The appearance of a lesser-known portrait by Vasilii Shukhaev at auction is a great discovery not only for admirers of his work and art historians, but also for anyone interested in the history and culture of Russia’s Silver Age and Russian émigré circles. Shukhaev was one of the finest draftsmen in the history of Russian art and a gifted neoclassical painter, who graduated from the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1912 and never ceased to strive for artistic mastery throughout his life.
The portrait depicts Sergei Rafalovich (1875-1944), a poet, playwright, novelist and literary and theatre critic, who was influenced by the Symbolist movement. He graduated from the Faculty of History, Philology and Law at the St Petersburg Imperial University in 1897, the same year as Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). After that, he was a visiting student at the Sorbonne University in Paris for two terms and later served in different public institutions in the Russian capital. In the 1910s, he worked predominantly in Paris. In the French capital, the well-educated Rafalovich, who was gladly accepted in literary and theatrical circles (both in the old-fashioned and influential and in the new-fangled and promising ones), met Salomea Andronikova (1888-1992) – the St Petersburg ‘beauty of the thirteenth year’ as she was described by her friend, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). Andronikova became his civil partner, although for seven years she lived mainly in St Petersburg/Petrograd and Rafalovich in Paris.
They spent the summer of 1917 in Alushta, Crimea, together with their friends from St Petersburg who rented a dacha in Professor’s Corner, a tourist suburb. Their social circle included the poets Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) and Anna Radlova (1891-1949), together with her husband, director Sergei Radlov (1892-1958), philology professors Konstantin Mochulsky (1892-1948) and Viktor Zhirmunsky (1891-1971), the artist Vasilii Shukhaev with his young wife Vera, and others. In the evenings, the friends read poetry, made merry, and even composed and acted out a comic play in verse called “The Coffee Shop of Broken Hearts”. This story is fairly well known from memoirs and existing research papers.
On 17 June 1917, Vasilii Shukhaev executed a portrait of the forty-two-year-old Sergei Rafalovich using his favourite technique of blending sanguine, a method that he refined with Alexandre Iacovleff (1887-1938). On 5 July he gave the portrait to his model. Soon after that, on 23 July, the artist completed a more finished portrait of Salomea Andronikova using the same technique. Today, Shukhaev’s inscriptions on both portraits are of particular importance to researchers and biographers of the sitters and the artist himself.
The summer spent in Alushta in 1917 was the last carefree summer in their lives. The very next year, Rafalovich and Andronikova moved to Baku, then to Tiflis, where Sergei entered the association Tsekh Poetov [The Workshop of Poets], soon becoming its head and creating the publishing house Kavkazskii Posrednik [The Caucasian Mediator]. Andronikova left for Paris in 1920 with a new companion – the Russian-born French general Zinovy ??Peshkov, the adopted son of Maxim Gorky. Alexandre Iacovleff was already living in the French capital, where, with his support, Vasilii Shukhaev moved with his wife in January 1921. Andronikova remained good friends with the Shukhaevs and during his fourteen years in France, Shukhaev created numerous portraits, including those of Andronikova and Peshkov.
In 1922, Sergei Rafalovich also emigrated to Paris. There he married a Georgian princess, the beautiful Melita Cholokashvili (Zelenskay, by her first marriage); owner of the famous literary salon in Tiflis, praised by Georgian poets and Russian artists and the favourite model of Coco Chanel. Her 1927 portrait by Savely Sorin (1878-1953) in the collection of the Georgian National Museum never ceases to excite and delight art lovers.
Thus, the sanguine portrait of the introspective and pensive man, the poet Sergei Rafalovich, masterfully executed by Vasilii Shukhaev in the turbulent year of 1917, brings back vivid memories of a bygone era.
We are grateful to Elena Yakovleva, Doctor of Art History, Senior Researcher of the Russian Institute of Art History, St Petersburg, for providing this catalogue note.