Is your eye as keen as this artist’s? (Art Quiz)

Pavel Fedotov, a painter who was active in the mid 19th century, left only FIVE finished oil paintings (excluding portraits), but is known to each and every Russian. 

His father was a mid-ranking officer, who upon discharge from the army, took on a civil job as a mid-level government clerk. It was a typical “not enough money for more than enough children” kind of family. They couldn’t fund private education for their kids, so Pavel was educated by the street. It was the street he later credited for his gift of acute keenness of observation. And what a unique gift it was…

At 11, he entered a military school and in six years made it from the bottom of his class to the top of the school list, with his name cut in stone on the best graduate plaque in the school’s main hall. His academic success was rivalled by his talent in drawing funny sketches and portraits of striking resemblance.

He then spent about 10 years in the army, but with his unit quartered near St.Petersburg he could sign up for evening drawing classes at the Academy of Arts, gradually becoming a skilled draughtsman and water-colour painter.

One of his water colours earned him a diamond ring from a Grand Duke who was relative of the Czar. The latter was so impressed he offered Fedotov  a chance to quit the army with a modest pension that would support him as an artist, at least initially.

It took Fedotov some years to decide if he wanted to be a full-time artist, but eventually he took up the Czar’s offer.

He had an illustrious but brief career as an artist, with his mental health disintegrating so fast even a huge financial contribution by the Czar meant to put him in the best clinic couldn’t save him. He died at 37.

He left numerous drawings, but – excluding portraits – only 5 finished oils (some of them have a few copies that he did himself).

These five oils have changed the course of Russian art forever.

Before Fedotov, Russian art was as classical and romantic as in the rest of Europe.  A Russian painting was indistinguishable from a French or Italian one. Fedotov introduced so much “Russianness” into it that artists who followed him couldn’t revert back to Venuses, Apollos, and events from Roman history. It would be like praying to gods whose falsehood has just been proven by the physical appearance of new deities.

I can bore you for hours talking about each of his paintings and some of his drawings. Instead, I will ask you one question, which I will leave unanswered for a couple of days.

WHICH SINGLE ELEMENT IN THIS PAINTING of an officer’s widow, readying up her valuables for an auction (as she does not have an income of her own) TELLS THE OBSERVER IT IS A LIVING SPACE AND NOT A DECORATION BUILT BY THE ARTIST?

Which element (or what) tells the observer it is the truth, and not “an invention” with a model posed as a widow and surrounded by studio props?

Click on the painting to see a larger version (you may need it).

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52
Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Wednesday, there will be answers. And, perhaps, a few more of his paintings, or rather stories in paint.




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