Valentin Serov was born in St. Petersburg, the son of the well-known composer Alexander Serov. He was taught by Repin who gave him his first lessons in Paris and continued them in Moscow, sending him afterwards to the Academy of Arts. Apart from his talent, his friends also valued his human qualities, especially his straightforwardness and honesty.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Serov produced works which are now considered classics of Russian Art.
Serov's psychological perceptiveness, his ability to see and show the spirit of the person sitting in front of him, made him, together with Repin, the leading portraitist in Russia.
Serov was inundated with commissions to paint high-ranking persons even if the same people were often afraid of him, as his perspicacity and frankness appeared in his works.
Serov did not intend to expose the faults of his sitters, he merely sharpened those features which were sometimes deeply hidden and not immediately apparent to everyone.
Using the white map behind Emmanuel Nobel as a frame in the painting itself, Serov is able to emphasize the psychological character of the sitter: success and determination of, probably, one of the most successful business men in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Nobels were a Swedish family, originally from the Nobbelöw in the south. Emmanuel Nobel (1801-1872) moved to St. Petersburg in 1833. He started a munitions manufacturing business with considerable success, but finally went bankrupt and returned to Sweden in 1859. His three eldest sons Robert (1829-1896), Ludwig (1831-1888) and Alfred (1833-1896) remained in Russia. A fourth brother, Emil Oscar died in an explosion in 1864.
Ludwig, who inherited his father's inventive mind, also made his fortune through munitions manufacture and later through the oil industry. His employees enjoyed working conditions of an unusually high standard. Alfred made his fortune in dynamite and left a large bequest in trust for the patronage of pacifism and culture. The Robert Nobel Refinery business was started in 1875, but Robert was not as successful as his younger brothers and returned to Sweden in 1879.
The Nobel Brothers Petroleum Production Company was formed in May 1879 by Robert, Ludwig and Alfred Nobel, developing from Robert's business, with Ludwig's financial backing. The aim was to improve the refinery of kerosene from the oil rich Baku region in the Caucasus and the Company rapidly became not only the leading kerosene producer in Baku, but was also producing more than the rest of the entire industry in Russia. The share capital increased from 3,000,000 roubles to 15,000,000 within five years, with Ludwig as the driving force as well as the majority shareholder. His extraordinary business talent combined with a capacity for imaginative and inventive direction led to many revolutionary innovations including continuous distillation and the design and construction of the world's first oil tanker. Following Ludwig's death in 1888 the Company came under the direction of his very able son Carl, who died in Switzerland in 1898. It then fell to Carl's brother, Emmanuel to take charge of the Company.
Emmanuel Nobel (1859-1932) unexpectedly proved himself to be a masterful director with a very good financial brain and an ability to choose excellent advisers and colleagues. He was responsible for the introduction of the Nobel Diesel engine and under his direction the Company continued to flourish. In 1914, he became a Russian subject.
Six months before the October Revolution in 1917, which led to the nationalisation of the Company, Nobel's announced record profits. By this time Nobel's owned, controlled or had important interests in companies employing 50,000 workers, producing one-third of the total domestic consumption. After 1917, Emmanuel left Russia with his family, to settle in Sweden.
The sitter was also known as one of the most important clients of the Fabergé firm as mentioned in the memoirs of Francois Birbaum, see T. Fabergé and v. Skurlov, The History of the House of Fabergé according to the recollections of the senior master craftsman of the firm Franz Birbaum, (St. Petersburg, 1992), p. 32.