Zinaida Serebriakova, one of the leading female artists of Russia's Silver Age, produced a unique body of work easily identified by its idiosyncratic blend of Russian realism and personal expression. As her uncle, Alexandre Benois noted: 'Serebriakova's paintings are recognizable among thousands, but it's not a question of this or that style. Their family resemblance arises from the fact that all were created in a similar state of excitement with similar inspiration. The technical aspect is always subordinated to the emotional.' This dynamic is particularly evident in this captivating nude.
Serebriakova was born into a privileged cultural milieu; her father was the sculptor Evgenii Lancerey and her maternal grandfather was the architect Nikolai Benois. Following the premature death of her father in 1886, she moved in with the Benois' family and was instantly surrounded by well-known artists and respected members of Mir iskusstva or 'World of Art' group, including her uncles, Alexandre and Nikolai. After a brief period spent at Princess Tenisheva's school in Talashkino in 1901, Serebriakova's artistic talent was further nurtured by a visit to Italy where she sought inspiration from the Venetian masters. Her formal training was provided by Osip Braz in 1905 at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Paris. Serebriakova's talent was officially recognized when her Self-portrait: Woman at the Mirror (1909), was purchased by the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow following its exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1910.
Sleeping Nude was painted in 1931, some twenty years later. This period had been a turbulent one for the artist; in 1919 her husband died of typhus and in 1924 she was forced to leave Russia for Paris where she hoped her painting would prove more lucrative. Separated from her children and without immediate contacts in the art world, Serebriakova struggled to market her work and missed the warmth of family life. However, her artistic ability remained constant and she continued to explore her preferred subjects of self-portraiture, landscape, culinary still life, the family circle and the female nude. Serebriakova frequently returned to the somnolent female nude; her daughter Katya regularly modeled for her mother and inspired some of the most sensuous images in Russian art. In Sleeping Nude, the young woman is positioned diagonally on the canvas, thus accentuating and elongating her smooth contours. The suppleness and vitality of her body is complemented by Serebriakova's delicate brushstrokes that conceal imperfections and thereby idealize the female form. The more spontaneous lines of undiluted color, which characterize Serebriakova's portraits in pastel, are seen here in the dishevelled bed-linen, whose sporadic ruffles are used to emphasise the flawless curvature of the model. The eroticism of the pose is counteracted by the nude's state of slumber making the work a similtaneous celebration of womanhood and innocence. For Alexandre Benois, Serebriakova's nudes were 'the chief glory of her work, there is nothing quite like them. In these studies of the female body, we find not merely a natural quality but familiar quality from literature and music'. (A. Benois, 'Artistic Letters: The Union Exhibition', Rech, 13 March 1910, XX).