Tobolsk. [ca. 1880]. Three watercolors, 7 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches, individually matted to 13 x 16 inches each. Fine. In a blue three-quarter cloth portfolio. Item #WRCAM46028
A set of three lovely watercolors by Mikhail Stepanovich Znamensky, a prominent 19th- century Siberian artist, writer, historian, archaeologist, and ethnographer. Each is captioned in pencil and all are signed by the artist. The first scene shows two summer tents with three Khanty women seated in or just outside them. One woman holds a child. The second image is a winter snowscape showing a man with three reindeer standing outside a log cabin. The third scene depicts three Khanty people in traditional clothing standing in a dining room, with a Russian official seated on the left; a portrait of the Tsar hangs on the wall in the background and an animal skin is draped on the table.
Very well educated as a religious artist, Znamensky was among the elite of Tobolsk and was close to many exiled members of the famous Decemberist revolt of 1825 (Puschin, Yakushkin, and others), as well as the outstanding Russian writer, Pyotr Yershov. Znamensky worked as a teacher in several religious and secular colleges in Tobolsk, was a translator of the Tatar language, and illustrated the literary works of Gogol, Yershov, Goncharov, and Tolstoy. He regularly published his caricatures in the magazines of Saint Petersburg. His main interest, however, was Siberian history and ethnography. Znamensky's essays and stories on Siberian history were regularly published in the local magazines, and several of his books on the subject were published in Tobolsk, Tyumen, and Saint Petersburg. In pursuance of his interest, Znamensky traveled extensively in Siberia, Central Asia, and the northern regions of Asiatic Russia in the 1850s and 1860s, making sketches and paintings of the landscapes and tribes. In 1872 his works were exhibited at the Moscow Polytechnic Exhibition, where they were awarded the silver medal from Moscow University.
The present watercolors are from a series of works created to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Tobolsk and the annexation of Siberia to Russia, which was celebrated in 1885. The artist took a special trip around the towns of the region, the result of which was a unique series of sketches and watercolors. From this body of work an album entitled "From Tobolsk to Obdorsk" was created, specially bound in birch bark. It was comprised of thirty-two images showcasing local life in Tobolsk, Berezov, and Obdorsk, with images of local people, the surrounding area, and historical sketches. The album was exhibited in the Tobolsk Art Gallery in 1889. Later, in 1894, the heir to the Russian throne - the future Nikolai II - visited Tobolsk during his round- the-world trip. He was quite taken with the album, which he acquired for the high price of 800 roubles (per his inscription on the verso of the folder). The album came to the Emperor's library in the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, and after the Revolution of 1917 it became part of the Russian State Library in Moscow where it currently resides. The three watercolors offered here were not part of that album, but are similar stylistically and clearly come from the same series. For example, the image with the three Khanty and the Russian official appears almost exactly in the album, with trivial changes in detail, such as a different color of tablecloth.
Znamensky's watercolors weren't published in Russia before the Revolution of 1917. His album "From Tobolsk to Obdorsk" was printed in facsimile for the first time in 2008. His drawings were used, however, as illustrations in the first and only edition of the book by the Italian ethnographer and anthropologist, Stefano Sommier, UN' ESTATE IN SIBERIA FRA OSTIACCHI, SAMOIEDI, SIRIENI, TATARI, KIRGHISI e BASKIRI (Florence, 1885). This valuable report of Sommier's travels through Siberia in 188 contains fourteen interesting woodcuts based on Znamensky's watercolors and depicts Samoyeds and Ostyaks resting in their dwellings, riding deer, playing musical instruments, walking in market places, and more. Znamensky's original works can be found in many Russian state institutions.