Serebryakova, Zinaida (1884–1967)

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Serebryakova, Zinaida (1884–1967)

Russian painter. Name variations: Sinaida Serebryakova. Born Zinaida Lanceray in Neskuchnoe, near Kharkov, Russia, in 1884; died in Paris, France, in 1967; daughter of Yevgeny also seen as Evgeny Lanceray (a celebrated sculptor); her mother's maiden name was Benois; married Boris Serebryakov (a railroad engineer), in 1905 (died 1919); children: four.

Selected works:

Self-Portrait at the Dressing Table (1909); Portrait of a Student (1909); Mid-day and Harvest; At Dinner (1914); Bleaching Linen (1917); The House of Cards (1919); Ballerina in the Dressing Room; Snowflakes from Tchaikovsky's Ballet "The Nutcracker."

Zinaida Serebryakova was born in Neskuchnoe, Russia, in 1884. Her family was deeply involved in the arts: her father Evgeny Lanceray was an internationally recognized sculptor; her brother Nikolai Lanceray was a talented architect; and another brother, Evgeny Lanceray, was a painter and graphic artist and a leading member of the World of Art group. Her mother was a Benois, a family known in cultural circles for raising talented musicians, architects, artists, and actors. Her maternal grandfather, Nikolai Benois, was also an architect; while her maternal uncles Nikolai and Alexander Benois, both well-known artists, were also members of the World of Art.

After the death of her father in 1886, two-year-old Serebryakova and her mother joined the Benois household. Though she was not a sociable child, Zinaida showed artistic talent at an early age when she spent a month at Princess Tenisheva's school at Talashkino, headed by Ilya Repin, in 1901. She then traveled to Italy to study the paintings of the Venetian masters. When she returned to Russia, she came under the tutelage of artist Osip Braz. In 1905, Serebryakova's studies in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière led her to the paintings of Watteau, Fragonard, and the Impressionists, including Degas, Renoir, and Monet.

By the time Zinaida returned to Russia in 1906, she had become a mature, talented artist, and she decided to join the World of Art group led by Sergei Diaghilev. The group believed in the concept of national art, encompassing not only Russian folk art traditions but also architecture and other indigenous art forms of Russia. The group recognized the importance of Western influence on Russian art and believed that artists must be knowledgeable about both art history and contemporary worldwide art. The concept of beauty and harmony was also important to them. Embracing the group's ideals, Serebryakova emphasized style over naturalistic depictions in her work, and her choice of painting Russian contemporary life and environment was unique to her.

One of her most successful paintings, Self-Portrait at the Dressing Table, was shown at the Union of Russian Artists exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1910. The realism, joy, and originality of the painting reflected her happy home life with Boris Serebryakov, a railroad engineer whom she had married in 1905. She also often depicted their children in her paintings, as in At Dinner (1914), which was considered harmonious and cheerful, yet unsentimental. Zinaida's nudes of that period were also critically admired.

Serebryakova's belief in national art was reflected in her series of "peasant" paintings, such as Mid-day and Harvest, which show peasant women working the land and at rest after labor. In these she was inspired by the Russian artist Venetsianov, who used peasant life to depict the harmony in nature. Other paintings of Serebryakova's, such as Bleaching Linen (1917), were admired for their rhythmic composition and simple, bold forms.

Her uncle Alexander, though reluctant to praise his own niece, claimed that Serebryakova was one of the most remarkable Russian artists of the time. In 1917, she was nominated for the title of Academician of Art and would have been the first woman to receive such an honor had she been elected. The Russian Revolution intervened, however, and the election meeting was never held.

In 1918, a fire destroyed Serebryakova's home and most of her paintings. A year later, her husband died of typhus. With four children and a sick mother to support, Serebryakova was obliged to move from her beloved Neskuchnoe to Petrograd (St. Petersburg). Her family lived in great poverty, and Serebryakova was forced to sell her paintings for low prices to buy food and clothing. In The House of Cards (1919), writes M.N. Yablonskaya , she "again depicts her children, but now they wear worn and wearied expressions. Clarity has turned to unease, peacefulness to uncertainty. Rather than looking out of the picture as they do in earlier works their attention is centred on the ephemeral house of cards."

Serebryakova tried to recapture her ideals of grace and beauty with her depictions of ballet, using children, including her daughter Tatyana , as models. These works (Ballerina in the Dressing Room and Snowflakes from Tchaikovsky's Ballet "The Nutcracker") were done in a different medium: pastels on cardboard. She used them like crayons, with some shading and retouching.

In 1924, Serebryakova moved to Paris to execute a mural she had been commissioned to

paint there. Political situations did not permit her to return to Russia, and she was exiled for the remainder of her life. She was never happy in Paris, feeling that the French did not understand her simple Russian art. Wrote her daughter: "Mother felt keenly the separation from her homeland. She experienced great difficulties because of poverty, illness and approaching old age. Despite all this she preserved her interest in national art and did not alter her position. She was true to herself to the end of her days." Serebryakova traveled to Brittany, Algeria, and Morocco, and her most respected works of that period portray Brittany peasants. Although she was strongly opposed to the abstract art form that dominated the art world at the time, the World of Art movement, ironically, had helped pave the way for the emergence of avant-garde and modern art by breaking with convention. In 1966, the Soviet government officially recognized Zinaida Serebryakova's contribution to Russian art and organized a sizable touring exhibit of her work. She died in Paris the following year.


The Twilight of the Tsars: Russian Art at the Turn of the Century. Hayward Gallery, London 7 March 1991. London: South Bank Centre, 1991.

Yablonskaya, M.N. Women Artists of Russia's New Age, 1900–1935. Edited by Anthony Parton. NY: Rizzoli International, 1990.

Ruth Savitz , freelance writer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania