Boris Mikhaylovich Kustodiev (Russian:
Бори́с Миха́йлович Кусто́диев) (March 7, 1878 – May 28, 1927) was a
Russian painter and stage designer.
Boris Kustodiev was born in Astrakhan into the family of a professor
of philosophy, history of literature, and logic at the local
theological seminary. His father died young, and all financial and
material burdens fell on his mother's shoulders. The Kustodiev
family rented a small wing in a rich merchant's house. It was there
that the boy's first impressions were formed of the way of life of
the provincial merchant class. The artist later wrote, "The whole
tenor of the rich and plentiful merchant way of life was there right
under my nose... It was like something out of an Ostrovsky play."
The artist retained these childhood observations for years,
recreating them later in oils and water-colours.
Between 1893 and 1896, Boris studied in theological seminary and
took private art lessons in Astrakhan from Pavel Vlasov, a pupil of
Vasily Perov. Subsequently, from 1896 to 1903, he attended Ilya
Repin’s studio at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
Concurrently, he took classes in sculpture under Dmitry Stelletsky
and in etching under Vasiliy Mate. He first exhibited in 1896.
"I have great hopes for Kustodiev,"
wrote Repin. "He is a talented artist and a thoughtful and serious
man with a deep love of art; he is making a careful study of
nature..." When Repin was commissioned to paint a large-scale canvas
to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the State Council, he
invited Kustodiev to be his assistant. The painting was extremely
complex and involved a great deal of hard work. Together with his
teacher, the young artist made portrait studies for the painting,
and then executed the right-hand side of the final work. Also at
this time, Kustodiev made a series of portraits of contemporaries
whom he felt to be his spiritual comrades. These included the artist
Ivan Bilibin (1901, Russian Museum), Moldovtsev (1901, Krasnodar
Regional Art Museum), and the engraver Mate (1902, Russian Museum).
Working on these portraits considerably helped the artist, forcing
him to make a close study of his model and to penetrate the complex
world of the human soul.
In 1903, he married Julia
He visited France and Spain on a
grant from the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1904. Also in 1904, he
attended the private studio of René Ménard in Paris. After that he
traveled to Spain, then, in 1907, to Italy, and in 1909 he visited
Austria and Germany, and again France and Italy. During these years
he painted many portraits and genre pieces. However, no matter where
Kustodiev happened to be – in sunny Seville or in the park at
Versailles – he felt the irresistible pull of his motherland. After
five months in France he returned to Russia, writing with evident
joy to his friend Mate that he was back once more "in our blessed
The Russian Revolution of 1905, which shook the foundations of
society, evoked a vivid response in the artist's soul. He
contributed to the satirical journals Zhupel (Bugbear) and Adskaya
Pochta (Hell’s Mail). At that time, he first met the artists of Mir
Iskusstva (World of Art), a group of innovative Russian artists. He
joined their association in 1910 and subsequently took part in all
In 1905, Kustodiev first turned to
book illustrating, a genre in which he worked throughout his entire
life. He illustrated many works of classical Russian literature,
including Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, The Carriage, and The
Overcoat; Mikhail Lermontov's The Lay of Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich, His
Young Oprichnik and the Stouthearted Merchant Kalashnikov; and Leo
Tolstoy's How the Devil Stole the Peasants Hunk of Bread and The
In 1909, he was elected into Imperial Academy of Arts. He continued
to work intensively, but a grave illness—tuberculosis of the
spine—required urgent attention. On the advice of his doctors he
went to Switzerland, where he spent a year undergoing treatment in a
private clinic. He pined for his distant homeland, and Russian
themes continued to provide the basic material for the works he
painted during that year. In 1918, he painted The Merchant's Wife,
which became the most famous of his paintings.
In 1916, he became paraplegic. "Now
my whole world is my room", he wrote. His ability to remain joyful
and lively despite his paralysis amazed others. His colourful
paintings and joyful genre pieces do not reveal his physical
suffering, and on the contrary give the impression of a carefree and
His Pancake Tuesday/Maslenitsa
(1916) and Fontanka (1916) are all painted from his memories. He
meticulously restores his own childhood in the busy city on the
In the first years after the
Russian Revolution of 1917 the artist worked with great inspiration
in various fields. Contemporary themes became the basis for his
work, being embodied in drawings for calendars and book covers, and
in illustrations and sketches of street decorations, as well as some
portraits (Portrait of Countess Grabowska).
His covers for the journals The Red Cornfield and Red Panorama
attracted attention because of their vividness and the sharpness of
their subject matter. Kustodiev also worked in lithography,
illustrating works by Nekrasov. His illustrations for Leskov's
stories The Darner and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District were
landmarks in the history of Russian book designing, so well did they
correspond to the literary images.
The artist was also interested in designing stage scenery. He first
started work in the theatre in 1911, when he designed the sets for
Alexander Ostrovsky's An Ardent Heart. Such was his success that
further orders came pouring in. In 1913, he designed the sets and
costumes for The Death of Pazukhin at the Moscow Art Theatre.
His talent in this sphere was
especially apparent in his work for Ostrovsky's plays; It's a Family
Affair, A Stroke of Luck, Wolves and Sheep, and The Storm. The
milieu of Ostrovsky's plays—provincial life and the world of the
merchant class—was close to Kustodiev's own genre paintings, and he
worked easily and quickly on the stage sets.
In 1923, Kustodiev joined the
Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. He continued to
paint, make engravings, illustrate books, and design for the theater
up until his death of tuberculosis on May 28, 1927, in Leningrad.
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