Konstantin Savitsky
Biography of Russian Critical Realist Genre Painter.

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Repairing the Railway (1874) Detail
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Konstantin Savitsky (1844-1905)

An active member of the Itinerants or Wanderers Association, the figurative painter Konstantin Savitsky was determined that Russian art should reflect the reality of people's lives. One of his greatest genre paintings is Repairing the Railway (1874, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). Although Savitsky is less well known than other graduates of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg, such as the portraitist Ivan Kramskoy (1837–87), the great genre painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930), the symbolist Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), and the Impressionist Valentin Serov (1865-1911), he represents an important group of progressive Russian artists whose style of critical realism attempted to represent the gritty reality of 19th century life under the Czarist system, rather than continue to follow the more conventional academic art tradition. He is now seen as one of the best genre painters of the late 19th century pre-revolutionary period in Russia.

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Early Life and Education

Konstantin Apollonovich Savitsky was born and spent most of his youth in Taganrog, a town and seaport in the province of Rostov, South-West Russia. Coincidentally, Taganrog is also the birthplace of the famous Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who was such close friends with the Jewish landscape painter Isaac Levitan 1860-1900). Savitsky's family resided in the building of the Taganrog High School for Boys, where his father worked as a doctor. As a child, Savitsky demonstrated a natural aptitude for painting and drawing, being a compulsive sketcher of both coastal and rural scenery. Tragically, when he was only 16, both his mother and father died suddenly and he went to live with his uncle who lived in Latvia. After two years study in a local boarding-school, he was accepted for entrance into the Imperial Academy of Arts in the Russian capital St Petersburg.

A hard worker, Savitsky soon became one of the best students in the Academy. He won several silver medals for his oil painting and his composition Cain and Abel (1871, Tretyakov) was awarded a gold medal. He also struck up good relationships with fellow students like the versatile Ilya Repin, the landscape master Ivan Shishkin, the historical painter Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926), as well as others including Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin and Mark Antokolski.


Graduate Artist

After graduating from the St Petersburg Academy in 1866, Savitsky spent two years travelling in Europe. On his return home, along with other young artists like Kramskoy, Surikov, and Vasily Perov, Savitsky helped to establish The Association of Travelling Art Exhibitions (The Wanderers, or Itinerants) - a progressive organization whose aim was to stage art shows around the country of works which captured the lives of ordinary working people. See also: Russian Painting (19th-Century).

Repairing the Railway

One of the first pictures devoted to this subject was Savitsky's masterpiece "Repairing the Railway" (1870). Of medium size, this figurative genre painting is a panoramic study of workers docilely manhandling wheelbarrows of rocks and earth next to the railroad, under the supervision of a solitary guard. The work never seems to stop. Following this, Savitsky went into teaching, and spent more than 20 years working in art schools in St Petersburg, Moscow, and Penza.

Among other notable works by Savitsky is the genre painting Off to War (1888, Russian Museum, St Petersburg), a huge canvas capturing the painful separation of soldier and wife at the railway station. In addition, Savitsky was involved in Ivan Shishkin's beautiful landscape Morning in the Pine Forest (1886, Tretyakov Gallery), depicting a group of brown bears playing on a fallen log. Although it was always known that Savitsky had painted the bears, curators later discovered that the preliminary sketch was also a mixture of the two artists. However, Savitsky later withdrew any claim to the work and it is now attributed solely to Shishkin.

Position As an Artist

Savitsky was one of a growing group of painters drawn to the depiction of everyday genre scenes. Other members of this group included the rural painter Vasily Maximov (1844-1911), the urban artist Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920), and others like Illarion Pryanishnikov (1840-94) and the older Grigory Miasoyedov (1834-1911). Curiously, like Savitsky, most of these 19th century genre painters were primarily concerned to portray (or make heroes of) people en masse, rather than individuals.

In 1897, Savitsky was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. He died in 1905 at the relatively old age of 61. Examples of his work can be seen in some of the best art museums in Russia.

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