Valentin Serov
Biography of Russian Impressionist Portrait Painter, Landscape Artist.

Pin it

Girl with Peaches (1887)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. One of
the greatest modern paintings.

Valentin Serov (1865-1911)


Early Life and Training
Impressionist Paintings
Society Portraits
Russian Avant-Garde Artist Groups
Painting Style
Landscape Paintings

Portrait of a Woman (1895)
Russian Museum, St Petersburg.


One of the last great Russian exponents of portrait art before the Bolshevik revolution, Valentin Serov ranks among the great modern artists of the late 19th century. Born into a privileged, though enlightened family, and schooled by some of Russia's best portrait artists, his contribution to Russian art - in particular his pioneer exploration of Impressionism - was immense. Among the best known masterpieces of his relatively short life are: Girl with Peaches (1887), Portrait of Isaac Levitan (1893), and Portrait of Maria Yermolova (1905), all in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; In Summer (1895, Russian Museum, St Petersburg), and his chilly landscape Colts at a Watering Place, Domotkanovo (1904, Tretyakov). He remains one of the great Russian artists of the pre-Revolutionary period. See also: Best Impressionist Paintings.

Portrait of Olga Serova (1890)
Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

For a review of earlier painting, see:
Russian Painting, 18th Century and
Russian Painting, 19th Century.

Ivan Shishkin (1832-98)
Unique forest landscape artist.
Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930)
Genre painter in critical realist style.
Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
Greatest Russian colourist.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Expressionist, abstract art.
Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)
Cubist, inventor of Suprematism
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Painter, lithographer.

Hermitage Gallery St Petersburg
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

Early Life and Training

Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov was born in St Petersburg, to a highly cultured family: his father Alexander Serov was a composer, as was his mother Valentina Bergman. Unfortunately, his father died in 1871, when Serov was just six, and the family moved to Munich. It was here that he began his art training in 1873-4 under K. Koepping. The following year, he moved to Paris where he was taught by the famous realist painter Ilya Repin (1844–1930), who gave him painting lessons in his Paris studio and then allowed him to work with him in Moscow, almost like an apprentice. Returning to Russia with his mother, Serov was 15 when he entered the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. Here, from 1880 to 1885, he studied under the strict pedagogue Pavel Tchistykov, became a friend of the symbolist portraitist Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910) and met his lifelong friend Vladimir Derviz. Additional influences included the paintings of European Old Masters he studied at the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Louvre in Paris.


Impressionist Paintings

A virtuoso draughtsman, Serov's output included historical scenes, landscapes, genre paintings and illustrations, but his principal genre was portrait art, in which he ranks with the likes of John Singer Sargent. In fact, in his style of painting - realism tinged with Impressionism - his classical au premier coup technique (one precise stroke of the brush, with no reworking), and his familiarity with high society, Serov strongly resembled the American artist. He also delighted in plein air painting: his early Renoir-style canvases Girl with Peaches (1887), Portrait of Maria Simonovich (1888), and In Summer (1895, Russian Museum, St Petersburg) derive much of their naturalness to the interplay of light and shadow. Serov considered both these works to be "studies" rather than portraits, which was why he gave them descriptive titles without identifying the sitters.


Society Portraits

As his fame increased during the 1890s, Serov painted portraits of numerous well known individuals including the artists Konstantin Korovin (1891), Ilya Repin (1892), Isaac Levitan (1893), Vasily Surikov (1898), Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), and Anna Pavlova (1909); the composers Rimsky-Korsakov (1898) and Alexander Glazunov (1899); the aristocrats Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna (1893), Countess Varvara Musina-Pushkina (1895), Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich (1897), Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich (1900), Princess Zinaida Yusupova (1900-2), and Prince Felix Yusupov (1903); as well as Savva Mamontov (1887), Alexander Pushkin (1899), Maxim Gorki (1904), Henrietta Girshman (1907) and Ida Rubenstein (1910).

Serov passed a good deal of time at Abramtsevo, the country estate of the railway tycoon and art patron Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), some 40 miles north of Moscow. Here, he could work and enjoy the stimulating company of other artists. Both Girl with Peaches and In Summer were painted at Abramtsevo: the former's subject was Mamontov's 12-year old daughter Vera; the subject of In Summer was Serov's wife Olga. The art collector Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898) was another of Serov's patrons.

Russian Avant-Garde Artist Groups

During the period 1897-1909, Serov gave lessons at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Among his pupils were the colourist Pavel Kuznetsov (1878-1968), the flower-painter N.N. Sapunov (1880-1912), the portraitist and landscape artist Martiros Saryan (1880–1972), the symbolist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939), and the wonderful view painter Konstantin Yuon (1875-1958). He was also an active participant in a variety of avant-garde artist-groups and their exhibitions, including the Itinerants (Wanderers) (1894-1899), the World of Art Association (Mir Iskusstva) (1899-1903) and the Union of Russian Artists (1903-1909).

For more about the progressive Russian artist-group known as The Association of Travelling Art Exhibitions (aka The Wanderers, Itinerants, or peredvizhniki), see the genre painters Vasily Perov (1833-82), Konstantin Savitsky (1844-1905), the portraitist Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887)and the biblical artist Vasily Polenov (1844-1927).

Serov was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Art in 1903, the year before he painted Colts at a Watering Place, Domotkanovo (1904, Tretyakov Gallery Moscow), his intensely evocative depiction of horses in an icy half-lit landscape. Although as it happened, the suppression of the 1905 Uprising caused him to quit the Academy in protest.

Painting Style

As a painter, Serov is seen as the first Russian Impressionist - his composition Girl with Peaches initiated the style in Russia, although it wasn't until after he had completed it that he became acquainted with the work of the French Impressionists. His loose Impressionistic style was continued in numerous intimate portraits of women and children, such as Portrait of Mika Morozov (1901, Tretyakov). However, as noted above, he also produced a wide range of society portraits in a realist style, which owes more to Velazquez and Rembrandt than Claude Monet or Pierre Renoir. Lastly, completely different from any of his other paintings is his famous female nude Portrait of Ida Rubinstein (1910, tempera and charcoal on paper, Russian Museum, St Petersburg).

Landscape Paintings

In addition, Serov executed a number of beautiful examples of landscape painting, such as Pond in Abramtsevo (1886); The Overgrown Pond, Domotkanovo (1888); Village (1898); Watermill in Finland (1902); while his historical paintings include: Peter II and Princess Elizabeth Petrovna Riding to Hounds (1900), and Peter the Great (1907). His paintings now hang in the best art museums throughout Russia and the Ukraine.

After a comparatively short life, Valentin Serov passed away in Moscow on December 5, 1911, at the age of 46. He was buried at the Novodevichiye Cemetery.

For high quality decorative art, by Serov's contemporary, the St Petersburg goldsmith and jeweller Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), please see: Fabergé Easter Eggs.

• For more biographies of Russian artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more information about 19th century painting in Russia, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.