Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov (1 June 1844 – 18 July 1927)
was a Russian landscape painter associated with the Peredvizhniki movement of
Life and career
A native of St. Petersburg, Polenov studied under Pavel Chistyakov and at the
Imperial Academy of Arts from 1863 to 1871. He was a classmate and close friend of
Rafail Levitsky, a fellow Peredvizhniki artist and famous photographer. Their
letters, which are now stored in the Polenov's House museum, are an interesting
account of the many art exhibitions, movements and artists of their day.
As bachelors, Polenov and Levitsky lived and worked together in "Devich'e Pole"
(the name of the street "Maiden's Field"), in an attic of the Olsufevsky House (the
home of Rafail Levitsky's future wife Anna Vasilevna Olsufevsky). This house is
illustrated by Polenov in his painting “Grandmother's Garden” (1878).
Polenov was a pensioner of the academies of arts in Italy and France, where he
painted a number of pictures in the spirit of Academism on subjects taken from
European history, such as "Droit du Seigneur" (1874) Tretyakov gallery; at the same
time he worked a lot in the open air.
Polenov took part in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) as a war artist.
Returning from the war, he joined the Peredvizhniki, taking part in their mobile
exhibitions. His works won the admiration of Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov, who
acquired many of them for his gallery.
In the late 1870s, Polenov concentrated on painting landscapes in the realist
tradition of Aleksey Savrasov and Fyodor Vasilyev. He attempted to impart the
silent poetry of Russian nature, related to daily human life.
He was one of the first Russian artists who achieved a plein air freshness of
color combined with artistic finish of composition (The Moscow courtyard, 1878; The
Grandmother's garden, 1878; Overgrown pond, 1879). The principles developed by
Polenov had a great impact on the further development of Russian (and especially
Soviet) landscape painting.
Polenov's sketches of the Middle East and Greece (1881–1882) paved the way for
his masterpiece, "Christ and the Sinner" (1886–87), an interesting attempt to
update the academic style of painting. In his works of the 1880s, Polenov tended to
combine New Testament subjects with his penchant for landscape. From the 1870s,
Polenov also turned to stage design. Most notably, he decorated Savva Mamontov's
mansion in Abramtsevo and his Russian Private Opera. In 1910-1918, Polenov was
involved in a folk theatre project.
Polenov was elected a member of the St.Petersburg Academy of arts in 1893, and
named as a People's Artist of the USSR in 1926. For many years, he coached young
painters in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. His pupils
included Abram Arkhipov, Isaac Levitan, Konstantin Korovin, Emily Shanks and
Alexandre Golovine. Polenov's former home in Borok has been designated a national
art museum, and the village was renamed Polenovo to commemorate his name.
Two rare works by the celebrated Russian artist Vasili Polenov, “He that is
Without Sin” and “He is Guilty of Death” have sold today (30th
November) in the Russian Sale at Bonhams, setting a new world record for works by
the artist sold at auction.
Considered masterpieces of the golden age of 19th century Russian painting, the
two works entitled “He that is Without Sin” and “He is Guilty of Death” were new to
the market and had never been seen at auction before. Both the works well exceeded
their pre-sale estimates, with a huge amount of interest in the room and on the
telephone. “He that is Without Sin” sold for £4.07 million against a presale
estimate of £1.2 – 1.8 million to a bidder in the room, and “He is Guilty of Death”
sold for £2.8 million, with a presale estimate of £600,000 – 800,000.
Both works were part of a monumental series consisting of sixty paintings titled
“Life of Christ.” Completed over two decades, the series was exhibited in its
entirety only once in 1909 in Russia. The exhibition was then offered the chance to
exhibit in America and was reputedly scheduled to cross the Atlantic aboard the
ill-fated Titanic. Due to a shipment delay, the series avoided the disastrous
journey but it could not avoid being dispersed between various Russian art
Evgenia Teslyuk, Head of the Russian department in London comments “Technically
brilliant and emotionally intense, these two works represented the artist at his
best. Polenov is one of the best-loved artists in Russia and his religious
paintings in particular have a very special, intimate resonance. The final prices
realised demonstrates the demand, at an international level, in works of this
quality and we are very happy with the result.”
In 1924, the two works were among 13 chosen to represent Polenov’s
accomplishments at the highly-publicised Russian art exhibits at the Grand Central
Palace exhibition in New York. They were then acquired by Charles R. Crane, an
industrialist, philanthropist, diplomat and Russian art patron, who believed
strongly in the cultural and intellectual exchange between nations. Passionate
about his mission, Mr. Crane donated the two paintings to a North American
institution, where they remained for more than 80 years.
The first of the two paintings entitled “He That is Without Sin,” (in reference
to St. John, 8:7) was a version of Polenov’s earlier large-scale work with the same
title that is now in the collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
The work depicted a woman awaiting Christ’s judgment for her sin of adultery.
Instead of passing a judgment, Christ suggests that those in the crowd “who are
without sin, to throw the first stone.” This message of humanism, forgiveness and
love is quintessential to the work of Vasili Polenov and is one that he repeatedly
returned to by re-working this scene compositionally and artistically.
The second painting, entitled “He is Guilty of Death” (in reference to St.
Matthew, 26:66), depicted Christ before the Great Sanhedrin, Supreme Court of
Ancient Israel, after his arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane. The lonely and
introspective image of Christ is in direct contrast to his hostile and aggressive
surroundings, particularly the judges who ultimately would determine his fate.
Yelena Harbick, Director of Russian Fine and Decorative Arts comments, “These
paintings were unquestionably the most important works by Polenov to ever come up
for auction and we are delighted with the prices realised. Through their exhibition
at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and at Bonhams in New York, a huge amount of
interest from both institutions and private collectors was generated.”