Ivan Vasilev (Russian, Nineteenth Century)

The Conflagration

signed in Cyrillic (lower left) and dated ‘September 1836’ (lower right)
watercolour on paper
20 x 33 cm (7⅞ x 13 in)

The raging flames of this urban fire engulf the city’s cathedral, and illuminate the dense blackness of the night. We share the same view as those figures in the foreground, looking out over the river, helpless as the fire rages. The cathedral is raised up above the town, and the fire seems to be restricted to the area immediately surrounding it, but such is the seemingly uncontrollable nature of the blaze that the danger to the surrounding medieval buildings feels imminent. The yellow, red and orange of the fire provide colour in this otherwise dark scene and that the rest of the town is illuminated clearly is testament to the power of the blaze, of which the vast amount of billowing black smoke that fills the sky is another indication. The Conflagration is an excellent study of the power of nature; the cathedral, a symbol of man’s achievement, is totally engulfed by flame, and the only humans visible appear powerless.

It appears that Ivan Vasilev has not depicted a historical event, but has drawn on a number of sources as inspiration for this powerful image. The architecture of the town is reminiscent of some of the major Baltic cities, with the squat, round towers and spires that are often found in the major cities of what was then the Hanseatic League. In particular the town in The Conflagration can be compared to Tallin, Estonia, where Toompea (or upper town) sits on a hill overlooking All-Linn (lower town), in much the same way that Vasilev has depicted in the present work. Even today, Tallin retains a strongly medieval appearance, and is dotted with red roofs and fortified city walls, comparable to the present work. However, although Vasilev has clearly drawn inspiration from towns such as Tallin, the distinctly English appearance of the burning cathedral suggests that this is not a strictly topographical work.

Although The Conflagration does not depict an actual event, there were plenty of contemporary disasters, in the early nineteenth century, which Vasilev might have witnessed and drawn inspiration from. Perhaps most famously, within the context of Russian art, Moscow was the victim of a terrible fire in 1812, which took place as Napoleon entered the city, and in which three-quarters of all properties were destroyed. Only one year after the present work was executed, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg suffered a fire that lasted three days. Conflagrations were commonplace, and churches regularly burnt down; these scenes were often recorded by artists, not only for historical interest, but, as in the present work, as a technical artistic challenge. To successfully depict intense light within a nocturnal scene is a challenge with a long tradition in art history and requires great artistic skill. That skill is evident in the present work, as Vasilev illuminates his entire scene from one source, exploring the contrasts between intense brightness and deep shadow.

We are grateful to Vladimir Petrov for confirming the attribution of this work.