Zinaida Serebriakova’s Belgian Oeuvre

As we saw in an earlier post, Zinaida Serebriakova had been commissioned with the creation of painted panels for the Belgian baron de Brouwer’s palace at Ville-Pommerœul near Mons. The discovery of these panels, long thought lost, was due to the Russian researcher N. A. Avdyusheva-Lecomte.

Usually, a solid monograph on an artist carries more weight than a journal article of two or three pages. But in the case of Zinaida Serebriakova, the fate of some of her artistic heritage lay in a paper published in a journal of scholarly articles collected by the Pskov Reserve Museum in 2001. The most important source of information about an artist’s works are from archival documents: in Serebriakova’s case, this turned out to be her own correspondence. In 1964, in a letter to A. N. Savinov, Serebriakova described her Parisian work, and discussed her acquaintance with the Belgian baron. Zinaida had executed several portraits of his wife and daughters, then travelled to Morocco where he owned extensive plantations. Next, she wrote, she was working on decorative panels for a new house that de Brouwer was building.

“The paintings consist of decorative maps in the style of XVIII century, executed in monochrome (these were done by my son). I drew the motives in the corners and backgrounds: the four seasons (summer with sheaves of grass, spring with flowers, and so on) and four figures to stand in the niches of another wall. I painted all this in Paris, and, unfortunately, didn’t see how it all appeared on the walls, as the house was not quite ready and was uninhabited… During the war, the fighting passed through the area, and the de Brouwer mansion was destroyed.”

All this was fairly well known and documented, and, given that during the World War II, so much of the artistic heritage had been destroyed, nobody doubted Serebriakova’s words. One of the researchers of the Russian artistic diaspora, T. A. Galeeva, suggested to her colleague N. A. Avdyusheva-Lecomte, who lives in Belgium, to look for the house where Serebriakova’s paintings had once been. Surprisingly, such a house was indeed found, with preserved murals. The house had changed ownership, and the new owners had no idea that the murals had been executed by a famous Russian artist. They thought the works were by some unknown Flemish artist. For nearly 70 years, the murals had decorated the house. The de Brouwer family owned several houses, and at the time of the war, another of them, ‘Frigate’, had been ruined. But Manoir du Relais, with its pictures, had survived, and had been sold immediately after the war. Since its construction, it had hardly had any repairs, and the panels needed careful reconstruction and renovation. N. A. Avdyusheva-Lecomte spoke at various conferences, drawing attention to the state of the panels, addressed herself to various bodies to prevent the irreversible degradation of Serebriakova’s work.

And so the Russian Museum announced the exhibition titled ‘Zinaida Serebriakova: Nudes.’ All ten of her panels are on display, reproducing the Manoir’s ‘Renaissance’ hall. Four of them depict the career of de Brouwer, and originally were placed between the windows.

Mural decorations for Manoir du Relais. Art. Jurisprudence. Zinaida Serebriakova (1936-1937)

As de Brouwer was a lawyer, one panel depicts ‘Jurisprudence.’ The image of justice is shown with a balance, as in the works of art of other masters. She is shown with rolls of paper, a tablet, while books and balances lie at her feet.

The patron was interested in art, so ‘Art’ became the theme of the second panel. A young girl is depicted reading a book, while beneath her are a palette, a mask and brushes.

Mural decorations for Manoir du Relais. Light. Flora. Zinaida Serebriakova (1936-1937)

In the third panel was painted ‘Flora.’ de Brouwer loved nature and he owned plantations in Morocco. The theme of fertility is personified by a woman holding a basket, from which she casts flowers about her.

The composition ‘Light’ completes the vertical panels. de Brouwer was a director of gas and electric power plants. The panel shows a woman with a torch with her back to the viewer. In all the panels, the same model had been used – Zinaida’s daughter Ekaterina.

Horizontal panel for Manoir du Relais. Alexander & Zinaida Serebriakova (1936-1937)The horizontal panel at the top of the side walls were done jointly with her son, Alexander. The painting comprises two elements. The first is an oval roundel with baroque embellishments, with maps (painted by Alexander). At the corner of the panel is a half-seated figure of a woman (painted by Zinaida). Serebriakova called this panel ‘Seasons’, and three of the girls are depicted holding wheat ears, while the fourth holds a jug. At the exhibition, these received new titles: Morocco, Flanders, India, and Patagonia.

Allegory of Summer. Panel. Manoir du Relais. Belgium (1936-1937).

[Translated from ‘Nudes of Zinaida Serebriakova at the Russian Museum‘, 2007.]

See also: Nadezhda Tregub, “Zinaida Serebriakova: Nude Portraits“, Tretyakov Art Gallery, No. 1/2008. (Warning: PDF!)