Shore Excursions
in St.Petersburg,

Valentin Serov (1865-1911)

Valentin Serov was considered to be the greatest portraitist of his time. He has been extremely revered both in Russia and abroad. Serov continued the traditions of late nineteenth-century realist portraiture, which were made richer by the achievements of Impressionism. It is interesting to note that while creating his early unsurpassable works that resemble Renoir in a way, he did not know about the existence of the new trend called Impressionism. Serov painted a brilliant gallery of portraits that are among the most treasured exhibits in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow as well as in some minor museums of the country, and in private collections.

Valentin Alexandrovich Serov was born into the family of a Russian composer and musical critic Alexander Serov. In 1871 his father died, and in 1872-73 the little boy with his mother lived in Munich, where he took lessons from the artist K. Kepping. In 1874 they moved to Paris, where Valentin regularly visited the studio of Ilya Repin, an outstanding Russian artist, who was very fond of the little boy. In 1875, the Serovs came to live at Abramtsevo, the estate of the industrial tycoon Savva Mamontov near Moscow, and the cultural center of the time, where artists, musicians and actors were always welcome. Abramtsevo Art Circle consisted of such famous people as the painters M. Vrubel, brothers Vasnetsovs, I. Levitan, M. Nesterov, sculptor M. Antokolsky,
composer N. Rimsky-Korsakov and many other famous representatives of intelligentsia.

Valentin Serov grew up in an atmosphere of constant creativity, which characterized the Mamontovs' household. He was lucky in getting a professional education from early childhood from the best Russian artists, and he soon showed himself to be a remarkable draughtsman. He would catch the likeness of a model often more quickly and surely than the older artists in the "facetious drawing competitions", which were so much a part of the joyful and idyllic life of Abramtsevo. At the age of 15 Serov entered St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts in the class of professor Pavel Tchistyakov. There he met his lifelong friend Vladimir Derviz. His first exhibited works, Girl with Peaches. Portrait of Vera Mamontova (1887) and Girl in the Sunlight. Portrait of Maria Simonovich (1888), were a sensation. Critics called them a new word in painting. At the time of painting them Serov was unfamiliar with the works of the French Impressionists, yet he came very close to Renoir in these luminous, sunny, splendidly composed portraits. They expressed his ideal of joyful, beautiful and youthful life and showed the artist's interest in developing color effects, rendering light and air.

Serov's work was greatly influenced by the European painting of old masters as well as by his friendship with the Russian painters M. Vrubel and K. Korovin, and of course by the creative atmosphere of the Abramtsevo Circle. It was not an official group, the artists, composers, actors gathered around Savva Mamontov who helped them to find their way in life. They often stayed in Abramtsevo with their families for the whole summer. They worked (special studios were organized), communicated with each other, studied the Russian history and culture, strived to revive the traditions of folk art. For that special workshops of ancient art crafts were organized in Abramtsevo – wood carving, majolica, embroidery etc. In the park constructions in the Russian style were put up – "Terem" (tower-chamber), 1873, a church and a Hut on the Chicken Legs (Baba Yaga's home in Russian fairy tales) to the project of V. Vasnetsov, 1881-83. In Abramtsevo amateur theatrical performances also took place. They were prepared by the artists themselves – they created decorations, costumes, programs and posters, and often were cast in the plays themselves. These performances prepared a background for appearance of private Russian opera in Moscow.

The Portrait of Ida Rubinstein

From the beginning of 1890s Serov's portraits got a sharply psychological touch. Favorite models of the artist during this period were painters, writers, actors, musicians – he painted Levitan, Korovin, Leskov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ida Rubinstein and Anna Pavlova (famous ballet dancers) etc.

Serov tried himself in different genres: he was a beautiful landscape painter in a more sensuous and less nostalgic way than another teacher of his, Isaac Levitan: Pond in Abramtsevo (1886), The Overgrown Pond. Domotcanovo (1888), Village (1898), Watermill in Finland (1902). Serov's historical paintings are also of value and interest: Peter II and Princess Elizabeth Petrovna Riding to Hounds (1900), Peter the Great (1907).

The Portrait of Anna Pavlova

Serov became the most successful and brilliant portraitist in Russia of the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century.

The Portrait of Felix Yusupov

His most famous portraits are Portrait of the Actress Maria Yermolova (1905), Portrait of Henrietta Girshman (1907), Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova, Portrait of Felix Yusupov (by the way it was him who killed Grigory Rasputin), Portrait of Zinaida Yusupova (Felix's mother) and other members of their family.

Valentin traveled much, participated in exhibitions in Russia and abroad. In 1897-1909, Serov taught in Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He was a superb master of many different techniques that never failed to impress his students – water color, pastel, lithography, charcoal drawings etc. In 1903, he was elected the academician of the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts.

From 1900s Serov became a member of an art society "World of Art". This group was founded in 1898 in St. Petersburg and headed by two outstanding personalities – Alexander Benois and Sergey Dyagilev. They were for the ideas of free, "pure" art; they declared its independence of life. Their style was close to that of modern (art nouveau). Beside Serov, "World of Art" included such famous artists as L. Bakst, M. Dobuzhinsky, K. Somov, I. Grabar, B. Kustodiev, N. Rerikh, K. Korovin; Levitan, Vrubel and Nesterov took part in its exhibitions.


Influenced by this group of artists, Serov became very close to the modern style. Some attribute his works of this period to neoclassicism. He created a number of portraits where he disclosed personal individuality of people of art with astonishing truthfulness (portraits of M. Ermolova, M. Gorky, F. Shalyapin etc.)

In his last years, Serov's works presaged the artistic developments of the twentieth-century painting. Valentin Serov died in 1911 having earned his immortality as a splendid and deep portraitist and master of other artistic genres.

His works arouse the highest interest among the visitors of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.