In 1924 the Russian Art Exhibition was held at Grand Central Palace in New York City. Unique in scale, it was quickly recognized as a key moment of cultural exchange between Russia and America. The exhibition presented a lavish selection of nearly a thousand works, by a hundred of Russia's most renowned contemporary artists, to an American audience mesmerised by Russia's artistic achievements. The overall feeling of the visitors to the exhibition is best expressed by Count Ilya Tolstoy, who remarked: 'I am not an art critic. I did not come to see the pictures: I came to see Russia and that is what I saw.' ('The World of Art: The Russians and Others', New York Times, 9 March 1924).
Vasnetsov's bogatyr, illustrated on the frontispiece of the New York exhibition catalogue, occupies a prominent role in the selection of works, seeming to stand 'on guard' for the entire collection. This warrior, so far removed from the turbulent political changes of modern-day Russia, embodies Old Rus' with its rich folkloric culture and ancient history. With his vigorous upright posture, the bogatyr's gaze stretches far beyond the viewer as he vigilantly guards over his homeland and the golden cupolas of the Kremlin. The bogatyr rests his hands on his axe and his brilliantly painted shield. Via this pose, Vasnetsov's vigilant warrior embodies the qualities proper of the bogatyrs from Russian folk epics: he is simultaneously a model of military prowess, patriotism and resilient moral fibre.
Viktor Vasnetsov is best known for his fairytale paintings of heroes from Russia's national epos. The theme of the almighty bogatyrs occupies a preeminent position within his oeuvre and is best represented by his picture The bogatyrs (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), the subject matter of which occupied the artist for almost three decades: he drew the initial sketch in 1871 and completed this masterpiece in 1898. Vasnetsov's predilection for this theme is best expressed in his own words, as he explained how he was 'not a painter of historical pictures' (quoted in Stranitsy proshlogo [Pages from the past], Kiev, 1958, p. 79). Instead, his work aimed to 'convey through paintings the emotions, lyrical feelings and thoughts of the [Russian] people about their bogatyrs' (quoted in op. cit.).
Vasnetsov arrived in Paris in March 1876 on the invitation of his friends Ilya Repin and Vasilii Polenov. Here, he was exposed to the exuberant cultural life of the French capital. Vasnetsov did not however subscribe to radical new tendencies in art; on the contrary, his response was to develop a truly Russian style of painting. And so it came to be that in Polenov's Parisian studio, Vasnetsov painted the first oil sketch of The Bogatyrs, his lifelong passion for the subject inspiring him to present the mighty Russian bogatyrs to a large audience.
During Vasnetsov's sojourn in Paris, Polenov received a letter from the industrialist and eminent art patron Savva Mamontov, inviting the artist and his colleagues to move to Moscow under his patronage. Repin and Polenov, having already accepted this, urged Vasnetsov to do the same. While recognising that St Petersburg had provided him with a strong reputation as a skilful genre painter through his alliance with the Itinerant Society (of which he became a member in 1878), Vasnetsov was glad to leave the heaving metropolis of St Petersburg which he had never truly taken to. His move to Moscow in March 1878 proved a turning point in his career. In a letter to Vladimir Stasov several years later, Vasnetsov recollected impressions from that period: '[My] resolute and conscious transition away from genre painting happened in the golden-domed city of Moscow. Certainly, when I moved to Moscow, I immediately felt that I had come home'. Contrary to the modern austerity of Europeanised St Petersburg, Moscow with its rich history, architecture and long-standing traditions, immersed the artist in the atmosphere of Old Rus'.
In 1879 Vasnetsov moved to the village of Akhturka, close to Mamontov's estate, before moving in 1881 to live at Abramtsevo itself where he remained until 1885. Here Vasnetsov not only spent one of the most fruitful periods of his artistic life, but also significantly developed his distinctive artistic idiom. While he always distanced his work from that of historical painters, during his time at Abramtsevo, Vasnetsovwas a regular visitor to the Kremlin Armoury, as well as the Rumyantsev and Historical museums. Here, the artist would assiduously create sketches and studies that would later imbue his characters with a truly Russian feel. While in Abramtsevo, the artist was much occupied by his project for his intended monumental The bogatyrs. Upon its completion in 1898, this painting was bought by Pavel Tretyakov, together with Savva Mamontov, another Muscovite art patron and collector. Even after its completion, as evidenced by the present work On Guard, Vasnetsov continued to return to this favoured subject, clearly unwilling to part from his favourite bogatyrs.