If you were to list the most influential Russian artists of the 19th century you might come up with names such as Ilya Repin, Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, and Mikhail Vrubels. Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery has rooms dedicated to their work, but perhaps the main thing that links them is that they all spent time at the Abramtsevo estate.
Abramtsevo was bought by the railway tycoon Savva Mamontov in 1870. Almost every famous artist of the time came to stay, many of them spending long periods here in what became an artists colony. Some of their most celebrated work was linked to Abramtsevo including Valentin Serov’s best-loved painting Girl with Peaches (the girl being Mamontov’s daughter, Vera). What makes the estate well-worth a visit is that some of the artwork is still at Abramtsevo today.
We didn’t go inside the manor house which includes portraits by Ilya Repin, and the room where the writer Gogol worked on the second part of his novel Dead Souls, because you can only go round with a guide and we didn’t think our two children would have the patience for a tour. Thankfully though there is plenty more to see elsewhere in the grounds.
The beautiful little chapel on the estate was designed by the artists Victor Vasnetsov and Vasily Polenov, with others contributing to the interior decoration. There is a lovely mosaic floor designed by Vasnetsov, and icons by several other artists, but my favourite was an absolutely mesmerising one of Christ painted in a realist style by Ilya Repin. I could have stared for hours but the calls for Mummy to come and play outside were getting very loud!
What did interest the children was the ceramic exhibition – mainly I think because there were a good number of pieces on display that featured animals (we spotted fish, peacocks, chickens and an owl). It is housed in the building which is pictured at the top of the page and which was an artists studio. Much of the work inside is by Mikhail Vrubels (who was the director of ceramics at the Abramtsevo pottery workshop) but I also spotted work by Vasnetsov and Serov. You can also see a ceramic bench by Vrubels in the grounds.
Two other little buildings are worth having a look inside. Mamontov’s wife was very philanthropic, and to enable local peasants to learn a skill she established a carpentry workshop. The pieces of furniture incorporated designs based on pieces of folk art found in Russian peasant villages. The furniture became highly fashionable in Moscow and St Petersburg, and won prizes at exhibitions including at Paris in 1900. Some of the furniture made by the workshop can be seen in the building known as the Bathhouse, while the building known as the Kitchen contains some of the Russian folk art which inspired many of the workshop’s motifs.
But don’t forget to explore the estate itself which was the background for works such as Repin’s Bridge in Abramtsevo, Vasnetsov’s Alyonushka , and Levitan’s Early Spring in Abramtsevo which I’m sure depicts precisely the spot where my children stood to throw pine cones into the water. We must have come back with about 30 pine-cones from our walk around the estate, and we must have collected at least another 40 which were thrown with great delight into the river Vorya. Beanie-boy has intentions to turn his pine-cone collection into some sort of sculpture, so perhaps the artistic atmosphere at Abramtsevo is still alive today.
Abramtsevo is a short distance off the main road from Moscow to Sergiev Posad and you can also reach it by train. I understand the route from the station to the estate isn’t particularly well signposted but there is a good description of how to get there on Phoebe Taplin’s website.
There are toilets on site, and a stall selling food, but there isn’t a café. All of the signage about the estate and the works of art is provided in both English (in a good amount of detail) as well as Russian – although I think you’d need to book in advance if you want an English-language tour of the manor house. The website is at www.abramtsevo.net/eng/