Research series: The Art and Artists of Russia (7) – The Abramtsevo Art Colony

As we’ve been exploring over these last few ‘episodes’ of The Art and Artists of Russia, the Wanderers were very much part of the social revolution that was taking place in 19th century Russia: a century in which the cultural sensibility of Russia pivoted away from the elite and the ‘European’ ways of St Petersburg towards a recognition – especially after the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 – of a national Russian heritage: the landscape, its people, history and, indeed, contemporary life. This was all causing immense amounts of social and political turbulence, but the zeitgeist was very much in favour of the ‘peasant’ and the re-evaluation of native traditions, especially when it came to the arts.

Portrait of Savva Mamontov by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) [1897; Tretakov Gallery]

Elizaveta Mamontova Reading by Ilya Repin [1897]

These developments had a powerful impact on Savva (1841-1918) and Elizaveta Mamontov, a married couple who owned the Abramtsevo estate just to the north of Moscow. Savva, a millionaire businessman from a family involved in the pioneering work of railroad construction across Russia, was a great patron of the arts and artists, indeed he was a singer and sculptor himself. Like his wife, he was greatly influenced by the Wanderers’ programme of bringing art back to the people.

Elizaveta was deeply religious and extraordinarily forceful. On her insistence a hospital was built on the estate following a cholera epidemic that had spread through the surrounding population; then a school – the first in the region.

Elizaveta Mamontova is also credited as at least the inspiration behind the creation of matrioshki, Russian ‘nesting dolls’ –

Original matryoshka set by Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin [1892; Sergiev Posad Museum of Toys]

Alongside the school she also had a studio built, and it was this studio that would bring artists, composers, art critics and writers together into what became known as The Mamontov Circle or The Abramtsevo Art Colony. Under Elizaveta’s gaze, and with the knowledge and assistance of Elena Polenova, the studio would soon become a professional workshop in which traditional arts and crafts skills were revived in the production of furniture, ceramic tiles (Russian Majolica – see and fabrics that would then be sold through a shop in Moscow.

Majolica tiles with mythological sirin made for a bench by Mikhail Vrubel at Abramtsevo.

There is a website (in English) for Abramtsevo here; and a great article full of photographs in Russia Beyond here.

Yelena Polenova is a fascinating character, as an article in the Tretyakov Gallery Magazine tells:

“[she] was one of the pioneers of the national-romantic movement in Russian modern art and of the beginnings of symbolism. As an active member of the Mamontov circle of artists, she was among the founders of the museum of folk art at Abramtsevo, as well as the ceramics, woodwork and carving workshops there. Polenova was one of the first artists to turn to book illustrations — over a relatively short period of time, from the end of the 1880s to the 1890s, she created illustrations for and adapted more than 20 collections of Russian folk fairy tales and proverbs”.

Together, Elizaveta Mamontova and Yelena Polenova travelled across the country researching traditional folk crafts:

“In 1885 Polenova and Mamontova started enthusiastically studying folk art and collecting the best samples for the house museum in Abramtsevo. The artist wrote to the critic Vladimir Stasov about her passion: “As long as we could, we bought carved objects which we were able to find during our trips — salt cellars, boxes, donets, shveikas, rollers (spindles), linen rollers, spinning-wheels, beaters (swingles); front parts of carts and sleds; children’s wooden chairs and benches. I sketched or photographed larger objects, such as tables, hanging wall cabinets, arks, benches (mostly not the hanging kind but the ones that are built into the wall and are part of the inner architecture of the izba [peasant house in rural Russia].) Thus, we ended up with a rather inclusive collection at Abramtsevo, and a whole lot of notebooks with sketches and photographs.”

Wall with a door. Sketch of dining room design for M.F. Yakunchikova’s country house in Nara, Moscow region. (Polenov Museum) and Sketch of a table for the carpentry workshop in Abramtsevo (Vasnetsov Industrial and Art College) [both c/o Tretyakov Magazine]

I have to say I find all this fascinating, particularly the folk tradition of Russia distaffs used for spinning and separating wool. Beautifully carved and painted, they were traditionally given by men or boys to daughters and sisters. They’re as much works of art as they are practical tools…

Distaffs from the Ferapontov collection

Most famously, perhaps, the Abramtsevo artists designed and built the Church of the Saviour after a flood across the local district had prevented people from attending the Orthodox Easter Service. Artists and writers all set to on architectural and archaeological research, came up with plans, decided a scheme and then worked on building it.

The Church of the Saviour Not Made by Human Hand, [is] a miniscule church based on the medieval Novgorod designs. Inside the church are icons courtesy of Ilya Repin and Michael Nesterov, and the tiled stove and mosaic floor (in the shape of a blooming flower) are examples of Vrubel’s and Viktor Vasnetsov’s work respectively.

All of the work on the Abramtsevo Colony set off a wave of Arts & Crafts enthusiasm which immediately become “fashionable” and would have its effect, at the turn of the century, on the development of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and well as the avant garde paintings of Kandinsky and Goncharova.

One of the artists most closely aligned with the Abramtsevo colony though was Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926). From the St Petersburg Academy he became friends with Ivan Kramskoi, the leader of the Wanderers’ Movement, and Ilya Repin with whom he visited Paris.

And I just have to take a moment here to note this glorious painting made during that time in Paris 1876-7: “Acrobats. Festival in a Paris Suburb” which is on display at the Mikhailovsky Palace in St Petersburg.

Returning to Russia, Vasnetsov’s work became more closely aligned to the Wanderers and indeed the Abramtsevo aesthetic as his interests in Russian folklore, myth and fairytale grew.

Here, we see three of the most famous legendary bogatyrs, Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich in Victor Vasnetsov’s “Bogatyrs” [1898; Tretyakov Gallery].

The bogatyrs are the poetic heroes of the elite forces of Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015 (they’re akin to the medieval knight errant of Western European legend):

The most notable bogatyrs [are]… the trio of Alyosha Popovich, Dobrynya Nikitich and Ilya Muromets. Each of them tends to be known for a certain character trait: Alyosha Popovich for his wits, Dobrynya Nikitich for his courage, and Ilya Muromets for his physical and spiritual power and integrity, and for his dedication to the protection of his homeland and people. Most of the bogatyrs’ adventures are fictional, and often included fighting dragons, giants and other mythical creatures. However, the bogatyrs themselves were often based on real people. Historical prototypes of both Dobrynya Nikitich (the warlord Dobrynya) and Ilya Muromets are proven to have existed. [Wikipedia]

It’s of note too that The Bogatyr Gates is one of the episodes in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

My own favourite painting by Vasnetsov is:

The Flying Carpet [a depiction of the hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich; 1880; Nizhny Novgorod State Museum]

Ivan is the main hero of Russian folktales. He is almost always portrayed as either the third son of a peasant family or the third son of a king. The friends and foes of Ivan Tsarevich are often mythic figures, from magical animals to deathless beings.

What is so wonderful about the painting though is that whilst Ivan and the Flying Carpet are necessarily fictional, imaginary – here he is with the magical firebird – Vasnetsov makes the possibility so real as Ivan flies over a very naturalistic landscape. It just evokes, to me at least, a glorious sense of wonder (and I’ve always, always wanted to ride on a Flying Carpet!)

And here is another famous character from Russian folktale:

Baba Yaga [1917; The House Museum of Viktor Vasnetsov]

Baba Yaga may help or hinder those that encounter her or seek her out. She may play a maternal role and has associations with forest wildlife… Her depictions vary greatly across tales, ranging from a child-eating monster, to helping a protagonist find his missing bride.

Here, in Vasnetsov’s painting, we see Baba Yaga at her worst – kidnapping a child – as she flies through the forest in her mortar, the pestle sweeping behind her to remove any traces of her being there.

For a Baba Yaga story:

Now Baba Yaga traditionally lives in a hut built on chicken legs which returns us to the Abramtsevo Colony where Vasnetsov built just such a hut!


However, as it is the Easter weekend, it seems more appropriate to finish on another of Vasnetsov’s projects – the interior painting of St Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kiev/Kyiv.

Here again, Vasnetsov reflects the myth and legends of medieval Russia (aka Kiev Rus) when Vladimir the Great brought Christianity to Russia:

(left) Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir [1880; sketch for Vladimir Cathedral fresco; State Art Museum, Kyiv]

(right) The Baptism of Kyivans [1886, fresco, St Vladimir Cathedral]

Illarion Pryanishnikov (1840-1894) Easter Procession [1893; State Russian Museum]

The Orthodox Easter service is one of the most important religious festivals and, although I’m not sure if Kyiv is in lockdown, the usual service at St Vladimir’s would run something like this:

Easter Sunday morning in the Ukrainian tradition begins at sunrise. That is when the faithful arrive for Resurrection Services. The service before the Divine Liturgy consists of a procession which circles the church three times. The journey is made to symbolize the trip of the women to the tomb to anoint the Body of Christ on that first Easter morning. The makeup of the procession is similar to the one on Good Friday, led by a worshipper carrying the crucifix and altar boys using the kalatala (wooden clappers). Parish elders carry the Plaschenytsia (Holy Burial Shroud).

After the third passage, the procession stops in front of the church doors, which symbolize the impossibility of being able to enter the Kingdom of God before the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The priest sings the joyful Easter song “Khrystos Voskres” (“Christ is Risen”) the first time himself.  All of the faithful repeat the triumphant hymn a second time. Then, striking the doors of the church with the crucifix to open them, the priest begins “Khrystos Voskres” a third time, as the congregation joins in. This dramatic entrance reminds us that Heaven is now available to all because our Savior has conquered death with His death. All enter the church and the Divine Liturgy of Easter, the Great Day, begins.


Vasnetsov: Christ the Omnipotent [1886; St Vladimir’s Cathedral]


Next time:

The Art & Artists of Russia (8): 1905 and a Revolution in Art

will be published on Saturday 17th April



Russian Art & Artists (7) – Abramtsevo

If you have enjoyed this little article and are able to help fund ongoing research, do please donate! With many thanks in advance, Mark.


In the meantime: Happy Easter!


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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