‘A painting should be a complete illusion. This is impossible for an artist to achieve without studying their chosen subject from all possible angles’. Ivan Shishkin, mid-1890s
The words of Russia’s most famous landscape artist, Ivan Shishkin, explain his artistic aim and the reasoning behind his meticulous depictions of nature, particularly prevalent in his late oeuvre. Siverskaya is an exemplary work, which at first glance immediately calls to mind Ivan Kramskoi’s description of Shishkin as his own ‘artist-school’. The instantly recognisable ‘Shishkin landscape’, as familiar today as it was at the turn of the 19th century, arose from the artist’s long-standing passion for forest subjects and his distinctive vision, capturing the harmonious union of nature’s uniqueness with the warmth of human emotion.
With Siverskaya, Shishkin scrupulously paints the entire canvas, paying as much attention to the peripheral areas of the composition as to the central focal point. Dark, empty shadows are absent, creating an impression of light and air, compounded by a vaulted ceiling of foliage. The brushwork draws the eye to a small pine to the right of the bare path, distinguished by the sculptural quality of the bark on its illuminated trunk. The contortions of the sprawling branches form an intricate pattern against the blue sky; a natural effect that Shishkin explored during this period as seen in the striking oil Pinetops (1890s, Vyatskiy Art Museum). The graphic silhouettes of the elongated boughs add to the mosaic of light and dark created by the feathery pine needles. This technique can also be found in many of the artist’s drawings and etchings, including Woodland stream. Siverskaya (1876, State Tretyakov Gallery).
The use of a variety of small, deft brushstrokes demonstrates Shishkin’s attention to detail and technical ability. In Siverskaya, Shishkin paints the earth and sky using such a fine layer of oil that it is possible to distinguish the weave of the canvas. Broader brushstrokes define the soft greens of the grass and the sunlit tops of the pine trees which correspond to the delineated, overlapping mesh of tangled trunks and branches. The result is a masterfully constructed vignette, based on careful observation and excellent technique, which captures the myriad of disorder in nature.
Shishkin was linked to Siverskaya, located 70 kilometres south of St Petersburg, for several decades. The appearance of a railway station on the Warsaw rail line in 1857 made Siverskaya a desirable spot for dachas among city-dwellers. Shishkin first started working there in 1872 alongside fellow Peredvizhniki Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887) and Konstantin Savitsky (1844-1905). From 1874, he rented a dacha in the village of Staro-Siverskaya, where he met his second wife, Olga Lagoda (1850-1851), with whom he later lived in the neighbouring village of Vyra. Following her death, Shishkin moved back to Staro-Siverskaya with his two daughters. From 1882-1887, the artist spent the summer months at his country house in Vyra, and later in the 1890s in Staro-Siverskaya. The summer of 1896, when Siverskaya was painted, marked a particularly significant time in the artist’s life as Shishkin had recently given up teaching at the Imperial Academy of Arts, which allowed him to focus on his health and his art away from St Petersburg’s hustle and bustle.
Siverskaya remained the artist’s favourite spot for painting en plein air. Shishkin immortalised the village in his depictions of unruly pine forests, carpeted with moss and interlaced with wild, unchecked streams. Some of Shishkin’s finest and best-loved compositions were painted in the area, including Ferns in the forest. Siverskaya and Overgrown pond at the forest edge. Siverskaya (1883, State Tretyakov Gallery). The present work exemplifies Shishkin’s highly distinctive form of ‘forest portraiture’ which is at once personal and emblematic. Shishkin’s own words perfectly embody the spirit of Siverskaya: ‘The landscape should not only be of national character, but also local’. (as quoted in I. Shishkin, Perepiska. Dnevniki. Sovremenniki o khudozhnike, Leningrad, 1984, p. 407).