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Self-portrait with Yellow Lilies, Natalia Goncharova | Arts & Activities
May 2016

Self-portrait with Yellow Lilies, Natalia Goncharova

Self-portrait with Yellow Lilies, Natalia Goncharova

DETAIL: Natalia Goncharova (Russian; 1881–1962). Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies, 1907–08. Oil on canvas; 30.5″ x 23″.The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Public Domain.

Women Artists


In 2007, a Christie’s Modern and Impressionist sale in London sold a painting by a female artist for the tidy sum of 4.9 million pounds ($9.8 million), and became the highest selling work of art by a woman artist.

Picking Apples (1909) was not the work of a famous artist, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, but the Russian avant-garde painter Natalia Goncharova. Virtually unknown outside of Russian and art historians of 20th-century art, Goncharova is just as important to Russian art history as O’Keeffe is to the American art historical narrative.

Goncharova was born into the upper class of Czarist Russian society. At 17, she enrolled at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Initially she studied sculpture, but eventually changed her focus to painting. In 1900 she met the man who would be her lifelong companion and frequent collaborator, Mikhail Larionov.


Goncharova is just as important to

Russian art history as Georgia O’Keeffe is to

the American art historical narrative.


She and Larionov were leaders of the Russian avant-garde until their relocation to Paris in 1915. “In the years leading up to the First World War they were among the most prominent figures in Russian avant-garde art, taking part in and often helping to organize a series of major exhibitions in Moscow.” (www.nysun.com/arts/who-was-natalia-goncharova/57312/)

At 32, her one-woman exhibit in Moscow made her an overnight success, earning her the moniker “the suffragist of Russian painting.”

Goncharova’s early work has been called primitivist, but a blending of influences with her own aesthetic makes it difficult to place her in any one stylistic box. Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Russian folk art and Russian icon paintings all mix together in what NY Sun journalist Kate Taylor called her “cocktail of influences.” Yet her work avoided derivativeness. “She masterfully melded the French Fauves’ bold use of color with the simplicity and emphatic energy of icons, luboks and peasant wood blocks … Goncharova was attracted to the straightforward and the bold, but she could find subtleties in this boldness, and even her thickest expanses of paint vibrated with complexity.” (moma.org)

Goncharova’s life and art often merged. Whether cross-dressing, displaying her painted chest in public, flaunting her out-of-wedlock relationship with Larionov, or covering herself with offensive tattoos, Goncharova pushed the conventions and social mores of the day.

Her confidence in herself and her work were boundless; she even once compared herself to Picasso. In 1910 she and Larionov developed a new style of abstraction called “Rayonism” (an outgrowth of Futurism) in which the subject appears to be broken into planes meant to resemble rays of light.

In addition to painting, Natalia Goncharova worked as an illustrator, writer, costume designer and set designer. Her design work for the Ballet Russe remain some of the most original works of the 20th century. Always an innovator, Goncharova reworked some of her first ballet and opera designs in later years to reflect her changing aesthetic.

Although Goncharova’s fell into obscurity, her works were rediscovered in the 1970s. If auction prices are any indication of an artist’s worth, then Natalia Goncharova is an artist due for a renaissance.


Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies (1907), an example of Goncharova’s early work, reflects the influences of Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse.

The artist depicts herself in a tight visual space. The chair and paintings in the background recall Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, but the lush brushstrokes make a deeper connection to the Dutch painter. The thick contouring seems connected to Gauguin; her arbitrary color a nod to Matisse. She stares confidently at the viewer, holding a flaming bouquet of lilies; calm but in total control.

“The figure exists in time and space, in the cycle of her own paintings on the back wall and of the flowers that have been cut. She is between the rough geometry and brushstrokes of the paintings and the organic shapes and brilliant colors of the flowers.” (newyorkartworld.com)

Goncharova’s own words come to mind while studying this exquisite self-portrait: Believe in yourself more, in your strengths and rights before mankind and God. There are no limits to the human will and mind.


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