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What does Kustodiev’s “merchant’s wife at tea” hide: a Revolutionary Manifesto or a reflection of the artist’s personal tragedy

One of Boris Kustodiev’s favorite characters is the merchant’s wife. The artist wrote a lot of them and in different interpretations. His most famous merchant’s wife, Boris Kustodiev wrote with the countryman, Astrakhan Baroness Galina of Adergas. Unremarkable at first glance, the plot hides a reflection of the society of that time, social holes and personal problems of the artist.

Boris Kustodiev adopted the theme of merchant life from warm and bright memories of a happy childhood and youth. Yes, the material conditions of his family were very tight (his father died early, and the care of four children fell on the shoulders of his mother), but in the house of Kustodiev there was an atmosphere of love and happiness. The 25-year-old widow tried to instill in her children a love of painting, theater, music and literature. And she did it perfectly! After becoming a famous painter, Boris Kustodiev was well acquainted with the life of a merchant from childhood – the family rented an extension in a merchant’s house in Astrakhan.
Kustodiev wrote the Merchant’s wife at tea in 1918 at the age of 40. The years of happy youth are long over, and with the coming to power of the Bolsheviks, this life was irrevocably lost. The manors of merchants and merchants at their tables now lived only in the artist’s memory. Times were hungry and terrible. This is how Kustodiev described them to the Director V. Luzhsky: “We don’t live well here, it’s cold and hungry, everyone just talks about food and bread … I sit at home and, of course, work and work. That’s all our news.”
In the cruel time of 1918, in the midst of cold and death, the artist dreamed of beauty, full of bright life, abundance and prosperity. However, the enjoyment of a well-fed, thoughtless existence here, as in other works of Kustodiev, is accompanied by a slight irony and an evil smile. There is a place and a grotesque. Let him love to reproduce on his canvases magnificent merchants. But no less clearly, he sees the senselessness and bitterness of the new way of life of Russian “bear corners”, destroyed by the whirlwind of the revolution …

Plot of the picture
The painting “merchant’s wife at tea” is unique for its impressive strength and harmonious integrity. Sitting on the balcony at a well-laid table, the image of the merchant’s wife becomes truly symbolic.

The details of the painting have an additional semantic meaning: a fat lazy cat, purring and bending its tail in pleasure, rubs against the shoulder of the hostess, an elegant merchant’s wife, who is happy to drink tea on the balcony, a city in the background with churches and shopping malls, and, in particular, a magnificent gastronomic still life.
Ripe red watermelon, a lush rosy cupcake, various buns, fruit, beautiful porcelain, a large samovar-all this is written in an unusually real and tangible way. It seems as if the painting was done by a person who had all this at home, saw it, tasted it, took part in such a meal… As a child, Yes, perhaps. But the painting was done by a 40-year-old man who was starving, living in revolutionary times, looking for additional ways to earn money and was paralyzed.The heroine of the picture

The heroine of the picture is Galina Vladimirovna Adercas, a Baroness of an ancient clan of the XIII century. At that time, the girl was a first-year medical student, although in the picture she looks much older and more imposing than she really was. However, the author did not pursue the goal of portrait similarity – it is rather a collective image that becomes the personification of the entire County town. A truly Russian woman in abundance! She is literally glowing with health.

Sitting comfortably with one elbow propped on the other and her little finger arched coquettishly, she drinks tea from a saucer. Her appearance repeats other details of the picture:
– rounded shapes ironically repeat the curves of the samovar,
– snow-white skin with a blush echoes the pinkish clouds,
– blue eyes are in tune with the sky blue sky,
– headdress and earrings repeat the pattern on the saucer (blue plate with gold ornament),
– the delicate scarlet color of the lips is combined with the palette in the image of a watermelon.

The folds of her dark purple dress accentuate the whiteness of her rounded bare shoulders and the fresh color of her pink face. A Sunny summer day tends towards evening. Pink clouds float in the blue-green sky. The samovar was already boiling hot on the table. Absolutely dominating the composition of the picture, filling most of it, this snow-white merchant rules the half-asleep provincial town that she represents. And behind the heroine slowly flows street life. On the one hand, there is a guest courtyard and churches. On the other side is the heavy gate of a blue house, on the balcony of which an old merchant and his wife are also sitting at the samovar, drinking tea from a saucer. The Sunny, sparkling picture seems to be an inspired poem about the beauty of Russia, about a Russian woman.


Spring of 1919 in the Winter Palace, renamed the Palace of arts, opens “the First state free exhibition of works of art.” It is attended by more than three hundred artists, representatives of all directions. This is the first major exhibition in revolutionary Petrograd. The halls of the Palace are filled with a new audience – factory workers, sailors, soldiers of the newly born red Army. In the center of the wall provided to the academician of painting Kustodiev – “merchant’s wife for tea”.

This is his farewell to the past and the first experiments on reflection in the painting of a new era. Kustodiev is not present on the opening day. For the past three years, the disease has left him half-paralyzed and confined to a chair. Back in 1911, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bones, later a tumor formed in the spine. The disease progressed. But the strange thing is that the more complex the disease and the more suffering in the artist’s life, the more vital juices, joy, light and flowers are in his canvases. The worse his physical condition got, the brighter and more fun his work became. Kustodiev found his salvation in painting.

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