Painting is visual poetry: the brilliant Ukrainian artist Serhiy Vasylkivsky

06 May 2019

Serhiy Vasylkivsky is a brilliant world-known Ukrainian artist, a recognized master of painting. His works, the artistic heritage of Ukraine, are displayed in the major museums in his homeland and abroad.

Vasylkivsky was born October 19, 1854, in the picturesque town of Izyum on the Donets River, Kharkov Gubernia. The fascinating beauty of Ukrainian nature evoked in the future painter a great desire to convey everything he saw on the canvas. After gymnasium, Vasylkivsky studied at the Kharkov Veterinary School, but soon left it for the Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts (1876). At the Academy, he studied landscape painting (1879—1883) and attended classes in battle painting. Later, he turned to history and genre scenes and portraiture.

Landscape, however, was his forte. The scope of his works was broad — from miniature to monumental painting. Nature in various seasons constitutes the main theme of his paintings. Winter scenes mostly feature motifs of snow-covered roads, frosty dawns and icy twilights. Willow trees mirrored in the water, harvest time and haymaking are the summer themes. He painted spring thaws, flood plains, babbling brooks. His autumn landscapes are a blaze of leaves in the forest and lakes in rainy weather.

His diploma work ‘Along the Donets River’ (1885) brought Vasylkivsky the title of artist of the first rank, a large gold medal and a four-year scholarship, which gave him opportunity to continue studying art. His success testified to the artist’s unquestionable maturity and talent.

The young painter graduated from the Academy fully equipped with professional mastership and quite developed democratic convictions. He and his friends, young artists, were fond of Shevchenko’s and Gogol’s literary works. In art, Vasylkivsky shared the views of the Peredvizhniki (the Society of Itinerant Artists). He was firmly convinced that only truth has the right to be conveyed. He thought that the artist must be an honest son of his homeland, sensitive to her joys and sorrows. He was also sure that painting is visual poetry.

In 1886 Vasylkivsky went abroad, chiefly to visit Paris. He was especially attracted by the art of the Barbizon painters who worked mostly in plein-air. Serhiy made copies of works by Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny and Diaz, visited art museums in Spain, Italy, England, and studied paintings of the great masters. And everywhere he was he painted from nature. During two years, Vasylkivsky executed over fifty works which testified a new stage in his creativity.

The best canvases of that period were marked by a well-balanced composition and, at the same time, spontaneity, their colouring was rich and bright, the texture – varied, sparkling with illuminative reflections. His works were ingenuous and emotional.

The canvases of that period brought the painter European recognition. The Paris Salon favoured him with a rare for a foreign artist honour of exhibiting his works in its halls without the jury’s approval. The famous Russian art collector Pyotr Tretyakov acquired some of his canvases, they are exhibited in the Tretyakov Art Gallery.

In 1888, Vasylkivsky returned to Ukraine. He travelled widely in Kharkov and Poltava gubernias, went down the Dnieper to Zaporozhye, everywhere drawing and painting from nature with great inspiration. The works dating 1890—1900s became his greatest achievement. These were classic Ukrainian landscape paintings. Among them were A Cossack Picket (1888), Cossack Meadow (1893), Chumak Romodan Road (1902).

All of them, despite the variety of motifs, techniques of execution and dimensions showed the certain common traits: national motifs and accurate representation of nature. Vasylkivsky’s landscapes are eloquently democratic and socially oriented, with nature as the arena of life and activities of common people.

Ever more frequently, the artist found beauty in the ordinary incidents of everyday life, and this beauty became his ideal. He resolutely rejected all the artificial and deliberate in the composition of his works. But for all the prosaicness, with which life of man and nature is portrayed, they are full of poetry and imbued with lyricism inherent in Ukrainian songs and Ukrainian national culture. Slight melancholy, mild sorrow, and serene joy are rendered by the harmony of form and colour.

Living mostly in Kharkov, Vasylkivsky was at the centre of artistic life in all the regions of Ukraine east of the Dnieper. In cooperation with Bezperchy, Rayevska-Ivanova and Beketov, he worked out the statutes of the Kharkov Art School. For many years he headed the Kharkov Art Society, took an active part in the erection of the monument to Kotlyarevsky, the famous author of The Aeneid and Natalka Poltavka, which stands in Poltava.

In 1900, he and Samokysh published a wonderful art book ‘From Ukrainian Antiquity’. He made for the book 20 full-length portraits of representatives of various strata in Ukraine — peasants and townsmen, kobza-players and Zaporozhian Cossacks, leaders of the national-liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people. Among them were Bogdan Khmelnitsky and Ivan Honta. A portrait of Hrihory Skovoroda, the famous writer and philosopher was also included there.

At the artist’s first one-man show, held in autumn 1900 in Kharkov, Vasylkivsky presented 120 works. The majority of them were landscapes: boundless steppes, the sunlit Dnieper, shady village streets with cherry orchards in bloom, mysterious dark lakes overgrown with rushes, and calm Ukrainian nights.


In 1903, at the competition for designs of murals to decorate the Poltava Zemstvo (elective council) building, sketches by Vasylkivsky were recognized the best. He made three huge canvases devoted to Ukraine, Poltava region in particular. They depicted significant stages in its history. There were images of the Cossack Holota, the hero of folk ballads; the boundless reaches of the Chumak Romodan Road; and Poltava Cossacks and citizens electing Martin Pushkar their commander and giving him their blessing in the struggle against the Polish oppressors. The conception was grandiose, and its realization took over three years.

To the last days of his life, despite serious illness, the artist continued to work on his last painting ‘Ballad of Three Brothers’. Serhiy Vasilkivsky died October 8, 1917.

The legacy of the artist includes about 3500 works, mostly landscapes. His finest paintings are lyrical and epic songs where emotional and rational have merged to glorify the natural beauty of Ukraine.


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