Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) was a Russian painter of historical, religious, and folkloric subjects. He trained at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and then reacted against the art establishment there by joining the Peredvizhniki, the Itinerants movement.
Much like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England, the Itinerants refused to confine themselves to painting polite and acceptable subjects, scandalizing 19th century audiences by depicting scenes of Russian peasant life -- much as the PRB shocked Victorian society with paintings of prostitutes and other déclassé subjects. Both the Itinerants and the early Pre-Raphaelites rebelled against the formal academy method of painting, with its adherence to rigid rules of design and a light-on-dark color palette. This younger generation of artists championed naturalism, sunlight, and a color palette that seemed shockingly bright, even garish, by the standards of the day. And both groups were influenced by the new movement for folklore scholarship that was sweeping the globe, finding inspiration in the peasant folk art traditions of their respective countries. The Itinerants were more overtly political, however, laying the groundwork for the subsequent Social Realist movement...although the PRB had their political side too, particularly in William Morris's passionate pairing of art and socialism.
Vasnetsov made his obligatory pilgrimage to Paris in 1876 -- and it was there that he began painting the fairy tale subjects that became his obsession. Returning to Russia, he continued to explore the themes of Russian folk tales and bylinas (heroic epic poems of the Slav tradition) -- and was considered by some to have betrayed the Itinerants cause with such frivolous subjects. It was one thing to ennoble peasant life (and thus champion social democracy) by referencing folk art colors and design, and quite another for a serious painter to devote his time to old wives' tales. Vasnetsov had grown up among peasants, however. He came from a highly educated family, but his father had been a priest in a small, remote village during Viktor's childhood -- thus he'd grown up hearing fairy tales from the old country storytellers, and he understood them as metaphor, as the ancient language of rural life.
In his later years, Vasnetsov concentrated more and more on theater and building design -- but even in these fields he remained true to his love of fairy tales, creating magical sets for operas and plays and championing a "fairy tale style" of Russian Revivalist architecture.
If you're heading to Moscow anytime soon, then be sure to visit the Vasnetsov "house-museum" on the Pereulok Vasnetsova. As a recent article in the Moscow News reports: "The Dom Muzei VM Vasnetsov was built by the artist in 1894 and houses some beautiful wooden furniture and tiled stoves downstairs as well as several of Vasnetsov's paintings of fairy tale characters like Sleeping Beauty and Baba Yaga in the studio upstairs. Unlike many house-museums, where the furniture has been brought in to approximate the requisite era, every thing here is original and you can sit on nineteenth century benches to admire the huge canvases in the wooden attic. Vasnetsov's pictures here are at least as good as the ones in the Tretyakov Gallery, whose facade he designed. 'A true work of art,' he believed, expresses everything about a people. 'It conveys the past, the present and perhaps the future.' "
For more information on Viktor Vasnetsov, visit the Russian Avant-Garde Gallery website. And for information on Russia's rich fairy tale tradition, read Helen Pilinovsky's "Russian Fairy Tales, Part I: The Fantastic Traditions of the East and West" and "Part II, Baba Yaga's Domain," and James Graham's "Baba Yaga in Film," in the JoMA archives. The Vasnetsov paintings above are: The Birds of Joy and Sorrow, Alyonushka, and The Tsarina Who Would Not Smile. Below: The Three Queens of the Underground Kingdom.