"On to War" and Revolution - the Peredvizhnik Painter Konstantin Savitsky

13 February 1905, Konstantin Apollonovich Savitsky, painter and member of the Peredvizhniki group of artists, died at the age of 61 in Penza.

“Watching a woman make Russian pancakes, you might think that she was calling on the spirits or extracting from the batter the philosopher’s stone.“ (Anton Chekhov)

Dramatic scenes on a provincial railway station: Konstantin Savitsky: "On to War" (1888)

Other 19th century –isms had caught up with Courbet’s idea of Realism long since during the 1870s. Neither was painting landscapes and its inhabitants en plein air on a larger scale along the lines and tones set by the School of Barbizon quite avant-garde any more and photography began its triumphal march anyway. Highly precise illusionistic brushwork representing things as they actually were receded more and more to the background in favour of the artist’s perception and ability of abstraction. However, choosing sujets beyond the classical canon of the nude goddesses of antiquity ands the smartly uniformed heroes of Academic Art was still somewhat bohemian or downright revolutionary in the view of the Imperial academies who had the greatest say in what was high art in their respective countries. Russian art did not constitute an exception in this regard, save that even landscape painting in the wake of pan-European Realism was a revolutionary idea. Especially when the picturesque and actually quite Romantic landscapes were populated with the toiling, sweating and downtrodden populace of Imperial Russia’s backwaters. Serfdom as such was abolished in 1861 by order of Tsar Alexander II, finally, but in a manner that usually left the peasantry without the few hereditary rights they had acquired over the past centuries and in almost complete debt bondage to their former landlords. Seeing and depicting things as they were, with an almost photorealistic brush, the scenes and the people in their silent, rustic dignity, beyond the glamour of St Petersburg and Moscow or the fashionable resorts of the Black Sea Riviera became the objective of the Peredvizhniki, the Wanderers, who broke away from the Imperial Academy and used their considerable talent along with the excellent education they had received and wandered immeasurable Mother Russia and painted what they saw with a Slavophil eye and moved them – often to tears and almost always to create masterpieces of Russian Realist art. Ilya Repin certainly was the figurehead of the group and arguably their greatest and most versatile master. Others, like Savrasov, Shishkin and the boy wonder Vasilyev specialised in landscapes, Surikov and Ryabushkin in historical and mythological echoes and overtones and there were those who made the people and their daily drama the heroes of their masterpieces, like Konstantin Savitsky and his pre-Soviet “Ecce Homo” sujets.

Shishkin painted the landscape and Savitsky the All-Russian bear cubs: "Morning in the Pine Forest" (1886)

When the drama of the predictable foreplay of the Great October Revolution known as the Blood Sunday of 1905 was played out in the streets of St Petersburg, Savitsky, by then a sick, ageing man, already had left the empire’s capital since a couple of years to teach art in provincial Penza, about 400 miles southeast of Moscow. He always had been a prize student himself, in his native Taganrog on the shores of the Sea of Azov, in Lithuania, where he spent the last years of his youth with his uncle’s family after both his parents died and after joining the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg when he was 18, back in 1862. There he met with the other, future Wanderers who already took their first steps as Realist artists. Lifelong friendships were formed, Savitsky accompanied Repin and his family to France to study and paint and collaborated with Shishkin on genre paintings. And, of course, they wandered Russia, far and wide, created masterpieces and organised exhibitions of their work in rural centres to hold the mirror up to both former landlord and serf alike. The 1870s and ‘80s were Savitsky’s most productive years and his best works emerged from that time, from "Repairing the Railway" to the “Icon on the Road” and “To the War”, all brightly coloured, naturalistic and highly detailed to a degree of pedantry, Slavophil and certainly among the best genre paintings of the 19th century, despite or maybe because of their understated but supratemporal political undertones and transboundary humanistic view. Ecce homo indeed. Ironically enough, Savitsky was elected a member of the Imperial Academy in 1897, years after he had settled down and taught drawing and painting in various schools in St Petersburg and Moscow, even if Batyushka Tsar Nicholas II’s ultraconservative rule continued to kindle the fire that burned since his father had ascended the throne and whose roots were depicted by Savitsly and the other Peredvizhniki. Until the Revolution came in 1917. 

Konstantin Savitsky: "Repairing the Railroad" (1874)

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