Ivan Iakovlevich Bilibin (1876-1942) studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Art under Repin. As a member of the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) group, his main interests lay in old Russian folk tales illustration and stage design. He left Russia in 1920 and pursued an artistic career in Egypt and France, returning to the Soviet Union in 1936 where he continued to illustrate old Russian fairytales. A Slavophile, Bilibin began his search at the beginning of his career for a distinct Russian culture which would embrace an understanding of the country's spirit and history. His Russia was a fairytale world of good princes, beautiful princesses, golden cities, dark forests, magic animals and spirits, which he transformed into the wonderful world of Russian fairytales.
In 1899, Ivan Bilibin was commissioned by the Imperial Stationary Office to produce a set of fairytale books for children. The contents and the style of these books lay the foundation for the rest of Bilibin's artistic career. Among the fairytales illustrated by Bilibin, was Vassilissa the Beautiful published in 1902. Vassilissa, the heroine, due to her beauty, is hated by her stepsisters and her evil stepmother. Once lost in the deep forest, she comes across three horsemen: the white horseman representing dawn, the red one, noon and the black one, the night. After meeting a witch, the Russian babayaga, she is able to find her way back home where finally she meets a beautiful prince. The present painting depicts the figure of the scary black horseman met by Vassilissa in the forest. This unusually large picture places one of the main characters of the fairytale, the black horseman, in a larger background which gives us a better vision of the artist's old Russia world, than the original watercolor published in 1902. The unconventional border which surrounds the scene is typical of Bilibin's Russian style developed in his book illustrations. The landscapes at the top and bottom of the painting are reminiscent of the practices and culture of Abramtsevo, the artists' colony established just outside of Moscow in 1874. It was there that artists like Il'ia Repin, Victor and Appolinarii Vasnetsov, Mikhail Vrubel and others cultivated a fascination for old Russia as discovered through the Russian fairytales illustrated by Bilibin.
Based on the size and the technique used, the present painting was probably executed in the early thirties when the artist painted both in watercolours and in oils and repeated on many occasions some of his early compositions.