Viktor Borisov-Musatov was one of the first Russian artists to have introduced elegy-inspired painting to Western art. His style was considered Symbolist characterized by its highly decorative and realistic representation of his subject. Thus, it can be said that he was also responsible for the development of Russian Symbolism style alongside Mikhail Vrubel.
In most cases, Borisov-Musatov painted female figures such as in the Phantoms (1903), May Flowers (1894), and Requiem (1905). Some were a single portrait and the others are set in a large group of women. Few examples of his famous portrait paintings include Portrait of Nadezhda Stanyukovich (1903), Dame in a Rocking Chair (1897), and Spring (1901).
Viktor Borisov-Musatov was born on April 14, 1870 in Saratov, Russia. His father was a railway official and there is no clear evidence to prove who could possibly influenced the young Musatov’s to pursue the arts. When he was three years old, he had an accident that had his spinal cord damaged. This injury would have a significant effect on his personality later in his life.
At an early age, Musatov preferred to be alone and catch himself daydreaming. This might be a factor to the way he painted his early works, most of which were set in a dream-like setting. He received his arts training and education from the Saratov College in 1884. He was trained by F. Vasiliev for his drawing lessons and then by V. Konovalov, a painter from St. Petersburg.
Musatov’s mentors noticed his unusual talent for drawing. They might have recommended to him to pursue an independent career, which he did follow after college. He dedicated himself to painting ever since then.
It is said that he learned most of his technical skills and aesthetic knowledge from Konovalov. A fine example of a painting he did during this period is A Window (1886). This painting was elaborately done to give an illusory feeling to it as the audience sees the view of the garden from a window.
Borisov-Musatov had further his studies at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Moscow. He stayed there for quite a short period of time as he transferred to the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg almost two years later. There, he met Pavel Christyakov who would become his mentor as well, working in a private studio. However, the harsh weather in the city was bad for the student’s health so he had to return to Moscow sooner than he had planned.
At the time he returned to Moscow’s art school, he produced notable works such as May Flowers of 1894. However, the painting received negative feedback from his school masters for its decadence. The critics particularly pointed out that the painter failed to surface the distinction between the apple trees and the women in his effort to make a decorative effect. Alternately, his contemporaries perceived the work as full of potential; a fine piece of art that will lead them to developing a new movement.
In 1895 Borisov-Musatov went to Paris to enroll at Fernand Cormon’s art school. He was mentored by Cormon for three years and within those years, every summer, he would pay a visit to his birth town. His career stint in Paris had been fruitful for he grew fond of French contemporary art, most especially the works of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Berthe Morisot, both of these artists were recognized main leaders of French Symbolism. Additionally, he visited the Louvre frequently and used to admire the works of Botticelli there.
Three years later, he moved back to Russia and welcomed the fin de siècle with distaste, for him the period was “the cruel, the truly iron age… dirt and boredom… devil’s bog”. At this period he would have been suffering from financial distress for he had little clients to support his needs. Art collectors only began buying his works during the latter part of his career.
Nevertheless, 1898 was the beginning of his career in portraiture and he did so when he produced Self-portrait with Sister. The composition was said to be unusual for that period because the center is a young girl in a rather pensive mood while the artist himself is cut off by the extreme side of the canvas. For art theorists, this kind of composition served instrumental in re-introducing early Impressionism although the style was new.
The coloring style was rather generic and the background looks similar to a typical theatrical scene. In the painting, the audience will see how the painter tried to provide an alternate world where everything is perfect in harmony and dream-like. For many of his critics, this painting was Musatov’s first time to express his imagined world and the mood appealed to the taste of the Russian scholars at the time.
After completing the self-portrait with his sister, he continued working on a series of lyrical paintings. These include An Autumn Motif (1899), Harmony (1900), and an Untitled Motif (1900). In the first painting the painter clearly depicts the mood and tone of a place under autumn, particularly the foliage. There is a hint of nostalgia and longing as though the painting was a sad poem dedicated to someone who has been long gone. Musatov’s main inspiration for these paintings were his summer trips to Saratov, particularly his trips to Sleptsovka.
Borisov-Musatov achieved the golden years of his career right at the turn of the new century. He then produced movement-defining works such as Tapestry (1901), Spring (1901), and Emerald Necklace (1904). The Spring opened the 20th century Russian Art, in which he deviated from the rudiments of story-telling through a painting. He instead focused on using an emotive approach to create the imagery matched with its lyricism that can be seen through the loose brushwork and soft yet rich colors.
In 1901, Musatov met Zubrilovka at his estate which was owned by the princes Prozorovksy-Golitsyn family. The Saratov-native found a new inspiration for his portrait and landscape paintings at this point of his career. He painted parks and did not forget to add some personal touches to it by incorporating his own poeticism.
Tapestry (1901) features most images of Musatov’s trips to the said estate. The painting was decoratively done by the addition of rich vegetation around the park plus two women carry sheer charm and grace in their elegant posture. As for the title, Tapestry, the painting was executed with flat depth of field while the coloring is made with big patches of purple shades that should create a well-toned, eye-level impression. The colors and shades share resemblance to the softness and decorative representation of antique tapestries.
Musatov’s early 20th century paintings were included in an exhibition conducted by the Moscow Fellowship of Artists. The painter was a member of the said fellowship since 1899.
The Pool of 1902 is a recognized masterpiece by Viktor Borisov-Musatov. His poetic genius shine through this painting, implying that he executed his vision for the work perfectly. The tone is happy and light which his critics believe that must be due to his new found inspiration because he finally got to marry his long-term partner that period. In 1902, he went to Zubrilovka estate with his sister and bride-to-be, V. Alexandrova. Both of the ladies modeled for him in The Pool.
In the painting, everything from composition, depth to coloring is harmonious and the brushwork seems to bring music to the ears. There is repetition of certain shades like green, blue and lilac painted in different combinations. This is why The Pool is one of the most soulful and intimate works done by Musatov.
Viktor Borisov-Musatov and Alexandrova married in 1903 and together they moved to Podolsk. The town is halfway through St. Petersburg and Moscow so the painter had easy access to both cities whenever he needed to be there for work. At that same year, he became a member of the Union of Russian Artists based in Moscow. His association with this group helped him establish his career solidly. His works were able to reach France and Germany and held up some exhibitions.
In most cases, Musatov painted in his home, although he practiced the plein air technique for some of his outdoor paintings. He was a poet who turned to painting to express this side of him. He particularly painted the views of Saratov with such delicacy, elegance and grace that must be representative of the daily life in his birth town. It is worth mentioning that Saratov is a sunny and windy place located right off the banks of Volga.
Sun and wind are some of the recurring subjects in his paintings. It particularly tells a person if the painter changes his location if the work doesn’t display such a description. His Saratov is usually covered with blue sky with well-shaped clouds, rustling leaves, and diagonal lines to capture how roofs look like realistically. Thus, Borisov-Musatov’s art had always been filled with lyricism and movement.
Borisov-Musatov died of sudden cardiac arrest on October 26, 1905. His remains were buried at the bank of Oka River, Tarusa.