Victor Vasnetsov is one of the great monumental, epic painters of Russian art. His depictions of historicist figures and events hold such a sway over the national imagination to this day that, to a large extent, they have 'created' the Russian view of history. They have influenced the way that the country sees itself and the way that others see Russia. In a certain way, they 'are' the Russia past.
Vasnetsov was born the son of a priest in 1848 in Lopyal, Vyatka (now Kirov) Province just to the west of the Urals and moved shortly afterwards to Ryabovo where he spent his childhood. As was common, at this period, Vasnetsov was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and, consequently, in 1858 he entered the nearby ecclesiastical school and the seminary at Vyatka. However, it soon became clear to the young Vasnetsov that the church was not to be his vocation.
Most of his spare time was spent drawing, so it was no surprise when Vasnetsov made the decision to enter the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and to become an artist. However, his father was against the proposed change of career and refused to support his son financially. Vasnetsov's solution was practical, effective and demonstrated the quality of his works even at this early juncture - he auctioned two of his pictures to raise the necessary funds.
Arriving at the Academy in 1868, Vasnetsov made the acquaintance of such future greats of Russian art such as Repin, Antokolsky, Kramskoy and the famous critic, Vladimir Stasov. By the time of his graduation in 1875, Vasnetsov had already exhibited with the Itinerants and had developed a reputation as a genre painter with a particular eye for subjects depicting the life of ordinary people. The year after leaving the Academy, Vasnetsov joined the burgeoning colony of Russian artists in Paris remaining there for two years.
In 1878, Vasnetsov returned to Moscow rather than St Petersburg and the artist felt immediately inspired by his new environment stating that 'when I arrived in Moscow, I felt I had arrived home and need travel no further; the Kremlin and St Basil's brought tears to my eyes, so dear to my soul, so unforgettable were they'. This change of surroundings also encouraged him to develop his previous interest in folkloric and heroic subjects from Russian history. Vasnetsov was to say: 'There was never a conflict within me between genre and history and therefore there was no turning-point or transitional struggle. I have always been convinced that both genre and historical pictures, and fairy tales, songs, epic poems and dramas, all reflect the whole inner and outer make-up of a nation, with its past and present, and perhaps even its future. It is a poor nation that does not remember, value and love its history'.
His first historical painting After the Battle of Igor Svyatoslavich with the Polovtsi (1880, Tretyakov Gallery) emphasised the new direction in which Vasnetsov's art was developing. Its massive scale was in sharp contrast to the small-scale genre paintings which he had been producing to date. Furthermore, the palette had changed dramatically from the greys and browns of the genre pictures to much brighter colours with more dynamic greens, reds, blues and whites.
Vasnetsov became acquainted in Moscow with the industrialist and art patron, Savva Mamontov, and was drawn into his circle at the artistic colony of Abramtsevo. Here, in conjunction with Vasilii Polenov, he designed and decorated the estate church. This commission was symptomatic of the increasing demand for his services on architectural projects and was followed by a mandate to the façade of the Tretyakov Gallery and the monumental frieze of the Stone Age at the Historical Museum. One of the largest such projects in which Vasnetsov was involved were the murals of the newly-built Cathedral of St Vladimir in Kiev where he depicted heroic figures from the past of Kievan Rus' such as Vladimir, Andrei Bogolyubsky and Alexander Nevsky.
Vasnetsov returned from Kiev to Moscow in 1891 and settled near Abramtsevo. Under the patronage of Mamontov and Tretyakov, Vasnetsov designed and built a new studio which allowed him to continue to work in the monumental style. One of his masterpieces, the Bogatyrs (1876-1898, State Tretyakov Gallery) was the result. The artist had worked on this picture depicting the heroic figures of Ilya Muromets, Dobryna Nikitch and Alyosha Popovich for over twenty years and it subsequently formed the centrepiece of his first personal exhibition in 1898. Vladimir Stasov said of it that 'I consider Vasnetsov's Bogatyrs to be one of the foremost works in the history of Russian painting'. In comparing it with Ilya Repin's Barge-haulers (1870-1873, State Russian Museum), he said: 'Both express all the power and might of the Russian people. Only, in the former [Barge-haulers] that power is suppressed and trampled on, while in the latter it is triumphing, calm and important, unafraid and accomplishing by its own will whatever it regards as necessary for all the people'.
Vasnetsov returned to the theme of the Bogatyrs once more in his 1915 oil of Ilya Muromets which is today in the collection of the Vasnetsov House Museum in Moscow and the present work is another version of this dating from 1920. It is of the same monumental scale as the Bogatyrs but is even more dynamic with its warrior sitting astride a rearing horse. It has remained in the family of the present owner since it left Vasnetsov's studio and has never been presented to the market before either privately or at public auction. It is a masterpiece of Russian art which has been 'rediscovered' and re-presented in public through its offering here at auction. It is a museum-quality jewel of Russian art and its quality, rarity and impeccable provenance cannot be overstated.