- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2001

What happens when a man's country becomes inaccessible to him?

"A Russian Odyssey: The Art and Times of Ivan Djeneeff," on view at Meridian International Center, tells the story of such a separation.

The exhibit shows us Djeneeff's depiction of a halcyon, pre-revolutionary Russia and his work as an exiled painter in America after 1914.

In his homeland, Djeneeff enjoyed all the advantages of the Russian upper class: home-schooling at the family estate near the Donets river, horseback riding on its 3,000 acres and family trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where he could buy art supplies.

Sketching the people and land of the countryside where he grew up taught the young man to pay careful attention to detail.

To continue his art training, Djeneeff's family sent him to the prestigious Imperial Art Academy in St. Petersburg. He studied with the foremost academic painter of the day, Ilia Repin, in 1889.

The prominent landscapist Arkhip Kuindzhi taught him to paint nostalgic Russian landscapes at twilight and reflections on water. The exhibit's "Moscow Riverscape," first painted in 1913, shows their influence. Djeneeff emphasized the rosy twilight of the winter sky mirrored in the water below.

The academy's emphasis on teaching Greco-Roman rules of proportion and Djeneeff's study of old Russian and Slavic stories would dominate his career. The charming "Ivan Tsarevich Returns Home" illustrates one of those folk legends. It also shows the artist's considerable skills as a watercolorist.

Djeneeff then studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, where he saw the revolutionary styles of the French impressionists and symbolists, treasures at the Louvre and works from the Russian artists' colony in France.

Although excited by artistic developments in France, Djeneeff kept his original romantic academic style, which extolled Russia. He garnered important commissions and earned a silver medal for "Laying the Foundation of the Kremlin" at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

In 1913 the painter traveled as a conservator to Kostroma, the ancestral seat of the Romanovs, to restore the art of the historic cathedral. It was a skill that would stand him in good stead in America.

He became engaged to Olga Juzefovich in 1914 and painted her in a long white dress and shawl at Semenovka, his family's estate near Kharkov in Ukraine. It was a typically Russian romantic painting of a beautiful woman standing on the shore of a lake surrounded by trees.

That was the same year Djeneeff's world turned around: World War I broke out.

As a member of the Cavalry Reserve, Djeneeff was recalled to military service. The exhibition includes meticulous drawings of his fellow officers.

Russia was buying badly needed munitions from the United States at the time. The War Ministry made Djeneef an inspector of munitions in 1915. In mid-1916, the ministry posted him to the General Electric plant in Erie, Pa. His task was to detect defective weapons.

Djeneeff soon found himself without an employer. After the revolution, he never saw his country again.

Although Olga was able to join him, he was an unemployed stranger in a strange country. Other Russian emigres joined them in the United States in 1918, such as painters Boris Anisfeld and Nicholas Roerich and sculptors Naum Gabo and Alexander Archipenko.

Djeneeff was forced to begin anew at age 50 with magazine and advertising illustrations, designs for bank notes, portrait commissions, old masters restorations and altar and icon painting.

The artist would have considered this work beneath him in Russia, but now he also had a daughter to support. Co-curator Curtis Sandberg includes several Djeneeff paintings of the charming young woman.

One, a large pastel titled "The Artist's Daughter," circa 1923, represents her at age 4 or 5. She had climbed on a chair to look in a mirror. Another depicts her sitting on a wall at the MacDowell Colony, a creative center in Peterborough, N.H.

The exhibition — about 150 paintings, drawings, watercolors and miniatures — shows that Djeneeff was a versatile artist who painted in a number of media and styles. His oil portraits are the best; he began with the sympathetic one of Olga in 1914.

The artist took a different turn in painting his fellow munitions inspector Metfodi Perepelkin in Erie. Almost harshly brushed, Perepelkin looks quickly and defiantly out of the picture.

Djeneeff became more adventurous with a small painting of Olga at the beach in 1918. He cut the beach diagonally across the canvas; applied broad, flat brush strokes; and intensified the color.

The artist later painted her at the MacDowell Colony in a looser style. She stands in an open doorway shaped by glorious summer light. He also rendered an impressive likeness of Marian MacDowell, widow of composer Edward MacDowell and founder of the colony. He asked her to talk during the sittings because she didn't like to pose.

The exhibit holds much more. One display shows his church work in the United States.

WHAT: "A Russian Odyssey: The Art and Times of Ivan Djeneeff"WHERE: White-Meyer Galleries, Meridian International Center, 1624 Crescent Place NWWHEN: 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, through April 15TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/939-5568 or 939-5518

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide