Alexei Harlamoff is an artist who has experienced both great success and years of complete neglect, starting during the master's life and continuing all the way to recent decades. Harlamoff's paintings have only started to enjoy great popularity among collectors at auctions outside Russia since the 1990s, and museum curators have started to produce adequate evaluations of this master's creativity and to include him in the overall complex and rather contradictory picture of Russian art of the second half of the 19th century, with conceptual (planned) publishing and exhibition projects on Russian academic and display art, the brightest of which was the Plenniki krasoty (Captives of beauty) exhibition mounted by the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (2004 - 2005).
The son of serfs, and a native of a poor village in the province of Saratov, Harlamoff's own talent and dedicated work led to recognition and material prosperity. He was acquainted with many of his leading contemporaries - Ivan Turgenev and Emile Zola, Louis and Pauline Viardot, Petr Tchaikovskii, Ilya Repin, Aleksei Bogoliubov, and others. After graduating from the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts, Harlamoff was sent to Europe to complete his apprenticeship. The young artist spent much time studying the paintings of his favourite Old Masters with special diligence, carefully copying their works according to the Academy's instructions. Among contemporary artists, he elected to study with Léon Bonnat, the well-known master of 'women's heads'; he chose Paris as his base.
In the 1870s, Harlamoff, who was constantly exhibited at the Salon, became well known and received numerous commissions. His art studio in the Place Pigalle in the artists' quarter, as reported by the correspondent of the Russian journal 'Novoe Vremya', was crammed with finished works as well as sketches and studies of their elements, demonstrating his scrupulous approach to his work. Another contemporary critic wrote: 'Something ethereal, elegant and tender emanates from Harlamoff's heads'. These words apply equally to the visual composition of his The Arrangement. Sitting half turned, the young girl is deeply absorbed; in her hand she holds a graceful bouquet of just-picked flowers and an upset basket of flowers is at her left. The girl's figure, demurely clothed in white with red patches on the sleeves of her blouse and a grey-blue pinafore and apron, is drawn as an elegant and beautiful silhouette on the background of a grey wall laid down in detail, contrasting with the dark curve of the doorway in the background. These same 'street decorations' surrounding the flower girl are repeated in Children Playing with Flowers (Serpukhov Art Historical Museum, Alexei Harlamoff, Catalogue Raisonné, pl. 178) and other works of the second half of the 1870s and the 1880s.
The same model can be seen as the main heroine in a whole series of paintings in non-Russian collections and catalogued in Alexei Harlamoff, Catalogue raisonné, Olga Sugrobova-Roth, Eckart-Lingenauber, 2007, pl. 49 (fig. 2). Among these, Two Girls with Flowers has been dated to 1885. The elegantly simple structure of the composition, the complex orchestration of the flowers, and the lightness of touch suggest that The Arrangement was painted in the mid-1880s, during the best period of Harlamoff's life, when he was popular and admired. 'Straightforward of subject, superlative of execution, and true to beauty...All is simple, there is no mendacious elegance' - these are the words of Emile Zola describing another of Harlamoff's works and which can also be applied with perfection to The Arrangement. There is something tremulous, delicate, attentive, and just a little elegiac in her face. Her precious bunch of flowers includes roses, carnations, and cornflowers, painted with no unnecessary detail in washes of red, pink, yellow, blue, and green. The flowers scattered from the basket are painted with Harlamoff's tinge of Frenchness and elegance as a 'Russian Parisian', which pleasure the eyes and demonstrate the master's brilliance as a painter.
One of Harlamoff's critics wrote of his portraits and compositions that they 'are nothing more than 'anonymous portraits', pictures of the unknown X, N, and Z'. In reality, these portraits gave the artist freedom - he worked from nature and his choices were not limited by rules. The psychological features in the tender face of the flower girl, the precious scattering of the flowers, so ethereally and intricately painted, are all in direct contradiction to the superficiality commonly seen in the compositional and painting treatments of artists pursuing nothing more than commercial gain.
It is difficult to define Harlamoff's style. His works show a clear allegiance to balanced compositional structures and the strict painting of the Old Masters, combining features of realism and romanticism, often tinged with a layer of sentimentality. The master's tendency to use natural lighting and a plein air approach is undoubtedly the main lesson taken by Russian artists, including Harlamoff, from the creative inspiration of Impressionism.
It would be too easy to define Harlamoff as a mere gallery artist. The Russian critic Stasov chided him for this, saying that he painted his "heads" in the "French manner", in the style of Bonnat. Many European masters painting winsome girls and exploiting the public's love of 'heads' - C.-J. Chaplin, H. Picard, W. Bougeureau, P. De. Coninch - fell into obscurity. But Harlamoff was even more popular than his French teacher Leon Bonnat. As a result, his paintings have that special quality which allows a master to pass the test of time.
We are grateful to Liudmila Pashkova, the Curator of The Radishchev State Art Museum, Saratov, for preparing this note.