“Russia - country of landscapes… I hope the time will come, when all Russian nature, alive and penetrated by spirit, will look from canvases of Russian artists…” Ivan Shishkin
Few have captured nature's delicate beauty like Ivan Shishkin. A Russian master who tasted the rare fruits of an artist's success, but also bitter tragedy. I cover:
Here are some key facts and ideas I found interesting. Refer to the resources linked at the end of this post if you want to dive deeper:
- He was a man of many nicknames: "Czar of the Forest", "The Bear", “Titan of the Russian Forest”, “Old Pine Tree”, and “Lonely Oak”.
- Shishkin's art journey began at an early age with a pencil in hand. Below is one of his early self-portraits.
- He attended the First Kazan gymnasium—a prestigious school for academics. I assume his parents planned for him to graduate and join his father's grain trade business. But Shishkin had his sight set on becoming an artist.
- At first, his parents dismissed his artistic aspirations, so he drew alone at night, under candlelight (Russian Art Gallery). Eventually, his parents relaxed their grasp.
- His formal art training began in 1852, enrolling in the Moscow School of Painting and subsequently the Imperial Academy of Arts. He graduated from the Imperial Academy with a gold medal for View of Valaam Island (below) and a scholarship to paint in Europe.
- He was a member of Peredvizhniki, a group of Russian realist artists who rejected the Imperial Academy's rigid approach and sought to make art more accessible to the public. The group included Isaac Levitan, Ilya Repin, Alexei Savrasov, Valentin Serov, and Emily Shanks. The group is pictured below, with Shishkin circled.
- He married Evgenia Vassilyev in 1868 (featured in the painting below). Her brother Fyodor was also a remarkable landscape painter and trained under Shishkin.
- 1874 marked the start of a long string of tragic events. His father, his wife, his student Fyodor, and his two sons all died over a short period (I was unable to find specifics). Shishkin later remarried one of his students, Olga Lagoda, who died after the birth of their daughter. Life can be cruel…
- Despite the tragedies, he continued to paint and improve. His Morning in a Pine Forest made Shishkin a household name in Russia. But credit where credit's due: it was Konstantin Savitsky who came up with the idea and added the four bears to the painting. Without such an addition, this would have been just another—albeit stunning—Shishkin landscape.
(Side-note regarding Savitsky and many of the other Russian artists casually mentioned in this post: There must be something in Russia's water allowing them to produce so many remarkable artists... Every time I write about one Russian master, I end up stumbling upon ten more, like breeding rabbits).
Below is Shishkin's study for the painting. A charming work of art in its own right.
- His success was not without criticism. His contemporaries deemed him to be more of a craftsman than a “real” artist.
- His final painting was Mast-Tree Grove (below). It exhibited at the Imperial Russian Museum's grand opening in March 1898. Shishkin could not attend due to illness. He died the morning after at his easel, in the hands of a student (Russian Art Gallery). A fitting way for an artist to go. He was 66.
“Shishkin - national artist. All his life he studied Russian, mainly the northern woods, Russian trees and Russian thickets. It is his empire, and here he has no contenders, he is unique.” Art critic, Vladimir Stasov
Much of Shishkin's success can be attributed to his formal training and rigorous drawing practice. As Joaquín Sorolla put it:
"The older I become, the more I realize that drawing is the most important of all the problems of picture-making."
Below are some of his drawings:
Shishkin also mastered the art of etching. Below are two examples: a detailed forest and an album cover.
For the most part, he avoided the "plastic" appearance that often comes with such refined realism. You can see what I am referring to in his early work, like View of Valaam Island. It looks realistic, but not natural.
His later work is more sophisticated. Refer to Off the Coast of the Gulf of Finland. Much more controlled with his use of color and detail. It reminds me of Sir Author Streeton's work, though Streeton was more of an Impressionist.
Shishkin's use of color was naturalistic (he painted what he saw). Unlike, say, Claude Monet who painted in a high-key, or Vincent van Gogh who painted how he felt.
A typical theme of his work is sunlight bursting through a dense tree canopy, scattering over the forest floor. Refer to A Coniferous Forest. Sunny Day below. Some key observations:
- The strong light in the distance helps pull you through the painting.
- The shadowed foreground reiterates the dense nature (light struggles to get through).
- Warm lights contrast against cool shadows.
Below is another example. Notice how the lights are a touch warmer than the darks. The greens, in particular, are much closer to yellow; whilst the greens in shadow are closer to blue.
As you would expect from the "Czar of the Forest", Shishkin mastered the use of green. Refer to Deadwood and Goutweed Grass below. Few artists can get away with using such intense greens without it appearing jarring and gnash.
Shishkin's work features many of the classic "rules" of composition—S-shapes, simplified masses, quiet and active areas, etc.
In Misty Morning, the river creates an S-shape that leads you into and around the painting. Also, notice the use of simplification to depict the misty background.
Here is another S-shape used to depict the path. The tops of the trees on the left form an implied line. There is a sense of balance between the small trees on the left and the dominant tree on the right.
Shishkin was a master of painting vast numbers, like the snow-capped forest in Winter. Whilst he did not simplify in terms of detail, he did simplify the composition. Notice how the painting can be broken into four distinct areas (refer to my draw-over below the painting).
Shishkin did mix it up from time to time, painting unusual compositions like The Tops of the Pines or Felled Birch.
(Tip: Make sure you do not get caught in your old ways. Paint something weird and unusual. Break the rules. Who knows... it might turn out well).
Here are some other personal favorites, starting with Pine Trees Illuminated by the Sun. A beautiful demonstration of color variance. Look at the way he painted the ground: greens, yellows, reds with varied brushwork. Effortless realism.
A View of the Beach is a relaxed painting, perhaps one of his studies. Simple, charming, and a strong composition. It is also interesting to see him venture outside of "detail" mode.
The unfinished work below provides insight into his painting process. If I had to guess, I would say he was methodical in his approach; painting one area to near completion then moving onto the next.
Rain in an Oak Forest—a moody painting. You can see Shishkin's propensity for detail in the background. No amount of mist and rain could stop him from rendering each tree.
The reason I selected this painting is the way he painted the grass, of all things. Subtle changes in color saturation, varied brushwork, and small patches of detail.
Here is a close-up to give you a better look:
The Rocky Landscape demonstrates how to capture depth and atmosphere. Notice the reduction in color and detail as things recede into the distance.
Teutoburg Forest—perhaps my favorite. Vivid orange and yellow highlights, a glaring background, and deep shadows. Beautiful.
Here is one of Shishkin's early works and a rare step outside of landscape painting.
Pine on the Sand—a simple but strong composition with interesting colors, particularly the turquoise sky.
The grayscale below reveals a powerful 2-value design.
Finally, a stunning example of realistic clouds. Notice the subtle color changes and edge variance.
(You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I go into more detail on compositions and how to use to effectively in painting.)
- Find something you enjoy doing and pursue it with vigor, as Shishkin did with landscape painting.
- Listen to the opinions of others, but do not let them dictate you. Shishkin's parents were initially dismissive of his artistic dreams and his teachers urged him to paint something other than the landscape. What a loss it would have been had he listened.
- Great drawing is the foundation of great painting.
- There is no substitute for rigorous practice.
- Shishkin had a deep appreciation for nature, and it shows through his work.
- There is more to art than creating pretty drawings and paintings. I have no doubt art helped Shishkin endure the many tragedies he faced.
Additional Readings and Sources
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