The Art of Natalia Goncharova


Born in 1898, Natalia Goncharova grew up in Ladyzhino.  She was educated in Moscow and eventually became an artist known both in the East and in the West, doing a great deal of painting, much theatre design, and some illustration as well.

In Utopias, Kelly argues that “diverse” forms of art were interpreted as “contemporary art” in Russia in the early decades of the 20th century; she describes the Russian “modern” art world of that time as one where “neo-primitivists and neo-barbarists were as likely to be radicals as reactionaries,” as one possessed with a “contradictory character,” a character “as much modern as anti-modern.” (Kelly, xxii-xxiii).

Goncharova’s work can be seen as a prime example illustrating that viewpoint.  Not to imply that many, if not all, of Goncharova’s works can perceived as a blending of styles, it is, however, quite possible to see one body of her works as “anti-modern” and another as “modern.”  Goncharova practiced the “modern” styles of Futurism, Cubo-Futurism and Rayonism; yet, she also created Neo-Primitive works much more reminiscent of icons and forms of Russian folk art.  At her enormous “One-Man” Exhibition in 1913, her Neo-primitive works apparently were displayed alongside her more “modern” endeavors.

Goncharova herself has been described as a woman that was “entirely serious” and extremely “productive.”   She is said to have possessed “an extraordinary energy,” great “strength,” and a tendency to “fervently advocate ideas.”  By her own account, she “always liked doing things.” (Sarabianov, 139).  It is thought that she was a “spiritual” person. (Rahuba).  That trait of her character may account for the portion of her work that dealt with religious themes and her drawing inspiration from, among other sources, Russian icons.  One famous example of her religious work is her depiction of the four authors of the Gospels in The Evangelists (1910) (below).


The Evangelists, 1910


Not surprisingly, she was also a highly controversial figure, often breaking social conventions.  The censor at the exhibition Donkey’s Tail in 1912 removed The Evangelists, because “the name Donkey’s Tail” was “incompatible with the treatment of religious themes.” (Bowlt, 146).  Three of her works - God of Fertility and two nudes – were seized and caused a scandal in 1909. (Chamot [a], 9).  She “shocked the public” with her “casual” cross dressing and her “open cohabitation” with Larionov, to whom she was only married towards the very end of their lives. (Drutt).  In 1913, probably after reflecting upon the controversy that arose around her, she wrote, “if I clash with society, this occurs only because the latter fails to understand the bases of art and not because of my individual peculiarities, which nobody is obliged to understand.” (Goncharova, 58).

            Though Goncharova began her formal artistic training as a student of sculpture at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, she left school after completing only three of the normal ten years of study, having only won a silver medal.  She had met Mikhail Larionov who was to be her lifelong companion, and, through his assistance, she was to gradually learn to paint with pastel and then eventually with watercolor and oil.  She explains in a 1937 interview: “Sculpture cannot convey the emotion produced by a landscape…  I renounced it also because I was fascinated by the play of light, the harmonies of color.” (Chamot [a], 7-8).

            Contemporary styles employed by the French such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were of central importance to her early artistic development; her style was particularly and significantly altered through her exposure to the paintings of Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse, Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. (Parton [a], 892).  This is evident in the “more violent distortion” that appeared in her paintings after being exposed to contemporary French works at the Golden Fleece salons around 1908. (Chamot [a], 9).  Later, around 1913, she wrote, “At the beginning of my development, I learned most of all from my French contemporaries.” (Goncharova, 55). 

Symbolism is among what has been proposed to be her other early influences.  Chamot found a “dream-like other-worldliness” and a “slender definition of form” in Winter Night. (1906-07), proposing that Goncharova was, therefore, influenced by symbolist techniques employed by the contributors to The Blue Rose exhibition of 1907. (Chamot [a], 8, 27).  Goncharova also employed the Cubist style during this period, as is seen in her painting Pillars of Salt (Cubist Method) (1908) and openly declared by its title. (Ibid., 30).  She was also seemingly influenced by the way the Fauves employed color; however, her brushwork, “never as coarse as theirs, retained a lightness and delicacy.” (Parton [a], 892).  This influence seems apparent, as Chamot noted, in Landscape at Ladyzhino (1908). (Chamot [a], 26).  The colors of the landscape are only largely plausible natural choices and the focus of the painting seems to be upon color and not upon form.

            In the later half of the 20th century’s first decade, Goncharova seemed to gradually emerge from her early development and employ a more individual style.  This emerging style was characterized by the use of bright color and an approach to form that was both simplified and stylized.  Her focus shifted from the West to the East and, specifically, to Russia; in doing so, she began to actively draw inspiration from eastern sources. (Parton [a], 892-3)  She would later explain, “…my path is towards the source of all arts, the East… for me, it [the West] has dried up, and because my sympathies lie with the East.” (Goncharova, 55-58).

            In general, her brushwork was “refined” and “never coarse and ungainly.”  Marina Tsvetayeva commented, “Her very brushstrokes embody the idea of resurrection.” (Parton [a], 894-5).  Furthermore, the humans depicted in her paintings always have “particularly expressive” poses, and the theme or focus of her paintings is usually “pronounced” and “defined.” (Sarabianov, 142-3).  This is illustrated by the notably expressive poses and clear focus seen in Dancing Peasants (1911) (below).


Dancing Peasants, 1911


            As she turned to the East, she began to find inspiration specifically in folk art forms such as primitive idols or wooden toys carved by peasants, lubki (older Russian popular prints) and icons.  The result of this practice was works that are considered “Neo-primitive.”  Such works possess a “pronounced one-dimensionality (flatness), lack of depth and perspective, distortions of ‘reality,’ as well as bold, striking colors.” (Bennett).  Good examples are Annunciation (1909) that, in particular, resembles an icon, The Archangel Michael (1910), Washerwoman (1910’s) and Haycutting (1910) (all below).


Annunciation, 1909                   The Archangel Michael, 1910


Washerwoman, 1910’s


Haycutting, 1910


            In the second decade of the century, though she did continue to create Neo-primitive works, she also began to work with Futurism and Rayonism. (Parton [a], 893).  A note probably written by Goncharova herself describes her artistic development by stating, “… 1906-1911 period of Synthesis, Cubism and Primitivism; from 1911 Futurism and Rayonism.” (Chamot [a], 7).  Chamot describes Goncharova’s use of Futurist “devices”:

She did not hesitate to break up forms and rearrange their component parts, just as Kruchenykh would sometimes obtain poetic effects by jumbling the type used by printers.  She introduced musical notation, letters and words, as they flash past in shop signs; she expressed movement by repeating the same form in several phases of its action and velocity by blurring contours.  These Futurist devices were combined with a further breaking up of forms through the application of Rayonist principles... (Chamot [a], 10)

A well-known example of her Futurist work that illustrates her use of the above “devices” is The Cyclist (1912-13) (below).


The Cyclist, 1912-13

Rayonism (if translated to French then English or Rayism if translated directly from the Russian Luchizm) was, in true Russian form, a western idea taken, transformed, and improved to fit the uniquely Russian culture.  Several influences were combined to make Rayonism the strikingly abstract style that it is.  One influence was the popular fourth dimension of space theory.  This fourth dimension perpendicular to all three of our dimensions and is where our true forms are found, known as hyperspace.  A site, which helps explain how hyperspace works, can be found here.  It was quite a well-respected theory at the time, and still maintains some followers today.  It was big enough in 1909 that Scientific American ran an essay contest for the best popular explanation of the theory.  The other key influence on Rayonism was Futurism.  Goncharova and Larionov wanted to completely upstage Italian Futurism through Rayonism, although he later claimed that all resemblance between the two was coincidental, the natural result of forward moving art.  The most important aspect taken from Futurism was the idea of lines of force.  The Rayonist painter was to attempt to capture the “intangible forms and immaterial objects.” (Parton [b], 133) created by the intersection of rays reflecting off two or more objects.  These were very similar to the lines of force that were their inspiration.  As Larionov wrote in a Rayonism manifesto, “The picture appears slippery, it imparts a sensation of the extratemporal and the special - in it arises the sensation of what could be called the fourth dimension since the length, breadth, and density of the paint layer are the only signs of our surrounding world.  All the sensations arising from the picture are of a different order.” (Parton [b], 133).  It is a rather and abstract style as shown here in Blue and Green Forest 1913-14.


                                              Blue and Green Forest 1913-14


Goncharova and Larionov started Rayonism in 1912, shortly after the Futurism manifesto translation was published.  However they later predated the works, some as early as 1909, perhaps some even earlier.  Because they were the only major practitioners of Rayonism and they never founded a school based on their style, it largely died off when they left for Paris on 20 April 1914.  After that they spent most of their days working on sets for plays.

            When Goncharova and Larionov left Russia for Paris it was not idle wondering, for Goncharova’s spirit could not have tolerated that.  A friend of theirs, Diaghilev, commissioned their talents for his production of Le Coq d’Or (1914), prompting their journey.  Goncharova designed the sets and costumes while Larionov promoted.  It was a tremendous success, which brought them offers for many more collaborative ballets. Russian Folklore heavily influenced the Le Coq d’Or designs. (Chamot [b], 152).  The designs are very colorful and have many of the qualities of her neo-primitist works.



        Le Coq d’Or curtain design                      Le Coq d’Or stage design



       Le Coq d’Or King’s costume          Le Coq d’Or peasants costume


Goncharova and Larionov continued to work with Diaghilev on his Ballets Russes. The shows were presented primarily in France, although they did make their way to other European theaters, eventually to American and even Australian theaters.  They stayed with him until his death in 1930.

            After 1930 Goncharova and Larionov were practically broke.  They had no regular employment; however there were fairly frequent commissions for sets that resulted from their fame as the leading Ballets Russes designers.  Goncharova illustrated books occasionally, one of which was Tsar Stalin.  Through these pursuits Goncharova earned just enough for them to live off of.  When, in 1938, Hitler invaded Austria, the artists realized the imminence of war and the precariousness of their position.  Realizing that Stalinist Russia would not be an environment with the liberties they wanted, they applied for French nationalization on April 14.  Full French citizenship was granted on September 8, which secured their lives, home, and future.  They remained in Paris for the duration of the war after returning from vacation in Seine Marne at the end of September 1939.  Life during the Nazi occupation was hard, but not as hard as one perhaps would expect.  There were surprisingly many shows that both Goncharova and Larionov exhibited in, plus Goncharova had a commission for a series of plays running in Paris from 1940 to 1942. 

            After the war was over, sadly life became harder.  The commissions were few and far between.  They survived largely by selling works from their mammoth personal collection.  The couple was barely getting by, but they were managing.  That changed in 1950 when Larionov had a debilitating stroke.  His career was all but ended by it, and so were the couple’s resources.  Goncharova walked every day to the rest home where Larionov was recovering.  She began to waste away as she was only eating a bowl of soup every day, which she received, for free from a restaurant.  During this period they were both so weak that all they had energy to do for money was to exhibit works.  In June 1955, for reasons unknown, they decided to get married after 55 years of living together. 

1957 was a year of great inspiration for Goncharova.  The first Sputnik was launched, and she was filled with immense pride with the glory of her countrymen’s accomplishment.  “She was already so crippled with arthritis that she could no longer raise her arm to the easel and painted sitting on her bed with the canvas flat on a stool in front of her.” (Chamot [b], 152).  In this manner she created a series of about 20 works with a space theme such as Space.


                                                            Space (1957)


This new burst of painting lasted almost to the day she died, and brought her immense joy.  On 17 October 1962 Goncharova died of terminal cancer.  She was buried on October 22 in Ivry Cemetery, division 7, line 1, tomb 14.  Larionov joined her two years later, and the same simple epitaph adorns both their names on the tomb:  “(Artiste, Peintre).” (Parton [b], 222).



Works Cited

1.) Bennett, Courtney & Brittany Bennett. Neo-primitivism. Russian Painting. Rollins College, 20 Nov. 2001,


2.) Bowlt & Petrova, Ed. Painting Revolution: Kadinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde. Foundation for International Arts and Education, 2000.


3.) [a] Chamot, Mary. Goncharova: Stage Designs and Paintings.  London: Oresko Books, 1979.


4.) [b] Chamot, Mary.  Goncharova’s Work in the West.  Russian Women Artists of the Avant-garde: 1910-1930.  1979.


5.) Drutt, Matthew. Amazons of the avant-garde: Exter, Goncharova, Popova, Rozanova, Stepanova, Udaltsova. Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 1 Dec. 2001,


6.) Goncharova, Natalya.  Preface to Catalogue of One-Man Exhibition, 1913. In Russian Art of the Avant Garde. Bowlt, Ed.  New York City: Thames and Hudson Incorporated, 1957.


7.) Jirousek, Charlotte. Changes in Form and Color: The Fauves. Art, Design and Visual Thinking: an Interactive Textbook.  Cornell University, 20 Nov. 2001,


8.) Kelly, Catriona.  Introduction.  Utopias.  New York City: Penguin Books, 1999.


9.) [a] Parton, Anthony. Goncharova, Natal’ya (Sergeyevna). In The Dictionary of Art.  Jane Turner, Ed. Vol. 12. London: Macmillian Publishers Limited, 1996.


10.) [b] Parton, Anthony.  Mikhail Larionov and the Russian Avant-Garde.  New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1993.


11.) Rahuba, Leslie A. Natalia Goncharova: Avante Garde Icon Painter. 1998, University of Virginia, 20 Nov. 2001,


12.) Sarabianov, Dmitrii.  Talent and Hard Work The Art of Natalia Goncharova.  Russian Women Artists of the Avant-garde: 1910-1930.  1979.