On this day in 1840, the great Russian painter Illarion Pryanishnikov was born. At the age of 16, he was sent off to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. And he stayed there for most of the rest of his life — for ten years as a student, then for the final two decades he was an instructor there. But he was something of a radical — a founding member of the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions, which sought (like the post-impressionists later in France) to get beyond the control of the academy.
Pryanishnikov tended to paint historical scenes — especially scenes from recent wars. He was great at doing crowds. But I want to focus on one painting from when he was still a student, Jokers. Gostiny Dvor in Moscow. To us, 150 years on, it doesn’t mean much. But according to Moscow: A Cultural History, it “depicts a clerk making bunny ears with his fingers behind the head of a man who appears to be drunk for the amusement of a group of corpulent top-hatted Moscow merchants.” The implication is that the wealthy people got some poor (maybe homeless) man drunk so they could make fun of him. It’s degrading of all parties involved. Such art is the kind of thing that can lead to revolution — although in the case of Russia, it would take another 52 years.
Happy birthday Illarion Pryanishnikov!