by Milda VIKTURINA, Senior Researcher, Expertise Department, State Tretyakov Art Gallery, Moscow
The name of the illustrious Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov( 1848-1926) speaks volumes to any art lover. His fairy-tale characters-the epic bogatyrs and knights, the disconsolate Alyonushka brooding over a deep place in a river, Tsarevich Ivan and Yelena the Beautiful-have become part of our life since childhood. Vasnetsov's contemporaries showed an immense interest in his canvases. Quite a few copies were produced from his paintings dating to different periods. Some are passed off as reproductions painted by the author himself.
Inspecting provincial art galleries and private collections, we may come upon Vasnetsov copies - well and neatly done, with a perfect touch of the brush. Some of these canvases once bore the copyists' signatures which were subsequently erased or painted over as soon as the owner chose to put this or that "masterpiece" on sale. And this is how the canvas began a new life.
One case is quite remarkable in this regard. The Vasnetsov Museum in Moscow once sent several paintings to the Tretyakov Art Gallery for authentication. Among them was Kars Captured, offered by the purchasing commission of Russia's Ministry of Culture - ostensibly as a copy done by Vasnetsov himself. The scene depicted there was an exact repetition of the well-known motif of Vasnetsov's painting Tidings on the Capture of Kars that belonged to the Saratov Fine Arts Museum dedicated to the late 18th century writer and publicist Alexander Radishchev. The latter canvas was somewhat larger. However, both carried signatures that were very much alike, and the same date - the year 1878.
To find out who the genuine
author was, we had to compare his technique with the standard characteristics of the Vasnetsov brush. Therefore we made a close study of the authentic paintings: Flitting from Lodgings to Lodgings (1876), War Telegram (1878), Game of Preference (1879) and Tidings on the Capture of Kars from the Saratov-based museum (this was a model, or standard, canvas).
We should note that Vasnetsov's palette of that period and his gamut of colors are akin to the style and idiom of the Peredvihniks* remarkable for some uniformity of the brush. Like other members of this fellowship, Vasnetsov began from a drawing sketched on the primer (first coat of paint). Then, assigning the proper place for each element of the composition within the given format, he put on the first dab. This is usually a slender touch of brown tint through which the basic grain of the canvas is clearly distinct. The hue of the first touch of tint is used as a color base for subsequent tone and half-tone.
* Members of the Russian school of realist painters of the second half of the nineteenth century who. in 1870, associated into a Fellowship of Roving Art Exhibits. -Ed.
Studying the surface overlay of paint on the Vasnetsov works (their texture), we noticed an alternation of solid (relief) and thin-layer dabs. For instance, in the Tidings on the Capture of Kars Vasnetsov used a palette of picturesque white- lead dabs to accentuate the brightest parts of the young woman's sarafan (Russian peasant women's dress, without sleeves and buttoning in front - Ed.),
such strokes impart light to the bulges of the pleats, show up the verticality of the pattern and, simultaneously, the rather dense texture of the fabric. The aerial blue half-tone between the pleats interchange with roseate-and-aubum tints. The artist's brush gives body and form to detail, it stresses the plastic depth of dimensionality.
The .faces of the Vasnetsov men and women alike are painted with light blending dabs - mostly in brown and ochre; and ochre and white lead are used to depict light. A similar style features in the paintings of Vassily Perov, one of the organizers of the Fellowship of Peredvihniks. Vasnetsov likewise works up the space beyond the heads of the personages, moving the figures off from the planar background and deepening the perspective. Yet each of these
two artists present a peculiar idiom of their own. Vasnetsov would often make use of a rather original technique-he accentuated individual fragments with a thin outline in black. In particular, this rimming technique was employed to edge the beard of the man holding the flag in the Tidings on the Capture of Kars.
Besides, our examination found that all the authentic Vasnetsov paintings reveal a definite sequence of the composition: first the artist portrayed the centerpiece of the picture, then he worked up the fore- and background in bold, strokes. A visual study of the
Vasnetsov canvases of the 1870s showed that their color texture is without high relief. As we know from the literature, in those years the painter disapproved of high-relief techniques. Maybe it was for this reason that Vasnetsov produced works painted in the alia prima style* - the War Telegram is a case in point. The artist reveals a touch of creative search in the immediate process of work. Thus in his Flitting from Lodgings to Lodgings he first depicted houses in the background - elements that limited and closed the perspective space. And in the Game of Preference the artist repainted the figure of the man on the left side.
Having gained conclusive data on Vasnetsov pictorial idiom, we proceeded to the examination of the Kars Captured.
* Alia prima (painting on prime) - an oil-painting technique when work is to be completed before the drying up of paint and thus excluding significant time intervals between such independent stages as tinting, repaint and lessivage. - Ed.
It displays a brighter palette and a different tone of hue and color than the authentic canvas from the Saratov museum. The copy has sharper shade-to-light transitions. The edging of picturesque details betrays crudity of execution. The black outline is slovenly and all too wide. Taking a good close look at the intervening space between the fore- and background, we paused over the section of the wall between the flags: unlike the standard version, this fragment of the wall is done in a slipshod manner, and in dingy green paint.
We became ever more doubtful about the authenticated work. It was an X-ray study that clinched the matter. Our suspicions came true: the skiagraphs* of the two canvases showed the pictorial style of... two different artists! The X-ray photos had nothing in common with each other: the photo of the genuine
* Skiagraph - a picture consisting of shadows, especially those cast on a sensitized surface by X-rays. - Tr.
painting (from the Saratov museum) showed the light-and-shade image of the paint layer quite clearly and in contrast, while the analogous fragment of the Kars Captured appeared blurred - so much so that we could hardly make out the figures. Hence the inevitable conclusion: the picture purchased by the RF Ministry of Culture was not a Vasnetsov. Well, but what about the date and the signature? They were identical on both canvases after all...
Our queries were solved by means of UV imaging. We examined the coat of varnish over the paint in filtered ultraviolet rays. And we found that the signature lay on a spot having an uneven varnish coating. Besides, the UV light showed up dark blotches of restoration tints: one small dab covered a short word with the first letter looking like the Cyrillic "K"-it might be the abbreviation of Kon ("Cop"), i.e. "Copyist", and next came the artist's name painted over.
Clearly, the Kars Captured was an old copy of the Vasnetsov painting - a free imitation. But he who tried to take off the copyist's signature and supply a new one - that man turned this copy into a fake.
But our saga did not end there. The Samara Art Museum has in its custody a painting with an analogous motif. The Hanging Out of Flags, done on canvas in oils (80x65 cm). The bottom left comer bears the author's name in block characters and the date - anno 1878. For a long time the museum staff believed it to be a reproduction of the Vasnetsov in the stock of the Saratov museum - one painted by the author himself. Again, our experts had to authenticate this work - whether it was a real Vasnetsov or yet another copy produced the same year as the original. True, we had no evidence in the literature about Vasnetsov painting a replica of the same picture that year. But we didn't encounter any big difficulties here because we knew all the nice points of the author's pictorial style. Still, we carried out a thorough examination using the above techniques. And our verdict was identical: The Hanging Out of Flags is yet another copy, as evident by the presence of a penciled grid on
the edge of the canvas and underneath a thin overlay of paint elsewhere.
Warks with bylina * and fairy-tale motifs, which Vasnetsov created in the 1880s, held particular attraction to copyists. Small wonder: these paintings cut a wide swathe among the public that must have found in them something that it had not in real life. As Dr. Grigory Sterzhnev, an art critic, has put it, "an ability to see 'daydreams' and put them on canvas became a soul urge for Vasnetsov the artist towards the end of the nineteenth century - it became a salient feature of his artistic ego:
the master sought to unveil the beauty and sublimity of the world of folk fancy, a world of dreams and innermost hopes." Maybe that is why a great number of Vasnetsov copies are found far and wide in our country's museums. Say, in the museum estate Abramtsevo (where on the estate grounds belonging to the Mamon-tovs, a famous family of Russian industrialists and merchants, Vasnetsov used to stay for a long time and where he sketched studies for
* Bylina - Russian traditional heroic poem. - Tr.
the fabled Alyonushka) there is another Alyonushka. The museum's workers naturally wondered whether it was an authentic Vasnetsov, the more so that the first version of the painting (anno 1881) is at the Tretyakov Art Gallery in Moscow.
After a thorough examination we found that the Alyonushka of the Abramtsevo museum is a copy that was not produced by the author's brush. The copy did not reveal some of the characteristic tokens of the Vasnetsov style; next, the X-ray images of chiaroscuro were another proof, and so was a penciled grid that a copyist usually puts on a primer.
The Vasnetsov House Museum in Moscow was also unfortunate: two paintings from its collection - A Knight at a Crossroads and A Bogatyr Deep in Thought - likewise proved to be copies. Our experts could not detect what they call "pictorial indicators" proper to the original. Besides, the layer of paint on the A Bogatyr Deep in Thought had a monogram scratched right on the raw paint. The joining of the letters and their interlacings did not have anything in common with Vas-netsov's autograph; and the two letters to the right below the name were but poorly legible.
Most likely, we will have to deal with Vasnetsov copies again and again. An original artist with a peculiar style of his own, Vasnetsov was - to cite another eminent painter, Mikhail Nesterov - "a big poet and singer of the distant epos of our history, our people, our Motherland".
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