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Home » Then and Now: Moscow Through the Lens of Its Iconic Artists

Then and Now: Moscow Through the Lens of Its Iconic Artists

Surikov and Vereshchagin, Stepanova and Deineka, plus six other diverse artists — in our selection.

Moscow — a favorite model for hundreds of artists. And their paintings are a ticket to a journey through time: you just need to find that very place. We’ve selected ten paintings with Moscow playing the main role and found out how the places depicted in them look today.

Yes, our author actually went and photographed them, not just collected pictures on the internet or Google Maps. So, for each artist’s painting, there’s a high-quality photo from the same angle.

A great option for a weekend stroll, the whole route is eight kilometers long. Pour some tea into a thermos, make sandwiches, and go for a walk around Moscow.

“The Troika”

The full title of the painting is “The Troika (apprentices carrying water).” Before the revolution, peasants tried to send their children to the city for winter earnings, where they ended up in workshops and shops, doing the hardest work without regard to their age. Eight-year-old boys worked on an equal footing with adults without any concessions. Often, such apprentices’ duties included delivering water. At that time, Moscow had a water supply, but not in every house, and most Muscovites relied on water carriers’ services. This job required no skills other than endurance, so child water carriers were a common sight.

One day, Vasily Perov saw how three children could not hold a full barrel at Trubnaya Square, where they were collecting water, and it fell over. The scene was set, and all that remained was to find models. He painted the central character from a peasant boy, Vasya, whom he met on the street. Later, the boy’s mother, Aunt Maria, came to Perov and informed him that Vasya had died of smallpox, and she wanted to buy the painting in memory of him.

Perov negotiated with Pavel Tretyakov, who acquired “The Troika” for his collection, and the woman was allowed to view the painting. In his story “Aunt Maria,” Vasily Perov described these events: “She glanced around the room with her gentle gaze and quickly moved to the painting where her dear Vasya was indeed depicted. Getting closer, she stopped, looked at it, and, throwing her hands up, she cried out unnaturally: ‘My father! My own, there’s your missing tooth!'”. According to legend, Perov later wrote a copy of the painting for the woman, which the peasant hung in the red corner, next to the icons.

The location of the events of the painting “The Troika” is Rozhdestvensky Boulevard in Moscow, near the Central Market. The street slopes uphill, and one can appreciate the incline that the young water carriers had to climb with the heavy barrel. The landmark is the tower of the monastery wall.

“Moscow Courtyard”

This Moscow pastoral is familiar and beloved by many. The image of “Moscow Courtyard” appears year after year on millions of calendars, bookmarks, and postcards, and it even inspires school essays! Polenov hit the popular taste very accurately: here we have churches, children, and animals.

In 1994, artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid presented the result of the “People’s Choice” project — the most loved and the most disliked paintings by Russians. The themes for the canvases were created based on a survey of people. The favorite became the painting “The Vision of Christ to the Bear”: a landscape in green-blue tones, the size of a “television,” depicting a forest, a child, a woman at work, and a bear. The plot of “Moscow Courtyard” is roughly the same: a quiet summer day, playing children, a woman with a bucket, a harnessed horse.

The painting appeared almost by chance. In 1877, Vasily Polenov came to Moscow looking for an apartment that could serve both as a home and a studio. That’s how he ended up in an alley in the Arbat district at the Baumgarten house: he saw a note on the door saying the apartment was for rent, went in to have a look, glanced out the window — and was stunned by the landscape that opened up before him. He made the first sketch right away, in just a couple of hours, and then created two versions of the famous painting: “with people” and “empty.”

Identifying the scene of the painting is quite simple: the ancient Church of the Transfiguration on the Sands has survived to this day. It has an amazing story too — for example, during Soviet times, the church became the puppet studio of “Soyuzmultfilm.” Cheburashka, Crocodile Gena, and other characters for beloved animated films were made here on an industrial scale.

The “Polenov” view from above can only be seen by residents of the “House on Kompozitorskaya” complex. Others are left to walk through the cozy square, learning about Polenov and his painting from the posters on poles, which were hung by the local administration.

View of the Kremlin from Sofiyskaya Embankment

Pyotr Vereshchagin — the older brother of the artist Vasily Vereshchagin. The brothers are often confused, although the styles and themes of their works are quite different. The younger Vasily was fond of historicism (e.g., “The Apotheosis of War,” “The Gates of Tamerlane”), while the older Pyotr painted landscapes. “View of the Kremlin” is similar to the panorama of the Kremlin from a Soviet three-ruble note. However, the artist did not set up his easel on the Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge but descended to the embankment instead.

Vereshchagin painted the picture about innovations — perhaps without even realizing it himself. The Kremlin walls shine with fresh whitewash — incidentally, the last in their history. From 1880, the walls were no longer whitewashed, and after the revolution, this tradition was altogether forgotten. The Kremlin towers are adorned with tsarist eagles. They had been installed since the 17th century and changed approximately every hundred years — the last replacement being in 1870. In 1935, the eagles were removed from the towers and replaced with stars. Another novelty is a new collector for the Neglinnaya River. The river was hidden in a pipe back in 1819, and in 1860, tired of floods, its underground channel was updated. The dominant feature of the painting — the Grand Kremlin Palace — is also relatively new, having been completed in 1849. The trees around are still quite young and do not cover the buildings. The Kremlin and Sofiyskaya embankments were renovated in 1840. In short, not just a painting, but a detailed and thorough report on the improvement. Incidentally, during the reconstruction of the embankments in 2016, the paving design with large light granite slabs was reproduced precisely from Pyotr Vereshchagin’s painting.

The Morning of the Streltsy Execution

This is one of the most terrifying and fascinating paintings in the Tretyakov Gallery collection and the magnum opus of Vasily Surikov. The massacre of the Streltsy rebels in 1698 indeed took place on Red Square: that’s why the Lobnoye Mesto was long associated exclusively with executions.

Surikov spent four years creating the painting: he studied history, changed the composition, and meticulously worked out details — for example, adding streaks of candle wax on the Streltsy’s fingers. However, he did not adhere strictly to historicism: for instance, the painting shows two Senate towers, one of which stands in place of the Spasskaya. The Lobnoye Mesto is “moved” almost up close to Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

The gallows on the right are empty. Ilya Repin advised filling them, and Surikov initially followed his colleague’s advice. But later, he removed the hanged figures — the painting left too oppressive an impression. In conversations with Maximilian Voloshin, the artist noted: “In a historical painting, it doesn’t have to be exactly so, but rather similar. The essence of a historical painting is guessing. And when everything is spot on — it’s even repulsive.”

The tsar-reformer in the painting is not immediately noticeable; he glimmers with his eyes in the right corner, surrounded by loyal boyars. And in the center — people walking to their execution, the true tragedy of the people. Now, on Red Square, in place of the Streltsy, there is a monument to Minin and Pozharsky.

On the Boulevard

Behind the seemingly unremarkable painting of a seated couple hides a real tragedy. Peasants coming to Moscow to earn money often quickly lost contact with their families: the lights of the big city captivated them, and the new pace of life clashed with the rural lifestyle. This is what happened to the hero of “On the Boulevard”: a craftsman’s wife came to the city with a baby. Both felt awkward from this meeting: the husband wants to get rid of his wife as soon as possible, while she realizes that the man before her is now a stranger. Makovsky placed his characters on Sretensky Boulevard, the shortest in the capital — according to art historians, this hints that the “meeting” (encounter) of husband and wife will also be brief.

The painting shows the demolished Sukharev Tower and the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Derbenyovskoye (preserved, but without domes and bell tower). By these landmarks, one can approximately determine the view from the painting. The bench of the heroes “On the Boulevard” is the second one from the Shukhov monument.

There is a legend that in the 1960s, a historical and ethnographic expedition of museum workers met Yefrosinya Nemtsova in the village of Daratniki. In the old woman’s house, a reproduction of “On the Boulevard” and two other previously unknown works by Makovsky hung on the wall. Yefrosinya revealed that her parents were the models for the masterpiece — they lived near the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where Makovsky worked.

Old Moscow. Arbat Street

Mikhail Germashev is not the most famous artist; few people can name even a couple of his paintings offhand. Most of his works are in private collections. Germashev mainly worked on commission: he made sketches for postcards, painted landscapes for the living rooms of wealthy merchants and aristocrats. This was also the case with “Old Moscow” — Germashev painted it for a Moscow industrialist, whose name and the exact date are unknown.

Now, Germashev’s Arbat can no longer be seen. The point where the artist’s easel stood can only be identified thanks to the House with Knights (Arbat Street, 35), whose tower is visible in the right part of the canvas. The Church of St. Nicholas the Revealed was demolished in 1931, a bomb hit the mansion with columns belonging to Prince Obolensky in 1941, and the tram tracks from Arbat were removed in 1934. To see the ghost of Germashev’s “Old Moscow,” one must stand to the left of the “Wall of Peace,” at house 23, building 1.

The Mosselprom Building with Mayakovsky’s Advertisement

The painted advertisement on the Mosselprom building is arguably the pinnacle of the creative trio of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, artist Alexander Rodchenko, and his wife Varvara Stepanova. All three were employees of the first Soviet advertising agency “Reklam-Konstruktor: Mayakovsky — Rodchenko”. From 1923 to 1925, they created an entire advertising campaign for the trading giant Mosselprom.

Mosselprom traded in almost anything: from bread and cigarettes to spices and coffee. In 1924, Mosselprom moved to a new building, which received the title of “the first Soviet skyscraper” (“the cloud-scraper” by Nirnzee was built before the revolution, in 1912). This “head office”, of course, needed advertising, and it appeared right on the facade. Stepanova and Rodchenko’s painting was done directly on bricks and concrete, while the product names were placed on plywood boards. Alexander Rodchenko took a photo of the completed work, and Varvara Stepanova later immortalized it in oil.

In 1937, Mosselprom was closed, the advertisement was erased and the building was repainted in neutral beige. Sixty years later, for the 850th anniversary of Moscow, the famous advertisement returned to its place. But all the paintings were made on plaster with acrylic paints. They even preserved the old-fashioned spelling of “confections” — now you won’t see it anywhere else but in Mosselprom.

New Moscow

Yuri Pimenov worked on the painting in the summer of 1937, at the height of the Great Terror. Even he was not spared from denunciations by fellow artists, who accused him of having a “bourgeois brushstroke”, for example. However, these events did not influence the mood of the painting — it seems to be from another world, a world of happy people and a bright future. The explanation is quite simple: the painting turned out so bright, vivid, and happy because, at the time of its creation, the model (Pimenov’s wife Natalya) and the artist were expecting the birth of their son Mikhail.

The girl in the painting is driving through Teatralny Proezd towards Manezhnaya Square, from where Stalin’s reconstruction of Moscow began in 1935. Visible are the brand-new “Okhotny Ryad” station (with “Teatralnaya” still under construction) marked by a large white “M” on the corner of a building, the banner-decorated House of the Unions, the mass of the State Planning Committee (now the State Duma), where the very “new” Moscow was being designed. On the road, there are black “emki” (GAZ M-1), KM-series trams, and ZIS-8 buses.

The heroine herself, according to most art historians, is depicted at the wheel of a GAZ-A convertible — the first Soviet “passenger car”. However, some believe it to be a Lincoln Model K. Either way, a woman behind the wheel in the 1930s was still the exception rather than the rule: there were at most a thousand female drivers in all of Moscow. Pimenov conveys the collective image of the woman of the future, who is not just moving into it but is herself steering the movement and choosing the path.

The location of “New Moscow” has hardly changed today: except that instead of “emkis,” other car models fly down the road; the trams have disappeared, but electric buses have appeared.

The Relay Around the Ring B

“Is Dynamo running?” — this line from “Gentlemen of Fortune” naturally comes to mind when looking at Deineka’s “The Relay”. Dynamo in the painting is running in May 1947 — the artist himself observed the athletics race, which inspired him to create this reportage canvas.

Running, sports, and youth — the leitmotifs of the artist’s entire body of work — converge in “The Relay”. “For the first time, the theme of sports was resolved amid the architecture of Moscow,” Deineka recalled later. The painting even features the author himself — he is the distant man in the row on the right.

The choice of this particular section of the Garden Ring for the painting was not accidental — the artist lived on Novinsky Boulevard. The Naval Fleet’s building with towers and columns, one of the painting’s dominants, is easily recognizable. In 1961, exactly at the place of the race, the Novoarbatsky Tunnel appeared. If you stand at the underground passage on the odd side of Novinsky Boulevard, you will find yourself at the spot from Deineka’s “The Relay”.

Yauza Boulevard

Alyona Dergileva has been painting Moscow in watercolor for nearly 30 years. Her paintings are a chronicle of the city’s recent history, through which one can trace how the capital changes (and improves!) since 1997. The locations in Dergileva’s watercolors are easy to find: almost each one features an exact address or a recognizable object — a metro station, a monument, a church. These are far from the folk-style pictures still sold on Arbat or in the underpass near the New Tretyakov Gallery. Dergileva shows the most ordinary, everyday Moscow with traffic lights, wires, peeling facades, and cracks, signs of cheburek shops, and stores. Dergileva herself believes that she paints portraits of houses: “I love the walls wrinkled into their particular grimace. Often, facades with ‘eyes’, ‘noses’, and ‘mouths’ appear — smiling, yawning, or screaming”.

“Yauza Boulevard” from our selection is part of a triptych dedicated to the house of the Kuibyshev Military Engineering Academy (or “The House with Sculptures,” as it is more commonly called). The watercolor is almost photographically accurate: even the snowdrifts grow year after year in the same place.

Since 1997, Alyona Dergileva compiles a calendar of her capital watercolors called “Painted Moscow”. The 2024 edition is already on sale — it can be purchased on “Ozon” or “Wildberries”.

Text by: Oksana Kravchenko
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