"... the whole inner and outer make-up of a nation" - the Russian artist Victor Vasnetsov

15 May 1848, the Russian artist Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov, specialised in mythological and historical subjects with a symbolist touch, was born in a village of the Vyatka Governorate, 300 miles north of Kazan.
“When I arrived in Moscow, I felt I had arrived home and need travel no further; the Kremlin and Saint Basil's brought tears to my eyes, so dear to my soul, so unforgettable were they." (Victor Vasnetsov)

Vasnetsov's imagination of Ivan the Terrible (1897)

Vasnetsov entered the Imperial Academy of Arts in the late 1860s, the Russian revivalist movement was already in full swing. Most European nations bethought themselves on their mostly imaginary roots back then and Russia remembering her Byzantine, Varangian and Slavic heritage was no exception, with a Pan-Slavic claim in imperial policy in Eastern Europe and all kinds of romantically dressed-up Old-Russian buildings, onion-domed towers, grand brick and whitestone facades and lovely wooden cottages. Revival architecture was one thing, though, literature, music and the fine arts, not as dependent on official funding as a major construction project, followed suit at a slower pace, but they followed. To a certain extent, the dawn of the Golden Age of Illustration in the U.S., inseparably linked with names of Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth had set the hare running in regards to the visual arts. The Europeans were not idle, though, and illustrations, especially of fairy tales, legendary history and other mythological subjects grew from the imagination of Walter Crane and Arthur Rackham in England, Edmund Dulac in France and John Bauer in Sweden. Russia had its fair share of illustrators as well, most notably Ivan Bilibin and Viktor Vasnetsov, even though few were full-fledged painters as the latter was. His post-Romantic, Symbolist visions fell on the fertile ground laid by the Russian revivalists.

Ilya Repin’s “Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom”, 
Vasnetsov posing as titular hero to the right (1876) 

It’s not that even the chief wanderer Ilya Repin deviated every now and then from the Realist principles of the Peredvizhniki into the realms of Russian fairy tales. When Vasnetsov visited his old friend and fellow wanderer from his Academy days in Paris in 1876, Repin used him as a model for his painting of the merchant, adventurer and troubadour Sadko, a character from the Russian epic “Bylina”, who was invited by the Sea Tsar into his underwater kingdom. An eloper from Repin’s oeuvre, but it was about to become a standard for Vasnetsov. Whatever it was that brought him to choose exclusively mythological and historical sujets since his visit in the underwater kingdom of Paris, it made Vasnetsov a key figure of the revivalist movement. Actually, his career had begun rather conventionally along the socialromantic lines set by the other Peredvizhniki, depicting the suchness of poor folk in the vast of Mother Russia, now his imagination captured fairy tale princesses, knights and flying carpets. Critics outside of revivalist circles were not exactly amused, many others were simply enchanted, among them the Tsar.

The three Bogatyrs, the mythical Russian knights Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich (1898)

Like a selected few other artists across Europe, Vasnetsov finally began to stretch out his feelers towards stage design, murals and, finally, architecture, influencing performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s and Mussorgsky’s historical and fairy tale operas as well as the outlook of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, ironically enough named after the patron of the arts who refused to buy Vasnetsov’s All-Russian symbolist paintings in the first place. When the October Revolution finally came, Vasnetsov performed a considerably delicate balance act between his adopted aristocratic background and the new political conditions. His All-Russian symbolist imagery, however, was heady enough even for the Communists. After painting the knights of old, Vasnetsov was commissioned to design the uniforms for the Red Army, including the Budenovka, a "broadcloth helmet" inspired by the headgear worn by the Kievan Rus and worn by the three Bogatyrs in one of his most famous paintings from decidedly pre-revolutionary times, back in 1898.

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