Painted during the period 1932-1933, The Boxer depicts Boris Snezhkovsky, who frequently modelled for the artist. In a letter to his sister, Somov wrote: 'two days ago, I finished a portrait in oil, a 'nu' (half-length), and afterwards I painted a 'still life' beside him: a mirror, behind him a chest of drawers, on which lay his shirt and vest, with a pair of boxing gloves hanging on the wall the painting is not bad' (letter dated 28 February 1933). Given that Somov was his harshest critic, his own description of the work as 'not bad' suggests that he rated the finished composition quite highly.
Somov first met Boris Snezhkovsky in June 1930 during his work on the illustrations for Daphnis and Chloe. Snezhkovsky was the model for Daphnis and henceforth was referred to by Somov in his diaries as 'Daphnis'. Mikhail Seslavinsky in his 'Rendez-vous' quotes Somov speaking about Snezhkovsky: 'my model, a Russian, 19 years old, turned out to be clever, well-educated and nice'. During the course of the 1930s, Somov went on to paint his model on numerous occasions; another memorable work entitled Obnazhennyi iunosha [Nude youth] (1937) is in the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.
Somov left Russia in 1923 to accompany the seminal exhibition of Russian Art that took place in New York in 1924. He never returned and settled in Paris in 1925 where he enjoyed life in the cultural capital of the world, frequenting theatres, music concerts and exhibitions. In terms of his artistic influences, he felt much closer to the Old Masters, rather than his contemporaries. He was particularly drawn to the French 18th-century Rococo painter François Boucher.
While in Paris, Somov predominantly painted portraits and miniatures, often repeating and reworking his compositions. The still life also became one of his favourite subjects, taking on an increasingly important role in his portraits. In Somov's celebrated Self-portrait in mirror (1934, private collection) the artist is largely absent; the mirror reflects only a fraction of his face. In the absence of the subject his personal items - casually placed perfume bottles, a brush, folded ties and a black umbrella leant against the rear wall - take centrestage and acquire new meaning by becoming substitutes for the artist's figure.
In the present lot, too, the mirror behind the sitter and the objects in the interior, including Snezhkovsky's boxing gloves which are offered together with the painting, serve not only as a compositional device to expand the enclosed space of the room, but also provide an insight into his model's daily life. The artist does not discriminate against the inanimate objects, but renders them with the same attentiveness as the human figure.
Although Somov was also working on a number of more detailed paintings on a smaller scale during the same period, The Boxer is painted in a more painterly manner that suggests immediacy. The work is filled with natural light presumably coming from a window on the sitter's right. Strong sunlight, beloved by Somov, not only aids him in sculpting the three-dimensional form and to dramatise the composition, but also in a number of works, it becomes the subject of the painting itself, as in Open door on a garden (1934, private collection).
The Boxer is one of the finest works from The Somov Collection, sold by Christie's in 2007, and is testament to Somov's extraordinary power of observation and artistic skill in rendering the most intricate play of light. The art-critic Vsevolod Dmitriev writing in 1913 on the complexity of Somov's work speaks of its intoxicating qualities: 'In Somov there is this bewildering poison and if Russian art is in a great of need of Somov - does not it entail, that Somov's poison possesses a remedy for a different, perhaps more oppressive toxin?' (V. Dmitriev, 'Konstantin Somov', Apollon, November 1913, no. 9, p. 3).