These are portrait sketches by the great Russian painter, Valentin Serov (1865 - 1911)

While many of Serov's finished paintings are quite beautiful, I especially enjoy his preliminary sketches for their vitality and truthfulness.

Serov, who studied under the great Ilya Repin, was part of that astonishing Renaissance in Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For centuries, Russian artists had manufactured religious icons to suit the rigid specifications of church dogma.

Icons were the opposite of western illusionist art. The church historically frowned on efforts to create physical images of the holy, so Russian artists went out of their way to avoid accurate, representational images. They stressed flat, distorted figures, inverted perspective and unnatural colors to emphasize that they were painting the ideal, dematerialized world rather than the natural world. (In 815 CE, if you tried to paint a realistic icon the troops of Leo the Armenian were likely to come along and thump you on the head). But starting in the 19th century, there was a period of sunlight and fresh air which inspired a flurry of cultural activity in Russia.

It didn't take more than a generation for the Russians to shake off the dust and produce world class artwork that was nimble and probing and insightful.

With the advent of Stalin the window closed again.

But I love these pictures by Serov, not just for the images themselves, but because they help me believe that, even after centuries of confinement, artistic abilities can be reawakened on short notice if they are given the right stimulus and the room to grow.

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