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Somov: Known and Unknown
The work of Konstantin Somov (1869-1939), whether from his Russian or Parisian period, has always been admired by art connoisseurs. Critics praised Somov for his refined taste, feeling for colour and rich palette. The verisimilitude of his portraits, the lyricism of his landscapes and his technical superiority was also greatly admired. Above all, Somov's work was noted for its individuality, eroticism and magical charm.
Somov was inspired by world literature (he was able to read five languages), art (which he knew, loved and collected) and the worlds of theatre and music. The artist's innate powers of observation, phenomenal memory for colour and mastery of technique allowed Somov to bring to life his artistic visions. Even those unaccustomed to fine art can derive pleasure from his work.
Somov enjoyed fame and success throughout his artistic career. In 1939 Alexandre Benois explained this phenomenon: ...a charming Russianness with a European perspective were magically blended in his oeuvre. His dedication and professionalism drove him to constantly strive to improve upon his talents. Until the very end of his career, Somov remained true to his ideals.
Somov preferred to work with sitters and draw from life: In essence, each artist must build his life so that each God-given day they draw something from life; a person or something else. (Iu. N. Podkopaeva and A. N. Sveshnikova, Konstantin Andreevich Somov, Letters. Diaries. Opinions of his contemporaries, Moscow, 1979, p. 421). His constant desire for challenge and his harsh self-criticism, along with his admiration for Ingres, Vermeer and Velasquez inspired him to work tirelessly: My fellow artists, Krug, Uspenskii and Budanova agreed to get together daily for 1½ hours to sketch. The main reason I invited them was selfish: I really wanted to draw the human body every day. If this Academie de Grandvilliers doesn't end, I think we will advance a lot in drawing (ibid., letter 29, p. 420).
Of particular interest in this collection of works are Somov's six sketch albums which provide a glimpse into the artist's creative world. Looking through the albums, we find evidence of the artist's persistent search for perfection. In these albums, we see Somov's creative search for an ideal image and his experimentation with compositions, poses and facial expressions. The numerous sketches, portrait studies and large-scale compositions in colour reveal Somov's intimate world previously unknown to the public.
Somov's compositions were always 'staged', so his work with models helped him to assemble details for his major canvases. E. M. Mikhailov wrote in his memoirs that: ...he [Somov] often asked me to be his model; sometimes it was to sketch my arms or legs, sometimes he wanted to capture details such as my ears, nose or hands. I found it amusing that one of his female characters had my nose, another, my ears and a third had my hands (ibid., p. 497).
'The boxer' (lot 223), is one of the most interesting oils in the collection. It is an example of Somov's persistent study of nature and is the culmination of the creative studies made during his model sessions. Two days ago I finished an oil portrait 'nu' (half-length), and afterwards I painted a 'still life' beside him; a mirror, behind him a chest of drawers, on which lay his shirt and vest, with a pair of boxing gloves hanging on the wall.
Somov's ability to distinguish between colours and tones was remarkable. This heightened sense of colour allowed the artist to spot a discordance of the palette. The most convincing evidence of Somov's attention to colour is the list of paints used for a particular painting on the back of its stretcher (see lot 223).
The artist's attention to the technical side of painting allows us, even after many years, to admire the freshness and brightness of his works and to appreciate the brilliance and variety of his palette. Somov only used the highest quality paint and deliberately chose to purchase some colours from one factory and others from another maker. Somov was experienced at mixing paint, he painstakingly chose the paper and brushes and applied different undercoats and solutions. He nearly always added a few drops of amber, dissolved in oil, to the solvents. This secret mix of solvent and amber was owned by the Belgian firm Blockx, whose credo was a guarantee on the colour of artistic works: "We throw away all the pigments that don't possess qualities essential for our guarantee of full stability for artistic works".
This collection of Somov's work is the largest available on the present art market. It shows a new facet of the talent of this well-known artist. These unique late works have never been reproduced or exhibited in Russia and their existence was only known to a small circle of specialists who had read Somov's letters and diaries. For the first time, art-lovers will be able to view such master works as: 'The boxer', 'Portrait of Emmanuel Nolde', 'Portrait of M.G. Lukianov' and 'Portrait of Prince Hubert de Broglie'. His friend from the World of Art group, Alexandre Benois wrote: Somov's characters don't speak, smile or 'make eyes' at the viewer. They simply gaze with self-assured power, and this simple, calm gaze communicates the monumental solemnity of Somov's drawings (A. Benois, 'Letters on art: Somov and Stelletskii', Rech, 7 January 1911).
Maurice Baruch, member of Compagnie Nationale des Experts
Popoff & Cie, Paris
Unless otherwise stated, all quotes taken from the correspondence and diary entries of Somov in this catalogue are taken from Iu. N. Podkopaeva & A. N. Sveshnikova's Konstantin Andreeich Somov. Pis'ma. Dnevniki. Suzhdeniia sovremennikov, Moscow, 1979.