Arkhip Ivanovich Kuinji
It is no accident that Arkhip Kuinji is sometimes known as the bard
of the Ukrainian night. And although he also painted the severe scenery
of the island of Valaam, Ukrainian highways awash with rain, and the flowering
steppe, it is for his inimitable evocations of the beauty and mysterious
charm of Ukrainian moonlight nights that he will always be remembered.
The son of a poor cobbler of Greek descent, Kuinji was born on the outskirts
of Mariupole. His
Kuinji received the rudiments of education from a Greek friend of the
family who was a teacher, and then went to the local school. In his childhood
he used to draw whenever there was an opportunity—on fences, walls and
scraps of paper. His passion for drawing drew him to Feodosia, to see Ivan
Aivazovsky. After spending several months with the famous artist he went
to St. Petersburg with the dream of entering the Academy of Arts. But he
Kuinji set about defining his own style in art. In its realism, his painting Bad Roads in Autumn (1872, RM) was akin to the works of the Peredvizhniki Artists. He did not merely paint a cold autumn day and a slushy road with murky puddles: into this landscape he introduced the lonely figures of a woman and child, picking their way through the mud. The autumn landscape, with its dampness and gloom, became the sad story of the Russian common people and their weary, joyless lives.
The summer of 1872 was spent on the island of Valaam in Lake Ladoga,
and as a result Kuinji painted the pictures Lake Ladoga (1872, RM) and
On the Island of Valaam (1873, TG). The latter is a calm, unhurried narrative
about the scenery of the island, with its granite banks and its dark, dense
woods and fallen trees. It is like a folk epic, descriptive legend of the
mighty North. The painting's silvery-bluish tone lends it great emotionality.
In 1874 Kuinji painted A Forgotten Village, (TG) which, with the sharp
social message in its strikingly truthful depiction of Russian village
life, echoed the pictures of the Travelling Artists. The following year
he exhibited three more paintings: Highway at Mariupole (TG), The Steppe
in Blossom and The Steppe in the Evening (whereabouts unknown). In the
first of these three works, the artist depicted an unending stream of carts
slowly moving across the
In the other two—The Steppe in Blossom and The Steppe in the Evening—the
artist affirmed the beauty of nature, rejoieing in the life-giving power
of the warmth of the sun. In essence, these works marked the beginning
of a new stage in the work of a mature artist. Hoping to broaden his knowledge
Kuinji undertook a journey abroad. His stays in Britain, France, Belgium
and Germany, and his acquaintance with the art of these countries, invigorated
With tremendous poetic power the painting reveals the remarkable beauty of a Ukrainian night... Typical Ukrainian cottages, clear in the moonlight, stand along the bank of a small river; poplars stretch upwards; nature is bathed in silence and calm; stars blink in the deep-blue, velvety sky. in order to convey the moonlight and the twinkling of the stars so naturally and expressively, the artist was required to solve extremely complex artistic problems. Everything in the picture is built on his masterly treatment of tonal relationships, on the accentuated generalisation of forms and on the intensity and precision of the colour combinations. The originality of Kuinji's manner of painting attracted the attention of both Russian and foreign critics. In 1878 Ukrainian Night was shown at a World Exhibition in Paris. 'Kuinji,' wrote a French critic, 'ts indubitably the most interesting of the young Russian painters. His nationality shows through even more strongly than with the others.'
In 1879 Kuinji painted three landscapes: The North, After a Thunderstorm,
and Birch Grove (all in TG). Though their motifs are different, they are
united by their poetry. The North continued the series of northern landscapes
started with Lake Ladoga. This time Kuinji did not depict any particular
spot: it is a generalised poetic representation of the North, the result
of the artist's recollections and imagination. The painting completed the
trilogy conceived back
In 1880 an unusual exhibition was mounted on Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg: one painting was on display —Kuinji's Moonlight Night on the Dnieper (RM). It caused a storm of approval: a long queue formed at the entrance to the exhibition.
Kuinji became the talk of the town, his name was on everybody's lips. The poet Yakov Polonsky wrote: 'I positively cannot think of any other painting in front of which people stood for so long, and from which, having gazed and gazed, they took away with them such an extraordinary impression.'
The picture shackled the onlookers' attention. Illuminated from both sides by special lamps, it seemed like a window opening onto a bewitching Ukrainian night.
...The Dnieper is calm, unruffled, in the pale moonlight. A little Ukrainian village lies asleep on the bank, only a few white-walled cottages gleam in the darkness ... The moonlight is magnificent—strong in the centre, comprising all shades of green, it gradually fades towards the sides of the painting, merging into the blackness of the water and clouds. Many people could not believe that the artist had painted all this by normal artistic methods.
Kuinji's brilliant technique of reproducing moonlight was the result of long arduous searching. His studio was a research laboratory, where he experimented and studied the laws of colours, searching for the correct shade, checking it against the colour relations in nature itself. It was only by such persistence that Kuinji achieved the skill in manipulating colour and the compositional simplicity which mark his best works.
In 1881 Kuinji painted the picture The Dnieper in the Morning (TG). This time there was no play of light or vivid decorativeness; the painting expressed the tranquil grandeur and inner might of nature. The delightful sight of early morning over the steppe, with blooming herbs and a boundless panorama, is put across in a delicate fabric of pure golden-pink, lilac, silvery and greenish-grey shades.
The exhibition in 1882 was Kuinji's last. It was followed by many years of silence, which even the artist's friends could not understand. Kuinji himself explained it thus: 'An artist should display his works at exhibitions tor as long—like a singer-as he has a voice. But as soon as his voice begins to falter he should retire, and not show himself, to avoid derision. I made a name for myself, everybody had heard of me, and all was well: but then I saw that I could not keep it up, that my voice, as it were, was beginning to falter. And people would say: there used to be an artist called Kuinji. But I would rather remain Kuinji for ever.'
In his last thirty years tic produced relatively little, compared to the decade when he took an active part in exhibitions. According to the reminiscences of his friends, Kuinji invited them to his studio at the beginning of this century and showed them the paintings Evening in the Ukraine. Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane, The Dnieper and Birch Grove, by which they were enraptured. But Kuinji was dissatisfied with them and would not exhibit them publicly.
Horses Grazing at Night, one of Kuinji's last works, reminds one of the artist in his prime. Here, too, one feels his poetic attitude to nature, his attempt to extol its stately beauty.
Several other pictures, interesting in intention and new in content, remained unfinished. In A Cloud, Crimea and Fog on the Sea (1900-05, RM), for example, the artist was seeking a more philosophical, more profound treatment of nature.
In his later years Kuinji travelled widely. He was attracted to the Crimean and Caucasian mountains, snow-capped and lit up by the sun or moon (cf. the etudes Elbrus, Moonlight Night, Kazbek in the Evening, Patches of Moonlight, etc.).
Kuinji's artistic method involved a great deal of preparatory painted eludes and studies. In his studies he sought compositional expressiveness and harmonious colouring for the future painting. His etudes, on the other hand, which were painted both from nature and from impressions, were for him only one of the stages in the work, preliminary paintings which could later be reworkcd in the final process of creating a picture.
Kuinji passed on much of his skill and experience to his pupils. In 1894 lie was offered a post at the Academy as professor of landscape-painting. He gave long consideration to his teaching methods, wishing to instill in his pupils not only professional skills but also an active attitude towards creation. In his pupils' etudes he wished to see the result of a close study of nature, and in their paintings- freedom in using the material of the etudes and in generalising their observations. Among those who benefited by his methods were such talented artists as A.A. Rylov, N. K. Roerich, K. F. Bogayevsky, A. A. Borisov, V.G. Purvit and others.
In 1897 Kuinji was put under house arrest for two days and stripped of his professorship for taking part in a student strike, but he continued to give private lessons and helped students prepare works for competition. In 1898, at his own expense, he organized a trip abroad for young artists and made a donation of 100,000 rubles to the Academy for this purpose. When his pupils decided to set up a Kuinji Society, the artist presented it with all the paintings and money in his possession, plus the land he owned in the Crimea.
On 11 July 1910, Arkhip Kuinji died. With his sincere and inspired art
he had brought glory to Russian art and made an invaluable contribution
to its treasure-store.