Boris Grigoriev’s Les enfants

Boris Grigoriev’s Les enfants

"...the vision of Grigoriev is in essence romantic. It is romantic as Gorky is romantic, romantic as are the soul-racked pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In brief, it is feeling, not form, that maintains ascendancy in these vital, invigorating canvases." - Christian Brinton, 1924

Painted in 1922-23, Les enfants is a powerful image that showcases Boris Grigoriev's unique abilities as a portraitist. Documented in Grigoriev's personal archive (Fig. 1), this painting is a testament to Grigoriev's skill at rendering emotional intensity and his propensity to imbue a canvas with palpable drama. Furthermore, the painting dates from Grigoriev's seminal period in New York, during which he exhibited widely with great success, was lauded by the critic Christian Brinton and enthusiastically promoted by James Rosenberg, the founder of the influential New Gallery in New York. Grigoriev's arresting figures made a profound impression upon the American public who were enthralled by the hidden narratives of his insightful portraits.

In 1922 Florence Cane (1882-1952) commissioned Grigoriev to paint a portrait of her twin daughters, Katherine (b. 1910) and Mary (1910-2003). Herself a painter, Florence and her husband, Melville Cane (1879-1980) - a copyright lawyer and published poet - were part of a thriving artistic community that included the artists Marsden Hartley, Alfred Stieglitz, John Marin, Joseph Stella, and Arthur Dove, as well as poets and novelists including e. e. cummings and Thomas Wolfe. At this time, Grigoriev was experiencing international success for his Rasseïa cycle (circa 1916-1921) which combined his gift for portraiture with a steely critical eye and looked to the Russian countryside and peasant village life for subject-matter.

Born in Rybinsk, Boris Grigoriev studied at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg under Aleksandr Kiselev and Dmitrii Kardovskii before relocating to Paris in 1912, where he attended the Acadmie de la Grande Chaumière. Drawing inspiration from icon painting, Grigoriev painted many of the most important figures in Russian culture, including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Kustodiev and Nicholas Roerich. His distinctive grotesque stylisation, with its emphasis on line, lent itself to graphic work, as seen in his illustrations for the publications Novyi Satirikon and Apollon. Grigoriev's style was as innovative as it was au courant; as the critic Igor Grabar later observed; 'He took what he considered necessary - something from Cubism, a little from Cezanne - and worked out his own Grigoriev-esque style, which on one side, touched on the work of Petrov-Vodkin, on the other, that of the French Post-Impressionists.' (I. Grabar, as cited in D. Ia. Severiukhin and O. L. Leikind, Khudozhniki russkoi emigratsii (1917-1941),St. Petersburg, 1994, p. 171). As with his other cycles, including Intimité (1914-18) and Boui Bouis (1921), for Rasseia Grigoriev chose everyday people as his subjects, finding in the farmers, sailors and showgirls a psychological depth that he was able to capture on canvas. As Louis Rau explains: 'the title Rassea was chosen to suggest a land of villages and boroughs populated by peasants and workmen - the Russia that Grigoriev wished to capture in his portraits and genre scenes' (B. Grigoriev, Faces of Russia, London, 1924, p. 16). Grigoriev's portraits effectively transformed these figures into modern-day oracles, imparting a sense of gravitas and universal wisdom; it was precisely this exotic, yet human, glimpse of Russia that delighted a rapt American audience.

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