For many years, Still life with teapot and oranges was considered to be a work by Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964). The beginning of this tradition was laid by Larionov’s second wife Alexandra Larionova-Tomilina (1901-1987), who after the death of Larionov systemised his artistic legacy and was actively engaged in popularising his work. An image of the painting was first published in George Waldemar’s monograph (G. Waldemar, Larionov, Paris, 1966, illustrated p. 43). In 1973 the painting was exhibited under no. 12 as Nature morte a la théière at ‘Michel Larionov et son temps’ in Albi.
When Waldemar's monograph was published, it was already clear that Still life with teapot and oranges differs from the undisputed works by Larionov. The selection of the objects and the manner of their depiction are more reminiscent of works by Natalia Goncharova, for example Still life with a green bottle (Ulyanovsk Regional Art Museum): it seems that the bottle and the carpet are the same and the tea service is similar. The stylistic similarity is even more convincing: the ‘loaded upper part’ of the composition, rich colour palette, vigorous outlines and slightly geometrised form of the objects – all of which are characteristic features of Goncharova’s artistic language. The composition in Larionov’s still lifes is frequently more dynamic (the edge of a table is often placed diagonally and not parallel to the lower edge of a canvas); the brushwork is light and has an improvisational quality; a different set of objects is usually represented (for example, Larionov prefers to depict pears rather than oranges and favours unexpected and haphazard combinations of objects); and he pays more attention to light – the shadows and highlights are more accentuated.
In the list of works by Goncharova and Larionov, published in Eli Eganbiuri’s (Ilya Zdanevich) brochure ‘Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov’ (Moscow, 1913), a title containing the word ‘teapot’ only appears in the list of Goncharova works: on page IX (1909) ‘Still life (teapot and fruit)’, and page X (1910) ‘Bottle, teapot, oranges’. It is difficult to determine which of these records relates to Still life with teapot and oranges. Considering that at present it is impossible to accurately date Goncharova’s works created between late 1908 and 1910, it is reasonable to suggest that the present work was painted between 1909-1910.
The inscriptions on the reverse confirm the attribution of the painting to Goncharova. The inscription in violet paint «Mert[vaia] natura N15a» is made by the artist’s hand – such inscriptions are often found on her canvasses of the 1900s-early 1910s. As established by Elena Basner, those inscriptions were added before paintings were sent to Goncharova’s solo exhibition in St Petersburg in 1914, following her show in Moscow in 1913. ‘The St Petersburg exhibition, which opened at the N. E. Dobychina Art Salon was an abbreviated version of the Moscow one […]’. Unlike the Moscow listing, the St Petersburg catalogue is a list of works without any kind of logical order. One can suggest that when sending paintings to St Petersburg, Goncharova added a price and a number corresponding to the Moscow catalogue to those paintings that had been exhibited in Moscow, so that Dobychina could identify a corresponding title. The works that were not exhibited in Moscow […] received a name and a number with the letter ‘a’ on the reverse […]. It is easy to notice the correlation between the numbers with the letter ‘a’ and the numbers in the St Petersburg catalogue, the difference is 111 […]. This means that in the St Petersburg catalogue Dobychina first listed pictures which were taken from the Moscow catalogue (there were 111 of them), and then, in succession, paintings marked with the letter ‘a’ on the reverse (E. Basner, ‘O dvykh kartinakh, pripisyvaemykh [About two paintings wrongly attributed to] M. F. Larionov’, The State Russian Museum, Stranitsy istorii otechestvennogo iskusstva [Pages of the history of Russian art], 2nd edition, second half of the XIX – early XX century, Sbornik nauchnykh trudov [Collection of scientific papers], St Petersburg, 1993, pp. 17-18).
The number ‘15a’ on the reverse of Still life with teapot and oranges corresponds with a number in the catalogue of Goncharova’s exhibition (St Petersburg, 1914): ‘N126. Still life (teapot and oranges)’. This is entirely consistent with the explanation proposed by Basner.
It is important to mention other inscriptions and labels present on the reverse of the painting. Labels inscribed ‘MKHPSI’ and ‘G. i L.’ and numbers added by the Moscow Repository of Contemporary Art organised by N. D. Vinogradov. The same labels are present on many paintings kept in the collection of The State Tretyakov Gallery. Since works by Larionov and Goncharova were transferred to the repository in 1919 as a matter of urgency and in the artists’ absence, they were stored in a general warehouse (‘G. i L.)’ and received special numbers; the paintings were not attributed.
Inscriptions in A. K. Larionova-Tomilina’s hand are also present, evidently made in the 1960s: on the reverse of the canvas in the upper left quadrant: ‘Larionov’ and on the upper stretcher bar: ‘Larionov - Nature morte (15a) à la théière ([indistinctly inscribed letter] 43). It is surprising that Larionova-Tomilina, who knew her husband's work well, made such an obvious mistake with attributing this work. Although quite rare, similar mistakes occurred with the works of Larionov and Goncharova in the collection of The State Tretyakov Gallery, where the majority of their work is kept.
Thus, it is possible to conclude that the painting in question is an undisputable work by Natalia Goncharova with an impeccable provenance and of a high artistic merit, belonging to the best period of the artist’s career.
We are grateful to Irina Vakar, Senior Researcher of the first half of XX century paintings, at The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow for providing this note.