An inspired and highly intuitive artist, Zinaida Serebriakova is revered above all for her deeply sensual nudes described by Alexandre Benois as: the chief glory of her work, there is nothing quite like them. In these studies of the female body, we find not merely a natural quality but a familiar quality from literature and music. (A. Benois, 'Artistic Letters: The Union Exhibition', Rech, 13 March 1910).
One of the great painters of women of the 20th century, Serebriakova's work is distinguished by an alluring combination of warm femininity and technical excellence. The natural talent coursing through her veins (her father was the sculptor Evgenii Lanceray; her uncle the painter Alexandre Benois) was refined and developed by the extensive formal training she received first under Repin's direction in Talashkino and subsequently with the portraitist Osip Braz at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.
If the direct gaze of her models imbues her work with an air of modernity, Serebriakova's nudes primarily possess a timeless classicism. There are no allusions to the political instability and economic depression of her native land. Rather, she remained concerned with the personal and the local. On her return from Paris in 1906 she expressed no desire to join her uncle in St Petersburg, epicentre of the Russian artistic scene, soon to witness the foundation of the Ballet Russes. Instead she returned to the family estate in the province of Tver and continued to paint. She did not however escape unscathed: in 1916 the Council of the Academy of Arts had decided to grant Serebriakova, alongside three others, the title of Academician. Sadly with the outbreak of revolution in February 1917, the scheduled session of the Academy did not take place and Serebriakova and her companions were denied the opportunity to become the first women in history to be awarded this distinction.
Serebriakova proved equally unsusceptible to the lure of extensive experimentation embraced by so many of her female contemporaries, among them Goncharova and Popova. Her inspiration lay instead with the Renaissance masters and certain Russian artists including the early 19th century painter Alexei Venetsianov. Once she was living in Paris, Serebriakova would frequent the Louvre, even daily at points, making studies of her favourite paintings by artists such as Titian and Rubens. She persisted in producing less commercial, yet beautifully executed work to her own economic detriment to the point that by 1938 she had stopped exhibiting, writing to her daughter in 1955 I no longer even try to show my things to a blind public (Zinaida Serebriakova, letter to Tatiana Serebriakova, November 22 1955, quoted in A. L. Hilton, 'Zinaida Serebriakova', Woman's Art Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, p. 35).
It has been suggested that the sitter for this work may be Mlle. Marie Evreinoff, a friend of the family who regularly posed for Serebriakova. Executed in 1930, the 1920s and 1930s are often considered the artist's most erotic period. The viewer is at the feet of the model, her diagonal positioning is inviting and her expression is peaceful yet playful. The perspective and the confidence of her line exaggerates the width of the sitter's hips emphasizing her slim waist and delicate facial features. As art historian Alison Hilton suggests, her works are 'composed to achieve a balance of gesture and repose [the arms folded behind her head here versus the languor of her body], and of the incidental and the stable [the unstructured flow of her robe into the background]' ('Zinaida Serebriakova', Woman's Art Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, p. 34). The influence of the Italian Renaissance painters with their heady emphasis on the beauty of form is evident while the draped textiles and beautifully rendered folds recall classical sculpture. Her breasts and the contours of her stomach are captured realistically while the fabric ensures the composition is balanced and the light even. Perhaps, as the artist's youngest daughter Catherine suggests, the immense beauty of Serebriakova's female nudes should be partly attributed to the pleasure she experienced during their creation:
'The female nude was mother's favourite subject...In Paris her friends would come over to her studio, drink a cup of tea, then they would stay and pose for her. They were not the professional models that you might find in Montparnasse and maybe this is the reason why they are so natural and graceful.' (Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967), Paris, 1995, p. 16).