The work of Vasily Surikov manifests an amazing fidelity of purpose. The artist put all his heart and soul into reflecting the history of his native Russia, resurrecting the distant past with brilliant veracity. He left only seven large historical paintings, each of which took several years to paint. All are outstanding for their vivid representation of Russian types and characters, underlying national flavour, authentic period atmosphere and profound understanding of the meaning and spirit of the events portrayed. As superlative achievements of realistic historical painting, they comprise a magnificent Russian contribution to world art.
Surikov’s talent as a historical painter revealed itself most powerfully in the 1880s and 1890s, the flowering period of the realist school in Russian art. Firmly linked with the progressive, democratically-minded people of his time, especially the group of painters who were known as the Itinerants (The Society for Circulating Art Exhibitions), he was conspicuous even in that heyday of Russian artistic talent for the astonishing originality of his creative thinking, for his work that is filled with the very breath of history.
The painter’s unusual background quite strongly influenced the development of his talent. He seemed ordained from childhood, spent in a remote Siberian town, to tackle tasks of great creative character.
Vasily Surikov was born on 24 January (12 January, Old Style) 1848, in Krasnoyarsk, into an old Cossack family. His Cossack forefathers from the Don had in the sixteenth century followed Yermak on his “conquest of Siberia”. Though the status and functions of the Siberian Cossacks had markedly changed by the time he was born, the painter was proud of his ancestry, retaining to his dying day fond notions about the old sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Cossacks: their typical forthright, independent and liberty-loving spirit, their patriotism in the defence of Russia from external foes, their elective system of self-government and so on. Indeed, he cherished the Cossack traits of courage, heroism and love of freedom as “family heirlooms”.
Siberia, Surikov’s boyhood home, left a store of impressions that were later to become the taproot of his inspiration. It was with such a background that Surikov came to St Petersburg to study at the Academy of Arts. The contrast was staggering. Life in the capital of European Russia had nothing in common with faraway Siberia. Surikov recorded his impressions in his first painting, dating from 1870, Monument to Peter the Great on Senate Square in St Petersburg. In his drawings for the Polytechnical Exhibition, he already evinced an interest in the activities of people living in the Petrine era (Peter the Great Dragging Sailing Vessels from Onega Bay and Peter and Menshikov with Dutch Sailors). At the Academy, Surikov drew the typical nudes and painted pictures of abstract biblical subjects as required by the syllabus. Having assimilated all that the Academy had to offer, Surikov retained intact in his work boyhood reminiscences and vivid mental images of Siberia. The artisanship has not marred his individual talent; on the contrary, it developed an independent attitude, one of firmly rejecting formal academic ostentation in historical painting.
Surikov himself said that at the Academy he developed an interest in three periods of ancient history. “At first, remote antiquity, mostly Egypt, then Rome with its empire that encompassed half the world, and, finally, the Christian world that arose on its ruins.” Products of those years were his sketches for Cleopatra (1874) after Pushkin’s story Egyptian Nights, Belshazzar’s Feast (1874), The Assassination of Julius Caesar (1870s) and The Apostle Paul Defending the Dogma of the Christian Faith Before King Agrippa, His Sister Berenice and Proconsul Festus (1875).
Belshazzar’s Feast depicts the prophet Daniel inter preting the early demise implied by the fiery writing on the wall to the sinful Babylonian king. In composition, modelling and presentation the work is still typically academic, though it already manifests its creator’s temperament. King Belshazzar cosseted in luxury is contrasted to the prophet Daniel, whose uplifted hand points to the stern warning.
Making skilful use of the phosphoric brilliance of the writing on the wall, Surikov boldly modelled figures and objects. The half-naked bodies with arms and hands thrust out in an expression of despair seem marble-like in the stream of bluish light. The artist received the first prize for the painting. Printed reproductions of it drew the public eye to the young painter…
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