One of the most memorable actresses of the 20th century, Natalie Wood had an extraordinarily prolific career. Known for her stellar roles in such films as Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Rebel Without A Cause (1955), West Side Story (1961), Splendor in the Grass (1961), Gypsy (1962), among many others, she rapidly became a beloved screen legend.
Natalie Wood’s stardom began in the early days of her childhood, thanks to the efforts of her determined mother who encouraged her into an acting career. Wood’s innate talent was such that she was generally considered to be a child prodigy. Orson Welles (1915-1985), her co-star in her first major film role Tomorrow is Forever (1946) was noted to have said that she was ‘so good she was terrifying’ (quoted in M. Bowman and N. Gregson Wagner, Natalie Wood; Reflections on a Legendary Life, Philadelphia, 2016, p. 30). The brilliance that emanated from Natalie Wood as a young girl continued throughout her acting career, and from most, if not all biographical accounts, particularly from her close family and friends this radiance was as present in the private sphere as it was in the public sphere.
Born Natalia (Natasha) Gurdin in San Francisco in 1938, Wood’s parents, Maria née Zudilova (1908-1998) and Nikolai (Nick) Gurdin (1912-1980) were both part of the initial wave of émigrés to flee the Russian Revolution that had settled in China and eventually migrated to Northern California. Not long after Maria and Nick Gurdin met in California, they married and had Natasha.
The Gurdin’s home would see occasional traces and reminiscences of the Russian past that was lost to the two émigrés. As family members have pointed out to one of Natalie Wood’s biographers, Gavin Lambert (1924-2005), a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II hung in the couple’s bedroom, and often, in the evenings, Nick Gurdin would sit alone in a chair and reread the novels of the some of the great Russian writers or quietly sing accompanying himself with a balalaika. Natalie Wood would later mention at her father’s funeral that it gave her ‘supreme pleasure’ to watch and listen to him (G. Lambert, Natalie Wood: A Life, New York, 2004, pp. 38 & 405). It is difficult not to make the connection between Leonid Pasternak’s wonderful painting depicting the warm environment of Konstantin Korovin’s apartment where close friends have gathered for an evening of song and merriment and occasional evenings in the Gurdin home. And it is possible that may have moved Natalie Wood to acquire this work to be an important part of her private collection.
A leading portraitist, genre scene artist and illustrator, Leonid Pasternak was one of the most profoundly influential artists of his generation. Born in Odessa and educated in Moscow and Munich, he taught at the prestigious Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He travelled extensively throughout Europe until finally making his home in Oxford, England. Often called a ‘Russian Impressionist’ for his affinity for the impressionistic treatment of figures and the environment as well as his ability to capture the most fleeting signs of movement, Pasternak is perhaps best known for his numerous portraits of his contemporaries, which he painted with remarkable observation and a sense of humour, sincerity and candour.
At K. A. Korovin’s: ‘old-time songs’ (Chaliapin and the artists) depicts an intimate party of friends, featuring from the right Konstantin Korovin (1861-1939), Fedor Chaliapin (1873-1938), the artist, Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930), Pavel Tuchkov (1862-1918) and Prince Sergei Shcherbatov (1875-1962). Korovin and Arkhipov were Pasternak’s colleagues from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and amateur artist Shcherbatov had been Pasternak’s student. Leonid Pasternak left a vivid written description of these traditional gathering at his friend’s apartment: ‘On the evening of his birthday, which was in December, the artist K. A. Korovin would always have a sort of bachelors’ party for his friends (in fact practically all of them were married). There was always much wining, dining and merrymaking with gypsy songs [...] These evenings went on until three or four o’clock in the morning after which it was expected that everyone apart from those abstemious stay-at-homes like myself would go off to drink more in the apartment of a famous rich barrister. There they enjoyed themselves till ten in the morning, after which they dispersed homewards.’ (J. Bradshaw, The Memoirs of Leonid Pasternak, London, 1982, p. 116-117). Pasternak writes that the chief performer was usually the famed opera singer Chaliapin, accompanied by Tuchkov who was an accomplished amateur guitar player and passionate lover of gypsy music: ‘Chaliapin [...] would play tricks on Tuchkov. At the point where Tuchkov had become quite ecstatic in his passionate accompaniment, Chaliapin would quite deliberately sing a note slightly off-key. Tuchkov would immediately snap out of his reverie and become fierce with anger, cursing and swearing until the assembled company was reduced to helpless laughter and the episode ended in noise and uproar.’ (ibid, p. 116). In the painting Chaliapin appears to be listening with mock-serious attention to Tuchkov’s animated and self-indulgent musical performance.
At K. A. Korovin’s: ‘old-time songs’ (Chaliapin and the artists) is the culmination of an evolving theme which can be traced back on the basis of preparatory studies and related compositions to 1912, when Pasternak was an active figure in the artistic and social circles of Moscow. Sketches of the roses appeared in Pasternak’s albums dated 1914-1916. Over a period of ten years, Pasternak reworked the original composition, shifting the positions of Chaliapin and Tuchkov to alter the dynamics of the soirée. In November 2006, Christie’s London sold an earlier version of the present composition painted circa 1912-1916 for £90,000. Crucially, the present work has one outstanding difference from its precedent in that Pasternak replaced A. Vasnetsov with a self-portrait. According to correspondence between Rozalia and Boris Pasternak, the artist painted a version of the composition with this significant reshuffle shortly after his arrival in Germany which dates the painting circa 1921 (R. Salys, Leonid Pasternak, The Russian Years, 1875-1921: a Critical Study and Catalogue, Oxford, 1999, I, p. 46).