“A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world.” - Alan Watt
Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov, (born May 3 [May 15, New Style], 1848, Lopyal, Vyatka province, Russia—died July 23, 1926, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.) was a Russian artist, designer, and architect whose monumental works include the façade of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. He was the older brother of the painter Apollinary Vasnetsov. Born into the family of a priest, Viktor received his first drawing lessons in the Vyatsky Seminary in the early 1860s.
In 1867 he moved to St. Petersburg and enrolled in the Drawing School of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, where he was mentored by Ivan Kramskoy of the Peredvizhniki (“Wanderers”) group, which rejected the classicism of the Russian Academy. Vasnetsov later finished his studies at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts (1868–75). He was awarded the academy’s Grand Silver Medal for his sketch “Christ and Pilate Before the People” (1870). In 1878 he himself joined the Peredvizhniki.
Vasnetsov’s first works were genre paintings typical of the Peredvizhniki. In paintings such as “Moving House” (1876), “News from the Front” (1878), and “A Game of Preference” (1879), he presented with evident affection closely observed domestic scenes and characters from an array of social backgrounds. From the 1880s on, Vasnetsov’s main theme was the world of folk poetry: Tales, epics, and legends. He discovered the means to give visual expression to legendary and epic verbal phrases and imagery. Dark forest wilds, fiery sunrises and sunsets, stormy clouds—all these elements of his works helped make the legendary episodes depicted in his paintings seem to be actual events in Russian history.
For that reason paintings such as “After Prince Igor’s Battle with the Polovtsy” (1880), “Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Gray Wolf” (1889), and “Alyonushka” (1881 –illustrated above) were extremely popular in Russia. They became, in a sense, surrogates for Russian history, and during the Soviet era many were reproduced in schoolbooks and on consumer goods such as calendars, posters, and boxes of chocolates. That one of his most important paintings, “Bogatyrs” (1898), on which he worked for more than a decade, with countless preparatory studies and sketches, had just this fate is quite characteristic.
His careful approach resulted in the transformation of his paintings into pseudohistorical fantasies based on themes of Russian history. Vasnetsov designed costumes and stage sets for Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Snegurochka” (The Snow Maiden) in 1886. He created a monumental panel, “Stone Age” (1883–85), for Moscow’s State Historical Museum. The church of Abramtsevo was also built according to his sketches, as was the Baba-Yaga Hut (1883; also called the Hut on Chicken Legs).
Shortly before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vasnetsov created sketches of military uniforms for the Russian army, which were then used during Soviet times (such as the well-known budyonovka [initially bogatyrka] cap worn by the Red Army cavalrymen). After the revolution, Vasnetsov continued to paint folkloric themes. He died in Moscow in 1926.