September 01, 2012

For the Love of Currants

For the Love of Currants

Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy’s beautiful drawing of red and white currants, from 1818, is remarkable for its precision and delicacy. Executed in gouache on brown paper, the drawing is simple, yet it is anything but plain. The brown paper creates a background that seems right out of nature, setting off the currants to radiant effect. By carefully highlighting this background and adding shimmering drops of dew, Tolstoy captures the berries’ translucence.

The artist was born in 1783 into an illustrious family. His father was head of the War Commissariat, and he himself became a naval cadet. But the young Tolstoy found the arts more appealing than the military. He studied under the painter Orest Kiprensky, renowned for his portrait of Pushkin, with whom Tolstoy himself was friendly. Although best known for his sculptural works, Tolstoy excelled at drawing from nature, as this work reveals. And although he was not a naturalist, he rendered his still lifes with accuracy and an intuitive sense of the natural world.

Russians have long enjoyed currants for their tart flavor and healthful properties. Medieval monks cultivated the red and black berries and brewed excellent kvas from them. The berries, which thrive in the cold Russian climate, offer a rich source of Vitamin C: red and white currants have 35-40 milligrams of Vitamin C per 100 grams, while black currants yield a whopping 70-180 mg. The red and white currants depicted in Tolstoy’s drawing actually grow on the same plant, Ribes rubrum — the white berries simply lack red pigmentation. These currants can be eaten fresh from the bush, but black currants need sugar to taste palatable.

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