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.
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.”
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.
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.
In the middle of December 1868, the young artist set off on a two-month journey to the capital with a string of carts transporting Kuznetsov's merchandise. Surikov proved to be insufficiently prepared for the Academy examinations. He entered the school of the Society for the Advancement of the Arts and in the three summer months mastered a three-year course. A straight-A student, Surikov didn't care much about big-city nightlife. He set his sights firmly on the portrayal of Russian history, working day and night to master that very challenging profession. On 28 August 1869 he passed the Academy's entrance examinations and was accepted as an external student. By the following autumn he was already at work on his first independent painting: “View of the Monument to Peter the Great on Senate Square in St. Petersburg” (1870). Surikov made great progress at the Academy, extracting the maximum benefit from his lessons. His achievements were particularly impressive in composition - so much so that his colleagues called him “the composer.”
The development of his natural gifts was owed much to Pavel Chistyakov, who trained many masters of Russian art. At the Academy Surikov successfully executed a series of compositions on classical themes and also a depiction of early Russian history, “A Prince's Judgment” (1874).
In April 1875 the artist participated in a competition for a gold medal with “The Apostle Paul Expounding the Dogma of Christianity to Herod, Agrippa, His Sister Bernice and the Roman Proconsul Festus.” Compositionally, the work did not venture beyond academic canons, but it did already show the artist's interest in his characters' psychologies. However, it did not earn him a medal.
Graduating from the Academy with honors in 1875, Surikov was allowed the privilege of a two-year trip abroad, paid for by the state. He refused, asking instead to be allowed to paint the murals for Christ the Savior's Cathedral in Moscow, a commission that made him a wealthy man. Surikov did the preparatory work for this in St. Petersburg and only added the final touches in Moscow. It was the only commission he ever took throughout life.
In 1877 Surikov settled in Moscow. From June 1877 the artist lived permanently in Moscow, spending two years doing frescos depicting the four ecumenical councils. In 1878 the artist married Elizaveta Share. His happy family life and relative material security allowed him to paint scenes from Russian history.
“Arriving in Moscow, I found myself in the center of the life of the Russian people and immediately found my bearings,” he subsequently recalled. And paint he did, churning out a raft of masterpieces such as “The Morning of the Streltsty's Execution,” “Menshikov in Beryozovo” and “The Boyarynya Morozova.”
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