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Father Russia: A celebration of the Russian character by Boris Kustodiev at Christie's
Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927), The Coachman, signed and dated ‘B. Koustodieff/1923’ (lower right); with partial artist's label (on the stretcher), oil on canvas, 38¾ x 32⅛ in. (98.3 x 81.5 cm.). Estimate: £1,500,000-2,000,000. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2012.

LONDON.- Christie’s announced the sale of Boris Kustodiev’s masterpiece The Coachman, 1923 (estimate: £1,500,000 – 2,000,000), which will be offered in Important Russian Art on 26 November 2012. It is presented from the prestigious collection of Peter Kapitza (1894-1984), renowned scientist and recipient of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics, who was both a friend and patron to Kustodiev and acquired the picture directly from the artist’s wife in 1936. Further offered from the Kapitza collection is Alexander Shevchenko’s The City Outskirts, purchased from the artist’s daughter by Kapitza in 1963 (estimate: £50,000-70,000). As Christie’s celebrates 40 years of Russian Art sales, it is an exciting privilege to offer such iconic works as major highlights of our November auction.

The Coachman was a key painting in the seminal Russian Art Exhibition in New York in 1924 and was chosen from over 900 works as the poster image for this groundbreaking show. The exhibition opened at Grand Central Palace, presenting to an international audience a selection of works by 100 of Russia’s finest contemporary artists. Presented now at auction for the first time in history, in the wake of the 1917 Revolution and World War I, against a backdrop of tremendous social change and a new world order, this magnificent painting became the emblem of this bold venture, encapsulating in an image the Russia that Russians chose to present to the world. In the words of the émigré Count Ilya Tolstoy, ‘I am not an art critic. I did not come to see the pictures: I came to see Russia and that is what I saw.’ It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which the work of Kustodiev and The Coachman itself are seared into the minds and hearts of the Russian people.

The Coachman was later exhibited at distinguished institutions worldwide, including The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg (1928) and the Russian Academy of Arts, St Petersburg (1960). Kustodiev’s ability to express the eternal qualities of the Russian soul and capture the essence of the Russian character is precisely what rendered the work so suitable as the poster for the 1924 Grand Central Exhibition.

Kustodiev’s own words can be viewed in some sense as a manifesto: ‘I do not know whether or not I have succeeded to do and express in my works that which I wished - a love of life, joy, and vitality, devotion to all that Russia means to us - these have always been the solo subject of my pictures’ (quoted in V. A. Kapralov (Ed.), B. M. Kustodiev, Leningrad, 1967, p. 181). On contemplating The Coachman, arms outstretched and welcoming, a Father Russia of sorts, Kustodiev’s characteristic modesty becomes clear: there can be no doubt that this most Russian of Russian painters was entirely successful in expressing all that he hoped.

Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927) was born in Astrakhan where the mighty Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. Although there was no art school in the region, the arrival of the 15th Exhibition of Itinerant Artists, which included portraits by Repin and Kramskoi, is said to have made a significant impression on the nine-year-old Kustodiev. After entering the St Petersburg Academy of Art in 1896, Kustodiev was granted entry into Repin’s studio in 1898, where he studied with Ivan Kulikov, Filipp Maliavin and Alexander Murashko. Repin quickly acknowledged that ‘This talented youth, whose success has made such an impression and who comes from some place on the Volga and has studied under some unknown teacher, is the pride of our Academy, our greatest hope.’ (quoted in M. Etkind, Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev, Leningrad-Moscow, 1960, p. 249). While Kustodiev began his career as a portraitist and created a number of excellent works in this genre, the finest of which depict his wife, children and close friends, his fate was not to become Repin’s successor. In locating his own subject matter, at the heart of which lay the Russian provinces, Kustodiev was instead destined to become the portrait painter of Russia herself.

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