Boris Kustodiev, Self-Portrait, 1912
Boris Kustodiev was born in Astrakhan into the family of a professor of philosophy. His father died young, and all financial and material burdens fell on his mother's shoulders. The Kustodiev family rented a small wing in a rich merchant's house. It was there that the boy's first impressions were formed of the way of life of the provincial merchant class. Kustodiev later wrote, "The whole tenor of the rich and plentiful merchant way of life was there right under my nose. It was like something out of an Ostrovsky play." He retained these childhood observations for years, recreating them later in oils and water-colours.
Boris Kustodiev, The Merchant's Wife, 1918
Between 1893 and 1896, Boris studied in theological seminary and took private art lessons in Astrakhan from Pavel Vlasov, a pupil of Vasily Perov. Subsequently, from 1896 to 1903, he attended Ilya Repin’s studio at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. When Repin was commissioned to paint a large-scale canvas to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the State Council, he invited Kustodiev to be his assistant. The painting was extremely complex and involved a great deal of hard work. Together with his teacher, Kustodiev made portrait studies for the painting, and then executed the right-hand side of the final work. Also at this time, Kustodiev made a series of portraits of his spiritual comrades including the artist Ivan Bilibin .
In 1903, Kustodiev married Julia Proshinskaya. One year later He visited France and Spain on a grant from the Imperial Academy of Arts. Also in 1904, he attended the private studio of René Ménard in Paris. After that he traveled to Spain, then, in 1907, to Italy, and in 1909 he visited Austria and Germany. The Russian Revolution of 1905, which shook the foundations of society, evoked Kustodiev's vivid response. He contributed to the satirical journals Zhupel (Bugbear) and Adskaya Pochta (Hell's Mail). At that time, he first met the artists of Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), a group of progressive Russian artists. He joined their association in 1910 and subsequently took part in all their exhibitions.
In 1905, Kustodiev first turned to book illustrating, a genre in which he worked throughout his entire life. He illustrated many works of classical Russian literature, including Gogol's Dead Souls, Lermontov's The Lay of Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich, and Tolstoy's How the Devil Stole the Peasants Hunk of Bread. In 1909, he was elected into the Imperial Academy of Arts. He continued to work intensively, but a grave illness - tuberculosis of the spine - required urgent attention. On the advice of his doctors he went to Switzerland, where he spent a year undergoing treatment in a private clinic.
In 1916, Kustodiev became paraplegic. "Now my whole world is my room", he wrote. His colourful paintings and joyful genre pieces do not reveal his physical suffering, and on the contrary give the impression of a carefree life. His Maslenitsa was all painted from his memories. He meticulously restored his own childhood in the busy city on the Volga banks:
In the first years after the Russian Revolution of 1917 Kustodiev worked in various fields. Contemporary themes became the basis for his work, being embodied in drawings for calendars and book covers, and in illustrations and sketches of street decorations, as well as some portraits (Portrait of Countess Grabowska). His covers for the journals The Red Cornfield and Red Panorama attracted attention. Kustodiev also worked in lithography, illustrating works by Nekrasov. His illustrations were landmarks in the history of Russian book designing, so well did they correspond to the literary images.
Kustodiev was also interested in designing stage scenery. He first started work in the theatre in 1911, when he designed the sets for Alexandr Ostrovskv's An Ardent Heart. Such was his success that further orders came pouring in. In 1913, he designed the sets and costumes for The Death of Pazukhin at the Moscow Art Theatre. His talent in this sphere was especially apparent in his work for Ostrovsky's plays; It's a Family Affair, A Stroke of Luck, Wolves and Sheep, and The Storm. The milieu of Ostrovsky's plays - provincial life and the world of the merchant class - was close to his own genre paintings, and he worked easily and quickly on the stage sets.
In 1923, Kustodiev joined the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. He continued to paint, make engravings, illustrate books, and design for the theater up until his death on May 28, 1927, in Leningrad.