'In these studies of the female body, we find not merely a natural quality but a quality familiar from literature and music.'
Alexandre Benois, 'Artistic Letters: The Union Exhibition', Rech, 13 March 1910
Remarking on the nudes of his niece, Zinaida Serebriakova, Alexandre Benois attempts to identify the almost ineffable sense of harmony and lyricism that characterises her work. Hailed for creating some of the most endearing and enduring images in the canon of Russian art, Serebriakova is one of the most widely-recognised female Russian artists of the early 20th century. Her self-portrait from 1909, At the dressing-table, acquired by Pavel Tretyakov in 1910, is famous for its fresh-faced innocence and unapologetic charm and remains one of the best-loved portraits in the genre. This season Christie’s is honoured to present three exceptional works from Zinaida Serebriakova’s French period; works that have remained with the family of the artist and have never appeared at auction before.
Born into one of the most illustrious artistic dynasties in the history of Russian art, Serebriakova’s natural talent was as prodigious as her impeccable pedigree would suggest. Her maternal grandfather was the St Petersburg architect Nikolai Benois (1813-1898); today one of his surviving buildings at Peterhof is home to the Benois Family Museum. Through her father, the celebrated equestrian sculptor Evgenii Lanceray (1848-1886), Serebriakova was also related to Alberto Cavos (1800-1863), who designed the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and remodelled the Bolshoi in Moscow. Following the untimely death of her father in 1886, Serebriakova was taken in by the Benois family and placed at the heart of Mir iskusstva. After a brief period spent at Princess Tenisheva's school in Talashkino in 1901, Serebriakova's talent was further nurtured by a visit to Italy where she sought inspiration from the Venetian masters. Her formal training was provided by Osip Braz (1873-1936) in 1905 at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.
As the only woman elected as a member of Mir iskusstva, Serebriakova occupied a unique position among her peers. Drawing inspiration from European art, particularly Rococo and Art Nouveau influences, Mir iskusstva advocated for the revival of painting through a combination of several artistic forms, including theatre, stage design and book design. While the traditions of Russian and European art appealed to Serebriakova much more than the explosive tenets of the Russian avant-garde, she still maintained her creative independence, reflected in the originality and distinctiveness of her oeuvre among her fellow artists.
The tragic events of the October Revolution changed Serebriakova’s life: her husband passed away shortly after his political imprisonment; her family’s property was destroyed by the Bolsheviks; and her income from selling her paintings was not sufficient to support her family. In 1924, Alexandre Benois, who had already emigrated to France, invited his niece to Paris with the immediate aim of improving her financial situation. That trip, which Serebriakova intended only as a temporary move, proved to be final. Only two of her four children, Alexander and Ekaterina (Katya), were able to move to Paris; Serebriakova was separated from her two eldest children for over forty years.
In Paris, Zinaida Serebriakova worked constantly, regularly participating in the Salons d’Automne, where her works were highly praised by critics. Her solo exhibitions took place at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune and at the Galerie Charpentier, which organised her shows from 1930 to 1938. Serebriakova also cemented her reputation internationally by contributing to almost 80 exhibitions, including the major group shows of Russian Art organised in Brussels, Berlin, Riga, Belgrade and Prague.
We are grateful to Anastasia Nikolayeva, great-granddaughter of the artist, for her assistance with cataloguing lots 63-65.
This sensual image belongs to Serebriakova’s lauded series of nudes; a series that can be traced back to her iconic depiction of peasant women for Bath house (1913, State Russian Museum). Struggling to find models to pose for her after the Revolution, the artist often painted her daughter Katya. Her 1923 work, Nude Girl on a Red Blanket, depicting a ten-year-old Katya was exhibited at the landmark Russian Art Exhibition in New York in 1924 and eventually sold for $500. In June 2015, the same work was sold at auction as Study of a Sleeping Girl for £3,845,000, setting a world record price for the artist.
Following her emigration, during the period 1925-1930 Serebriakova continued to paint female nudes, persuading women from the Russian émigré population to model. As her daughter Katya recalled: 'The female nude was mother's favourite subject...In Paris her friends would come over to her studio, drink a cup of tea, then they would stay and pose for her. They were not the professional models that you might find in Montparnasse and maybe this is the reason why they are so natural and graceful.' (Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967), Paris, 1995, p. 16). When Katya followed her mother to Paris in 1928, she once again became a regular sitter for her artist mother.
In Nude, Katya’s somnolent pose is natural and unabashed. Serebriakova stretches her model across the diagonal of the canvas, effectively elongating the contours of her body. Painted in rose and golden tones, Katya’s skin is aglow against the ruffles of the soft white sheets and the sea-green bedcover. The ochre and darker patterned cloth in the background, brought by Serebriakova from her trip to Morocco, accentuates the smooth, natural curvature of the model. With this image, the artist simultaneously conveys the extraordinary purity and eroticism of the female form. The effect is intensified by Katya’s slumber. Although the work is undated, it is likely to have been painted circa 1928 when Katya had just arrived in Paris and was 15-17 years old.