This week we have the second of Stanislav’s rich prose experiments. You can read his previous article here.
Paris by Night: Camille Pissarro and Konstantin Korovin
Dr Stanislav Shmelev
Both in France and in Russia the 1890s and 1900s have been the time of an absolute height of impressionism: the impressionist exhibitions of 1874, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1884, 1886 would have already presented the main experiments of the group, Claude Monet explores the different atmospheric effects of light in his Haystack, Rouen cathedral, Giverny, Poplar and Dieppe series, Camille Pissarro chooses to explore the rural life, the panoramas of Rouen and finds a motive which will make him remembered – a series of Paris cityscapes, which includes the views of Avenue de l’Opera –one of the first impressionist paintings to appear in the Russian collection. In Russia at the same time Vasily Polenov introduces painting en plein air to his students at the Moscow School of Painting, among whom we will find Konstantin Korovin and Valentin Serov. Isaak Levitan experiments with his unique impressionistic technique of depicting the Russian landscapes and a group of St Petersburg artists headed by Alexandre Benois start a new journal, Mir Iskusstva (1899-1904), which will make a profound impact on the development of the Russian arts and art criticism. The interaction between the two traditions: the French and the Russian, manifested itself in a chain of international exhibitions, organized by Mir Iskusstva in St Petersburg in 1899, the Exposition Universelle in Paris of 1900, the Russian exhibition at the Salon Automne in Paris in 1906, the Salon of La Toison d’Or in Moscow in 1908 and 1909 and the Exhibition of the 100 years of French painting in St Petersburg in 1912. The development of music, poetry and literature at the time create a wonderful context and interaction with the painterly innovations. Debussy (his “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” was premiered in Paris in 1894) and Ravel (his “Jeux d’eau” appears in 1901 and Miroirs in 1905) create the French and their contemporaries Skryabin (his Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 20 was composed in 1896) and Rachmaninoff (his First Piano Concerto was completed in 1891, his Second Piano Concerto in 1901). This was the new Russian music, which would have an enormous influence on the development of everything to come afterwards. Meanwhile the renaissance of symbolist poetry and literature creates a unique synthesis of the arts, which will be later called the Silver Age.
When one looks at the image of “Le Boulevard Monmartre” (1897) by Camille Pissarro and “Boulevard des Capucines” (1912) by Konstantin Korovin, one cannot escape the striking realization of the dialogue that is taking place between the two painters. Both Pissarro and Korovine got attracted by Paris to an extent that there emerged several distinct series of works focused on this magnificent city. What is most interesting for us in this article is the dialogue between the two painters about Paris by night, the effect of the interaction between the darkening sky and the artificial lights and the vibrancy of Paris life itself.
Camille Pissarro, 1897, “Le Boulevard Monmartre, effet de nuit” 53.5×65 cm, National Gallery, London
The works of Konstantin Korovin only recently started attracting attention at the auctions when the prices for his large oil paintings reached 1 000 000 USD mark. There have been several major studies devoted to his work: (Молева 1963), (Власова 1969), (Kamensky 1988), (Гусарова 1990), (Domiteeva 2007). The memoirs and literary works by Konstantin Korovin were published (Korovin 1971), (Korovin 2010), and 2011 saw a major retrospective at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. His works have been exhibited at every show of the Union of the Russian Artists from the year of its foundation, 1903 to 1922 (Лапшин 1974). The piece we have chosen for this article was on display at their Tenth Exhibition in 1912 (Союз русских художников 1912). Pissarro is a master impressionist, whose work has been praised and catalogued in the wide range of publications: (Stephens 1904), (Rewald 1938), (Wildenstein Institute. & Pissarro 2006). Pissarro exhibited in Paris at all of the shows by the Society des Artistes Anonymes (the Impressionists) since their first exhibition in 1874, and their subsequent shows in 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880 and 1881, 1884 and 1886. It was the Moscow merchant Sergei Schukin, who bought the first piece by Camille Pissarro (Avenue de l’Opera, 1898) from Duran Ruel in Paris (Тугенхольд 1914). Schukin collection was widely known in Moscow and it was there where the Russian public learned about the art of Impressionists. The works Pissarro were exhibited in Moscow in 1908 during the I st Salon de Toison d’Or (Salon Zolotogo Runa) in Moscow. The night Paris scene by Pisarro was purchased by the National Gallery and can now be admired in London.
During the last years of his life, Camille Pissarro undertook a monumental task, as daring as it was novel. (Brettell 1992). He decided to create several series of works, comprising 300 canvases, of street scenes of Paris, Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe. These paintings can be grouped in eleven distinct series (1893-1903). Le boulevard Montmartre was the only Paris night scene Pissarro created in his lifetime. In a letter to his sons, Lucien and Georges on the 8th February, 1897, Pissarro explained: ‘I have booked a spacious room at the Grand Hotel de Russie, 1 rue Druot, from where I can see down the whole length of the boulevards clear to the Porte Saint Denis or nearly, at any rate, all the way to the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle’ and ‘I hope to do ten or so paintings here. Durand was very pleased with the small ones I did, he councelled me to do some boulevards, big ones of course.’ (Wildenstein Institute. & Pissarro 2006) There are sixteen different views of Boulevard Montmartre that we know. Pissarro wrote: ‘I’ve begun my Boulevards series. I have a stunning motif that will require every conceivable effect to interpret. On my left I have another motif, but it is terribly difficult, almost a bird’s-eye view of carriages, omnibuses, people between big trees, big houses that have to be set straight, its hard. There no getting away from it, I am going to have to pull it off anyway.
Konstantin Korovin associated himself with several major artistic movements of pre-revolutionary Russia. He took part in the exhibitions of Mir Iskusstva (1899-1903, 1906, 1921-1922), in fact designing the first cover for the famous Mir Iskusstva magazine in 1898. (Лапшина 1977), took a very active part in the activities of the Union of Russian Artists, exhibiting with this group every single time from 1903 to 1922, exhibited with the Group 36 in 1901 and 1902.(Лапшин 1974), (ГТГ 2003). Korovin was part of the first international exhibitions where the French and Russian artists were showing together held in St Petersburg by Mir Iskusstva in 1899 (Мир искусства 1899), and prepared extraordinary panels representing the Russian North, which received a Gold Medal at the L’Exposition Universelle in Paris (Exposition Universelle 1900). Korovin first visited Paris in 1887,subsequently visiting it in 1889 and 1892. Here is how he describes his first visit: ‘I was stunned by Paris…The light, colours…And Impressionists..- there I found all that I was so blamed for back home in Moscow’. Korovin undertakes a major project with the private Moscow opera of the merchant Savva Mamontov started in 1885. Among many decorations and costumes he created were ‘Aida’ (G. Verdi, 1885), ‘The Snow Maiden’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1885), ‘Lakme’ (L. Delibes, 1885), ‘Carmen’ (G. Bizet, 1885), ‘Don Giovanni’ (W. A. Mozart, 1885), ‘La Gioconda’ (A. Ponchielli, 1886), ‘La favourite’ (G. Donizetti, 1886), ‘Samson and Delilah’ (C. Saint-Saëns, 1886), ‘The Maid of Pskov’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1886), ‘La Boheme’ (G. Puccini, 1887). Between 1899 and 1924 Korovin works for the Bolshoi Imperial Teatre in Moscow and creates the new era of theatre decorations and costumes for a plethora of performances: among them ‘Faust’ (C. Gounod, 1899), ‘Rusalka’ (A. Dargomyzhsky, 1900), ‘Swan Lake’ (P. Tchaikovsky, 1900), ‘Don Quixote’ (L. Minkus, 1901), ‘The Little Humpbacked Horse’ (C. Pugni, 1901), ‘La Fille de Gudule’ (A. Simon, 1902), ‘The Flying Dutchman’ (R. Wagner, 1902), ‘Nal and Damayanti‘ (A. Arensky, 1903), ‘Le Poisson doré’ (L. Minkus, 1903), ‘Twilight of the Gods’ (R. Wagner, 1903), ‘Demon’ (A. Rubnistein, 1904), ‘A Life for the Tzar’ (alternatively, ‘Ivan Susanin’, M. Glinka, 1904), ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’ (M. Glinka, 1904), ‘Sadko’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1906), ‘La Florette Rouge’ (Hartmann, 1907), ‘The Snow Maiden’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1907), ‘Raymonda’ (A. Glazunov, 1908), ‘Evgeni Onegin’ (P. Tchaikovsky, 1908), ‘Judith’ (A. Serov, 1908), ‘The Golden Cockerel’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1909), ‘Prince Igor’ (A. Borodin, 1909), ‘Salammbô’ (M. Mussorgsky, 1910), ‘The Khovansky Affair’ (M. Musorgsky, 1910), ‘Le Corsaire’ (A. Adam, 1912), ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1913), ‘Christmas Eve’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1915), ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1916), ’Kashchey the Deathless’ (N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1917), ‘La Bayadère’ (L. Minkus, 1917), ‘The Nutcracker’ (P. Tchaikovsky, 1919) and many others. Korovin described his theatrical journey in the following words ‘Colours, chords of colour and forms –was the task I posed for myself in the decorative painting for the opera and ballet theatre’. Unfortunately, after the fire of 1914 most of the decorations created by Korovin for the Bolshoi were lost. Some sketches and very few costumes remain in the collection of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. ‘My main and only constantly pursued goal in the art of painting has always been beauty, aesthetic impact on the viewer, the charm of colours and form… Painting, like music, like the poem has to always bring the viewer delight’ wrote Korovin on his approach to art. Unfortunately, his art was not accepted by all. The art critic Alexandre Benois in his treatise on the 19th century Russian painting in 1902 commented that ‘there was little talk about beauty and many simply forgot about it. Korovin’s paintings,
in which the artist aimed only at creating a beautiful colour spot, should have of course, confused many.’ Benois points to the misunderstanding that Korovin faced from the Russian elites. Benois continues: “In essence fabulously decorative, it is better to say – purely painterly.. the Korovin’s talent is being lost’.(А. Н. Бенуа 1902). The first publication of Korovin’s works was in the Mir Iskusstva magazine in 1900. Benois wrote in 1932 on Korovins jubilee ‘We, adolescent youth, stood in front of Korovin’s paintings and experienced the ecstasy of painting, pure painting’(А. Бенуа 1968). Although the subject matter of the two magnificent cityscapes is similar, the approach differs quite o considerably. We will try to explore how the composition, the use of perspective and colour, and the manner of the brushstrokes created these two Parisian pieces and discuss the differences in the approach by the two artists.
My first encounter with the works by Korovin was at his retrospective at the Russian Musem in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1986. I got acquainted with Pissarro in the Hermitage collection while studying Art History at the Hermitage.
Stanislav is an Oxford based artist with PhD in ecological economics. He can be contacted at email@example.com. His work is available here on our e-commerce page.
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6 Stanislav Shmelev 2011 “Paris by Night: Pissarro and Korovine”
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