Konstantin Somov, “The Boxer”, Portrait of Mikhailovich Snejkovsky, 1933, Oil on Canvas, 54.8 x 46 cm, Private Collection
Born in Saint Petersburg in November of 1869, Konstantin Andreyevich Somov was a Russian artist and founding member of the artistic movement Mir Iskusstva, World of Art, that became a major influence on Russian artists of the early twentieth-century. Konstantin Somov was the second son of Andrei Somov, an art historian and senior curator at the Hermitage Museum, and Nadezhda Konstantinovna, a talented musician and well-educated daughter of the Lobanovs nobility.
Konstantin Somov attended the Karl May School in Saint Petersburg where he became close friends with classmates Dmitry Filosofov, later author and literary critic, and Alexandre Benois, future historian and influential designer for the Ballets Russes. At the age of twenty, Somov entered the Imperial Academy of Arts and studied from 1888 to 1897 under Ukrainian-born historical and portrait painter Ilya Repin. While at the academy, he developed lasting friendships with Sergei Diaghilev, the future founder of the Ballets Russes, and Léon Bakst, a painter who became an influential costume designer for Diaghilev’s company.
In the summer of 1895, Somov and Alexandre Benois stayed at a dacha in the village of Martyshkino near the coastal city of Oranienbaum. The landscapes he created and exhibited became his first major success with praise from both critics and artists. Somov graduated from the Academy in 1897 and continued his education at the Académie Colarossiin Paris. From 1897 to 1890, he worked on a portrait of Elizaveta Martynova, clothed in an old-fashioned dress, entitled “Lady in Blue”. Martynova was a painter, a graduate of the Imperial College of the Arts, who died at the age of thirty-six from tuberculosis. In this portrait finished four years before her death, Martynova’s delicate and trembling figure, frail with yellowish skin, stands alone in a park facing spectators with a face full of sorrow.
After the founding of the Mir Iskusstva in 1898, Konstantin Somov served as an editorial board member and contributed illustrations and designs to its magazine edited by Sergei Dlaghilev. During the 1910s, he created a series of harlequin scenes and illustrations for a poetry volume by Alexander Blok. Somov’s work was now exhibited in the United States and Europe, particularly in Germany where a 1909 monograph on his work was published.
In 1910 at the age of forty, Somov met the eighteen-year old Methodiy Lukyanov who became his close longtime companion and part of the Somov family. Lukyanov helped in the household, organized exhibitions and became Somov’s trusted advisor and critic. Somov painted many portraits of Lukyanov, among which is a large 1918 portrait which depicted Lukyanov seated on a sofa in pajamas and robe; this work is now housed in St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum. Somov and Lukyanov’s relationship would continue for twenty-two years until Lukyanov’s death from tuberculosis in April of 1932.
Konstantin Somov had a penchant for drama and was drawn to the elegant but bawdy nature of French erotic writing of the 18th century. From 1907 to 1919, he worked on illustrations, some suggestive and others explicit, for “Le Livre de la Marquise”, an anthology of eighteenth-century erotic French poetry and prose by Lachos, Casanova and Voltaire. Somov’s work became more erotic as time progressed. The most explicit of these was an eight-hundred copy edition published in 1917 at St. Petersburg’s R. Golike & A. Vilborg & Company.
Although initially greeted with enthusiasm, the Russian Revolution from 1917 to 1923 created a deterioration in living conditions. Shortly after the government nationalized his apartment, Somov was evicted; he did however manage to retain the rights to his own artwork. In December of 1923, Somov became part of the Russian Exhibiton and, as a member of the delagation, traveled to the United States where he represented the city of Petrograd. He never returned to to his homeland. After leaving the United States in 1925, Somov settled in Paris where he reunited with his old friends Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst and Benois’ niece, the painter Zinaida Serebryakova.
Konstantin Somov, in terms of his artistic influences, felt closer to the Old Masters rather than the work of his contemporaries. He was particularly drawn to the work of eighteenth-century Rococo painter François Boucher known for his idyllic pastoral scenes. While in Paris, Somov predominantly painted miniatures and portraits. The still life became one of his favorite subjects and would perform an important role in his portraits as it added additional information on the sitter.
Even though established as a well-known artist, Somov continued to live a reclusive lifestyle. In June of 1930, he met Boris Mikhailovich Snejkovsky. Born in Odessa in July of 1910, Snejkovsky was the son of a captain of the Russian Volunteer Fleet and traveled frequently with his family until they settled in Paris. During the 1930s, Snezhkovsky would model, both clothed and nude, for many of Somov’s works including illustrations for an edition of “Daphnis and Chloe”. In February of 1923, Somov painted a portrait of his model entitled “The Boxer”, a half-length nude oil-portrait with boxing gloves on the wall. Snezhkovsky also served as the model for Somov’s 1937 “Obnazhennyl Iunosha (Nude Youth)” now in the State Russian Museum.
Konstantin Andreyevich Somov died in May of 1939, at the age of sixty-nine, in Paris, France. He is buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery, south of Paris. In 2016, Russian art historian Pavel Golubev founded the Somov Society to preserve and study the life and works of Konstantin Somov. Goluvev curated the 2019 “Konstantin Somov, Uncensored” at Ukraine’s Odessa Fine Arts Museum and sponsored the 2019 colloquium “The Lady with the Mask: Homosexuality in the Art of Konstantin Somov” at the University of Pennsylvania.
Top Insert Image: Konstantin Somov, “Self Portrait”, 1921, Pencil Watercolor on Paper, Private Collection
Second Insert Image: Konstantin Somov, “Vladimir Aleksandrovich Somov”, Konstantin Somov’s Nephew, 1925, Oil on Canvas
Third Insert Image: Konstantin Somov, “Lady in Blue”, Portrait of Yelizaveta Martynova, 1897-1900, Oil on Canvas, 103 x 103 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
Fourth Insert Image: Konstantin Somov, “Boris Snejkovsky with Cigarette”, 1938, Oil on Canvas, 46.4 x 38 cm, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Konstantin Somov, “Daphnis and Chloe”, 1930, Watercolor Illustration, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, United Kingdom