Artist, Composer, Lawyer: Vasily Polenov

Andréa Fernandes

With the introduction of the "Feel Art Again" Facebook page, we held a contest to find our farthest fan. Reader Kelly Deaton from Russia easily beat the competition, winning a week of "Feel Art Again" posts on Russian artists.

Vasily Polenov (1844-1927) was the first artist to introduce the plein air techniques of France to Russia. The artist, who was exalted for his historical paintings but personally preferred landscapes, spent much of his career trying to balance the two genres.

1. After simultaneously studying both art (at the Imperial Academy of the Arts) and law (at St. Petersburg University), Vasily Polenov had to choose between the two careers. It wasn't an easy decision for him to make: in 1871, he won the Grand Gold Medal for "Resurrection of Jairus's Daughter" and received his law degree. Ultimately, though, he chose art.

2. Along with the Grand Gold Medal, Polenov also won a travel bursary for "Resurrection of Jairus's Daughter." He spent a year traveling through Germany and Italy, and then set up shop in France for four years. Polenov later traveled to Greece and the Middle East as well, causing him to be possibly one of the most traveled Russian artists of his generation.

3. The album Tolstoy's Walk bears evidence that Polenov was also a skilled composer with "the potential to be a career composer of some note." Three songs written by Polenov appear on the album—a compilation of Romantic-era music written by amateur composers—that also includes songs by Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak (author of Doctor Zhivago).

4. Polenov's little sister, Yelena Polenova (1850-1898), was also a skilled artist. Considered one of the first women in Russia to "achieve a durable status and reputation in art," Polenova made contributions to almost every genre of art. She studied (and taught) painting and drawing, organized a carpentry and wood-carving studio, made sketches of furniture, created embroidery designs, worked on ceramic and porcelain, and illustrated folk tales. Polenova's drawings were the basis for the Russian handicraft section of the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

5. In the late 1800s, Polenov began creating theatrical decorations, including Savva Mamontov's Russian Private Opera. (Mamontov was an industrialist, merchant, and entrepreneur.) Polenov continued his dedication to theatre in 1910, when he organized the first Moscow Folk Theater, and in 1915, when he built the House of Theatral Education [sic].

6. The Church of the Trinity at Bekhovo (1914-1916) was designed by Polenov for the local peasants. The church is located not far from Polenov's estate in Borok, which was renamed Polenovo in memory of the artist. Included in most tours of the area are Polenov's mansion-turned-museum, which houses Polenov's artwork and that of his sister; his country studio, also known as The Abbey; and the Church of the Trinity.

A larger version of Polenov's masterpiece, "Christ and the Sinner (Who is Without Sin?)" is available. Fans should check out Wikimedia's Polenov gallery and Ilya Repin's portrait of Polenov. For more Russian art, check out our past posts on Karl Briullov, Alexei Harlamoff, Wassily Kandinsky, Pavel Korin (#9 on the page), Konstantin Korovin (a pupil of Polenov), Arkhip Kuindzhi (second on the page), Aristarkh Lentulov, Illarion Pryanishnikov, Nicholas Roerich, Mark Rothko, Nadya Rusheva, Alexei Savrasov, Vasily Surikov, Vladimir Tretchikoff, Mikhail Vrubel, Konstantin Yuon, and the joint post on Marie Bashkirtseff, Boris Kustodiev, and Andrei Ryabushkin. "Feel Art Again" appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.