Ivanovich Surikov was born in Krasnoyarsk into a family of Siberian Cossacks,
whose ancestors came to conquer Siberia with Yermak in the 16th century
(The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak).
The future artist grew up among brave and solid people, in severe natural
conditions. Surikov said later that Siberia gave him the ideals of historical
characters, spirit, strength and health.
He received his first art lessons from his school teacher, N. V. Grebnev,
who, seeing the talent of the boy, started to work with him individually.
After finishing school in 1868, the young man left for St. Petersburg on
horse-back to join the Academy. He spent a year on his journey, because
on his way he made frequent stops in the ancient towns through which he
passed. In 1869, he entered the Academy of Art, where he studied excellently.
In 1874, Surikov painted his first historical work The Knyaz’s
(Grand Duke’s) Court of Law, in 1875 – Apostle Paul explains
the Christian Dogmas to Agripinna and his sister Berenice. That
year he received commissions for 4 big paintings for the Cathedral of Christ
the Savior in Moscow. To fulfill the commissions Surikov moved to Moscow,
where he settled permanently.
Moscow with its old architecture impressed the artist deeply. The views
of the Red Square, monasteries and cathedrals, Kitay-Gorod called to mind
dramatic historical events. “When I moved to Moscow, this center of the
nation, I immediately found my way in art.” – Surikov. On impulse, he started
the big historical canvas Morning of Strelets’
Execution (finished in 1881). This painting defined the main
direction of his work – depiction of Russians in turning points of their
history. The next big painting, Menshikov
in Berezovo, dealt with the personal drama of an outstanding
politician. Once a mighty courtier, the right hand of Peter the Great,
now an exile, Surikov’s Menshikov impresses the viewers with his strong
personality. Surikov’s wife sat for Menshikov's daughter, Maria, who is
beside her father wrapping herself in a fur coat .
After the collector of Russian art Pavel Tretyakov bought both of Surikov’s
canvases, the artist had money to go abroad. He visited Germany, Italy,
France, Austria, studying and admiring the rich collection and different
schools of painting, drawing and painting his impressions. The interesting
fact is that while getting foreign impressions, the artist thought out
his next work from Russian history Boyarynya
Morozova. On his return Surikov started the work on this canvas.
In 1887, Surikov’s wife died. Her death caused a deep depression: he
gave up painting, turned to religion, and left with his children for Siberia.
The atmosphere, familiar from childhood, and the caring attitude of his
friends restored him to life. In 1891, in Siberia, Surikov painted his
most joyous picture Taking of a Snow Fortress,
which shows a Siberian game in which a horseman must jump over a snow wall,
defended by young people with twigs and whips. This cheerful painting is
an exception in his art, all other paintings by Surikov are very serious.
After the Taking of Snow Fortress Surikov started painting
Conquest of Siberia by Yermak (1895). The battle of the 16th
century between the Cossacks under their ataman (commander) Yermak Timofeevich
and the troops of Kuchum-Khan, the ruler of Siberia, he showed with reliability
of a witness. Another big canvases, devoted to Cossacks is Stepan
Rasin (RAH-zin), which depicts the moment of the Cossacks return
from a successful campaign against Persia.
Besides historical pictures Surikov created many portraits and self-portraits
which show the gift of the master and his interest into the inner world
of his models.
Surikov executed only nine historical canvases out of hundreds of portraits,
studies, and sketches, but he is still considered Russia's greatest historical
Vasilii Surikov by V. Kemenov. Aurora. Leningrad 1978.