Konstantin Korovin: Russian Impressionist

Serov. Portrait of Korovin
Valentin Serov. Portrait of K. Korovin. 1891. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Here you can see a portrait of Konstantin Alexeevich Korovin, painted by Valentin Serov in a fairly
unusual tone in comparison to other works of the artist. Pay attention to the arm of a painter, the one
that rests on a striped pillow: there are only a few brush strokes.

Moreover, everything on the artwork, except the face, is painted in the style of Korovin himself. It could be interpreted both as a satiric gesture towards Korovin or as an admiration of his style.

Konstantin Korovin (1861-1939) is not as known as Repin, Savrasov, or Shishkin in Russia. Yet,
Korovin introduced a new aesthetic to Russian art – impressionism. More than that – he became a
leader of Russian impressionism.

Certainly, we can observe periods of interest to this genre in works of other Russian artists, already mentioned Serov and even Repin (who, by the way, was a dedicated realist).

Ilya Repin. Portrait of Nadia Repina. 1881.
Ilya Repin. Portrait of Nadia Repina. 1881. Saratov State Art Museum of A.N. Radishchev.

Despite that, only Korovin continued being loyal to impressionism his whole life. Moreover, his
journey to that genre is very interesting.

How Korovin became an impressionist

If you are not familiar with Korovin’s biography, you might suppose: ‘’It is obvious, the artist
visited Paris and was impressed by french artists’ style, so he brought it to Russia.’’

Interestingly, such a suggestion would not be right. Korovin’s first works in impressionism style were made a few years before his first visit to France.

Here is one of his first such works, which the artist himself is very proud of: ‘’Chorus Girl’’.

Konstantin Korovin. Chorus girl. 1883.
Konstantin Korovin. Chorus girl. 1883. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

An unattractive young lady is depicted outside, the work itself is made according to all
impressionism’s rules. Distinct, obvious brushstrokes. Carelessness and ease of painting. Even the pose of the lady is ‘’impressionistic’’ – she is relaxed and laid herself back.

It is hard to stay in such a pose for long and only a true impressionist could depict her quickly – in 10-15 minutes – to not tire the model. But it is not as easy as it all seems. Notice that the signature and date are different. Art historians have always wondered how Korovin was able to create such a masterpiece at the age of 22.

It is supposed by historians that Korovin intentionally made us inquire about this, by signing an
earlier date on the painting. By that, he gained a status of a first Russian impressionist, creating
pieces in that style long before his colleagues.

Even if it is true – the fact is a fact. Korovin started experimenting with impressionism before he
had visited France.

Fortunate one with an uneasy destiny

Friends of Korovin were always impressed by his ‘’ease’’: he always was in a good mood, joking a
lot, and was a heart of a company. ‘’Everything is great in this man’s life’’ – others thought and were
wrong.

The life of the artist was not only full of artistic achievements but also had tragic periods of events. First of which he had faced in childhood – left impoverished, Korovin’s family had to move
from a wealthy merchant’s house into a country hut. Konstantin Alekseevich’s father could not
handle that and committed suicide when the artist was only 20 years old.

Art was welcomed in Korovin’s family, all members had some sort of talent. Therefore it was not a
surprise when young artists have been accepted into the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and
Architecture in 1875. His first teacher there was Alexey Savrasov.

Savrasov was very flexible – he did not prevent student’s experiments with style. Even when he painted ‘’River in Menshov’’.

Konstantin Korovin. The river in Menshov
Konstantin Korovin. The river in Menshov. 1885. Polenov State Museum-Reserve, Tula Region in Russia.

Large space, light all over the canvas, and not one sharp line. No descriptiveness, only mood
expression. Such style was very unusual for Russian visual art of the period since realists were
praised and looked up to. The art of that time revolved around details, concrete plot, and formal
figures.

Earlier mentioned Savrasov, for example, made his works very realistic, paid attention to every
detail on canvas. Here one of his most recognized paintings – ‘’The Rooks Have Come Back’’ (fragment).

Alexey Savrasov. Rooks have arrived (fragment)
Alexey Savrasov. Rooks have arrived (fragment). 1871. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

But Korovin was not judged by his style – his works were simply thought of as etudes, intentionally
unfinished works that could even possibly be liked by the viewer.

Konstantin Korovin. Seashore at Dieppe.
Konstantin Korovin. Seashore at Dieppe. 1911. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Korovin and theatre

We know that most of Korovin’s works are made in impressionism style. Nevertheless, he also
tried himself in another genre. In 1885, Korovin met Savva Mamontov, who invited Korovin to
decorate theatre plays. Scenography, undoubtedly, affected his works.

For example, in one of his famous paintings ‘’A Northern Idyll’’ we can notice how characters’
silhouettes lack three-dimensionality. It seems like they are part of a flat scene decoration, included
in a wide, three-dimensional landscape.

Konstantin Korovin. Northern idyll. 1886.
Konstantin Korovin. Northern idyll. 1886. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

‘’A Northern Idyll’’ is a masterpiece, created under influence of theatre work. However, Alexander Benua, an art historian, claimed that Korovin wastes his talent on subordinate jobs like theatre decorations and that it would be better for him to focus on his unique style.

Personal life of a Russian impressionist

And what is about Korovin’s personal life? All his life he was married to Anna Fidler – she can be
seen in the painting ‘’Paper lanterns’’. But their marriage cannot be called a happy one.

Konstantin Korovin. Paper lanterns.
Konstantin Korovin. Paper lanterns. 1896. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Their firstborn had died in infancy, and another son, became disabled at age of 16 when he was hit by a tram and lost his both legs. After the incident, the boy faced depression and suicide attempts. One of those gained one’s end after father’s death.

All his life Korovin exerted himself to provide for his son and wife’s treatment (she was ill of
stenocardia). Meaning that he did not refuse any secondary jobs: wallpaper design, signage design,
and so on. From his friends’ tellings, he worked without a break day after day. Very interesting how
he had time to create masterpieces while working so hard.

Art Quiz

Best of Korovin’s

Korovin enjoyed staying at Polenov’s (also an artist) summerhouse at Zhukovka. A great work
‘’At the Tea-Table’’ was created there, at which we can see Polenov’s friends and family.

Konstantin Korovin. At the tea table.
Konstantin Korovin. At the tea table. 1888. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

See how impressionistically everything is depicted. On the right, there is an empty chair, pushed
back. As if the artist stood up and immediately captured what was happening. And those who were
at the table did not even pay attention to it. They are busy with their affairs and conversations.

On the left, the “frame” is completely cropped, as in the photo taken in a hurry. No posing. Only a
moment of life, captured and immortalized by the artist.

The painting “In the Boat” was made in the same place, in Zhukovka. The work shows the artist
Polenov and his wife’s sister Maria Yakunchenkova, also an artist. This is a unique example of
depicting the unity of people and nature.

The painting can be viewed endlessly, while feeling the slow movement of water and the rustle of leaves.

Konstantin Korovin. In the boat.
Konstantin Korovin. In the boat. 1888. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Fyodor Chaliapin was a great friend of Korovin. The master painted an amazing portrait of the great
opera bass. Of course, impressionism suits Chaliapin very much. This style conveys its cheerful and energetic character perfectly.

Konstantin Korovin. Portrait of Chaliapin.
Konstantin Korovin. Portrait of Chaliapin. 1911. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Konstantin Alekseevich traveled a lot in Europe with the Mamontov troupe. There he found new
unusual subjects. Just look at his “Spaniards Leonora and Ampara”.

By depicting two girls at the balcony, he was able to convey the entire national essence of Spain. Love for the bright and black. Openness and modesty. Even here Korovin is quite an impressionist.

He managed to pause the moment when one of the girls swayed and leaned on her friend’s shoulder. This kind of impermanence makes them lively and at ease.

Konstantin Korovin. By the balcony. Spaniards Leonora and Ampara.
Konstantin Korovin. By the balcony. Spaniards Leonora and Ampara. 1888-89. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Russian Paris

Konstantin Korovin. Parisian cafe.
Konstantin Korovin. Parisian cafe. 1890. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Korovin painted Paris selflessly, at which not every French artist has succeeded. His brushstrokes seem to fall into a whirlwind, forming a colorful mass, where we can barely distinguish figures, shadows, windows of houses. Literally one step to abstraction, pure emotions without admixture of the real world.

Konstantin Korovin. Paris. 1907.
Konstantin Korovin. Paris. 1907. Penza Regional Picture Gallery. K.A. Savitsky.

Notice how differently Claude Monet and Korovin painted Boulevard des Capucines. Color choice
are especially different. Monet is restrained and calm. Korovin is courageous and bright.

Korovin and Monet
Above: Claude Monet. Boulevard of the Capuchins. 1872. Pushkin Museum im. A.S. Pushkin, Moscow. Bottom: Konstantin Korovin. Boulevard of the Capuchins. 1911. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

One time, Korovin painted standing on the streets of Paris, when a Russian couple stopped to watch
the artist’s work. The man commented that the French are very strong in color. To which Korovin
retorted “The Russians are not worse!”

Unlike many impressionists, Korovin never gave up black paint, sometimes using it very profusely.
For example, in the painting “Italian Boulevard”. Very black, but still impressionism. You would
not see anything like that in Monet or even Pissarro’s work (who painted a lot of Parisian
boulevards).

Konstantin Korovin. Italian boulevard.
Konstantin Korovin. Italian boulevard. 1908. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Without Russia

Andrey Allakhverdov. Konstantin Korovin. 2016.
Andrey Allakhverdov. Konstantin Korovin. 2016. Private collection (see the entire series of portraits by artists of the 19th-20th centuries on the website allakhverdov.com).

Post-revolutionary Russia was not a very favorable place for Korovin. Listening to the advice of
Lunacharsky (one of co-leaders of new Russia), the artist left his homeland. There he still worked a lot, painted, was in the center of secular society. But…

Evgeny Lansere (Russian artist, brother of the artist Zinaida Serebryakova) recalled that he once
met Korovin at one of the Paris’ exhibitions. Korovin was stating by some Russian landscape,
bursting into tears, lamenting that he would never see Russian birch trees again. Korovin was madly
sad about leaving Russia, and he could not forget the homeland.

The artist’s life ended in Paris in 1939.

Konstantin Korovin. In the garden. Gurzuf. 1913.
Konstantin Korovin. In the garden. Gurzuf. 1913. State Tretyakov Gallery.

Today, art critics appreciate Korovin for impressionism in Russian art, and the viewer…

The viewer loves him for the magical combination of color and light, which calls to stand by his
masterpieces for a long time.

***

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