Viktor Vasnetsov (Russian painter) 1848 - 1926
(also written as Wiktor Michajlowitsch Wassnezow)
Bogatyrs (The Three Bogatyrs) (Epic Heroes), 1898
oil on canvas
The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
The creative work of Vasnetsov is familiar to every Russian because every child has been exposed to it from early childhood. This is certainly true of his painting "Bogatyrs" ("The Epic Heroes"). It has so often been reproduced in school textbooks to illustrate an education in patriotism that every Russian pupil recognizes it.
In search of elevated feelings, the painter turns to the olden days of Russian, to the bylinas and fairytales. In his own childhood, he loved fairytales and folktales. He knew and loved the history of his country. He valued it and was proud of it. His depiction of Russia's epic heroes has captivated generations of youngsters: his unhurried stories about the peasant son Ilya Muromets who is "famous not for his origin but for his feet," about Dobrynya Nikitich who is "witty and clever in speech," about the "mocker of women" Alyosha Popovich, and others.
In the picture we see three epic heroes who have ridden a long way to defend the Russian border. The background is a little unusual. In the distance there is greenery which signifies the settled Russ. It approaches the foreground. It is felt that behind the mountain there is a deep ravine. The field, where the painter placed the heroes on horseback, approaches the onlooker and is distinctly different from the background. The landscape is simple: It is a wide swatch of feather-grass, semi-steppe with the occasional dwarf fir-trees that turns into that terrible steppe that swarms with hordes of nomads who create the troubles of the southern Russ.
The rulers of the Russ are the princes with their vigilant eyes protecting the borders of the steppe. By order of the great Kievan Prince Vladimir, who himself christened the Russ and whom the people called "the Dear Bright Sun," these three epic heroes have ridden so far to guard the borders. To all appearances, they received reports about the possible movements of nomads on the steppe. In the imagination of the viewer, in that unseen ravine there lurks hidden the Russian forces, ready by order of three heroes to rush to attack at the enemy who threatens their native land.
Who are then these three epic heroes? They are the princely son Dobrynya Nikitich, the peasant son Ilya Muromets, and the priestly son Alyosha Popovich. They are real-life heroes who possessed great military virtues and were physically strong and clever warriors.
Vasnetsov artistically rendered not only the characters of his heroes, but also he noted that they belong to different social orders of the Russian society of those times.
Dobrynya Nikitich is kind, clever, and loved by the people. The painter does not conceal the fact that he belonged to the princely family. His precious princely armour is witness to this. His shield is made of costly red metal worked with gold inlay. On his chest there glitters a big golden chain, a sign of princely dignity. His patterned helmet is like the headdresses of his two companions-in-arms. His sword is sheathed in a golden scabbard with precious stones. The skirts of his caftan are patterned. His smart boots of turquoise colour are put in the gilded stirrups.
Dobrynya's horse is also indicative of his class. This is a princely horse. It distinctly differs from the two houses that stand nearby. It is a thoroughbred Arabian runner with a white coat, burning eyes, and dilated nostrils. Broad and strong is its chest, skinny and fast are its legs. Its decoration corresponds to the outer look of the runner: costly, of red Morocco, belly-bend, its bridle decorated with gilt. Both the horse and the horseman are well matched. The delicate features of Dobrynya's face, framed with a little Russian-style beard, express the agitation of the horseman, who, having gripped in hastiness the haft of his costly sword, is ready in a flash to rush against the enemy. The horse like the host is ready to dash off at the tug of the bridle reins.
Quite different is the second hero, Ilya Muromets. He is massive, probably very strong, and he calmly sits like the peasant that he is on his horse. In Muromets's eyes there is deep thought. He evaluates the situation, ready to make the necessary decision. His heavy and shaggy "Voroneyushko," the typical horse of the bylina, is as mighty and steady as its rider. It stands quietly and only slightly shakes its bells, having sharply curved its neck, looking sideways with one bloodshot eye. But its strength is mighty, in truth, that of the fairytale. It has only to make a move and the earth will buzz under its heavy hoofs and from its nostril steam and flame will break away!
Ilya Muromets is dressed in iron-chain armour. On his head there is an iron helmet, as simple as his shield. The mighty strength of this hero is derived from the heaviness of the earth. In spite of the simplicity of Ilya Muromets, one feels that he rises above the other two heroes. But at the same time ties of comradeship in arms link him to them.
How differently the third hero Alyosha Popovitch is shown. He is not only strong, but he is also cunning and keen-witted. The painter, with exceptional nicety, has rendered the image of Alyosha. He is Prince Vladimir's favourite, and he has become famous for his cunning feats which were many times described in poems and bylinas by Russia's most celebrated poets. Alyosha is the youngest of the heroes; he is still beardless and the most dandified. This son of a priest has no right to wear a golden breast chain. He has girded himself with a wide golden belt. Alyosha is not only a warrior; he is also a diplomat, orator, singer, and musician. His clothes are modest and at the same time rich. His lamella chain armour is similar to the Prince's; his helmet is decorated.
Alyosha is armed with a bow; perhaps it is his main weapon, but his quiver is rich, filled with, one should think, poisonous arrows. In the look of his beautiful black eyes there is much slyness, and he even looks somewhat askance. To one side, the main weapon of the hero-diplomat is seen, his famous psaltery, playing on which he has gained for himself many victories. His horse has a chestnut coat that resembles that of the fox. This mount one will not survive in battle; it may do its best to avoid danger.
Simple and significant landscapes emphasize the strength of the characters of the heroes depicted on the painting.
Three Bogatyrs, or three knights, are the heroes of many legends: Ilya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitich and Aliosha Popovich. Each of the character has his own set of legends. Though every hero had his own adventures, every one defended his land, the poor, and fought the enemies of Russia; and they were all adored by the people. Here the painter depicted them all together, guarding the Russian borders.
Vasnetsov his heroes are shown not in a deadly close engagement but on the watch. They are famous for their will to victory. The heroes had gone to look "whether someone is not being offended somewhere," and by these words much is said. The frontier post of Vasnetsov challenges the heroes. Other times, other heroes.
Vasnetsov began to paint "Bogatyrs" when he lived in Abramtsevo with the family of the well-known patron Mamontov. The horses that served as models were found in Mamontov's stable.
The painter worked at this picture many years, but it seems to the viewer hat this artistic story has poured out from under painter's brush in one burst. It is seen by Russians as symbolic of the entire genre of bylina. "Is not someone in danger somewhere?" This is Vasnetsov's intention. He worked on the painting for nineteen years.
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