5th October, 1919: Zinaida is busy giving final touches on a painting that she was labouring on for hours. Only a few feet away in that dingy room her children are merrily engaged clamouring over a game of cards. Tatiana stealing a glance over her shoulder every now and then to see her mother completely absorbed in her work. She has silently observed that how their mother’s countenance has changed in last few months. She also mildly complained to Sasha, her brother, that mommy does not 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. It has always been so, since her earliest childhood. With a pencil or paintbrush and a piece of paper in hand she is used to lose herself happily in a world of her own. Today, sitting inside that dimly lit room in front of that unfinished painting hardly anything seems to have changed in that respect. She is lost in deep reverie, engaged in a dialogue with her own self that no one else has a slightest of idea about. Yet, outwardly at least, everything has changed. Her house of cards crumbled. That her life has turned on its head could be a height of understatement. With four children and a sick mother to take care of she would not have a single rouble left with herself next week if she does not manage to sell this painting within next three days. She does not even have enough money to pay for the pigments and media to continue her favourite most pursuit, oil painting. Her sombre mood, though hardly discernible to the outer world, pours itself out on canvas as she paints – The House of Cards!*
It was perhaps a foregone conclusion that Zinaida would be an artist. A glimpse at her lineage reveals, her grandfather, Nicholas Benois, to be a celebrated architect and the chairman of the Society of Architects; her uncle, the famous painter Alexandre Benois, a founder of Mir iskusstva art group; her father Yevgeny Nikolayevich Lanceray, a well–known sculptor and mother a talented artist; her brother, Nikolay Yevgenyevich Lanceray another noted architect; and her other brother, Yevgeny Yevgenyevich Lanceray, a prominent painter and graphic artist. It did not surprise anyone when Zinaida showed an inclination towards visual storytelling. She graduated from one of the women’s gymnasiums in 1900 and found herself under the tutelage of none other than Ilya Repin, 1901. After spending a year studying the work of great masters in Italy from 1902 – 1903 she returned to further learn the nuances of painting portraits from Osip Emmanuilovich Braz (1903 – 1905). The following year she took time off to study in Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris. Between all these hectic activities she also married Boris Serebriakov, a railroad engineer by profession, changed her name from Zinaida Lanceray to Zinaida Serebriakova and settled down with her husband.
Zinaida’s early work vividly displayed her unique style and her fields of interests. Her paintings Country Girl (1906), Orchard in Bloom (1908) and most importantly her self – portrait At the Dressing Table (1909) were eloquent of her love of beauty both of her native soil and in the innocence of human heart. Alexander Benois showered his praise on the work of his fellow artist and niece when he said, ‘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 also accompanied her uncle for an unfinished commission to decorate Kazan Railway Station, Moscow. Between 1914 and 1917 she completed some of her most acclaimed work depicting scenes from everyday lives of rural Russia. Harvest (1915), Peasants (1914 – 1915), Bleaching Cloth (1917) speak volume about the calibre of the artist.
Time was cheerful and Zinaida’s work oozed of vivacious beauty. But then Nemesis was perhaps bemused of all Zinaida’s achievements so she decided to step in. October Revolution begun in 1917. Within next two years her husband died of typhus (1919), a disease contacted when he was in jails. The lives of the Serebriakov family went berserk. Their reserves evaporated quickly and Zinaida was the only one capable of supporting her family. It seemed an enormous if not an impossible task to rebuild the, The House of Cards.
Shortly afterwards, Zinaida thought it prudent to move in to her grandfather’s apartment in Petrograd. There also she was forced to share spaces with others, as was the norm post revolution: owners of private apartments were forced to accommodate additional inhabitants. But, luckily for her, she was quartered with artists 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.
In the autumn of 1924, Zinaida received a large commission for painting murals in Paris. She could not have said ‘No’ to this offer considering the state of the affairs at home and also to satisfy the yearnings of her inner artist. Yet, this brought estrangement from family and a long residence in Paris far away from home. Zinaida intended to return to St Petersburg post completion of her commission, a wish that became elusive with the passage of time. Alexandre and Catherine were able to join their mother in 1926 and 1928 respectively. But, Evgenyi and Tatiana, remained behind with her ailing mother. With exhibitions in France, Belgium and England she established herself as an artist of eminence successfully. But the forced separation from her family became a constant torment. No longer did the paintings spoke of gaiety and merriment bordering on naivety but the shades became deeper, immersed in 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. 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, in 1960 during Khruschev’s Thaw she was finally allowed to see her daughter Tatiana. Tatiana was then an established artist of Moscow Art Theatre herself!
In early 1900s when Zinaida was busy scanning the museums of Italy and France, the works of Tintoretto, Poussin, and Rubens used to captivate her. In 1966, her own works were finally exhibited in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev to great success. 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 public imagination and brought grand recognition for her in her own country. In retrospect, Zinaida Serebriakova was able to rebuild her House of Cards successfully and had the last laugh. 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 first two paragraphs of this biographical sketch are fictional
**English – Russian actor Peter Ustinov was also related to Zinaida Serebriakova (source: Articles On Benois Family)
***The artist’s name is also spelt as Zinaida Serebyakova