassination", 1875
In his later years, Surikov produced many portraits and self-portraits. Whereas his earlier portraits (with a few exceptions) — "Portrait of a Mother", 1887, "With a Guitar", 1882, "Portrait of Olga Surikova" 1888, and others — were in some way connected to his grand historical visions, now they acquired their own intrinsic value: "Portrait of Dr. A.D. Yezersky", 1910, "Portrait of a Man with a Sore Hand", 1913 // "Portrait of a Man with a Sore Hand", 1913
Summer 1915 he spent down south in the Crimea. He spent his time sunbathing and hiking in the mountains. The exertion was too much for his weak heart. // "Ai-petri mountains, Crimea", 1908
Surikov passed away on March 6, 1916. The final words of this great artist were: "I'm disappearing."// Self-portrait, 1879

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