Vasilly Steinberg (Russia, early 19th century)

Figure 1.--This 1839 portrait of a serf shepherd boy from southern Russia was painted by Vassily Steinberg.

The Artist

We have been unable to find information about Vasily Steinberg other than he was a Russian painter in the early 19th century. The name suggests German Jewish origins. He appears to have painted genre scences, including a 1839 portrait of a serf shepherd boy. Hopefully our Russian readers can tell us more about Steinberg.


This 1838 portrait shows a serf shepherd boy from southern Russia. Fedualism survived in Russia as serfdom into the 19th century. It was in many ways by the 18th and 19th centurues not dissimilar to slavery. Note the boy here wearing cold weather clothing, but with bare feet. The backgrond suggests that it is not winter, but apparently was a cold day. Perhaps the artist just had him put on the hat and coat to show what he wore in the weinter. Shoes and other footwear were expensive so serfs, especially boys often went barefoot--except in the coldest weather. Some artists painted genre paintings based on historical images. This appears to have been an actual comtemporary boy. Perhaps the artist was staying on an estate of a wealthy landowner. At any rate the clothing depicted is probably quite accurate.

Artistic Treatment

It is interesting to note how serious Russian artists treated serfdom. Quite a number of the best Russian artists painted genre studies of serfdom in the 19th century, both before and after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. It is interesting to compare this with american slavery which was abolished in 1863-65, about the same time. There is virtually no depictions of American slavery by serious American artists, before or after abolition. One wonders why there was such a difference. We suspect that race was a major factor here. Rusian serfs were not a racial, but a social group not racially destincr from the overall Russian population. American slaves were a destinct racial group, blacks transported from Africa and their decendents.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: June 15, 2002
Last updated: June 15, 2002