Ivan Kramskoy's Rusałki, 1871

By Lucia Hawkes

Only the moon hung as brilliant and wonderful as before in the
immensity of the Ukraine sky. The divine night continued her reign
in solemn stillness, while the earth lay bathed in silvery radiance.
— Nikolai Gogol, A May Night, 1831.

The motivation behind Ivan Kramskoy’s painting of the Rusałki, 1871, – roughly translated, this means The Mermaids – remain obscure. Presented at The Wanderers’ inaugural exhibition in 1871, Kramskoy’s superstitious subject matter had a mixed reception; it seemed unusual with its lack of social commentary, and even divorced from The Wanderers’ founding ethos.  Although it was at first received as abstruse and divergent from Kramskoy’s portrait-centred oeuvre, the Rusałki painting is firmly grounded in ancient, Slavic folklore and contemporary Russian literature; a painting which utilises the landscape and its boundless mysteries as a romantic national symbol.

Ivan Kramskoy, Rusałki (The Mermaids), 1871. Oil on Canvas, 89.5 х 134cm. Tretyakov Gallery.https://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-kramskoy/mermaids-1871

Ivan Kramskoy, Rusałki (The Mermaids), 1871. Oil on Canvas, 89.5 х 134cm. Tretyakov Gallery.https://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-kramskoy/mermaids-1871

At a cursory glance, we are struck by Kramskoy’s evocation of the moonlight and its remarkable, garish glow. We see a group of young women, lying languidly, picking at the grass, bathing and preening themselves. It is unclear as to whether these are individual women; or, perhaps, the same woman depicted repeatedly in different poses, to evoke the tedium of time passing. There is a distinct weariness about Kramskoy’s figures; as if, wraith-like, they haunt the lakeside in a perpetual state of despair.

Nikolai Gogol’s short story A May Night (1831), is considered the principle inspiration for Kramskoy’s subject. The Drowned Maiden, a chapter in Gogol’s tale, describes the dream of a young Cossack named Levko. Levko encounters a group of ‘very pale’ girls, dressed in white gowns – their ‘shadowy’ and transparent forms loitering by a waterway. Undeniably, Kramskoy’s painting engages in a verbal-visual exchange with Gogol’s narrative; recreating the ‘solemn stillness’ of Gogol’s Ukrainian forest; the all-pervasive ‘reign’ of the night’s engulfing darkness, and the superstitious subject of Levko’s fearful vision. The psychological intensity and brooding absorption of Kramskoy’s Rusałki is also not dissimilar from that of Christ in the Desert, 1872, both of which reconvene humanity with the natural world, in a state of contemplation or suffering. It is difficult, however, to detach Kramskoy’s painting from the descriptive language of Gogol, and his evocation of the Ukrainian landscape. There is, perhaps, something much deeper within Kramskoy’s painting that enriches and, in fact, surpasses Gogol’s narrative.

Kramskoy conjures an orphic scene, one deeply embedded and yet strangely apart from the natural world. A marshy pond floods the foreground with an opaque silence. The waterlilies, floating on this dark reflective surface, evoke a solemn beauty; their white petals mirroring the pale, illuminated complexions of the Rusałki women. Yet, the white waterlily serves as a symbol of tragedy and death, of surface beauty, with concealed, perilous depths. Reinforcing this sense of threat, Kramskoy includes a woven fence, wrecked and dishevelled, in the lower foreground. Its sharp, broken twigs jut outwards, casting sinister shapes and creeping shadows. Likewise, a small cottage is perched atop of the valley; its shaggy, thatched roof and wooden beams appear at the point of collapse, as if it could be ensnared by the undergrowth. Kramskoy’s setting feels abandoned and dilapidated; yet the Rusałki make claim to this seemingly inhospitable and unnerving space.   

On the tips of plants and in the sheen of the Rusałki’s gowns, Kramskoy includes tinctures of pure white streaks, enlivening the scene with a glistening and scintillating mystical energy. Although it cannot be seen, the moon’s force – emblematic of cyclical nature – and presence is suggested through Kramskoy’s use of a stark, effulgent light. Under the silvery moon, the scene is thus imbued with both an eeriness and ethereality. the Rusałki glisten with a translucent and phantasmal quality. Through this, Kramskoy instils an ambiguity as to whether the Rusałki exist as tangible bodies or illusory figments. Their skin, characterised by a lurid shade of pale green, also radiates with a sickly and cadaverous glow.

A subtle haziness and muted tonality also dissipates throughout Kramskoy’s image. Areas of loose, quick brushstrokes are juxtaposed by sections of sharp detail. It is as if Kramskoy’s technique replicates the physiological effects of darkness on the eye; as they adjust to an arresting blindness, they begin to perceive vague shapes. Similarly, as we survey Kramskoy’s murky painting, formerly unseen background figures emerge from the gloom and then again disappear, as vaporous bodies dissolving into the thick night. The composition descends from a mass of dark thickets, towards a swamp-like, stagnant pool of water. The forest creates an obscure, claustrophobic and sheltered space, a barrier of tangled and looming foliage, enormous spruce trees and a downward slope. To capture the depth of the retreating woods, Kramskoy renders the left-hand side of the painting with an intense chromite green. The space thus becomes void-like, a muddy and dense terrain which withdraws into an indeterminate realm.

The symbolism of the forest is complex. With its capacity for hiding and foraging, it embodies a space of shelter and thriving life. Yet, often the site of ‘hybrid’ or demonic creatures, the forest signifies hidden dangers and the concealment of nature’s mysterious and dangerous power. Often, the forest is a symbol of the unconscious pertaining to man’s essential unpredictability. In the Western fairy tale, for instance, the woodland is often a metaphor for the savagery of adult-life; the site of the masculine ‘wolf’, where young girls are not to venture.

Rembrandt van Rijn,  Diana Bathing with her Nymphs with Actaeon and Callisto,  1634. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt,_Harmenszoon_van_Rijn_-_Diana_mit_Akt%C3%A4on_und_Kallisto_-_c.1634-1635.jpg

Rembrandt van Rijn, Diana Bathing with her Nymphs with Actaeon and Callisto, 1634. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt,_Harmenszoon_van_Rijn_-_Diana_mit_Akt%C3%A4on_und_Kallisto_-_c.1634-1635.jpg

In the left-hand corner of the painting, tree trunks materialise from the darkness atop a steep hill, rendered with a sketchy, almost violent brushstroke. Kramskoy’s agitated line-work and obscured vertiginous drop is disconcerting, and magnifies the scene’s precarious sense of violence; the woods feel limitless in their ascendancy of the land, and are evinced by Kramskoy as a large, overwhelming presence. The shadowy recesses of the Ukrainian forest become emblematic of the Rusalki’s psychological disturbance, intensifying and echoing their ceaselessly dismal condition.

Within the context of Slavic folklore, Rusałki represented the souls of stillborn babies and drowned, virginal maidens. They are water-sprites who haunt and seek revenge upon the earth. Rusałki were, however, also associated with fruitfulness and fertility. A venerated subject in pagan folk ritual, the invocation of the Rusałki also became a means of stimulating female productivity and encouraging crop growth.

Rusałki were thus believed to be the protectors of the natural world, ‘mistresses’ of the woodland, ruling the earth, sky and water. On the other hand, Rusałki were thought of as impure and seductive spirits. Analogous to the Sirens of Greek mythology, the Rusałki were believed to beguile their male victims with melodic songs and captivating beauty, eventually enticing them to a watery grave. In the Kaluga Province of Russia, for example, Rusałki were believed to be satanic, threatening villagers with necromantic charms and magic.

Kramskoy’s painting explores the multi-faceted mythology of the Rusałki, and their reputation as simultaneously powerful, alluring and deeply tragic female emblems. On the white gowns of his painted Rusałki, Kramskoy includes a small red embroidered pattern, resembling the Eastern Slavic Rushnyk cloth. Through this detail, Kramskoy aligns his spectral figures with a Slavic nationalism, entrenching his image, although subtly, in Slavic tradition and history.  One of Kramskoy’s Rusałka, for example, sits with her head resting upon her hands; her heavy eyes stare into the distance, relaying a profound sense of woe. The most emotionally expressive of Kramskoy’s figures, we feel sympathetic towards the melancholic young girl. Other Rusałki are detached and distant from the scene; they slump and hunch, with eyes closed, into a state of boredom or total passivity. This passivity, however, akin to the stillness of the water and the beauty of the flowering lilies, conceals something far more dangerous, lurking beneath the surface.

Situated in the far left of the canvas, a Rusałka emerges from the swampy water. Witch-like and possessed, she pulls at the reeds, clambering forward with her clawed hands, staring outwards from the darkness under a veil of wet hair. There is something distinctively precarious and violent about Kramskoy’s fiendish character, as if she is hinged on the point of attack. As the only figure glaring directly outwards, Kramskoy ensures that she confronts our gaze. We are thus implicated as voyeurs, having stumbled upon the cryptic and forbidding scene. There is, also, an understated eroticism found within Kramskoy’s painting. One Rusałka is positioned lying languidly, with her breasts exposed. Other nude figures, remotely discernible in the shadows, bathe under a fallen tree. Perched upon this fallen tree trunk, with her lower half covered by her ruched white gown, another Rusałka leans forward, revealing an elongated, naked back. With this, Kramskoy recalls the classical female nude – a motif found throughout nineteenth-century Western art, as the emblem of an idealised and sensual beauty.

Kramskoy’s painting thus makes a visual reference to depictions of the bathing Diana – the Roman Goddess of the hunt – and her accompanying nymphs. Most notably, Kramskoy’s image bears a resemblance to Rembrandt van Rijn’s Diana Bathing with her Nymphs with Actaeon and Callisto, 1634. Rembrandt’s work had been avidly collected by Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth-century; he was, subsequently, ‘rediscovered’ in nineteenth-century Russia, as a virtuoso painter.  Although Kramskoy may not have directly encountered Rembrandt’s Diana Bathing, he would have been familiar with Rembrandt’s mythological scenes, for example, Danaë, 1636, which is held in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Kramskoy also considered Rembrandt’s work to be a pivotal ‘milestone’ in the history of art, and expressed a deep admiration for the Dutch artist’s thick and expressive impasto technique.

The compositional affinities between Kramskoy and Rembrandt images are striking. Both paintings juxtapose areas of intense light and dark; both figural groupings situated by a lake, with a backdrop of dark forestry. Diana and her attending nymphs are also illuminated, comparable to Kramskoy’s moonlit Rusałki, by a vivid and miraculous light. Rembrandt’s sketchy, painterly technique is also found in Kramskoy’s Rusalki, particularly in the hazy, ghostly background figures. The similarities between Kramskoy’s Rusałki and representations of Diana extend beyond the visual; associated with the moon and woodland, Diana is another emblem of formidable female power, of fertility and chastity.

On the other hand, while Rembrandt’s representation of the Diana myth is jocular and erotic, Kramskoy’s scene is marked by a mournful atmosphere. Rembrandt’s voluptuous and fleshy nymphs scatter, playfully, from the intruding huntsman. Kramskoy’s Rusałki, however, remain in a stupor in a chilly light. Arguably, Kramskoy reclaims and reworks the mythological and classical motifs of Rembrandt’s painting to conjure his own fictitious and disconcerting narrative; a world suspended between dream and reality, in which women are both the aggressor and the victim.     

Although seemingly indebted to Gogol’s narrative, if considered apart from these literary origins, Kramskoy’s painting is simply an exposition in fantasy. His image explores the atmospheric propensities of light and darkness, and uses the natural world to both reinforce and capture human emotion. In Slavic folklore, the Rusałki embodied, simultaneously, the demonic and the virginal; an intermingling of unbridled feminine sexuality, danger, chastity and a recourse for the fiendish. With their diverse and complex symbolism, the Rusałki thus became a popular literary motif during the nineteenth-century.

Kramskoy’s interpretation of the mythological Rusałki reconciles the wicked, tragic and sensual facets of their legendary character. The latent gendered implications of Kramskoy’s painting – and other contemporary examinations of the Rusałki myth – are troubling, and deserve further elucidation. Isolated, cruel and apathetic, Kramskoy’s Rusałki also relay a femininity that is inherently idle and threatening. Furthermore, akin to Rembrandt’s bathing nymphs, they are women to whom we are granted access. We are allowed to observe them in their private, enchanted and, problematically, natural domain.


Primary Sources:

Gogol, Nikolai, A May Night (1831) ‘eBooks@Adelaide’, The University of Adelaide,
eBook, URL: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61may/chapter1.html (2016)

Secondary Sources:

Battistini, Matilde, Symbols and Allegories in Art, (California: Getty Publications, 2005)

Cirlot, J. E., A Dictionary of Symbols, (trans.) Jack Sage, (London: Routledge, 1962)

Hubbs, Joanna, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, (Bloomington: Indiana       
University Press, 1988)

Ivanits, Linda J., Russian Folk Belief (London: Routledge, 1992)

Jackson, David, The Wanderers and Critical Realism in Nineteenth-Century Russian Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006)

Michel, Emile, Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt (New York: John Lane, 2010)

Silva, Francisco Vaz da, ‘Fairy-Tale Symbolism: An Overview’, in: (ed.) Maria Tatar, The Cambridge Companion to Fairy Tales, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014