Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945)

signed lower left
oil on canvas
93 x 69 cm

The painting "Forest" was created by the Russian artist, academician of painting, one of the founders and Chairman of the Kuindzhi society, Nikolay Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky. The artist is best known for his ceremonial and salon portraits and genre paintings depicting scenes from the life of peasant children. Despite the fact that in the Soviet Union the name of the artist was deliberately forced out of the world of art, the talent of the painter has been so strong, and his work so impressive, that it did not prevent Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky to gain well-deserved fame. The "Forest" is painted in the best traditions of the Russian realistic school of the XIX century, but also contains more modern trends in painting, inherent in the first third of the XX century. Landscape has been able to achieve the glory of one of the leading genres in painting and this is particularly true of the heyday of Russian art in the XIX century, when the painters deftly responded to the issues prevalent in the society through the images of nature. Bogdanov-Belsky has preserved the continuity of the achievements of Russian landscape painting and emphasised interest in national nature, the image of his native land. The main protagonists of the painting are light and air, and the atmosphere of this canvas captivates the viewer with its freshness, spontaneity, serenity and life-affirming motif. 

The artist was always drawn to nature; he has found this great charm and harmony in the village and its way of life. It is possible that such a craving for the representation of the countryside was caused by the fact that Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky himself was born in the village and even used to be a village shepherd in his youth. However, the talent for painting led the young man in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1884, where his teachers and mentors included V. D. Polenov, V. E. Makovsky, I. M. Pryanishnikov at the Landscape Painting Faculty. From 1894 to 1895, Bogdanov-Belsky studied painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts in the studio of the great I. E. Repin, and then, after graduating from the Academy, he visited the studios F. Colarossi and F. Cormon in Paris, as well as, worked in Munich and Italy. The experience of communication with other gifted, prominent artists, a multifaceted education, even including training in the icon painting studio at an early stage of the artistic path, a trip to Europe, and the opportunity to see a variety of trends and techniques, have led to the fact that the work of Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky has become quite versatile and contained references both to Realism, and Russian Impressionism. Bogdanov-Belsky has been often called a wanderer (peredvizhnik), because he joined the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions (the Peredvizhniki) in 1895, which was founded by a group of Realist artists in 1870. It is no accident that the most frequent genre to which artists of this society have appealed was the landscape. The philosophy of the Wanderers was that painting should be a manifestation of the national spirit, to enclose the image of the Motherland, metaphorically reflect the moral and civil qualities of the people, to appeal to a sense of nostalgia and patriotism, so to speak, to contain the quintessence of "Russianness". However, this does not negate the more general, universal interest of artists in nature and its depiction, which can be observed in the case of Bogdanov-Belsky. This approach of glorifying and worshiping nature, as well as the search for harmony, holiness, and purity in the native landscape, were widely distributed among the Wanderers and their followers. Russian landscape painters had a distinctive feature to display not a specific place, but to create a collective image, to be able to show the "soul" of nature, to convey the mood. Here lies, for instance, their main difference with the French Impressionists, who sought to express "here and now" on the canvas: to seize a certain moment, keeping the correct topography of the place. Russian landscape artists in this respect can be attributed closer to the representatives of the Barbizon school, to their romantic, pastoral vision of the landscape and its reflection in painting. Both the romantics of the Barbizon school and many Russian landscape painters of the late XIX and early XX centuries considered nature as a kind of salvation, escape from modern life, as a separate world, where there is no rapid flow of time with its modernisation.

However, the tendency to realism did not prevent Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky to use echoes of those trends that he had learned from his trips and studies in Europe. Bogdanov-Belsky was a virtuoso of the plein air technique, which allowed him to catch the most fleeting and subtle fluctuations of light, its changeability and liveliness. Like Arkhip Kuindzhi, who paid much attention to colours and light in his landscapes, Bogdanov-Belsky has recreated an amazing play of light in his work. In the painting "Forest" he has used a sunny and bright palette, and his brushstrokes have become more separate and fractional, closer to the Russian Impressionists' tendency than the one that is inherent in the classic Wanderers' art. The sun glare is playing on the leaves of the trees, and the spruce forest on the background, which is in the shade, gives an impression of moist coolness so desirable on a hot summer day. Meandering rural paths create interesting dynamics in the picture. Essentially, the vertical composition, that the artist had chosen for this landscape, appears very modern, reminiscent of a quick photographic shot. The blue of the skyline with white clouds contrasts vividly with a variety of shades of green. "Forest" demonstrates how skilfully Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky could convey the mood, the atmosphere, a sense of the moment with the help of colour. This work contains all the characteristic qualities inherent in other paintings of the artist: life truthfulness, simplicity, lyricism, calmness, contemplation. These features relate Bogdanov-Belsky's work with lyrical landscapes of the great artists such as Alexei Savrasov, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Mikhail Nesterov. Being at an early age Bogdanov-Belsky already has received such a review from his teacher V. D. Polenov regarding one of his first landscapes "Spruce forest", which he painted in the old village of Tatevo: "Your painting captivates me by the simplicity and inner beauty of the landscape. Your forest lives and breathes - this is the main thing". This is perhaps the most accurate characterisation that can be given to the landscape of Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky.