Konstantin Gorbatov's masterful and unusually large composition, The harbour, was completed the year of his graduation from the St Petersburg Academy. By this time (1911), the artist’s distinctive style, which was to remain constant over the course of his career, was well established, reflecting his clear instruction that: ‘One must do one’s own work, only one’s own, imitate no one, simply search for your own path. This is what is essential’ (quoted in E. Duvanova, Konstantin Gorbatov, Moscow, 2008, p. 10). His evident ability was confirmed that same year with the award of a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Munich.
Born in Stavropol in 1876 in the Samara oblast, Gorbatov displayed a keen aptitude for drawing from an early age. Details of his biography are lamentably scarce but it known that he lived in Riga from 1896-1903 before leaving to enter the Academy, initially joining the architectural faculty before transferring to the painting department. As Elena Duvanova suggests in her 2008 monograph, Gorbatov's brief period spent studying architecture had a significant and beneficial effect on his paintings which frequently include buildings in their composition, ranging from early Russian churches in provincial cities to St Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg or the Doge's palace in Venice.
Acquired by the great-grandparents of the present owner, the work was always thought by the family to depict Odessa. However there is nothing clear to support this and as Gorbatov was much enamoured with small Russian towns such as Pskov, Novgorod, Vologda and Uglich, it is likely that one of the northern towns provides the subject here. As Isaak Brodsky (1884-1939) wrote: ‘Of the St Petersburg artists hardly anyone knew the life of the northern towns as well as Konstantin Ivanovich Gorbatov. From childhood he was accustomed to the tied-up old fishing boats with repaired sails, to the heavily loaded barges, to the smell of muddy water and fresh fish, to the hot sun, casting its rays on the green and red roofs of the houses on the banks. Nothing existed for Gorbatov other than art and he spent weeks on the banks of the river, listening, watching and painting with pleasure. He loved the outskirts of the provincial northern towns at the end of winter even more, when the snow was turning grey, when the first puddles were appearing and the birches were coming to life.’ (Ibid. p. 22).
While Gorbatov did exhibit his work in some of the later Itinerant exhibitions, the vibrancy and joy of his paintings revealed a distinct agenda from his compatriots. Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) greatly admired Gorbatov's work and that of his peers for precisely these characteristics, writing to Brodsky: ‘K. I. Gorbatov has painted miraculous works, I like them excessively. […] Generally I have experienced much deep joy looking at the works of these people and love them very much; good people. I truly believe that they will bring much sunshine, light and the beauty of art into Russia’s bleak life. Glorious people! (Ibid. pp.17-18).
The finest example of this artist's work ever to appear at Christie's, The harbour powerfully expresses Gorbatov's deep felt love for his homeland. Unable to support himself in the wake of the 1917 Revolution, the artist and his wife left Russia in 1922, travelling extensively before settling in Germany. Like so many of his compatriots living abroad in the first half of the 20th century, Gorbatov persisted in selecting Russian scenes as subject matter long after emigrating. Where the work of artists such as Konstantin Korovin (1861-1939) and Filipp Maliavin (1869-1940) is shot through with varying degrees of nostalgia, a reflection of their difficult lives, The harbour has the advantage of being Gorbatov’s depiction of a Russian town, coloured with all the optimism of a talented artist embarking on his career.