Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (Lop’jal near Vyatka 1848 - Moscow 1926)

Une Parisienne

signed in Cyrillic and dated 1875 (lower left) and inscribed and dated ‘Paris/75’ (lower right)
pencil on paper
30.5 x 22.8 cm (12 x 9 in)

In this skilfully executed pencil portrait, Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov has captured the formidable character of this middle-aged Parisian lady. The sitter meets our gaze, with a stern, tight-lipped expression. Her broad shoulders, tightly pulled-back hair and sober costume create a severe demeanour. The figure is brilliantly executed, with Vasnetsov using a wide tonal variation to imbue his subject with life. It is a particularly fine study of psychological nuance, which Vasnetsov specialised in due to tremendous skill as a draughtsman.

The present drawing is a typical example of Vasnetsov’s Parisian work. He came to the city in 1876 at the invitation of Ilya Yefimovich Repin, who had been a good friend for years and who wanted Vasnetsov to join the colony of Peredvizhniki artists who were working in the city at the time. The Peredvizhniki (‘The Wanderers’) were the most progressive artistic group in Russia, and a recurrent theme in their work was character studies of figures of everyday life. Une Parisienne is clearly part of this artistic trend of aiming to depict ordinary society. During his year-long stay in Paris, Vasnetsov drew many of the inhabitants of the city, and he included many of these characters in larger compositions, such as Acrobats in a Paris Suburb. In this work, two women, one watching the entertainment and one playing a drum, are comparable to the robust subject of the present drawing. Acrobats in a Paris Suburb contains a range of different characters, each of whom are highly individualised and imbued with real personality.

On his return from Paris, Vasnetnov’s style changed quite dramatically, but up until this point his work is full of studies of the common people, Monk with a Collecting Plate being a comparable example. In both this and Une Parisienne, Vasnetsov’s ability to capture the psychological nuances of his subject are truly noteable. The monk tilts his head slightly quizzically, but holds himself with a similar sense of quiet self confidence as the French woman. In both works Vasnetsov has not chosen the subjects for their beauty; both faces are clearly undergoing the changes of old-age, as the skin starts to sag around their cheeks and necks.

Vasnetsov’s career falls into two decidedly different periods and he is credited with a leading role in the evolution of Russian art from nineteenth-century Realism towards a more nationalist and historical style that characterised much of Russian art in the latter stages of the century. Until 1877, his work usually adhered to the sort of critical Realism that other members of Peredvizhniki specialised in. On his return to Russia from Paris, however, he started to paint scenes from Russia’s ancient past, which combined archaeological accuracy with an atmosphere of myth and legend, and he was praised for reforming the historical genre in a more decorative style.