Surikov, Vasilii Ivanovich

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Surikov, Vasilii Ivanovich


Born Jan. 12 (24), 1848, in Krasnoiarsk; died Mar. 6 (19), 1916, in Moscow. Russian painter of historical scenes. Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts (1893).

Surikov, the son of cossacks, studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts from 1868 to 1875 under P. P. Chistiakov. Even as a student he attempted to overcome the conventions of academicism in historical painting by introducing details of everyday life into his works, by creating a concrete historical atmosphere through the skillful rendering of architecture, and by arranging human figures in a natural manner. Notable examples of his early works include The Princely Court (1874, Tret’iakov Gallery, Moscow) and The Apostle Paul Explains the Dogmas of Faith Before King Agrippa (1875, Tret’iakov Gallery).

In 1877, Surikov settled in Moscow. He traveled extensively in the ensuing years, making several trips to Siberia and traveling to the Don (1893), the Volga (1901–03), and the Crimea (1913). He also visited Germany, France, and Austria in 1883 and 1884, as well as Switzerland (1897), Italy (1900), and Spain (1910). He joined the Society of Wandering Art Exhibitions in 1881 and was a member of the Union of Russian Artists.

Surikov was passionately interested in life in old Russia. Dealing mainly with the complex social changes in Russian history, he strove to find answers to the troubling questions of contemporary life by looking into the past. Surikov produced his most significant works in the 1880’s: The Morning of the Strel’tsy Execution (1881), Menshikov in Berezovo (1883), and The Boiarynia Morozova (1887), all of which are housed in the Tret’iakov Gallery. With the depth and objectivity of a discerning historian, he revealed the tragic contradictions of history, the logic of historical progression, the tribulations that tempered the Russian people’s character, and the struggle of historical forces in Russia’s past, especially in Petrine times, during the 17th-century religious schism, and during the years of the peasant movements.

The principal role in Surikov’s works is played by the struggling, suffering, and triumphant common people. Surikov’s arrangement of infinitely varied, vivid social types on canvas created a composition of genuine symphonic harmony. Depicting the rebellious forces that seethed in the people, he was fascinated by the strong men and women of Russia’s stormy history. The best known of these are the red-bearded strelets in The Morning of the Strel’tsy Execution, who is filled with fierce resolution and an unbreakable spirit of resistance, and the boiarynia Morozova, imbued with religious fervor and fanatical conviction. Surikov also masterfully conveyed the squares and streets of old Moscow and their crowds and expressed deep love for the ideal beauty of folk art in his depictions of clothing, utensils, embroideries, murals, and wood carvings.

Surikov’s monumental paintings feature innovative modes of composition, in which the movement of a crowd, gripped by a complex range of emotions, expresses the profound inner meaning of an event. Surikov attained remarkable harmony with the pure, rich colors of his plein air paintings. The color scheme, the rhythm of areas of color, and the texture and direction in which the paint was applied all serve to intensify psychological characterizations, while the colors themselves at times attain an almost symbolic meaning.

After the death of his wife in 1888, Surikov became severely depressed and abandoned painting. However, after overcoming his despondency following a trip to Siberia in 1889 and 1890, he painted The Taking of the Snow-town (1891, Russian Museum, Leningrad), which captures the boldness, vigorous health, and high spirits of the Russian people.

In his historical paintings of the 1890’s, Surikov turned to new themes, portraying the people as an integral force free of tragic internal disunity, achieving heroic deeds for the glory of the homeland. In The Conquest of Siberia by Ermak (1895, Russian Museum), Surikov’s concept of “two forces meeting” is revealed in the bold spirit of the cossack army and the unique beauty of the physical types, dress, and ornaments of the Siberian tribes. Suvorov Crossing the Alps (1899, Russian Museum) glorifies the courage of Russian soldiers.

The vitality, passion for life, and inner strength of the Russian people are characteristic of Surikov’s historical paintings of the 1890’s. These traits are clearly expressed in his portraits of the same period, for example, Siberian Beauty, a portrait of E. A. Rachkovskaia (1891, Tret’iakov Gallery). In the reactionary years, Surikov remained true to democratic traditions and in 1909 and 1910 worked on Stepan Razin (begun 1903, Russian Museum). He also often worked in watercolor, primarily executing landscapes. Surikov’s patriotic, truthful paintings, which were the first to powerfully depict the people as a moving historical force, marked a new stage in the history of world art. The Moscow Art Institute has been named in honor of Surikov. Krasnoiarsk has a house-museum in his honor, as well as a monument to him (bronze and granite, 1954, sculptor L. Iu. Eidlin and architect V. D. Kirkhoglani).


V. I. Surikov. Moscow, 1960. [Album. Introductory article by N. G. Mashkovtsev.]
V. I. Surikov. Moscow, 1963. [Album. Introductory article by D. Sarab’ianov.]
Kemenov, V. S. Istoricheskaia zhivopis’ Surikova, 1870–1880-e gg. Moscow, 1963.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.