Natal'ia Sergeevna Goncharova was a legendary figure of the Russian avant-garde. Together with Mikhail Larionov she founded one of the brightest movements in Russian art. Their work pushed the boundaries between the paintings of the 19th century and the innovative art of the 20th century. Like all the young artists of her generation she was influenced by the European Modernists; Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Fauvists and the Nabi. Combining the technical painting of the great Russian masters; Repin, Korovin and Serov, with traditional Russian art, this innovative experience laid the foundations for a well-known artistic movement in Russian history - the Russian avant-garde.
Having started her artistic career in 1901 as a sculptor under Pavel Trubetskoi at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Goncharova soon lost interest in the plastic arts 'because the opportunities for expression in sculpture are too restricted. Sculpture cannot convey the emotional atmosphere of a landscape, the touching fragility of a flower or the tenderness of a spring sky' (Jean Maréchal, Pourquoi Gontcharova renonça à la Sculpture, in Le Petit Parisien, Paris, 23 June 1937). Under the influence of Mikhail Larionov, she took up drawing and her earliest works were pastels. The soft palette and pastel tones remained in her early works in oil. Russian symbolism, in which Larionov had remained uninvolved, was a marked influence on Goncharova's early paintings. In 'Lilacs in a vase', the soft pastel tones and tempered style all show the influence of Borisov-Musatov on the artist's early works. The symbolist art of Borisov-Musatov, whose life was cut short in 1905, was known to Goncharova and Larionov, who had creative links with the 'Blue Rose' group.
In the mid-1900s, Goncharova began to paint with oil, in an impressionist style. She worked with incredible intensity, mastering the techniques of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the expressive colours of the Fauvists and the forms of the Neo-Primitivists. At her first retrospective exhibition in Moscow, September-October 1913, Goncharova presented an impressive collection of 768 works. The still life 'Bouquet and a bottle of ink' (1909, fig. 1) acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery, and possibly the present work, exhibited under the title 'Lilacs (still life)', were shown at this exhibition. The early composition 'Lilacs in a vase' and the later 'Bouquet and a bottle of ink' were composed according to one plan and with the same elements; a narrow table, transparent vase and stripy hanging. Comparing these two works we see the artist's development over a few years, from the tender, romantic painting of the earlier work to the stylish, mature, bright, innovative 'cubist' still life of 1909. At this time Goncharova gave up the impressionist style and became the first artist to turn to the theme of Russian Primitivism, her work was exhibited in the Salon d'Automne in Paris, alongside works by Russian masters such as Venetsianov and Briullov, members of the Blue Rose group. From the beginning, Goncharova, the artist and student, was one of the brightest figures of the young avant-garde movement, and co-founder of the union 'Jack of Diamonds'.
In this work, it is possible to identify the foundations for the style of composition which Goncharova would use in still lifes, portraits and self-portraits during the 1900s. Here the multi-layered composition is stratified into rows of secondary planes: the pink silk drapes, 'Cézanne' table, stripy linen (as seen later in the peasants' clothes), behind is a frame (later in the background we see fragments of her earlier paintings), the fractured space of a transparent vase, half filled with water. This multi-layered style is the secret of the artist's mastery.
'Lilacs in a vase' is a rare work from the artist's impressionist period. Full of light fashioned from energetically executed strokes, this soft, lyrical still life conveys the romantic mood of the young artist, this internal world, hidden from foreign eyes, about which her friend, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, often wrote.