This magnificently detailed picture gave me a pause when it slid past my eyeballs on one of my searches for new material for this Historic Painting series. At first glance I thought it was a Scandinavian scene, but it’s actually depicting 19th century Russia. This is evidently a real room in a house that really existed, the estate of Russian nobleman Nikolai Petrovich Milyukov, located in the Vyshnevolotsk district, Tver province, which is on the traditional road between Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was painted by Grigory Soroka in 1844.
Look at the amazing details, especially the objects on the table in the foreground. There’s a protractor, an abacus, writing instruments, a candle, a clock, and a human skull. The paperweight on the right is curious: it’s an image of Napoleon on a horse. Napoleon was a traditional enemy of Russia, reviled for invading the country in 1812, easily within living memory of many Russians alive when this picture was created. The boy is Conon Milyukov, age nine. The silk-covered settees are evidently a traditional craft of Russian serfs, of whom this nobleman must have owned many.
Indeed, serfdom and class are really what this picture is about. Grigory Soroka was a serf and in fact was owned by Nikolai Milyukov and his family–which makes the addition of the Napoleon figure more interesting, because Nikolai Milyukov’s godfather was none other than Tsar Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon. Soroka did go abroad to study art but eventually returned to his home province and continued to live there even after serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861. For whatever reason Soroka chose not to try to gain his freedom–the deal by which serfs were emancipated was notoriously imperfect, with many unintended consequences–but made a complaint against Milyukov and was punished for it. In response, Soroka hanged himself in 1864. He was a brilliant painter, as you can see here, but left behind a comparatively small body of work.
This painting is currently in the State Russian Museum, and is rightfully recognized as one of the great cultural treasures of 19th century Russia.