As part of an artistic dynasty that included the sculptor Evgeny Lanceray (her father), the architect Nikolai Benois (her maternal grandfather), Alexandre and Albert Benois (uncles) and the composer Catterino Cavos (her great-grandfather), Zinaida Serebriakova's upbringing epitomised that of the St Petersburg intelligentsia at the turn of the previous century. One of six children, Serebriakova lost her father at a young age and grew up in the home of her grandfather in a large house not far from the Marinsky Theatre, which sometimes served as the gathering point for the first incarnation of the World of Art association. The artistic temperament flowed through her veins: as Tatiana Serebriakova, Serebriakova's eldest daughter, recalled in apiece written to accompany her mother's first post-emigration exhibition in Russia in 1965: 'As we say in the family, the children are born with a pencil in their hands'.
In her 1989 monograph, Tatiana Savitskaia suggests (Izbrannye proizvedeniia [Selected works], Moscow, 1989, p. 8) that Serebriakova's formal commissions, accepted from financial necessity, were her less successful works: her best portraits naturally reflect the relationship she held with the subject. Consider then the exquisite pre-emigration work presented here: Portrait of the artist's son Alexandre sketching in the artist's studio. Executed in St Petersburg circa 1922, Serebriakova was already a widow by this point, having lost herhusband Boris to typhus, which he contracted in 1919 travelling from Moscow to Kharkov in order to join Zinaida and their four children, who had left St Petersburg to escape the war. Undoubtedly mourning the loss of her beloved husband, Serebriakova experienced financial hardship on their return to St Petersburg in 1920. And yet in this tender portrait, there is nothing that indicates this poignancy.
Portrait of the artist's son Alexandre sketching in the artist's studio is executed in pastel, a medium Serebriakova frequently adopted after 1921 (prior to this she favoured oil and tempera). The portrait is imbued above all with a sense of ease, the lines freely and confidently executed with most attention to detail applied to Alexandre's face. The young boy does not turn to contemplate his mother, as the child of a stranger might, curious at proving an object of interest. Rather, Alexandre appears oblivious to Serebriakova's presence and continues to draw. His simple clothing and the absence of era-specific accoutrements introduce a timeless element to the work so distinctive in Serebriakova's oeuvre. The beauty of her work in pastel is underscored by the revelation that despite her straightened circumstances, she remained able to communicate the strength of her emotional attachment to her sitters in abundance.
Where Serebriakova's content is familiar, her style is strikingly distinctive, distinguished by its relentless optimism. Alexandre Benois' description of her beloved 1909 self-portrait as 'something young, sunny and bright, something totally artistic' (quoted in op. cit. p. 4) is a sentiment that can be applied to her body of work overall. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the portraits in which her four beloved children provide the subject matter. In old age, Serebriakova acknowledged that 'It always seemed to me that to be loved and to be in love was happiness' (op. cit. p. 5); the happiness she refers to is palpable in this rare and beautiful early portrait of her precious son.
Unable to financially provide for her family in Russia, Serebriakova left St Petersburg for Paris in 1924. Alexandre and Catherine joined her there in 1926 and 1928 respectively while her remaining son Evgenii and daughter Tatiana stayed in Russia. In Portrait of the artist's son Alexandre sketching in the artist's studio we see her youngest son hard at work, copying a classical sculpture in his mother's studio. Tatiana later explained that Alexandre and Catherine's artistic ability was pivotal in Zinaida's decision to relocate them both to Europe: 'My brother Shura and sister Katya showed an inclination for drawing and painting even in childhood and Mama decided that it would be useful for them to be in Paris and that this would furthermore aid our grandmother, tasked with educating four children.' Both Catherine and Alexandre went on to become talented artists.
Serebriakova wrote to Evgenii and Tatiana uninterruptedly (with the exception of the war years); from her letters it is clear that her native land was never far from her mind. Writing in April 1934 she raised the possibility of returning to her homeland but simultaneously asked somewhat despondently: 'Who needs me there? I mustn't burden you my darling Tatusik. And where could I live? I would be useless, as would my paintings and sketches and so on'.
In 1965 the first post-emigration Russian exhibition of Serebriakova's work opened in Russia. As her earlier letter reveals, Serebriakova was concerned about the reception her work would receive. Her fears proved groundless, those familiar with her charming 1909 self-portrait, acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery shortly after its exhibition with the Union of Russian Artists, were delighted to become acquainted with her subsequent work. The universal themes of her paintings, always painted from life and never from photographs, are saturated with an enduring beauty and highly desirable irrespective to transient fashion. For these reasons, her works are as valued today as they were then, rendering the possibility of acquiring this pastel, lovingly treasured by the artist's daughter before entering the esteemed collection of Alexandre Djanchieff, a unique and tantalising opportunity for any serious collector of Russian Art.