Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and his wife Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) in the studio they shared; the reverse of Still Life with Teapot and Oranges, which offered vital clues in reattributing the

Discovery: a Russian avant-garde detective story

For more than 50 years Still Life with Teapot and Oranges  was believed to have been painted by Mikhail Larionov. Specialist Aleksandra Babenko reveals the scholarship which made clear that it was actually a work by his wife, Natalia Goncharova — sold at Christie’s in November 2017 for £2.4 million

‘The minute I saw the painting in the flesh, it took my breath away,’ recalls Aleksandra Babenko, Associate Specialist in Russian Art, of a still life attributed to the avant-garde Russian artist Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964). ‘The vividness and boldness of its colours, the accentuated ultramarine outlines, and the audaciously angled composition — all exemplified the youthful fervour and rebellious mood within Moscow’s artistic community in the early 20th century.’

Russian avant-garde is currently the hottest area of the Russian art market, but paintings are extremely rare and only saleable when they have fully recorded provenance and early exhibition history. When this painting arrived at Christie’s in the summer of 2017, the team of Christie’s specialists set about researching its history. Their first discovery came when they turned it over and found another still life, albeit unfinished, as well as multiple inscriptions and labels, which all seemed to confirm Larionov’s authorship.

Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and his wife Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) in the studio they shared in Moscow. In 1915, at the invitation of Serge Diaghilev, they left Moscow for Paris, where they would spend the remainder of their lives

Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and his wife Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) in the studio they shared in Moscow. In 1915, at the invitation of Serge Diaghilev, they left Moscow for Paris, where they would spend the remainder of their lives

While studying at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture between 1901 and 1909, Larionov met his future wife Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), who until 2013 held the distinction of being the most expensive female artist at auction.

As students, Larionov and Goncharova shared a determination to break away from academic tradition, seeking instead to challenge the viewer with a new, radical form of art that later became known as Russian avant-garde. They went on to share a studio in Moscow, where their tireless approach to their work resulted in an incredibly rich artistic output. For Goncharova’s 1913 solo exhibition in Moscow, for example, the artist produced more than 800 works before reviewing and supplementing the selection for her 1914 solo exhibition in St Petersburg.

The years immediately before the Russian Revolution saw Larionov and Goncharova produce some of their finest pieces. Canvases from this period are highly sought-after by collectors and realise consistently high prices at auction.

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Espagnole, circa 1916. Oil on canvas. 51¼ x 32 in (130.3 x 81.3 cm). Sold for £6,425,250 in February 2010 at Christie’s in London, making this the most expensive work by a female artist at auction

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Espagnole, circa 1916. Oil on canvas. 51¼ x 32 in (130.3 x 81.3 cm). Sold for £6,425,250 in February 2010 at Christie’s in London, making this the most expensive work by a female artist at auction

In 1915, Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev invited Larionov and Goncharova to work for the Ballets Russes. They left Moscow for Paris, where they continued to share a studio until Goncharova’s death in 1962.

Still Life with Teapot and Oranges, which was sold by Christie’s in November 2017, had been acquired in Paris as a work by Larionov by the consignor’s father in 1966, two years after the artist’s death. It was purchased directly from Alexandra Tomilina-Larionova, Larionov’s widow and second wife. The still life later featured in a major exhibition of Larionov’s works in Albi in the south of France in 1973 — the last time it appeared in public — and was included in the first monograph of the artist’s works published outside Russia.

Handwritten labels on the reverse of the canvas confirmed that it had been with the Moscow Repository of Contemporary Art between 1918 and 1923, and then, until 1927, with one of Larionov’s friends, before finally being sent to Paris where it was reunited with Larionov and Goncharova. Partially concealed by the stretcher was Cyrillic text which stated the title and price of the work, and suggested that it had been previously exhibited in Russia, although the text did not name the artist.

Inscriptions on the reverse of the canvas, including the number ‘15a’, provided clues to tracing the painting’s provenance

Inscriptions on the reverse of the canvas, including the number ‘15a’, provided clues to tracing the painting’s provenance

As Babenko began to dig deeper into the provenance of the work, she was puzzled by the fact that she was unable to match the painting’s dimensions — or find any close enough — in Larionov’s pre-Paris exhibition catalogues or listings of his works.

At this point the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow became involved, to dramatic effect: senior researcher Irina Vakar confirmed that Christie’s was handling an exceptionally rare and early work not by Larionov, but rather Natalia Goncharova. 

Vakar referred to Goncharova’s Still Life with a Green Bottle  from the collection of The Ulyanovsk Regional Art Museum. ‘Once we compared the paintings, we no longer had any doubts that our still life was by Goncharova: the bottle was the same, as were the fruit and fabrics draping the background,’ says the specialist. 

‘Our teapot clearly belonged to the same china set as the sugar bowl and the plate featured in the painting from the museum, and the table was depicted from the same angle. Since Goncharova and Larionov shared a studio, they often used the same objects for their still lifes.’

‘All the parts of the puzzle came together — working with the Tretyakov Gallery we identified every single label, inscription and number on the painting’

Alexandra Tomilina-Larionova had inherited works by both Larionov and Goncharova. As she systemised Larionov’s artistic legacy and became actively engaged in popularising his work, however, it is now clear that she wrongly ascribed this work to him. Complicating matters was the sheer volume of works produced by Larionov and Goncharova, and the fact that many of those shipped from Russia to Paris after they had relocated remained unsigned.

Another key for re-establishing the attribution to Goncharova was on the reverse of the canvas: together with the inscribed title and price there was a number, ‘15a’, which at first did not appear to correspond with any listing in exhibition catalogues from the period before Goncharova left Russia.

‘Thanks to extensive research carried out on Goncharova by Russian art historians over the past decade, we learnt that when sending works for her 1914 solo exhibition in St Petersburg, Goncharova kept the same numbers for the 111 paintings that had been exhibited a year earlier in Moscow, so that they could be easily identified by the St Petersburg gallery,’ says Babenko. For all the paintings Goncharova had produced in the interim, the artist assigned ‘a’ numbers, the first of which was numbered 112 in the St Petersburg exhibition catalogue.

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Still Life with Teapot and Oranges. Oil on canvas. 38 x 41¼ in (96.7 x 105 cm). Sold for £2,408,750 on 27 November 2017 at Christie’s London

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Still Life with Teapot and Oranges. Oil on canvas. 38 x 41¼ in (96.7 x 105 cm). Sold for £2,408,750 on 27 November 2017 at Christie’s London

‘Our still life was listed as no. 126 in the exhibition catalogue, which corresponded to the ‘15a’ inscribed on the reverse of the canvas,’ says Babenko. ‘All the parts of the puzzle came together — working with the Tretyakov Gallery we identified every label, inscription and number on the painting and related them to exhibitions, geographical movements and changes of ownership. It was one of the most fascinating and rewarding pieces of research that I have been involved in during my six years at Christie’s.’

On 27 November 2017, that research bore fruit in our Important Russian Art sale in London. Still Life with Teapot and Oranges — newly reattributed to Natalia Goncharova after more than 50 years’ being considered a work by Mikhail Larionov — sold for just over £2.4 million. The figure was more than triple the high estimate for the painting, making it one of the ten most valuable works by Natalia Goncharova ever sold at auction.