Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Serov, Valentin Aleksandrovich


Born Jan. 7 (19), 1865, in St. Petersburg; died Nov. 22 (Dec. 5), 1911, in Moscow. Russian painter. Son of A. N. Serov.

As a child, Serov received artistic training from I. E. Repin in Paris and Moscow; from 1880 to 1885 he studied under P. P. Chistiakov at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. His early paintings reflect the influence of Repin’s realism and Chistiakov’s strict system of modeling. Serov was greatly influenced by the paintings of the old masters, which he had viewed in museums in Russia and Western Europe. Also influential in the development of his art was his friendship with M. A. Vrubel’ and, later, with K. A. Korovin, as well as the artistic atmosphere of the Abramtsevo circle, with which the young artist was closely associated.

Among the major works of Serov’s early career are the portraits Girl With Peaches (1887, Tret’iakov Gallery) and Sunlit Girl (1888, Tret’iakov Gallery), in which the artist, glorifying youth and beauty and conveying a feeling of happiness and joy of existence, viewed as his task the direct and convincing representation of his subject and nature. Elements of early Russian impressionism are revealed in the treatment of light and color, the intricate harmony of reflexes, the sense of airiness, and the brightness of palette.

In the early 1890’s the portrait became Serov’s principal genre. The artist added new elements—psychological characterization and the revelation of man’s inherent artistry. Serov’s favorite subjects were performers, artists, and writers. His subjects included A. Mazini (1890), F. Tamagno (1891–93), K. A. Korovin (1891), I. I. Levitan (1893), N. S. Leskov (1894), and N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov (1898); all of these portraits are in the Tret’iakov Gallery. Rejecting the bright polychromatic painting style popular in the late 1880’s, Serov adopted a palette that consisted predominantly of brown or black and gray tones yet included many subtle nuances of color. His brushstroke became freer and broader, expressing a keener perception of nature. Impressionistic elements are evident occasionally but only in the compositional structure of the portrait and in the rendering of movement.

Having achieved wide fame, particularly after joining the Society of Wandering Art Exhibitions in 1894, Serov received many commissions, mainly for formal portraits (Portrait of Grand Duke Pavel Aleksandrovich, 1897, Tret’iakov Gallery; Portrait of S. M. Botkina, 1899, Russian Museum, Leningrad; Portrait of F. F. lusupov, 1903, Russian Museum). His formal portraiture is marked by compositional and pictorial completeness and verisimilitude and, at the same time, by an emphasis on linear rhythms and the use of decorative color combinations.

Another, opposing, trend was developing in Serov’s art, particularly in his numerous informal portraits, primarily of children and women. Through his use of color and his rendering of pose and gesture, Serov strove in his portraits of children to reveal and emphasize the spontaneity of inner movement and the spiritual purity and clarity of a child’s perception of the world (Children, 1889, Russian Museum; Mika Morozov, 1901, Tret’iakov Gallery).

Serov worked in various mediums, including watercolor (Portrait of S. M. Lukomskaia, 1900, Tret’iakov Gallery), pastel, and lithography. His line became increasingly refined and economical, particularly in his late period (Portrait of V. I. Kachalov, 1908, Tret’iakov Gallery; Portrait of T. P. Karsavina, 1909, Tret’iakov Gallery; illustrations to the fables of I. A. Krylov, 1895–1911, Tret’iakov Gallery, Russian Museum, and other collections).

In the 1890’s and first years of the 20th century, Serov produced a number of landscapes with peasant themes. These small works, executed with a warm gray-brown palette, are devoid of narrative elements. The modest landscape motif conveys a mood of quiet and melancholic contemplation (October: Domotkanovo, 1895, Tret’iakov Gallery; Peasant Woman in Cart, 1899, Russian Museum). The decorativeness of Serov’s later landscapes imparted an increasingly romantic quality to the peasant theme (Yearlings at the Watering Hole, pastels, 1904, Tret’iakov Gallery).

During his late period (the first years of the 20th century), Serov became associated with the World of Art, joining the group shortly after its founding. At the turn of the century, his style reached a turning point. Traces of impressionism disappeared completely from his works, and the principles of art nouveau found increasing application. At the same time, however, Serov’s profoundly truthful and realistic comprehension of nature and man was preserved. His portraits of this period are noted for extraordinarily perceptive social and psychological insights and formonumentality.

After 1903, Serov painted several formal portraits. He developed the theme of the artistic personality, revealing the artist’s talent and social significance (Portrait of M. Gorky, 1904, A. M. Gorky Museum, Moscow; Portrait of M. N. Ermolova, 1905, Tret’iakov Gallery; Portrait of F. I. Chaliapin, 1905, charcoal, Tret’iakov Gallery). In his portraits of M. A. Morozov (1902, Tret’iakov Gallery), G. L. Girshman (1907, tempera, Tret’iakov Gallery), V. O. Girshman (1911, Tret’iakov Gallery). I. Rubinshtein (1910, Russian Museum), and O. K. Orlova (1911), Serov at times resorted to exaggeration and the grotesque to emphasize certain aspects of the subject’s appearance and personality. Serov represented in his portraits those qualities that society has instilled in man.

Serov’s democratic convictions were revealed most vividly during the Revolution of 1905–07. He produced a series of satirical drawings denouncing the imperial forces that put down the uprising. Having been an active member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts from 1903, Serov left the academy in 1905 in a protest against the January 9 slaughter.

Serov mainly executed historical paintings during his late period. These works are similar to the historical art of the World of Art painters in terms of motif and the attempt to convey the spirit of the times without depicting major historical events. At the same time, however, Serov’s paintings are distinguished by subtle characterization and interpretation (Peter II and Empress Elizaveta Petrovna to the Hunt, 1900, Russian Museum) and by a profound understanding of the historical fabric of a particular period (Peter I, tempera, 1907, Tret’iakov Gallery).

In the last years of his life Serov painted several variants of pictures dealing with themes from Greek and Roman mythology. Combining conventional representations of mythological figures with a realistic observation of nature and addressing himself to the traditions of ancient Greece, he produced a personal interpretation of antiquity that was free from classicistic norms.

Serov’s best works represent the heights of Russian realist art. From 1897 to 1909 the artist taught at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. His students included P. V. Kuznetsov, N. N. Sapunov, M. S. Sar’ian, K. S. Petrov-Vodkin, N. P. Ul’ianov, and K. F. Iuon.


V. A. Serov: Perepiska. Leningrad-Moscow, 1937.


Grabar’, I. E. V. A. Serov. Moscow, 1965.
V. Serov ν vospominaniiakh, dnevnikakh i perepiske sovremennikov, vols.
1–2. Leningrad, 1971.
Sarab’ianov, D. V. V. A. Serov. Moscow, 1974.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.