Vasily Polenov
Biography of the Russian Landscape Artist & Biblical Painter.

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Overgrown Pond (1879)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Vasily Polenov (1844-1927)

Among the most talented of Russian artists from the second half of the 19th century, Vasily Polenov was an active member of the Itinerants Association and a regular participant in their art exhibitions. Most famous for his landscape painting, he also painted a series of original biblical pictures. His other major contribution to Russian art was his teaching: he was a Professor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where his pupils included Konstantin Korovin (1861–1932), Isaac Levitan (1860-1900), Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930), and Mikhail Nesterov (1862–1942). Patronized by the art collector Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898), he was also a participant in Savva Mamontov's Abramtsevo art circle. Polenov's best known paintings include his landscapes Moscow Courtyard (1878, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), Overgrown Pond (1879, Tretyakov Gallery), and his Biblical art like Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1887, Russian Museum, St Petersburg).

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For details of earlier landscapes,
see: Russian Painting, 18th Century.

For more about the top arts
galleries, see:
Hermitage Gallery St Petersburg
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.

For a list of painters like
Vasily Polenov, see:
Modern Artists.

Early Life

Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov was born in St Petersburg into a noble, enlightened family: his father was a senior officer in the Russian Imperial army, with a passion for archeology, while his mother was an amateur painter. A young man of exceptional talents, he took courses at both the Law Faculty of St. Petersburg University and at the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1871, as well as his Law Degree, he obtained a Major Gold Medal from the Academy - for his painting Raising of Jairus' Daughter (1871, Museum of the Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg) - plus a travel scholarship enabling him to study art overseas. Subsequently, he visited Germany, Italy, and France, painting across all the genres, but the one which inspired him the most was landscape. He spent considerable time studying works by early 19th century French landscape painters, notably those by members of the Barbizon school, and devoted himself to plein air painting.

For a list of the best examples of
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world's top artists, see below:
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Oils, watercolours, mixed
media from 1850-present.

Early Masterpieces

In 1876, Polenov returned to Russia and was promptly elected a full member of the Imperial Academy. The following year he took part in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) as a war artist. Returning from the war, he became a member of The Association of Travelling Art Exhibitions (aka The Wanderers, or Itinerants), and in 1878, he displayed his first masterpiece Moscow Courtyard (1878) at one of the Itinerants' art shows. In this wonderfully tranquil picture - which is more of a farmyard than courtyard - Polenov combines a mastery of the effects of bright sunlight with figurative elements, thus helping to establish a fashion for landscape paintings with prominent genre features.


Further outstanding paintings such as Granny's Orchard (1878, Tretyakov Gallery), and Overgrown Pond (1879, Tretyakov Gallery), together with published studies from his trip to Greece and the Middle East (1881-2), not only impressed collectors like Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov (1832-98) and Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), but they also established his reputation as one of the finest Russian landscape painters. In addition to his methodical and detailed studies, he was the first painter to introduce the principles of the French School in Russia: namely, the fundamentals of plein air painting, such as pure bright colours, and rapid, loose brushwork. In 1882, Polenov succeeded Alexei Savrasov (1830–1897) as head of the landscape studio at the Moscow School of Painting, where he helped a number of talented students like Isaac Levitan, Abram Arkhipov, Mikhail Nesterov, Konstantin Korovin, and others.

Religious History Painting

Following two painting trips to the Holy Land, Polenov completed a number of religious paintings including his exceptionally true-to-life Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1887, Russian Museum, St Petersburg), and . Other works (all in the Tretyakov Gallery) included: The Nile (1881), The Temple of Isis (1882), The Parthenon, Temple of Athena Pallas (1882), Erechteion (1882), An Olive-Tree in the Garden of Gethsemane (1882), Constantinople (1882) and Tiberian Jew: Study (1884).

Later, from about 1886 onwards, Polenov produced a number of works of religious art (entitled Life of Christ) inspired by Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus (1863), a book which had a huge impact on painters and writers in Russia. Examples (all in the Tretyakov) include: On the Genisaret (Tiberias) Lake (1886), Among the Teachers (1896), They Brought the Children (1896), Baptism (1897), What People Think about Me (1900). In nearly all his Middle East paintings he combined New Testament subjects with important elements of landscape.

Landscapes and Decorative Arts

In addition, Polenov also painted a number of landscapes during his visits to Mamontov's country estate at Abramtsevo, 40 miles north of Moscow. Such works included The Birchwood Alley in Abramtsevo (1880, The State Art Museum Abramtsevo), The Church in Abramtsevo (1881-1882, Private collection, Moscow), Pond in Abramtsevo (1883, Private collection, Moscow), and Autumn in Abramtsevo (1896, Museum-Estate of V. Polenov, Tula).

For a wider perspective, see: Russian Painting, 19th-Century.

As well as fine art, Polenov also explored several forms of decorative art. He completed a number of decorations for Mamontov's house at Abramtsevo, plus several theatrical sets for Mamontov's private opera. Much later, in 1915, he built a school in Moscow for Theatrical Education.

Towards the end of his life Polenov joined the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR), and was named a People's Artist of the Republic in 1926. He died in 1927, at the ripe old age of 83. His house in Borok, Tula, is now a national art museum, and the village has been renamed Polenovo in his honour. His works hang at Polenovo and in many of the best art museums in Russia.

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