Turner to Monet
Russian painters invented a new, heroic art of landscape in the second half of the nineteenth century. Shishkin demonstrates some of its elements in A sandy coastline: the painting holds an implied moral narrative with nationalist overtones. A few giant but slender pines inhabit the shoreline, their roots gripping into uncertain soil. Waves lap up the beach, unceasing tides which will eventually undermine the trees. Darkest sky lurks behind them, threatening an impending storm and, perhaps, oncoming night. Other trees still stand upon firmer ground in the grass, although many have been felled, hauled away for timber. Bright, intense light glares onto the sand and off the silhouetted trunks. This is nature’s drama, which twists the largest tree away from the viewer, while it withstands the continuous assault of wind and water.
Shishkin was a highly-accomplished painter, who trained in the Classical fine art academies of Moscow and St Petersburg from 1852 to 1860. He then studied in Munich, Prague and Düsseldorf from 1862 to 1865, absorbing naturalistic tenets from the German schools. He was a founding member of the famous artists’ group the Wanderers, who began to depict the vastness of Russia’s lands in the 1870s. These reformist painters rejected the artificiality of contemporary pictorial themes, instead commenting on contemporary social ills while developing the first Russian interest in their own surroundings, looking at the bleak beauty of their plains, steppes and mountains. In 1879 Shishkin travelled in the Crimea from May to September, so that he could ‘make plein-air studies in accordance with his fascination for working outdoors’.1 A sandy coastline was exhibited in the 7th Wanderers’ exhibition in St Petersburg in 1879, the year it was painted.
Forests became Shishkin’s major subject. His compositions are based on direct observation instead of that compilation of elements that underpins Classical and Picturesque landscapes. His works are also marked by extraordinary attention to detail, seen here in such elements as a tangle of debris washed up on the sand. He combined such realistic renderings with larger poetic truths. A sandy coastline sets up many qualities for us to ponder: light and dark, sunshine and shadows, strength and fragility, enduring time and a fleeting moment.
1 Notes on the painting by David Jackson, ms, French & Company.