Captured in the midst of merriment, their faces flushed and lit by the bonfire's light, Stelletsky's participants depicted here are immersed in the celebration of the day-long festival honouring Ivan Kupala, one of the oldest and most riotously celebrated holidays in Russia at this time. With its roots in the pagan tradition, Ivanov Day (as the festival is commonly known) was linked to the summer solstice and devoted to the pagan god Kupala. Following the adoption of Christianity, the celebration was maintained in recognition of the birth of John the Baptist on 7 June (24 June in the Julian calendar). The celebrations of Ivan Kupala began the morning of the preceding day and continued through the night, during which participants stayed awake, warding off evil spirits who threatened to abduct people in their sleep. The celebrations were accompanied by various ceremonies that included witch hunts, purifying baths, fortune-telling and jumping over bonfires.
In Stelletsky's painting, the horizontal structure of the composition allows the artist to convey the scale of the festivities. The juxtaposition of repetitive rhythms created by the encounter of vertical elements, such as the tree trunks in the background, with the chaotic movement of the crowd in the foreground imbues the picture with a sense of dynamic festivity. The growing fern in the foreground is a specific attribute of the festival due to its association with an ancient legend, according to which ferns wouldblossom with scarlet flowers once a year, during the night of Ivan Kupala. By legend, whoever managed to pick these blooms would be granted magical powers.
In the context of a revived interest in Russian folk art at the beginning of the 20th century, Stelletsky was inspired to develop the theme of Old Russia throughout his artistic oeuvre. After moving to St Petersburg in 1896 with his family and enrolling in the Imperial Academy of Arts, the young artist became increasingly interested in Russian folk art and undertook a number of trips to ancient Russian towns with the aim of studying Russia's cultural heritage. Stelletsky went on to become a great connoisseur of Russian art history and actively promoted Russian culture abroad following his emigration to France in 1914.