The Morning of the Streltsy Execution is the first part of the famous historical triptych by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov.
Before us are the events of October 1698, when almost daily mass executions were committed against the rebellious “Russian janissaries”. A gray fog hangs over Moscow. A crow is circling in the sky, anticipating an imminent feast. The gloomy landscape evokes a feeling of nagging melancholy. The convicts await their fate, surrounded by inconsolable relatives, burning candles in their hands symbolize farewell to life.
The emotional core of the plot is the gaze of the red-bearded archer, blazing with hatred, directed at Peter I and penetrating the entire space of the picture. Oh, if only a glance could kill! The numb king is like a statue on a pedestal. He understands that he has no power over a rebellious people. Only five dozen people gathered at the Execution Ground, but it seems to the viewer that Red Square is filled to capacity. And it is enough to take a step to merge with the crowd that gathered for execution in the year 1698 A.D. …
History of the painting
Vasily Surikov nurtured the idea of this picture for many years. The artist was amazingly receptive, contemporaries believed that he was endowed with a mystical gift. It seems that the ancient city – a mute witness of history – whispered its dark secrets to him.
The scene of the execution of the archers flashed in the imagination of Vasily Ivanovich like lightning. The inspiration happened while walking along Red Square at dusk, the artist immediately returned home and pored over sketches until late at night.
The colossal work took three years. The author was tormented by nightmares: the deceased archers came to him and bowed, even in his sleep he could smell blood. Waking up, he looked at the canvas and rejoiced: there is no horror in the picture. The delicate and sensitive master did not want to scare the viewer. The architectural background of the work is symbolic.
The Intercession Cathedral with the domes cut off by the frame is an allegory of the decapitated old Russia. The lonely Kremlin tower corresponds to the same lonely figure of the autocrat. The even formation of the Transfigurations repeats the outline of the wall. All structures are visually shifted to the Execution Ground. The multi-tiered composition allows you to see each person well.
On the left is a spontaneous, lively crowd, on the right – a handful of nobles. Among the observers, we see Johann Georg Korb, whose notes Surikov studied while working on the painting. Suicide bombers stand out from the thick of the sea of waves. Lit candles cast reflections on their white shirts.
To make the lights shine brighter, the master gave the tone of the picture a dirty gray tint. The hunchbacked archer does not notice the hot wax dripping onto his hand. His hawkish gaze is fixed on Peter. The convict, reclining in the cart, hung his head, submitting to fate. The black-bearded giant is detached from what is happening. He holds the candle obliquely, like the shaft of a reed. The gray-haired rebel comforts the children, but his gestures are automatic, and his thoughts wander far away.
Sagittarius, who says goodbye to the people with an earthly bow, rises above the motley crowd. The head of a young convict is visible: in the face there is a noticeable resemblance to the self-portrait of Vasily Surikov. One rebel is already being led to the gallows, the soldiers are carefully supporting him.
Painting at the exhibition
The painting was first shown at the 9th Traveling Exhibition, which opened on March 1, 1881. On the same day, Emperor Alexander II was killed. It seemed to many that the curses of the archers had reached their goal. They even talked about the removal of the work from the show …
Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov bought it for his collection for 8,000 rubles. The Morning of the Streltsy Execution is a masterpiece of Russian historical painting of the 19th century. Thanks to Vasily Surikov, we can now feel the past with every fiber of our soul, feel like a part of our national history.