Zinaida Serebriakova is busy giving final touches on a painting that she was labouring on for hours. It is 5th October, 1919. Only a few feet away in that dingy room her children are clamouring over a game of cards.
Tatiana, the older daughter of the two, is stealing a glance over her shoulder every now and then to see her mother completely absorbed in her work. She has silently observed how her mother’s countenance has changed in last few months. She also mildly complained to Sasha, her brother, saying ‘mommy’ doesn’t play with them as much as she used to earlier.
Surprisingly, Zinaida seems to be on an island of her own, taking little notice of what is happening around her inside the room or outside of it. It has always been so, since her earliest childhood. With a pencil or paintbrush and a piece of paper in hand, she could merrily lose herself happily in a world of her own.
Today, sitting in a dimly lit room in front of that unfinished painting, things have hardly changed in that respect. Yet, in the world outside, nearly everything has changed.
The home that she so devotedly built for herself and her family has collapsed, like a house of cards. It would be a height of understatement to say her life is in complete tatters.
With four children and a sick mother to take care of, she does not have a single rouble left with herself. And if she fails to sell this painting within the next three days, she will not have anything at home to feed her children.
She does not even have money to pay for the pigments and media and continue her favourite pursuit, oil painting. Her sombre mood, though hardly discernible to the outer world, pours itself out on the canvas as she paints – The House of Cards!
Zinaida Serebriakova as a Child
It was perhaps a foregone conclusion that Zinaida Serebriakova would grow up to be an artist. A glimpse at her lineage gives ample indication for everyone to surmise this.
Her grandfather, Nicholas Benois, was a celebrated architect. He was also the Chairman of the Society of Architects in his country. Her uncle, the famous painter Alexandre Benois, was a founder of Mir iskusstva art group.
Zinaida’s father, Yevgeny Nikolayevich Lanceray, was a well-known sculptor and her mother was also a talented artist. Zinaida’s brother, Nikolay Yevgenyevich Lanceray, was a noted architect. Her other brother, Yevgeny Yevgenyevich Lanceray, was a prominent painter and graphic artist.
So it did not surprise anyone when Zinaida showed an early inclination towards drawing and painting. She graduated from one of the women’s gymnasiums in 1900 and found herself under the tutelage of none other than Ilya Repin (1901).
Zinaida’s Trips to Europe
After spending a year between 1902 and 1903 studying the works of the great masters in Italy, she returned home. This time Osip Emmanuilovich Braz (1903 – 1905) started to show her the nuances of portrait painting.
The following year she took time off to study in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris. Between all the hectic activities she married Boris Serebriakov in 1905. Her husband was a railroad engineer by profession. She changed her name from Zinaida Lanceray to Zinaida Serebriakova and settled down with her husband.
Paintings Reflecting the Mood of Time
Zinaida’s early work vividly displayed her unique style and her fields of interests. Her paintings, like the Country Girl (1906), Orchard in Bloom (1908) and, most importantly, her self-portrait At the Dressing Table (1909) are eloquent about her love of beauty.
She believed in the innocence of human heart and it showed through her paintings. Alexander Benois showered his praise on the work of his niece and fellow artist saying, ‘There is not a trace of modernistic refinement. But the simple, real life atmosphere, illuminated by youth, is joyous and lovely.’
Sometime later in 1916, Zinaida accompanied her uncle to fulfil an unfinished commission for decorating the Kazan Railway Station in Moscow. Between 1914 and 1917, she completed some of her most acclaimed pieces of canvas art. Her depictions of the scenes from everyday lives of rural Russia like the Harvest (1915), Peasants (1914–1915) and Bleaching Cloth (1917) speak volume about her calibre as an artist.
Time was cheerful and Zinaida’s artworks oozed happiness and vivacity. But then things started to grow dim rapidly.
Life during & Immediately after October Revolution
October Revolution began in 1917. Within next two years, her husband contacted typhus in jail and died suffering from the disease (1919).
The lives of the Serebriakov family went berserk. Their reserves evaporated quickly and Zinaida became the only member of the family capable of providing support. It seemed to be an enormous if not an impossible task to bring back the happier days.
Shortly afterwards, Zinaida thought it prudent to move into her grandfather’s apartment in Petrograd. There she was forced to share spaces with others. It was in accordance with the post-revolution norms. The owners of the private apartments were forced to accommodate additional inhabitants.
Luckily for her, she was quartered with the performers of Moscow Art Theatre. Tatiana entered the academy of ballet and Zinaida painted a series on Mariinsky Theatre. It did little to ease the hardship of the family though and Zinaida was forced to look beyond.
A Trip to Paris & its Aftermath
In the autumn of 1924, Zinaida Serebriakova received a large commission for painting murals in Paris. Considering the state of the affairs at home, she could not say ‘no’ to this offer. The proposal also attracted the artist in her.
Yet, this brought estrangement from the family and a long residence in Paris far away from home. Zinaida intended to return to St Petersburg after the completion of her commission. However, her wish started to became elusive with the passage of time.
Two of her children, Alexandre and Catherine, were able to join their mother in 1926 and 1928 respectively. But, Evgenyi and Tatiana, remained behind with their ailing grandmother.
With exhibitions in France, Belgium and England, Zinaida soon established herself as an artist of eminence successfully. But the forced separation from her family became a constant torment.
Her paintings no longer spoke of gaiety and merriment bordering on naivety. The shades became darker and deeper as if immersed in a lyrical sadness.
Zinaida travelled a great deal. She visited Morocco, Algeria and Brittany (Breton). As always she sought solace in observing and painting the lives of common men, women and children. She painted portraits of peasants and fishermen with as much love and care as could rarely be seen.
Reunion with the Family
Zinaida retained her Soviet citizenship for many years hoping for a return to her birthplace. In 1947, she finally accepted French citizenship. After, 36 years of forced estrangement from home, she was finally allowed to see her daughter Tatiana in 1960 during Khruschev’s Thaw. By then, Tatiana has become an established performer of the Moscow Art Theatre.
In 1966, her own works were finally exhibited in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. She only sent about two hundred pieces for the exhibition leaving behind the bulk of her work in France. But the ones displayed in Russia stirred the public imagination and brought grand recognition for her in her own country.
This filled her with a sense of immense pride and joy. The following year, on 19th September, 1967, Zinaida Serebriakova succumbed peacefully to the ultimate fate, death.
[The introduction of this biographical sketch is a fictional account. The artist’s name is also spelt as Zinaida Serebyakova.]