On graduating from St Petersburg's Imperial Academy of Arts in 1868, Alexei Harlamoff was awarded a scholarship to study abroad for his gold medal-winning painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. His subsequent travels in Europe proved a formative influence on both the style and content of his ensuing work and while he continued to exhibit in Russia and retained close contacts with Russian circles abroad, succeeding Aleksei Bogoliubov in 1896 as Chairman of the Association for the Mutual Support and Benefit of Russian Artists Abroad, Harlamoff spent the majority of his life in Paris. Initially the young artist worked under considerably straightened circumstances, writing to the Academy in 1870 that he was unable to complete a painting he wished to present as a result of illness, most likely relating to insufficient sustenance. By October 1874 however, his considerable talent had reaped rewards: Harlamoff received 3000 francs for his portrait of Pauline Viardot, the success of which led to an increase in his rate for portraits to the considerable sum of 10,000 francs. To comprehend the significance of this figure it is worth noting that in 1874 the celebrated baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure was paying 300 francs for Monet's paintings. While the French artist was admittedly at the start of his career and did sell Impression, soleil levant (1872, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris) for 1000 francs that same year, Harlamoff's fee is nevertheless impressive.
Foreshadowing a subsequent generation of Russian artists who travelled to the outposts of the Soviet Union for the relative artistic freedom the distance provided, leaving Russia reduced the pressure on Harlamoff to devote his canvasses to the contemporary socio-political issues facing his homeland. While Harlamoff exhibited with both the Imperial Academy's Exhibition Society and that of the Peredvizhniki [the Itinerants], he was equally intent on competing at an international level and exhibited at the International Exhibition in Glasgow (1888), the Vienna Universal Exhibition (1872) and the Universale Exhibition in Paris on numerous occasions. Harlamoff's choice of subject matter and his evident admiration and interest in modern French techniqueprovoked the scorn of his fellow artists Ilya Repin and Ivan Kramskoy and that of the preeminent critic Vladimir Stasov. Harlamoff did not heed their criticism, doubtless buoyed up in part by the support of figures such as Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), who chose Harlamoff to provide the charcoal illustrations to his Home of the Gentry, and Emile Zola (1840-1902), whose praise of Harlamoff's exhibits in the 1875 and 1876 Salon was published in the St Petersburg journal Le Messager de L'Europe. In fact, none of Harlamoff's aforementioned critics were indifferent to his evident ability and the tonal beauty of his work: Repin, whose distaste for Harlamoff was undoubtedly fueled by Turgenev's preference for Harlamoff's portrait of him over Repin's own, understood and accepted Harlamoff's desire to remain in Paris and recalled in his old age the undeniable truth that 'Harlamoff's technique really was so beautiful' (quoted in O. Sugrobova-Roth & E. Lingenauber, Catalogue Raisonné: Alexei Harlamoff, Düsseldorf, 2007, p. 31). Stasov mourned Russia's loss while accepting Paris's gain and even Kramskoy, spiritual father of the Peredvizhniki, admitted in a letter to Pavel Tretyakov: 'I envy him and that is why I am unjust' (op. cit.).
The present work, Two girls arranging flowers is an exquisite and characteristic example of Harlamoff's work in the late 1870s/1880s. A salon painting in subject matter, it is saved from dry academicism by its bold palette, effective use of light and the irresistible charm of its subjects. Two sweetly solemn girls are presented seated and surrounded by flowers, the younger of the pair entranced by the activities of her dark-haired companion. The vibrant and diverse palette of the foliage strewn about them is accentuated by the contrasting neutrality of the stone wall behind. Harlamoff breathes life into the children, using thin layers of paint to create delicate flesh tones, their bare feet only adding to their appeal and lending the picture an air of naturalism while their healthy complexions, the younger girl's necklace and an atmosphere of contentment prohibits any suggestion of deprivation. Appearing on the market for the first time in overthirty years, Harlamoff's Two girls arranging flowers is the most beautiful example of this superlative painter's work to appear at auction since The arrangement.