Considered by many to be one of the finest and most distinctive Russian artists of the 20th century, Grigoriev's work is as popular today as it was during his lifetime as shown by the recent success of his phenomenal retrospective held at the Russian Museum, St Petersburg. Born in Rybinsk, Boris Grigoriev studied at the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg under Aleksandr Kiselev and Dmitrii Kardovskii before relocating to Paris in 1912, where he attended the Acadmie de la Grande Chaumire. Drawing inspiration from icon painting, Grigoriev painted many of the most important figures in Russian culture, including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Kustodiev and Nicholas Roerich. His distinctive grotesque stylisation, with its emphasis on line, lent itself to graphic work, as seen in his illustrations for the publications Novyii Satirikon and Apollon. Grigoriev's style was as innovative as it was au courant; as the critic Igor Grabar later observed; 'He took what he considered necessary - something from Cubism, a little from Czanne - and worked out his own Grigoriev-esque style, which on one side, touched on the work of Petrov-Vodkin, on the other, that of the French Post-Impressionists.' (I. Grabar, as cited in D. Ia. Severiukhin & O. L. Leikind, Khudozhniki russkoi emigratsii [Artists of the Russian Emigration] (1917-1941), St Petersburg, 1994, p. 171).
Still life with candle was most likely painted in the 1920s, a period during which Grigoriev took the international art world by storm and exhibited to great acclaim in the great art capitals of the world, including New York and Milan. After emigrating from Soviet Russia, Grigoriev spent a brief spell in Berlin, before moving to France. From 1921 to 1926, when he finally decided to settle down on the Riviera, Grigoriev made the journey practically every summer to work in the quiet provincial corner of Brittany that provided the subject-matter, inspiration and working environment that, arguably, precipitated some of Grigoriev's most poetic and striking work. The artist first came to this part of France, long beloved by Russian artists, including Bogoliubov, Benois, Serebriakova and Annenkov, in 1914, when the unfolding horrors of the First World War forced him to extend his stay. The artistic traces of the first trip to Brittany are pencil drawings fixing the likeness of the artist himself, (Self-portrait, 1914, House Museum of Iosif Brodsky, St Petersburg) sketches of the local markets and the undulating landscape. He was captivated by the French province that seemed to have avoided the evils of modernity and, on the contrary, seemed to be frozen in time, with its ancient traditions and measured rhythm of everyday life.
In this environment, having already established himself as the master of line, Grigoriev painted a number of still lifes, an artistic vehicle that reveals further his neo-classicial roots. In Still life with candle the use of commonplace items, including a candle, pot and rope, creates a powerful contrast with Grigoriev's fiercely modern painting style, epitomised by the surgical cut of his brush which effortlessly captures form and volume. A comparison can be drawn here with the vanitas, a particular genre of still life that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. Although the work lacks the questioning of mortality so evident in that genre, there is a similar intensity or monumentalism invested in these everyday objects, a quality emphasised by Girgoriev's fluid, yet precise painting style.
Grigoriev first exhibited in Italy in 1920 at the Venice Biennale, slowly developing a reputation and profile in the region. In January 1926, Grigoriev's work was shown at the Galleria Pesaro in Milan, where he exhibited forty oils, watercolours and pencil drawings, showing a range of techniques, formats and subjects. This important gallery was located on via Manzoni in Milan, today the site of the Museum Poldi Pezzoli. Its founder, Lino Pesaro, was keen to champion the new and the gallery had already found fame for hosting the association of seven artists, including Anselmo Bucci and Achille Funi, led by the writer and critic Margherita Sarfatti, that aimed to promote a renewed yet traditional Italian art. In the same spirit, Pesaro championed Grigoriev's brave neo-classical style, and although the brevity of descriptions in the 1926 exhibition catalogue prevent us from confirming that Still life with candle was the single still life included in that exhibition, the gallery label on the reverse testifies to the painting being in the possession of Galleria Pesaro during this period. The importance of this exhibition and the gallery to Grigoriev's growing reputation and standing on the international art platform was not lost on the artist. In his correspondence with his friend, the writer Evgeny Zamyatin, he wrote of the opening night on 14 January 1926: 'Waiting in a tuxedo, at a chic 9 pm to go to my exhibition which will open in about 20 minutes at Palazzo Poldi Pezzoli, where a wall separates your old friend from Polacollo, Botticelli, Bellini etc...This is the Milano where I was invited!'.