A Painting a Day In Support of the NEA: Kramskoy's "Portrait of an Unknown Woman" (1883)


I took a brief hiatus from my "a painting a day in support of the NEA" due to the death of Yevtushenko. But to honor him once more, here is a famous Russian painting from the era of Tolstoy: Ivan Kramskoi's "Neisvestnaya" or "Portrait of an Unknown Woman" (1883). This was a scandalous painting when it was first exhibited, though it's harder to see why today. However, in the 19th century, women were not allowed to travel alone--you always need a husband or a suitable chaperone. This woman is clearly quite used to riding alone, and looks down, somewhat haughtily on the viewer, as if sizing up a new conquest. More conservative Russians felt that she was a prostitute or at least a fallen woman without shame or morality. Yet there is also something poignant about this woman too, as she seems utterly isolated and hemmed in by her frigid and lifeless surroundings.
And the more we look at her face, the less sure we are that this is an arrogant glance, one of command and superiority. Something in her eyes seems frightened, or at least trapped; she has to play this elaborate social game of flirtation and seduction to stay alive, and what does she get for her pains? Many people have likened her to Anna Karenina, and the portrait has adorned many covers of this book. Anna abandoned a loveless marriage (and sadly, her own children) and the safety of society for a foolish love affair, one that never provided her the comfort of understanding she desired. She was then forced to endure the scorn of her former friends, while all the time watching her lover's fading interest and the legal threats removing her from her children. Even so, her dignity remains intact, and she refuses to grovel...yet her confidence is only skin deep, as she knows a single push could send her toppling off the coach and into the grime and slush of poverty. Kramskoy has beautifully captured her strength and fragility, as well as her quiet beauty, which stands heads and shoulders above the imposing architecture of the city.

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