Considered by many to be the first Russian Impressionist and a master of plein air painting, Konstantin Korovin is famous for his painterly impressions of Parisian street life, informal portraits imbued with personality and vibrant still lifes saturated with colour.
However, despite the important of Western influences to his oeuvre, it is clear that throughout his personal life the rodina, or motherland, was omnipresent. This became evident when on the advice of A. V. Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar for Education, Korovin and his family moved to Paris in 1923. Due to ill-health and financial concerns, Korovin became tied to the French capital and was never to return to Russia. Unable to reconcile himself to the term 'émigré', Korovin yearned for his homeland until his death in 1939, confessing in his memoirs that '...nowhere has that comfortingly mournful feeling, unusual allure, deep beauty...like a spring evening in Russia'.
Understandably, this toska po rodine or painful nostalgia for his homeland is reflected in Korovin's work during the period 1923-39. In contrast to his oft-repeated commercial images of Russian troikas slicing through the snow-swept countryside, Korovin turned to Russian poets for artistic inspiration. Last year, Christie's London sold a rare example of Korovin's Caucasian landscapes, inspired by Lermontov's poem 'The Meeting' (Svidanie, 1841) (Russian Pictures, 20 November 2005, lot 170A); this year we offer for sale an impressive canvas linking Russia's foremost Impressionist with the greatest poet of Russia's 'Golden Age', Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837).
Painted in 1930, 'Pushkin and Muse' is a phenomenal achievement that combines the gravitas of a commemorative monument with the tonal subtlety of Pushkin's verse. It was undeniably conceived to impress and inspire awe; the figures of Pushkin and his Muse loom large and tower over the humble viewer. This patriotic work was possibly intended for the exhibition O. Brasda and a collection of Russian artists, 57th Exhibition which took place in Prague between 12 April - 11 May 1930, but research is inconclusive. For an article in Vozrozhdenie, L. Liubimov interviewed Korovin in his studio as he mused upon his latest work. Remarking upon the romanticism of 'Pushkin and Muse' Korovin went on to describe the source of his representation of the poet, 'I painted Pushkin the way that my grandmother, Ekaterina Ivanovna Volkova, remembered him...In the 30s she saw him at the Moscow Nobility Assembly. He was dressed like a London dandy. He went about in a cape and with a cane. My grandmother said he was short, with chestnut hair, grey, quick eyes and curly hair. He was constantly looking at his wife with whom he danced. As soon as he entered the room everyone whispered, "Pushkin"' (L. Liubimov, 'Pushkin i Muza', Vozrozhdenie, Paris, 19 April 1930).
This personal account, which emphasises Pushkin's human qualities is in some ways at odds with the monolithic image Korovin created. Similarly, the character of the muse, an earthy and vital leitmotif of Pushkin's work, has more in common with the Muse of classical antiquity. Painted in pale, silvery hues, the tonal palette is highly unusual for the artist and a far cry from his brightly coloured landscapes. This palette serves two purposes: firstly, it contributes to the atmosphere of a bygone age created by the period dress, the classical figure of the Muse and the rural Russian backdrop provided by the country estate and izbas; secondly, it gives the figures a sculptural quality, making the post less human and elevating his status to that of a Russian demigod.
In the lower right corner of the canvas Korovin paraphrases two lines from Pushkin's poem 'To my Inkwell' (K moei chernil'nitse, 1821):
Where to the feast of the imagination
I would summon the muse.
In a departure from hackneyed representations of the poet, Korovin sought to convey Pushkin's status in its cultural context. 'Pushkin and Muse' is emblematic of Korovin's Russia for, ultimately, the rodina was Korovin's muse.