In 1870, a group of young artists declared war on the principles of academic painting, which set strict stylistic limitations and only allowed to depict mythological and historical plots that were far from modern reality. But such art was only accessible to wealthy and educated people – nobility and merchantry.
These artists, however, wanted to make art for a wider audience. They formed The Society of Travelling Exhibitions, which soon got the nickname “Peredvizhniki”, or “The Wanderers”, and organized transportable art shows across the country.
They also completely changed the subject of their works: their plots were dramatic and emotional, like poverty, social inequality, the fates of those humiliated and insulted.
Here is a brief overview of the works of 5 most well-known artists from the group who showed the lives of the poor in its true light.
1.Vasily Perov (1834-1882)
Though Perov’s most famous masterpieces were created before the formation of the Society, he became one of its main leaders and inspirers. Many of his works had a highly emotional social focus, like “Troika”.
The ironic title – a troika was a carriage drawn by three horses – underlines the horror of the situation. Child labor is almost unfathomable now, but some 150 years ago it was a reality.
The weather is dreadful: deeply negative temperatures and a raging blizzard, but these three ragged children were sent to get water for their workshop.
Their apprenticeship likely wasn’t a choice: parents usually sent a child away if they couldn’t feed him themselves. The bleak, damp blues and browns radiate with cold.
On such a background, the children’s faces are vivid and visible, and their suffering is impossible to ignore.
Perov also created a series of anticlerical paintings, an interesting example of which is “The Tea-party in Mytishchi”.
This scene could have easily occurred in reality. At the time, a soldier drafted into the army served a 20-year-long term. By the time this man returned, his parents were likely dead, and he was left with no wife or children and a miserable pension.
He probably has no education, and he can’t do physical work because he has lost a leg. His only riches were freedom: after serving a term, a peasant was freed from their owner.There is nothing left but to wander and beg on the streets.
Perov was a genius of scenography. The character’s gestures are expressive and easily understood. You can sense the servant’s unease, the soldier’s humility, the indifference and contentment of the priest.
2.Ilya Repin (1844-1930)
Repin officially joined the movement in 1878, which is not surprising, given the social undertones of his earlier art. One of such paintings is “Barge-haulers on the Volga”.
It is unimaginable to us that a hired worker can look so awful. These 11 exhausted people look like a dirty patch on the bright summer landscape. The steamboat in the back is almost teasing them: it could easily do the job that is backbreaking for a human.
Barge hauling was such notoriously difficult work that the idiom “to pull the strap” survives in Russian to this day.
On the other hand, it was a relatively quick and reliable way to earn money: after a season of work, a person had enough to get through the winter. This made it a last resort for former sailors or landless peasants.
You can read more about this painting and the people it shows here: “Barge-haulers on the Volga”. Why this is a masterpiece.
“Seeing off a recruit” is not as well known as the previous painting, but it vividly depicts a situation that was common but disastrous for many peasants.
A young man’s neighbours and family are saying goodbye: he has been drafted. Repin personally witnessed this scene.
By this time, the term of service was shortened to 6 years, but that doesn’t help the new soldier much: the Russian-Turkish War (1877-1788) is raging, and nobody knows whether he’ll return alive. Everyone is distraught; even the children have left their games.
The diversity of Repin’s talent is amazing: in his paintings, he showed the key moments of his time as well as the individuals that filled it.
3.Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920)
Makovsky was a born darling of fortune. He was raised in a wealthy and artistic family and could have easily become a salon artist, like his brother Konstantin.
But he was drawn to the stray lie of bazaars and shelters. There he searched for unusual types and portrayed them with genuine emotion.
This painting, “A Mother’s Visit”, shows a mother meeting with her son. He is an apprentice. The woman brought him a gift – a loaf of bread.
The barefoot boy sinks his teeth into her present, and she understands the awful conditions he lives and works in, but can’t help him.
She’s too poor to take him back; besides, she still has a hope her son will finish his apprenticeship and become somebody… Either way, he has no real childhood.
“On the boulevard” is another quite common story. After the serfs’ emancipation in 1861, some, like this young man, were released without any land to work on, so they let to search or work in the city.
After a while, his wife came to join him with their child. Here they are, sitting on a bench on the Sretensky Boulevard in Moscow.
But he is already used to his freedom, and they are simply a burden. She sits, dumbfounded by this realization, and the landscape around mirrors her feelings: november, falling leaves, occasional passer-bys.
Makovsky’s works are almost like short stories:in them we can see the before and after of a moment, what awaits the characters next.
Some landless serfs headed to Siberia, to the unsettled lands.Sergei Ivanov travelled that road with those people and chronicled the way in his art.
It was long and difficult- over the Ural Mountains, a train to Tyumen, a raft to Barnaul, and then a tedious foot or carriage journey in search for a free scrap of land. Many pilgrims died on the way. Ivanov’s painting “The death of a migrant” shows one such tragedy.
The man’s wife is crying on the ground in despair: what is she to do now? If she can marry again (there was a ‘shortage’ of women in Siberia), she can survive.
If not, she will be forced to beg or do hard labor for mere pennies. With a child on her hands, the load becomes unbearable.
Ivanov’s art actually helped lighten these people’s fate: his paintings drew public attention and the government began supporting the migrants by providing short-term housing and healthcare on the way.
Such a man couldn’t pass by the riots that broke out in 1905. This painting- “The shooting”- shows the result of a protest that happened in December on a square in Moscow.
Ivanov created the sound of death: shots, the crowd’s roar and the wounded’s moans rise over the empty pavement.
5. Abraham Arhipov
Arhipov was from a very poor family, but, ironically, his art is generally more light-hearted than that of other members of the Society.
While the Peredvizhniki tended towards realistic painting, Arhipov preferred an impressionistic style, which naturally eases any drama.
One of his best-known works, however, is completely unlike him and fits well into the Peredvizhniki concept.
He once wandered accidentally into a laundry and was shocked by the sight. These women spent all their days in a hell of hot water, steam, clothes and washtubs. Their hard labor moved him to create “The Laundresses”.
An old woman sat down on the bench to rest. Her small, shriveled hands seem too delicate and miniature for such tiresome work. Arhipov doesn’t show us the younger women’s faces, as if giving them a chance of a better future.
Like Arhipov, who tried to stay optimistic despite any difficulties, I would like to end this post on a more positive note – “A Woman in Red”, a happy and content young commonwoman.
The Society of Travelling Exhibitions existed for 53 years(1870-1923). By the end of the XIX century, they began receiving constant harsh criticism- accusations of excessive drama and exaggerated tragism. Soon they were completely pushed off the stage by abstract and modern art.
But their contribution to Russian art can’t be exaggerated;they were the first step toward the absolute freedom of expression of 20th century art. Many of The Travellers’ paintings are still considered masterpieces today, probably because of the sudden rise of mastery that comes with a free creative atmosphere.
«Read more about Russian artists’ masterpieces».
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Photos: Wikimedia Commons
Translated by Irina Indeikina