Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova was an outstanding Russian painter, one of the brightest masters of Russian avant-garde.

Early years

Natalia Goncharova was born on July 2, 1881, in Nagaevo village near Tula Province in a family of an architect and mathematician. She was a sprung of Goncharov family and her namesake was married to great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

In 1900 the girl tried herself at medicine courses, however she abandoned them just in three days. After that she studied for six months at the historical faculty of educational courses for women. In 1901 Natalia enrolled the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where she studied sculpture inder the guidance of Sergey Volnuhin and Pavel Trubetskoy but soon she switched to painting and began attending classes of Konstantin Korovin, who was one of the prominent Russian impressionists. At school the young women met her future husband Mikhail Larionov.

Goncharova kept on practicing in sculpture and even received two silver medals (in 1904 and 1907) for her works. In 1909, she stopped paying for the education and was excluded from the School.

The artist herself remembered that at the beginning of her creative way she “learn moslty from contemporary Frenchmen”. After marrying Larionov she shared his aspirations and artistic views, yet remaining a self-sufficient artistic personality.

Post-impressionism influence

Since 1906 Goncharova paid more and more attention to painting. She absorbed Impressionism through Larionov, nevertheless it didn’t became a predominant tendency in her art of that period – Natalia created a few canvases in impressionistic manner (“Corner of the garden”, 1906, “Willows”, 1906, “Landcape (Puantel)”, 1907 – 1908).

She was more captivated (in contrast to Larionov) with post-impressionism – pieces of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec first of all. The artist’s reference to pastel also evokes association with the great French master – even her first oil paintings reveal the knowledge of pastel technique (“Lady with umbrella”, 1906 – 1907, “Still life with white vase”, 1906 – 1907). But his influence is even more obvious in Natalia’s skillful grotesque images (“Circus”, 1907, “At the restaurant”, 1907). Anyway, in opposition to morbid and sarcastic observations of Lautrec, Goncharova’s works are filled with soft self-irony (“Self-portrait with Larionov (Pierrot and Columbine)”, 1909 – 1910).

The period of formation of authentic visual language, which lasted until 1911, amazes with diversity, still most of her creations of that time were defined by decorativeness and ornamentalism (“Gathering of fruits”, 1908, “Landscape with goats”, 1908, “Fruits and engraving (At the artist’s studio)”, 1908 – 1909, “Still life with green bottle”, 1910).

Participation in exhibitions and social activity

Natalia Goncharova was an active participant of artistic life in Russian Empire and beyond it. She displayed her works at the shows of Moscow association of artists (1905, 1907), at the Salon d’Automne in Paris (1906), at exhibition of “Wreath – Stepanos” group (1908 in Kiev), and those, organized by “The Golden Fleece” almanac (1908 – 1909, Moscow).

In 1909 Goncharova got her first experience in working as a theater artist – she designed decorations and costumes for “The Marriage of Sobeide” by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, staged in the private scene of Konstantin Kracht. Besides it, she tried her hand in applied arts, making sculptural friezes for several mansions in Moscow and patterns for wallpapers.

Between 1908 and 1911 the master gives private lessons in the Studio of painting and drawing of Ilya Mashkov. The latter, together with Natalia’s husband, was one of the most characteristic members of “Jack of Diamonds” group, established in 1910. Because of the conflict inside the group, it existed only for a year, and in 1911 Larionov founded a new one – “Donkey’s tail”.

On March 24, 1910, in the apartment of the Association of free aesthetics Natalia Goncharova organized her first solo exhibition, presenting 22 canvases. It lasted just for one day – because of “The Model (on the blue background)” the artist was accused in pornography and some paintings were confiscated. Luckily, the court absolved her soon.

Neoprimitivistic tendencies

1909 was the year, when a new, though rather short, period in Goncharova’s oeuvre. She concentrated mainly on traditions of primitive, archaic art, old Russian icon painting and lubok (Russian popular print). In 1911 Natalia rendered some serieses of paintings that turned to be one of the high points in her creative biography – the quadriptych “Evangelists”, “Picking grapes” (9 paintings) and “Harvest” (9 paintings). Subjects and images of the works directly corresponded to the Christian symbolics: for instance, in the “Harvest” canvases apocalyptic motifs predominated, connected with idea of destiny, fate, divine retribution etc. (“Phoenix”, “ Angels Dropping Stones over a City”).

Her neoprimitivistic pieces were characterized by intensive expressiveness, refined rhythmic composition of lines and color spots, accent on flatness of the surface and inclination towards monumentality with its generalized shapes. All this traits would be present at all stages of the artist’s legacy.


Since the beginning of 1910s Natalia Goncharova shifted to a more synthetic style that included elements of Cubism and Futurism – interest to depiction of movement, newest achievements of technological revolution, geometrization of forms (“Airplane over the train”, 1913). After the Cubo-futurisitc period, she developed a new movement – “Rayonism”, introduced by Larionov. Larionov investigated the problem of depicting light in painting, so the main theme of his works was the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects. Rayonism was close to abstract art, yet even there Goncharova based on figurativeness – she tried to capture impressions from the material world in compositions of color and tonal rays ( “Rayonistic construction”, 1913, “Blue-Green Forest”, 1913).

Graphic works

In graphical pieces of that period Natalia Goncharova combined methods of Rayonism and Cubo-Futurism. In 1912 she illustrated poem of Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velemir Khlebnikov “A game in Hell”. Energetic, sometimes even rough images were based on the conflict of black and white, as two eternal bases. Dynamism of composition is amplified with the merge of the hand-written text with pictures (like the head of lubok-like devil).

Goncharova was one of the first artists in Europe to apply the technique of assemblage in book design. For example, a clipped from the golden stamped paper flower was stuck on the book cover of the collection “World of End”. And it was different on each exemplar of the book.

The next book Natalia illustrated were Kruchenykh’s novel “Travel around the world” and a piece of Khlebnikov’s poem “Vila and Leshy”. Leshy was a male woodland spirit and Vila was the female one in Slavic mythology. In Goncharova’s interpretation their images were deeply connected with nature – the artist deeply understood the author’s conception, as the initial title of the poem was “Nature and Leshy”.

In some cases, the artist became a co-author of the book, like it happened with “Two poems. Hermit. Hermitess” by Kruchenykh, where illustrations made the major part of the publication (14 pages out of 21 in total).

Parisian period. Cooperation with Diaghilev

In 1914, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Natalia Goncharova decorations for opera “The Golden Cockerel” opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The play was of great success in Paris.

In 1915, after receiving Diaghilev’s invitation to work for his theatrical touring company, she and Larionov left Moscow. In 1917 they completely settled in Paris and lived for half of the century in an old dwelling at 16 Rue Jacques Callot.

Russian poetess Marina Tsvetayeva was a frequent visitor to their house and noticed that Goncharova was very harmonious in her life and work: “How does Natalia Goncharova works? Firstly, always, secondly, everywhere, thirdly, everything. All subjects, all formats, all means (oil, watercolors, tempera, pastel, pencil, color pencil, charcoal – what else?), all fields of painting, she sets about everything and works it out every time. She’s a phenomenon of painting as well as a phenomenon of nature”.
Working for theater remained central to her activity during Parisian period. Until Diaghilev’s death in 1929 Natalia was one of the leading artist of his company, making stage settings for “Spain” by Maurice Ravel (1916), “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky (1923), “The Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky (1926) and other musical pieces. Many of her easel paintings of 1920s – 1930s were visually or thematically connected to the theatrical world.

Despite being already recognized masters, Goncharova and Larionov were often short in money during 1930s – 1940s, as they had no regular commissions. Apart from theatrical sets, Natalia earned money for book illustration.

Last years

In 1950 Natalia Goncharova created numerous still lifes and a series of abstract compositions with Cosmic motifs (1958), probably inspired by the USSR launching satellite in 1957.

1960s marked the renewed interest to Goncharova’s and Larinov’s art – their retrospective exhibitions were held in many cities of Europe and America.
The decoration to the Monte-Carlo festival in 1957, dedicated to Mikhailv Fokin, whose ballets had give Natalia opportunity to expose herself as a theater artist in due time, considered to be her last major project.

Natalia Goncharova died on October 17, 1962, in Paris.