“Ivan Tsarevich on the Gray Wolf” is a famous painting painted by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov in 1889. A group of fairy-tale characters is depicted in the center of the composition. Ivan Tsarevich sits on the Gray wolf running at full speed, gently holding Elena the Beautiful. To the right of the heroes, a blooming apple tree spreads on the canvas. To the left and behind they are surrounded by a dense forest, with century-old trunks of trees overgrown with moss without foliage. Underfoot is an impenetrable swamp with shimmering white water lilies. A mysterious, tense work conveys the dynamism of the situation, plunges the viewer into a fairy-tale world, where good and evil, anxiety and beauty are combined for an instant.
Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov is a great Russian artist of the late XIX – early XX centuries, the founder of a new style in painting, who managed to unravel and express the secret of the Russian soul. Born and living for almost 20 years in a northern Russian village, a folklore worldview, a love for the poetry of Russian epic culture, was early formed in him. After years of creativity and fruitful work, the master returns to children’s aspirations, borrows methods and techniques from national folk art. His vivid works are filled with an original Russian spirit, refer the viewer to the “legends of deep antiquity”, to those distant times that remained in the memory of the people in legends, tales, songs, epics.
The picture is based on the plot of the Russian fairy tale about the adventures of the youngest tsar’s son and his faithful companion – the magic beast. Despite the oppressive dark landscape, in it, as in other mythological and epic works, the artist managed to convey the idea of beauty and happiness, to show the sublimity of folk fantasy, and also presented the magnificent skill of a landscape painter and portrait painter. The faces of the main characters are detailed, reflecting conflicting emotions of anxiety and resignation.
Ivan, expecting a chase, anxiously looks back into the dense distance. The kidnapped beauty, on the contrary, resigned herself to fate. Cuddling up to the prince, she does not raise her eyes, frightened by the terrible thicket and the events that are taking place. The gray wolf is a bright and mysterious character. Being a werewolf in the plot, he appears not as a bloodthirsty beast. But as a magical power with which the aspirations of the Russian people are connected. The image is filled with courage, devotion, self-sacrifice. The painting does not give the impression of being static. The heroes seem to be flying in the air over a forest swamp.
Obviously, the artist expressed the movement with the legs of a wolf stretched forward in a jump, ears pressed tightly to the head. The dynamism of the scene is enhanced by a special technique of the master – a diagonal branch that bevels the right side of the image. Using symbolic language, the master emphasizes the mythological genre of the plot with the clothes of the characters prescribed to the smallest detail.
The Tsarevich’s golden caftan and Elena’s soft blue dress, according to Slavic legends, symbolize miracles and magic. The wolf’s hair in the picture takes on golden brown shades, similar to the attire of Ivan, whom he serves. The heroes are surrounded by a gloomy atmosphere of an ominous forest. Huge tree trunks resemble fantastic giants. But a faint light shines through the dense twisted branches.
And delicate white flowers blossomed on the apple tree, which are a symbol of all-conquering love and a sign of a happy outcome. The painting “Ivan Tsarevich on the Gray Wolf” is one of the best mythological works of Viktor Vasnetsov, which has become the property of Russian and world fine arts.
By immersing the viewer in a fairy tale, the master created something more than a book illustration. His creation was imprinted outside of time, influenced the development of modernism and symbolism in Russian painting, and opened up new perspectives for artists.