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Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin is considered to be one of Russia's most powerful and original landscape painters. The flowering of Russian realist art in the second half of the last century is associated with his name. Moreover, few artists have been so widely acclaimed or so worthy of the unreserved admiration of their countrymen. At annual art exhibitions over several decades his work never failed to attract attention. His paintings were frequently reproduced in art journals, while his drawings and etchings were published separately.
In the words of one of his contemporaries, "There is no other artist who possessed such a faultless technique or who so faithfully and with such deep affection for his native land and his art portrayed that Russian nature so dear to us. In the depiction of the Russian forest, Shishkin has no equal."
Shishkin was born on the 25th (13th, old style) of January, 1832, in Yelabuga, a small provincial town on the steep bank of the Kama River. The future artist spent his youth in this austere but picturesque region.
A sensitive, inquisitive and gifted child, he found a true friend in his father. Ivan Vasilyevich Shishkin was a merchant of modest income who leased a mill and traded in grain. Rather than seeking large profits and wealth, he became actively interested in archaeology, mechanics and chemistry, and thought up plans for the improvement of his town.
After spending several years at high school, Shishkin returned to his father's house. There he sketched, read a great deal and went for long walks through the beautiful countryside around Yelabuga.
In 1852, Shishkin entered the Moscow Art School. It was a more democratic institution than the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg: there were many serfs among its students. The young artists were not bound by strict academic requirements; independent work was encouraged. The instruction was largely based on the principles of Venetsianov's progressive teaching method, which laid empliasis on the in tensive study of nature. Tropinin's precepts of greater simplicity and naturalism in art were also applied. The fundamentally realistic work of these two truly national artists corresponded to the prevailing mood and favoured the development of the progressive democratic movement in art in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Shishkin was taught by Professor A. Mokritsky, an adherent of Venetsianov's realistic method. At one time, Mokritsky himself had tried his hand at landscape painting, and was thus prepared to share his knowledge and experience with his talented pupil.
After completing the Moscow Art School in 1856, Shishkin entered the St. Petersburg' Academy of Fine Arts. There he got to know young people who were attuned to democratic ideals and aware of contemporary problems. The country at this time witnessed the spreading of the emancipation movement, the growth of critical thought, and an increased awareness of the need for decisive changes in political and economic spheres, in culture and art. The principles of materialist aesthetics, enunciated by the leaders of the revolutionary democrats, N. Chernyshevsky and N. Dobroliubov, were of special importance in this ideological struggle. For them, art was more than a mirror of the surrounding world, it was a means of transforming it.
Realism and love for the people became the basic tenets of the democratic aesthetics in literature. This was clearly reflected in the works of Turgencv, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Ostrovsky and many others. Shishkin's own outlook was shaped by these progressive ideas which he was subsequently able to translate into his work.
A tendency towards realism can be seen even in Shishkin's earliest paintings, which, alongside with a certain degree of conventional idealization, and a somewhat decorative use of colour effects, show the painstaking attention to detail and that close scrutiny of nature which distinguishes his later works.
In 1857, Shishkin was awarded one of the highest Academy prizes, the silver medal in drawing. His drawings revealed such craftsmanship that the Council of the Academy decreed a high standard of that they should be used as models by the students. At the same time, he experimented with etchings and began to study lithography.
In 1860, Shishkin graduated from the Academy with its highest award, the First Gold Medal and a three-year scholarship for study abroad.
Shishkin was dissatisfied with the work he did in Germany and Switzerland. The influence of the academic school is felt in the landscapes of this period, artificially animated by peasant figures and grazing herds in the tradition of romanticism.
When Shishkin returned to Russia in 1865, he was already famous. The public was impressed by his masterly pen drawings with their filigree-like detail. Two of his drawing's were bought by the Diisseldorf Museum of art, while the oil painting View in lite Vicinity of Diisseldorf brought the artist the title of Academician.
This was a fruitful period for the painter. In his striving to achieve a perfect reproduction of nature, Shishkin at first laboriously copied every detail of what he saw, as if afraid to omit something. For example, Veiling Timber (1867) is executed in a rather dry manner, and so scrupulously detailed that the unity of the scene is lost. Nonetheless, this painting marks the first important step towards creating the Russian realist landscape. The novelty of the theme, the exact reproduction of nature in all her diversity, the fact that it is a genre-painting - all these features clearly distinguish it from academic landscapes.
In the 1860's, Shishkin finally broke away from the academic style of landscape painting, with its forced sublimity, its typical remoteness from human thought or feeling. His work acquired clear democratic overtones. His best painting at this period, Midday in lite Vicinity of Moscoir (1869), is especially significant, as it expresses the artist's deep love for his native land and his profound sympathy for the Russian peasantry. Shishkin believed that beauty lay in life itself, in nature as perceived and loved by the common people. The beautiful, in his opinion, is that which inspires noble feelings. This concept of beauty was shared by the leaders of the revolutionary enlightenment, whose principles were opposed to the demands of idealist aesthetics.
In 1870, Shishkin was one of the founder members of the Association for Travelling Art Exhibitions. This was a union of painters of the realist school; among them were the best artists in the country - Repin, Surikov, Kramskoy, Vasnetsov, Savitsky and many others, whose work in the 1870's and 1880's marked the spread of Russian critical realism. The Association was a group of talented artists, whose high ideals, fervent quest for truth and bold innovations undoubtedly influenced Shishkin's creative development. He remained one of its most active and I ova I. members all his life.
The Association's second exhibition contained Pine Forest, a picture which initiates a new stage in Shishkin's career.
The 1870's were an important period in the history of Russian landscape painting; during this decade appeared such masterpieces as Savrasov's The Uooks Jlelurn and Country lioad; Vas-ilyev's The Thaw and Mountain Jioad; Kuind/hi's Ukrainian Night. Shishkin retains a special place among these famous landscape artists of the realist school. It was he who created the epic realist painting; in his best canvases, which glorify the power and beauty of nature, this epic tone is clearly felt.
After 1870, the majority of Shishkin's paintings were devoted to coniferous forests (In /lie Thick of the Forest, 1872; The Fir-tree Fores!, 1876, and others). The artist constructed both pictures with painstaking attention to the foreground, so as to give the viewer the impression of being led into the forest. By concentrating on the features most characteristic of the scene, Shishkin achieves a sense of unity and enhances the emotional effect of the landscape.
1870's, the artist strove to achieve a generalization of unity of colour composition. Kramskoy once remarked that Pine Forest was "more of a drawing than a painting". However, a few months later, he wrote to the artist Vasilyev: "Shishkin has finally learned how to paint. Judge for yourself: he paints the same scene until he's blue in the face - continually searching for just the right tone. He never did that before. At one time, he would paint, finish it off and that was it. Not any more. Twenty times over, lie tries one colour, then another. He seems to have woken up..."
Before Shishkin, landscape painters attached little importance to studies for their pictures. To Shishkin, however, studies were an integral part of the creative process, based on continual observation and reflection.
Shishkin was a fine teacher. Constantly surrounded by young-artists, he helped them to master professional skills without suppressing their creative individuality. He was able to rejoice in their successes, while giving them the benefit of his own creative experience. Above all, Shishkin demanded "precision in the rendering of nature", but at the same time, he taught his students to seek out the typical, to strive for a high level of perfection.
Shishkin remained first and foremost a painter. The picture was the form in which he was best able to convey his ideas. Above one of his pencil sketches completed in the 1890's, we find the words: "Free air, open spaces, field and forest, rye and plenty. The wealth of Russia." These are the underlying themes of one of his most important canvases: Hye (1878). The abundance of detail does not detract from the unity of the picture, which is the result not only of the carefully thought out composition, but also of the harmonious use of light colours, expressing a mood of joyful elation, and a comparatively uninhibited style. There is indeed a sense of abundance, of the spaciousness of Russia, of the fruit-fulness of peasant labour.
Shishkin reached the height of his career in the 1880's and 1890's. Such paintings as Dense Forest (1881), Pine Forest (1885), and Wind-fallen Wood (1888) are close in style to works of the preceding decade; however, their themes are treated with greater artistic freedom.
In the 1880's, Shishkin worked enthusiastically on landscapes which portray the vastness of Russia. One of his finest works, "Amidst the spreading rale..." (1883), is constructed on the contrast between the boundless plain and a solitary oak which reigns over it. The subtle play of light and shade gives lyricism and vitality to the painting. Alternating bands of light and shade increase the feeling of spaciousness and create a dynamic force within the painting.
New tendencies were also reflected in Shishkin's drawings. Shishkin considered the drawing to be an important branch of art; thus most of his large-scale drawings are actually independent works in no way inferior to his paintings. Of special interest are his line drawings done with black lead in a light, free style. Various devices used by Shishkin helped to express what he termed "the music of the pencil". The lines in his drawings of the 1880's are elastic and mobile, at times flowing, at times resilient and strong or light and wavy. The pencil strokes are more animated and varied.
In his best drawings, Shishkin used pencil, charcoal, chalk and white, which allowed him to achieve softer, more attractive effects and a finer gradation of tone.
These drawings are striking examples of the expressive and laconic use of artistic language. One such example is Seashore. Meri-Hom (1889).
Attempts to transmit a feeling of light and air were made first in Shishkin's drawings. In the 1870's this problem did not arise in his painting at all. Later, however, when he began to paint more open landscapes, where greater importance was attached to a light-filled sky, he had to solve the problems of plein air. The large study, Pine Trees in Sunlight, marks a new stage in the artist's work. He uses coloured shadows and reflexes; the scene appears to be saturated in sunlight, which gives it a particularly lyrical mood. Other landscapes also reveal a successful solution of the problem: in the painting The Oaks (1887), the patterned leaves of the trees gleam in the sun, or are plunged into semi-darkness; light, transparent shadows play on the trees and in the bright glade.
The well-known Morning in the Pine Forest (1889) captures that moment when the first light of dawn is breaking through, and the night mist is lifting. The forest seems to be awakening from its sleep. The soft, fading outlines of the trees in the background, the carefully detailed foreground, the drifting rays of the sun and the ethereal mist, create a poetic picture of early morning.
The picture Rain in the Oak Forest (1891), provides a complete contrast. The painting is imbued with fine shades of silver and green. The dark tree trunks stand out against the light background, where the trees are shrouded in rain. Here we see Shishkin at his most lyrical.
Shishkin's paintings, even in the last decade of his life, were technically excellent. His later landscapes reveal a greater preoccupation with light and a more profound and lyrical perception of nature. This can be seen in the study In the Forest of Counter Mordvinoca (1891).
Two exhibitions of Shishkin's work were arranged in the 189()'s. At the exhibition of 1891, more than five hundred studies were displayed, showing the path of the artist's development. The paintings of the exhibition of 1893 bore witness to the exceptionally keen eye and high degree of craftsmanship of the 60-year-old artist, to the variety of his themes and techniques.
An interesting painting, "A pine I he re .stanch in the Xortheni wilds..." (1891), is an original artistic interpretation of Lermon-tov's poem of the same name. Based on contrast and making effective use of light, this painting is totally unlike Shishkin's other works. There is a certain grandeur in the artist's depiction of the fairy-tale beauty of a frosty northern night and a magnificent tree blanketed in silvery snow.
Shishkin's great capacity for work is also evidenced in his graphics. When the fourth album of his etchings appeared in 1895, they produced a resounding effect throughout the country. The sixty drawings contained in the album are examples of his best works created during the last twenty years of his life.
By bold experiment and the use of ever more complex technical devices, Shishkin constantly perfected his etchings and achieved exceptional results. Such masterpieces as Forest Fern (1886) and Field (1886) are remarkable for the significance of each line, each feature, for the subtle gradations of light and shade, the beauty of the scene portrayed.
Mast-tree Grove (1898), painted three years later, marks the summit of an artistic career lasting nearly half a century. It is almost classical in its perfection, in the completeness of the artistic concept, in its monumental proportions. The painting is based on studies completed in the magnificent forests near Yelabuga, where the artist found his ideal - the synthesis of harmony and grandeur. The tall, slender pines stand out in all their supple beauty. The painting is a fine example of Shishkin's ability to concentrate on the main features of a landscape, while at the same time portraying the many details which contribute to the variety of forest life. It is distinguished by precise drawing, a severe simplicity of the composition and a harmonious use of colour. We can detect the sure, skilled hand of the master.
Shishkin's influence on Russian art did not diminish even in the last decade of his life, when such talented landscape artists as Levitan, Serov and Korovin entered the scene. Shishkin has left us an enormous heritage,- brilliant landscapes, drawings and etchings.
Death came to the artist unexpectedly. He died on the 20th (8th, old style) of March, 1898, while at work on the painting Forest Kim/dom.
Shishkin will remain in the history of Russian landscape painting as a wise, truthful and profound interpreter of nature.
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