September 01, 2009

Southern Comforts

Mention the year 1918 in Russia, and images of revolution immediately come to mind: mass demonstrations; Red Army soldiers wielding bayonets; posters with brash slogans and bold, geometric lines. But Boris Kustodiev’s dreamy 1918 painting Merchant’s Wife at Tea (which readers of my cookbook, A Taste of Russia, will recognize from its cover) offers a very different picture, one of peace and tranquility. He has captured the merchant’s wife in a summer idyll; we sense neither political urgency nor even the passage of time in the painting. It is a nostalgic portrayal of the world the artist knew from his childhood in Astrakhan.

Astrakhan had a large and colorful merchant community, thanks to its location at the confluence of the Volga and the Caspian Sea. The region had long been renowned for its melons; in the eighteenth century, Peter the Great recognized the excellence of the climate and sought to establish viticulture there. The caviar industry, too, was centered in Astrakhan, since the sturgeon swim up the Volga from the Caspian to spawn.

Kustodiev knew the city’s provincial life well. After his father’s death, he and his mother moved into the house of a wealthy merchant family, so from an early age he was able to closely observe their daily routines. Russian merchants were a largely conservative lot who adhered to an old-fashioned way of life, as we see in several of Kustodiev’s paintings, including the vivid Moscow Tavern from 1916, where the merchants appear with bowl-shaped haircuts, long beards, and long blue kaftans.

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