Now for something a tad different. This is not a post so much about a particular painter as of an entire generation of artists from the Russian empire who went to Normandy attracted by its light and colours, and expressed themselves through their art.
“I wouldn’t take Italy with ten Naples in exchange for this corner… We live here surrounded by nature that is so simple, so enchanting, so reminiscent of our own little Russia” – thus wrote Ilya Repin to Ivan Kramskiy and Vasily Polenov. He was writing to his friends from the village of Veules-les-Roses in Normandy, not far from the port town of Dieppe.
The bucolic charms of Veules-les-Roses was opened up to Russian painters by the wonderful marine artist Alexei Bogolioubov. This former naval officer had studied under Eugène Isabey in Paris, where he lived till his death in 1896. In his native Saratov, he founded the first provincial Russian fine arts museum to which he donated his collection – more than 200 paintings and 800 drawings. Among these were his own works, including more than twenty pictures painted in Veules-les-Roses, which he visited for over thirty years accompanied by Russian friends.
Bogolioubov’s wife was the French baroness Elise Chivre, who took up Russian citizenship and converted to Orthodoxy. She died six months before him and bequeathed her fortune to the Radishchev museum in Saratov. Bogolioubov himself had taken an active part in the construction of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Paris. Together with Ivan Turgenev, he was at the vanguard of the Society for the mutual welfare of Russian artists in France. He was also on friendly terms with future Emperor of Russia, Alexander III.
Bogolioubov encouraged Repin, Polenov, Kharlamov and others to draw in this captivating village on the banks of the Veules, the shortest river in France (all of 1194 metres long!). The village itself, home to 580 souls, fronted a bay bordered by alabaster rocks. Since time immemorial there have been watermills here. The special charm of the village had been discovered by Alois Aubert, an actress with the Comédie–Française. According to legend, experiencing a lovelorn drama, she ordered her coachman to drive her out of her detested Paris somewhere by the sea. The driver brought the distressed lady to Veules-les-Roses where Alois regained a measure of peace of mind. Four times too the celebrated Victor Hugo stayed in the village, most often at his friend Paul Meurice’s house.
Last year there was a brief exhibition held at Veules-les-Roses of copies of the art produced by erstwhile artistic visitors from Russia – the Wanderers, as they were called. A little alley has been named ‘Passage des Peintres Russes’. The local city hall has a landscape by Alexei Kharlamov, which was donated to the village by a Frenchman living in those parts.
Between June and September 2010, there was a veritable onslaught of exhibitions and shows and multidisciplinary festivals on the Impressionist Normandy, arranged across five départements, involving art and photography and seminars and conferences. Neatly timed to coincide with all the brouhaha was the publication of Tatiana Mojenok-Ninin’s lovely book titled Les peintres russes et la Normandie au XIXe siècle (Russian painters and Normandy in the 19th century). It dealt with itinerant Russian painters of the latter half of the 1800s, and revealed that the entire coast of Normandy was their destination (from Cabourg to Dieppe, from Etretat to Treport). They didn’t all go to Nice and the French Riviera, and not all of them were Impressionists.
In her book, Mojenok-Ninin reveals the quality of the Norman landscape, the freshness of artistic discovery, the beautiful simplicity of the beaches and cliffs, and described how the splendid effects of skies, clouds and sunsets enraptured the visiting Russians. In local memory, little trace remains of these great artists – how much serendipity and assiduous research of scholars on site was required to unearth their stories! Nearly all the art produced here is these days found only in Russia. In passing, we may also mention the works by French artists of quality (Cicéri, Isabey, Daubigny, Corot) that are reproduced in this book – very likely for the first time ever.
- Alexander Vereshchagin, Plein-air in Normandy of Russian Emigres, L’Observateur Russe, 18 April 2011.
- Jacques Foucart, Les peintres russes et la Normandie au XIX siècle, a review of Tatiana Mojenok-Ninin’s book in La Tribune de l’Art, 31 August 2010.
- “Normandy” – exhibition of Stas Borodin’s art at Ilya Repin Museum.