Vasily Perov: Pugachev's Judgement
Vasily Grigoryevich Perov is one of the most predominating figures in Russian painting of the 1860s. He lived at a time when an artist’s indifference to social problems was considered immoral in Russia. And it was Perov who took up a vital and most complicated task of establishing the principles of critical realism. His pictures carried strong social implication and thus became an important landmark in the history of Russian painting.
Vasily Perov was an illegitimate son of the baron G. K. Kridiner, an Arzamas prosecutor. In 1846, he entered the Art School of Stupin in Arzamas, where he got his nickname of Perov (from Russian pero, pen) for his good handwriting. Since 1853 till 1861, Perov studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.
For his Sermon in a Village, painted as a diploma work in 1861, the St. Petersburg Academy awarded Perov the Grand Gold medal and subsidized his trip abroad. The same year, 1861, Perov’s Easter Procession in a Village was removed from the exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of Artists for the insult to the clergy. In connection with this picture one of Perov’s contemporaries remarked, ‘Instead of Italy Perov might be exiled to the Solovetsky Islands.’ The work was the manifest of critical realism. Both the subject matter and the handling of it were new and unusual. Perov advisedly chose to paint the reality plain and even filthy. Perov’s Easter Procession in a Village marked the beginning of a new period leading to Repin’s Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk.
For his foreign studies Perov chose France. In Paris, Perov, in his own words, ‘made a considerable progress in the technique of painting’ though he did not create anything truly significant there, and even before his stipendiary period had been over, Perov returned to Russia.
In 1865, a year after he had returned from Paris, Perov completed the Last Journey, a painting with an intentionally uncomplicated subject matter clear to all and sundry. The Troika, Perov’s most expressive work produced in 1866, is especially typical of his style, the diagonal ground, sky, and houses. The motion of the little tuggers too agile to harmonize with the burden they carry only accentuates the symbolically excruciating tone of the picture. The ethic tonality of the Troika is similar to Dostoyevsky’s theme of the humiliated and insulted or the eternal reproach to the world of injustice and enmity expressed in his motif of ‘a child’s tear’. Perov’s style reached maturity in the Last Tavern at Town Gate (1868). More generally, the same holds for Russian realistic art with its focus on the conjunction of social predilection and artistic completeness.
In the 1870s, Perov made some historical paintings. He produced Pugachev’s Judgment (1870) and Nikita Pustosvyat. Dispute on the Confession of Faith (1880). At the same time, he was still prolific in the genre, which is exemplified by his elegiac Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son (1874), widely famous Hunters Resting (1871), monumental Peasant in the Field (1876), sorrowful and disturbing Peasants Returning from a Funeral in Winter (1880?), and the Pigeon Fancier (1874). But having come a long way from the Easter procession in a Village to the Found Drowned and the Last Tavern, Perov had paid his tribute to the genre: its further development towards the truly national painting was to be connected with the name of Ilya Repin.
In 1871, Perov, together with Ivan Kramskoy, Nikolai Gay, and Grigory Miasoyedov became a founder of the Itinerants’ Society of Traveling Exhibitions. Also in 1871, Perov became a professor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, he turned out to be an excellent teacher; among his students were such outstanding Russian painters as Sergey (?) Korovin, Andrey Riabushkin, Nikolai Kasatkin, Mikhail Nesterov and others.
At the end of the 1860s, Perov turned to portraiture in which he was equally pioneering. Exploring life, he discovered a variety of interesting characters and was able to convey their graphic individuality and profundity, e.g. Thomas the Owl (1868) or Wanderer (1870). These paintings were the beginning of a whole gallery of peasant portraits increased later by Kramskoy, Repin, and Maximov.
In the 1870s, Perov created a series of portraits of the Russian people of culture. Only an artist who fully understood the task and responsibility of portraiture could have achieved this characterization, passionate and devoid of everything vain and contingent. So, in the portraits of Anton Rubenstein (1870), Alexander Ostrovsky (1871), Feodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Dahl, Mikhail Pogodin, and Apollon Maikov (1872) we see a brilliant combination of a faithful and, at the same time, critical rendering and a profound delineation of character.
Life was changing, the art of painting was developing, and Perov saw and felt that he was falling behind, but he could not change his own manner. In the late 1870s the artist did not manage to create anything interesting. The painter died in 1882 from tuberculosis.