Russian Serf Children: Paintings and Illustrations

Figure 1.--This image of serf children was done by Russian illustrator Elizaveta Bem (1843-1914). We are not sure when the postcard was printed, but would guess the 1900s. Many of her images idelized serf life. We would guess that her work was generally supressed during the Soviet period, especially the Stalinist era. Note the high-quality color printing. (We are guessing that this is a color lithograph rather than a card with the color hand painted, but we are not yet positive about this.) This suggests the Russians had a well-developed post card industry before World War I. These cards are relatively rare in modern Russia. We are not sure if this represents small press runs or the fact that such images were supressed during the Soviet era.

Paintings and illustrations provide us some idea of Russian serfdom. Genre paintings of Russian daily life became popular in the 19th century. Photography appeared just as the Tsar abolished serfdom. There are few contemporary views of Russian serfs before the 19th century. Just as American slave olders saw no need to spend money to preserve images of their slaves, Russian aristocrats saw not need to leave images of serfs. This changed in the 19h century. There are numerous paintings made during the 19th century. Some are highly relaistic providing an invaluable record of serfdom. Others are more sentimental, idealized views made after emancipation showing a degree of nostalgia for the older less complcated rural life style during serfdom.

Elisaveta Bem (1843-1914)

Elisaveta Merkuryevna Bem (Елизавета Меркурьевна Бём / Elisabeth Bohm ) was a Russian illustrator who is best known for creating postcards during tecTsarist era. She was born in Saint Petersburg to an aristocratic family with both Russian and Tatar roots--Endaurov (Эндауров). She was rised on the estate of her parents which was located near Schiptsy, a village in Poshekhonsky uezd, Yaroslavl Governorate. This was the era before emancipation. She was thus intimately familiar with rural and serf life. She would have played with serf children. She enrolled in the School of Painting at the Society for Promotion of Artists (Школа Поощрения Художеств) when she was only 14 years old (1857). This was a highly unusual step for a girl in highly traditional Russian society, let alone a child of her age. There she studied under Ivan Kramskoi and Pavel Chistyakov. Elisaveta graduated with the Large Silver Medal (1865). She then continued her art education through private lessons from Kramskoi. She studied further at the Imperial Academy of Arts, receiving a Large Encouragement Medal for animal paintings. Elisabeth married Russian-Hungarian violinist Ludwig Bohm/Bem. He was an important violinist and professor of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. She did a great deal of work in water colors. She became known for illustrating children books published by the Folk Library (Народная библиотека). As a result of her work there she met famed writer Leo Tolstoy. While best known for her water colors, she began experimented with glass and ceramics and acquired considerable aclaim. Sge was awarded medals at the World Fairs in Chicago (1893), Paris (1900), Munich (1902), and Milan (1906). At Milan she was awarded a gold medal. But it is for postcards she is best known in Russia today. She is one of the most prominent Russian creator of postcards during the Tsarist era. She is known to have created more than 350 postcards. They were printed by the St. Eugenia Welfare Society (Благотоворительное Общество Святой Евгении). Here style is very destinctive. Here mos prized works today are her impages of serf children. Her rather nostalgic sentimental style was highly appreciated in Tsarist Russia. Her work may have been supessed during the Stalinist era, but we do not yet have details on this.

Vasily Perov (1834-82)

Vasily Perov was educated in the provincial Arzamass School of Art. During 1853-61 Perov studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. He lived in Paris during the early 1860s studying art. Returning to Russia, Perov became a founding member in the Circle of the Itinerants. In 1886 Vasily Perov was awarded the title of member of the Petersburg Academy of Arts. Perov is best known for his sympathetic genre scenes and portraits, including serfs and peasants.

Alexey Venetsianov (1780-1847)

Alexey Venetsianov was active in the early 19th century and is one Russia's most famed genre painters. Venetsianov introduced new types of painting to Russia. His genre work include some of the earliest image of peasant life. He painted some wonderful images of early 19th century Russian life. This was a great departure for Russian art which had previously focused on religious subjects and portraits of the upper class. Some of his early portraits depict upper-class life. His best remembered paintings, however, are his masterful images of Russian peasant life in the years just before the abolition of serfdom. Some of the paintings include fascinating images of Russian serf boys.


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Created: 5:23 PM 2/21/2009
Last updated: 5:23 PM 2/21/2009