‘Your Great Novgorod swept me up and transported me to the deep antiquity of my native land, full of some kind of fantastic and mysterious poetry. Exactly the same experience that you get when you read Russian byliny and fairytales […] In no way detracting from your Old Moscow, I say that Novgorod, by the strength of its embodiment of the Russian epic spirit in every single element of the painting is on a much higher level […] It’s some kind of opera. The trading vessels with figured carvings; vari-coloured and embroidered sails and fishing boats with nets; the people of Novgorod; the old walls and towers; the ancient Kremlin on the Volkhov river; all of it, all of it is some kind of musical fairytale.’ Letter from the artist N. Khokhryakov (1857-1928) to A. Vasnetsov from 23 January 1902. Archive of V. A. Vasnetsov.
Transfixed by Apollinarii Vasnetsov’s sprawling harbour scene on a fantastic scale, a stylised and ebullient reincarnation of old Veliky Novgorod, Nikolai Khokhryakov felt compelled to write to his friend and congratulate him on his achievement. Vasnetsov, unaccustomed to such praise, responded with thanks and revealed that his intention was simply to convey the ‘skazka istorii’, the story of history (as quoted in L. Bespalova, Apollinarii Vasnetsov, Moscow, 1983, p. 103).
In the 1890s Apollinarii Vasnetsov began producing detailed pictorial depictions of Moscow throughout the ages. Concerned with historical accuracy, Vasnetsov undertook rigorous study of the life and customs of medieval Russia. One of the literary sources he used often was the memoirs of the 17th century traveller, Augustin von Meyerberg, an Austrian diplomat who was sent by Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) to the Court of Tsar Aleksei (1629-1676) in 1661 and who commissioned an album of drawings to illustrate his account of the diplomatic mission. Lively descriptions of Moscow and other Russian cities complemented by architectural drawings depicting the most significant monuments and genre scenes became an invaluable source of inspiration for the artist.
In 1900 Vasnetsov was commissioned by the director of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg to create the decor for a production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) ‘Sadko’ to be staged at the Mariinsky Theatre. To capture the spirit of the North, Vasnetsov made two study trips to Veliky Novgorod, during which he completed over a hundred studies meticulously documenting the local architecture, customs, ornaments and folk art. The première took place on 26 January 1901 and Vasnetsov’s commission was fulfilled, but the trips had also provided him with enough material to work on the theme of ancient Veliky Novgorod, considered by many to be the most important historical centre in Russia.
During medieval times, Gospodin Veliky Novgorod, or Lord Novgorod the Great, situated on the ancient trade routes linking northern Europe with Byzantium and Central Asia, was a city-state which stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Ural Mountains. The rich history of the city, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, is closely entwined with the broader history of the formation and development of the Russian State. According to legend, Novgorod was founded by Rurik (c. 830-879), a Varangian chieftain of the Rus’ in the mid-9th century. His descendant Oleg, Prince of Novgorod, captured Kiev and founded Kievan Rus’ in 882. Over a century later, Novgorod’s inhabitants were forcibly baptised under Vladimir, making the city a centre of Orthodox spirituality and, consequently, a cradle of Russian culture.
In Novgorod, Vasnetsov tapped a rich creative seam. He completed two large-scale works on this subject: the later composition appeared on the art market in 2005; his major work on the subject, Old Veliky Novgorod, appears at auction for the first time in history, its whereabouts unknown to the wider art community for over 90 years. In Old Veliky Novgorod, Vasnetsov depicts the city at its historical peak, a thriving hub of international trade, Russian ingenuity and cultural achievement.
The painting offers a masterclass in composition. Vasnetsov creates the overwhelming effect of being among a teeming throng by expertly constructing the scene to draw the eye to the lower centre of the composition. The gold and black chequered sail deftly slicing the composition in two, the ships’ yards directing the eye downwards to the crowd and the nets and wooden handrails tilted upwards, effectively secure the eye in position. Flanked by typical wooden architecture on the right and the imposing stone Kremlin with its 15th-century fortifications on the left, the traditional carved prows and the tapestry of reds and greens, inject colour into the scene, but also serve to emphasise that it is the native people and their traditions that are the lifeblood of the city.
Vasnetsov excelled in breathing life into history painting, but he was not the only Russian artist who became fascinated by the exoticism of the past and the folklore of Old Russia. Old Veliky Novgorod sparks obvious comparisons with the work of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), who as a student was associated with Russia's most influential ethnographic group—the Imperial Society of Friends of the Natural Sciences, Anthropology and Ethnography. Paintings such as Roerich’s Overseas guests (1901, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) and Kandinsky’s Arrival of the Merchants (1905, Private Collection) (fig. 1) resonate with a nostalgia for the past and its heroic glories. Kandinsky’s work also bears closer comparison with Vasnetsov’s Old Veliky Novgorod, painted four years earlier, as both works employ a figure as an ‘anchor’ for the composition – Vasnetsov chooses a woman bearing a casket and Kandinsky uses a youth gazing downwards. Furthermore, the intensity of the colours may hint at the influence of the Fauves and the photographic ‘crops’ of the works nod to modernity, but the inspiration for both seminal works lies in the reimagined past.
Lauded by critics as one of the outstanding paintings shown at the XXX Peredvizhniki Exhibition in 1902-1903, Old Veliky Novgorod is a paean to the past, an undisputed masterwork, the like of which is extremely rare outside of museum collections.