Natalia Goncharova
Biography of Russian Painter, Ballet Set-Designer, Illustrator.

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Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962)


Early Life and Training
Influenced by French Avant-Garde Art
Knave of Diamonds Group, Donkey's Tail Exhibition
Cubism, Futurism
Leaves Russia
Last Years

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Natalia Goncharova was a major figure in early 20th century Russian art, and is now one of the most highly priced Russian artists in history. A controversial figure who scandalized Moscow with her open cohabitation with the modernist painter Mikhail Larionov, she was noted for her avant-garde art which borrowed heavily from Russian icon painting and other forms of primitive art. She left Russia in 1915, spending the rest of her career in Geneva and Paris, where she contributed stage designs to Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. The great niece of Natalia Pushkina, wife of Alexander Pushkin, Goncharova's progress as an artist was influenced by her attraction to modern art (inspired by painters from the Ecole de Paris, and Der Blaue Reiter, as expressed in her own interpretations of Futurism, Cubo-Futurism), and also, rather confusingly, to traditional Russian folk art (inspired by Russian medieval painting and other traditional artifacts). At her major solo exhibition in 1913, her primitive-style Russian works were displayed side-by-side with her more modernist paintings. Although she died in poverty, her pictures now sell for multi-million dollar sums.

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Early Life and Training

Natalia (Natalya) Goncharova was born into a prosperous family in Nagaevo village, near Tula in provincial Russia. After leaving school she moved to Moscow to study sculpture at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1898-1902), where she completed less than four years of study - instead of the normal ten years - and also met her life partner, the artist Mikhail Larionov. Having abandoned sculpture in favour of painting - she absorbed pastel drawing from Larionov, as well as watercolour painting and oils - Goncharova began exhibiting in Moscow in 1904. Two years later, she participated in Sergei Diaghilev's exhibition of Russian art in Paris.

Influenced by French Avant-Garde Art

From around 1907-8, after first exploring Impressionism, Goncharova became fascinated by hypermodern French painting, notably the work of Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. She was especially influenced by colour, as used by adherents of Fauvism. She encountered these modern styles at one of the first exhibitions organized by the Blue Rose group of Russian painters (Golubaya Roza), in Moscow in 1908. Although she, too, adopted the stylistic features of modern European painting, she was more interested in what inspired modern artists (not least the so-called primitive art forms). Goncharova was particularly facinated by Russian folk art, ikons and popular prints (known as lubki). Indeed, she regularly used both ikons and lubki as sources of inspiration for her own works, such as Madonna and Child (1905-07), Annunciation (1909), The Archangel Michael (1910), The Evangelists (1910-11), and Peasants (1911). Goncharova's work in this style was soon dubbed "neo-primitivism". As well as French painting and Russian folk art, Goncharova was also influenced by Russian Symbolism as practiced by the Blue Rose artists.



Knave of Diamonds Group, Donkey's Tail Exhibition

In 1910, Goncharova and Larionov joined Kasimir Malevich as well as expatriate Russians Alexei von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky, together with French Cubists Albert Gleizes and Henri Le Fauconnier, in forming an association of modern artists known as the Knave of Diamonds (Bubnovyi Valet), in order to exhibit their type of modernist expressionist paintings. However, in 1911, following disagreements within the group between Goncharova and David Burlyuk (1882-1967), Goncharova and Larionov left to organize an important exhibition of pre-Revolution Russian avant-garde art known as the Donkey's Tail (Oslinyi Khvost). In the same year Goncharova joined the German Expressionism group known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) which was centred in Munich during the period (1911-14).

Cubism, Futurism

Between 1912 and 1914 Goncharova was involved in a number of avant-garde activities. In 1913, for example, she took part in theatrical performances alongside Vladimir Mayakovsky and even acted in a movie. Along with other members of the Russian futurist group, she also produced illustrations for experimental book publications. Like her fellow artists Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), Lyubov Popova (1889-1924) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), she was aware of Cubism in Paris and introduced Cubist techniques into her work. This can be seen in the canvas entitled The Laundry (1912) in which Goncharova uses the multiple viewpoint of the Cubist still life while simultaneously introducing fragments of words to suggest the subject of the painting and to emphasize the flatness of the canvas. She was also familiar with Italian Futurism. Goncharova and her Russian colleagues referred to their work as "Cubofuturist", in order to distinguish it from its Parisian sources. A well-known example of her Futurist work is The Cyclist (1912-13).


Goncharova and Larionov also developed a new style of abstract art, known as "Rayonism". In this colourful, linear style, which they launched in 1913, at the Target Exhibition in Moscow, objects are depicted using a series of intersecting lines criss-crossing their way across the surface of the painting. These lines, described as "reflected rays of light", break up the appearance of objects and thus become almost abstract. While Rayonism was certainly a style that was unique to Goncharova and Larionov, it was also reminiscent of works by the German expressionist artist Franz Marc.

Leaves Russia, Settles in Paris

In 1914 Goncharova travelled to Paris to produce theatrical designs for the Ballets Russes - Diaghilev having commissioned her to produce designs for his production of Le Coq d'Or (1914). On the outbreak of World War I in 1914 she was forced to return to Russia, but in 1915, together with Larionov, she joined Diaghilev in Geneva, Switzerland, where they began to design ballet costumes and sets. From now on, they virtually gave up easel-painting to concentrate on theatrical design. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 she and her partner settled in Paris, where they continued to design for Diaghilev until his death in 1929.

After Diaghilev's death Goncharova and Larionov had no regular work and were extremely short of money. Their only income came from commissions for theatrical sets, awarded on the strength of their previous association with Diaghilev. In addition Goncharova earned extra money from book illustration. In 1938 they became French citizens, and remained in Paris for the duration of the war. As it was, their lives during the post-war period proved to be even harder. Commissions were rare and they were forced to sell paintings from their personal art collection in order to survive. In 1950, Larionov suffered a serious stroke which ended his career and added further problems to their lives. In June 1955, perhaps mindful of their mortality, they married after living together for more than half a century.

Last Years

Although her last few years were marked by a new burst of creativity, triggered by the Soviet Union's success in launching the first Sputnik, in 1957, she suffered intensely from arthritis and eventually contracted cancer. She died in October 1962 and was buried in Ivry Cemetery, where she was joined two years later by her lifelong companion Mikhail Larionov.

Despite her self-imposed exile from her native Russia, Goncharova is now considered to be one of the most influential Russian painters of the early 20th century. This was confirmed in June 2007 when her 1909 work Picking Apples was sold at Christie's for $9.8 million, setting a record for any female artist. In 2008, her 1912 still-life painting The Flowers sold for $10.8 million. In 2010, her work Espagnole (1916) sold for £6.4 million.

See also: Most Expensive Paintings, Top 10.

Paintings by Goncharova can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For biographies of other avant-garde artists from Russia, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of painting, see: Homepage.

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