Vasily Ivanovich Surikov - Biography

Surikov, Vasily Ivanovich Storm of Snow Fortress 

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov is considered Russia's greatest historical painter. He executed only nine historical canvases out of hundreds of portraits, studies, and sketches - but what canvases! He was a master of monumental historical compositions, depicting national tragedies and powerful human characters.

In his canvases Surikov dealt with many dramatic episodes of Russian history such as the reformation of the church in the mid 17th century and Peter the Great's reforms of the 18th century. In Surikov's own time, the late 19th century, there were numerous flashbacks to those events in Russia. The Wanderers, a group of Russian realist artists to which Surikov belonged, were greatly influenced by the ideas of revolutionary democrats; they believed that art had a social-educational mission. They organized exhibitions all over Russia bringing art to the common people. The association united many of the best artists of the time. It was most active during the 1870s and 80s. Moscow merchant Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the first museum of Russian art, was the main collector and promoter of the Wanderers’ works, guided in his activity by the ideal of serving the people.

The Russian people were the main characters of Surikov’s works and courage and daring were the artist's principal subject matters. In his paintings, Surikov always focused on fine portraiture. His female images are particularly elaborate and masterful.

His parents were also in a broader sense artistically gifted. His father, a passionate lover of music, played guitar excellently and was considered the best amateur singer in Krasnoyarsk. His mother had wonderful inherent artistic taste. The source of Surikov's conception of beauty was Siberia, with all its severity, its sometimes cruel customs, its courageous people and “old Russian” beauty. “Siberia, brought me up from childhood with the ideals of historical types,” Sukarov wrote.Born in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Surikov was of Cossack descent. His ancestors once built this city and participated in Cossack uprisings in Siberia and on the River Don in southern Russia. Surikov’s father's family came to Siberia from the Don area with Yermak, the Cossacks’ ataman (commander) in the Urals. His mother came from the old Cossack family Torgoshin and it was from these roots that the artist inherited his proud and freedom-loving character. Pyotr and Ilya Surikov and Vasily Torgoshin are mentioned among those who took part in the Krasnoyarsk uprising of 1695-98. Surikov was proud of his origins and wrote: “I am a Cossack through and through, with a pedigree going back over two hundred years.”

Sukarov made his first attempts at drawing in early childhood: “I was six, I remember, I drew Peter the Great from an engraving. The colors I did myself: blue for the uniform and crimson for the lapels.”

The first person to notice the boy's abilities was Grebnev, the drawing teacher at the Krasnoyarsk district school, which Surikov finished in 1861 with a certificate of merit. Grebnev gave Surikov the task of copying etchings from the old masters. Surikov later spoke with gratitude of his first tutor: “Grebnev nearly wept over me, teaching me to draw.” Appreciating Vasily's exceptional talent, his drawing teacher supported the young man's desire to become a professional painter.

In order to support the family after his father's death in 1859, Surikov worked as an office clerk. Sometimes, as he recalled later, he even had to “paint Easter eggs for three rubles per hundred” and once he took a commission to paint an icon entitled “The Holy Virgin's Feasts.” Surikov's drawings attracted the attention of the governor of Krasnoyarsk, Zamyatin, who put in a word for him at the Council of the Academy of Arts. The response from St. Petersburg was positive, but with the reservation that he would not be provided a scholarship. The rich gold-mine owner Kuznetsov, an art lover and collector, came to Surikov's aid and offered to pay for his studies and upkeep.  ...


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