United in Life & Art: Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova


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.

Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) were lifelong partners in romance and in art. The two were considered to be at the forefront of Russian art in the early 1900s. Although Larionov and Goncharova experimented with the same styles and were active in the same circles, Goncharova is generally accepted to be the better artist.

1. Their Education

Both Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in 1898, when they were 17, with Larionov on the painting track and Goncharova working on the 10-year sculpture curriculum. Larionov, who rarely attended classes, was kicked out of school at least three times, including once for refusing to remove some of his 150 paintings from critique after being told he had submitted too many. Natalia, on the other hand, seems to have been a good student, but she left the school after just three years, once Larionov convinced her to take up painting.

2. Their Romance

Soon after they met at school, Larionov and Goncharova became romantically involved. They lived together for several decades before they eventually married, emigrating to Switzerland and then to France together. Once they finally tied in the knot in 1955, it was only for estate-planning purposes: Larionov and Goncharova wanted to be able to inherit each other's artwork.

3. Their Exhibitionism

The two artists were known to push boundaries in art, even on their own skin. Larionov was apparently "very interested" in tattooing. Larionov, Goncharova, and some of their other friends would paint on their bodies and then exhibit themselves in public and wealthy parts of Moscow. Goncharova once "painted her face then paraded topless through the streets of Moscow." In 1910, Goncharova was put on trial for pornography for some nude life studies in one of her exhibitions, but was acquitted.

4. The Ballet

In 1915, Larionov and Goncharova left Russia for Switzerland to work with Sergei Diaghilev on Ballets Russes productions. They later moved to France and permanently settled there, where they continued to work with Diaghilev and, after his death, with other ballet troupes. Both artists designed scenery and costumes, but Larionov even ventured into choreography. Goncharova is considered "one of the best stage designers the 20th century ever knew." Her illustrations for Diaghilev's productions can fetch from about $150,000 for costume sketches to about $299,000 for décor sketches.

5. Their Contributions to Art

Larionov and Goncharova were founding members of the Russian groups the Jack of Diamonds and Donkey's Tail; Larionov actually coined both groups' names. In 1913, Larionov created Rayonism, which concentrates on the rays of colored light over all else, and Goncharova became one of movement's most active practitioners. She was already considered by her contemporaries to be "the artist with the richest paints." They published the Rayonist manifesto that same year, which some 9 other artists also signed.

6. Their Decline

Perhaps due in part to their increasing focus on ballet, Larionov and Goncharova fell upon hard times as they got older. Goncharova was hit by arthritis in her hands, leaving her to paint by tying paint brushes to her wrists. Larionov was still being exhibited in Paris, London, and Milan during the 1950s and 1960s, but lived in poverty for the last 14 years of his life. They didn't receive widespread attention again until 2007, when the auction of Goncharova's "Picking Apples" (1909) for $9.8 million set the record for work by a female artist. She achieved the distinction again the following year, when "The Flowers" (1912) sold for $10.8 million.

Larger versions of Larionov's "Portrait of the Artist Natalia Goncharova" (above left) and Goncharova's "Self Portrait with Yellow Lilies" (above right) are available. Fans should check out the Larionov collections at Museum Syndicate, MoMA, and the Russian Avant-Garde Gallery; Mikhail Larionov and Ilya Zdanevich's futurist manifesto; the Goncharova collections at Museum Syndicate, MoMA, USC, and the Russian Avant-Garde Gallery; the Hidden Treasures episode on Natalia Goncharova and Alexandra Exter; and this art deco dress designed by Goncharova. 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, Vasily Polenov, 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 feelartagain@gmail.com 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.