alexei venetsianov’s Girl With a Birch Bark Container (1824) is not simply a beautiful portrait. It is a personification of Russian ideals. The girl represents all that is noble and strong in Russian peasant culture. Well before Tolstoy lauded the peasants in such works as “Master and Man,” Venetsianov was already capturing their simplicity and strength.
His decision to depict the peasantry was radical for its time. Venetsianov was the first painter to portray scenes of peasant life instead of making classical portraits, as espoused by the Russian Academy of Arts. Perhaps because he was self-taught and therefore less susceptible to academic restrictions, he painted from nature instead of copying models, and sought in his work to convey the harmony of rural Russian life and the peasants’ connection to the land. He even established a school for talented serfs and other poor artists in the village of Safonkovo, in Tver Province. In addition to teaching painting, Venetsianov fought for the freedom of his serf pupils. Sadly, despite his considerable efforts, the cruel landowner N.P. Miliukov refused to free the talented serf painter, Grigory Soroka, who eventually committed suicide.
Venetsianov’s paintings depict an idealized world. In this portrait, the peasant girl’s link to nature is expressed by the trees in the background; a more realistic depiction would have placed her at work in the kitchen. The dark, brooding backdrop hints at Romanticism, and yet the girl is suffused with light, her gaze direct. There is no question that she is Russian: the bright red of her scarf and the container of birch bark symbolize Russian beauty and the land.
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