Serhiy Vasylkivsky (1854-1917) was one of the most popular Ukrainian artists at the turn of the 20th century. Ilis works are displayed in the major museums of our country and abroad as well.
Vasylkivsky was born on October 19, 1854, in the picturesque town of Izyum on the Donets River, Kharkov Gubernia. The fascinating natural beauty of the Ukraine evoked in the painter-to-be an urge to represent all he saw in vivid colour. After graduating from the gymnasium, Vasylkivsky studied at the Kharkov Veterinary School, but soon abandoned it for the Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, which he entered in 1876. At the Academy, he studied landscape painting (1879—1883) and also attended classes in battle painting. Later, he turned to history and genre scenes and portraiture. Landscape, however, was his forte, the scope of his works being rather broad — from miniature to monumental painting. Nature in various seasons constitutes the main theme of his paintings. The winter scenes feature mostly motifs of snow-covered roads, frosty dawns and icy twilights; summer is depicted by willow trees mirrored in the water, harvest time and hay making; there are spring thaws and flood plains; autumn is a blaze of leaves deep in the forest and lakes in rainy weather.
Vasylkivsky’s first works show his penchant for carefully planned, scrupulously detailed composition. This is evident even in his painting Morning. Flock in the Steppe (1884), for which he won a small gold medal. Most of his early works are executed in a restrained brown colour-scheme, where the undercoat seems to be visible through the subdued tones.
In these works, the artist tries to combine the natural character of a motif with the demand of academic painting, which valued above all a mathematical approach to the construction of the work and close attention to its components. No wonder reason prevails over emotions in most of his early landscapes. Of no small account is the fact that Vasylkivsky executed his works in his studio as a rule. Every summer the young artist went home to Kharkov Gubernia where he painted many bright and vivid studies from nature which served as a basis for the paintings he later completed in Petersburg. In the process, some of the freshness and vigour of nature were lost, unfortunately.
Nevertheless, his diploma work Along the Donets River (1885), which brought Vasylkivsky the title of artist of the first rank, a large gold medal, and the right to a four-year scholarship, testified to the artist’s unquestionable maturity and talent.
The young painter graduated from the Academy fully equipped with not only professional mastership but also quite developed democratic convictions. The son of a clerk of modest means, during his studies he shared the far from luxurious circumstances of the most ill-provided of his fellows, Ukrainian-born Martynovich, Slastion and Samokysh. All of them were fond of Shevchenko’s and Gogol’s literary works. In art, Vasylkivsky shared the views of the Peredvizhniki (the Society of Itinerant Artists) for he was firmly convinced that truth only should be represented and that painting was visual poetry. The artist, he felt, should be an honest son of his homeland, sensitive to her joys and sorrows.
In 1886 Vasylkivsky went abroad, chiefly to visit Paris. There, the artist was especially attracted by the art of the Barbizon painters who mostly worked in plein air. He made copies of works by Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny and Diaz, visited art museums in Spain, Italy, England, and studied paintings by the great masters. And everywhere he painted from nature. Over these two years, Vasylkivsky executed over fifty works which testified a now stage in his creativity. The best canvases of that period were marked by a well-balanced composition and, at the same time, spontaneity, while their colouring, loosing the previous brownishness, was richer and brighter, and the texture varied more, sparkling with reflections, depending upon the illumination. On the whole, his landscapes became more ingenuous and emotional. Vasylkivsky’s new creative principles were supported by Orlovsky, his teacher in Petersburg whom he met in Paris, and eminent Ukrainian artist Pokhitonov, who lived abroad.
Canvases of the foreign period brought the painter European recognition. The Paris Salon favoured him with the rare honour for a foreign artist of exhibiting his works in its halls without the approval of the jury. Famous Russian art collector, Pyotr Tretyakov, acquired some of his canvases which can be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery today.
In 1888 Vasylkivsky returned to the Ukraine to work at home for the remainder of his scholarship. He travelled widely in Kharkov and Poltava gubernias, went down the Dnieper to Zaporozhye, everywhere drawing and painting from nature with great inspiration. The works dating from 1890—1900s executed in Kharkov became his greatest achievement — classic Ukrainian landscape paintings. They are, first of all, A Cossack Picket (1888), Cossack Meadow (1893), Chumak Romodan Road (1902) and Cossack in the Steppe (1900s). All of them, despite the variety of motifs, techniques of execution and dimensions showed certain common traits — national motifs and accurate representation of nature. Vasylkivsky’s landscapes are eloquently democratic and socially oriented, nature being represented as an arena of the lives and activities of the working people. Amidst the boundless steppe, a Cossack patrol performs its duty (Cossack Picket); carts laden with salt drag slowly along the interminable road (Chumak Romodan Road). Ever more frequently, the artist found beauty in the ordinary incidents of everyday life, and this beauty became his ideal. He resolutely rejected the artificial and deliberate in the composition of his works. But for all the prosaicness with w’hich they represent the life of both man and nature, they are filled with poetry and imbued with the lyricism inherent in Ukrainian song and Ukrainian culture as a whole. Slight melancholy, mild sorrow, and serene joy are rendered by the harmony of form and colour.
Living mostly in Kharkov, Vasylkivsky was at the centre of artistic life in all the regions of the Ukraine east of the Dnieper. In cooperation with Bezperchy, Rayevska-Ivanova and Beketov, he worked out the statutes of the Kharkov Art School. For many years he headed the Kharkov Art Society, took an active part in the erection of the monument to Kotlyarevsky, famous author of The Aeneid and Natalka Poltavka, which stands in Poltava. In 1900, he and Samokysh published a wonderful art book From Ukrainian Antiquity, for which he made 20 full-length portraits of representatives of various strata in the Ukraine — peasants and townsmen, kobza-players and Zaporozhian Cossacks, leaders of the national-liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people, among them Bogdan Khmelnitsky and Ivan Honta, and also a portrait of Hrihory Skovoroda, famous writer and philosopher.
At the artist’s first one-man show, held in the autumn of 1900 in Kharkov, Vasylkivsky presented 120 works, the majority of which were landscapes: boundless steppes, the sunlit Dnieper, shady village streets with cherry orchards in bloom, mysterious dark lakes overgrown with rushes, and calm Ukrainian nights. The best of them are reproduced here.
In 1903, at the competition for designs of murals to decorate the Poltava Zemstvo (elective council) building, sketches by Vasylkivsky were recognized the best. He made three huge canvases of the Ukraine, Poltava region in particular, at typical and significant stages in its history: there were images of the Cossack Holota, hero of folk ballads who is victorious over a Tartar manhunter; the boundless reaches of the Chumak Romodan Road; and Poltava Cossacks and citizens electing Martin Pushkar their commander and giving him their blessing in the struggle against Polish oppressors. The conception was grandiose, and its realization took over three years. Previously, Vasylkivsky had painted small canvases, his favourite size being 24 by 36 cm. Only A Cossack Meadow and some other canvases are larger, measuring 133 by 93 cm. But there was a painting almost four metres in height and ten metres long. However, the point of interest lies not only in the dimensions, unprecedented in Ukrainian painting, but also in the fact that history itself became the subject of the representation — history in its concrete manifestations and details.
To the last days of his life, despite serious illness, the artist continued to work on his last painting Ballad of Three Brothers. On October 8, 1917, Vasylkivsky died.
The legacy of the artist includes about 3500 works, mostly landscapes. His finest paintings are lyrical and epic songs where the emotional and the rational have merged to glorify the natural beauty of the Ukraine.