Viktor Vasnetsov: Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf

17 Oct

Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf, 1889

A brave Prince and a tired, frightened Princess are riding the grey wolf through the dark and mysterious Slavic woods where the trees grow so close together, their branches entwined, that not even a ray of moonlight can shine through, illuminate the darkness and make the journey less eerie for the Prince and the Princess. Shining yellows eyes are staring at the them from the heights. Strange whispers linger in the air… or is it just the wind, singing its lonesome song. “Worry not, my Princess, the journey won’t be long,” Ivan Tsarevich, the youngest and perhaps the bravest son of the King whispers to the Princess, but she is silent, too afraid to speak, but her attire speaks for itself; her jewellery is jangling, her heavy brocade dress rustling, her long wavy hair flying as if enchanted, for the wolf is riding through the forest with such an unearthly speed that his paws barely touch the leaf-littered and moss coated ground of the dark woods where a weak soul will not wander.

This dark, dreamy and romantic painting is a scene from a Russian fairy tale called “Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf” which was collected by a Russian Slavist and ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev in “Russian Fairy Tales” (1855-1863), modeled after Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The fairy tale has a crazy and complicated plot, and, as with many fairy tales, there are different versions of it. The base of the fairy tale is that a King had a garden with a golden apple tree and every night one apple would go missing, and naturally he assumed it was the Firebird who stole them. I would assume the same! Only the Firebird would be wicked enough to do such a thing. The King had three sons; the oldest two tried to stay awake all night and catch the Firebird but fell asleep and failed, and then the third and the youngest son Ivan Tsarevich begged to try and the King finally permitted him. He stayed up all night and saw the bird, even nicked its red feather but failed to catch it.

Viktor Vasnetsov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

Again, the two oldest sons ventured out bravely to find the Firebird, but quickly found themselves confused because they came to a stone that gave them three choices; the first path would bring the knight hunger and cold. The second path meant the knight would live, but his horse died. And whoever took the third would die, but his horse would live. They couldn’t decide what to chose, so they gave up and returned to their idle lives. Vasnetsov portrayed this moment in the fairy tales as well, in three versions in fact, and above is the one from 1882, possibly the most beautiful with vibrant colours and a beautifully captured atmosphere. Look how sinister the crossroad is, with the crows and skeletal remains of the previous knight who hath failed in his quest…. Lavender sky in the background is tinged with melancholy and the last rays of sun are casting a warm orange glow on the stone. Ivan Tsarevich took the second road and a wolf ate his horse. This is where the story gets bizarre, and complicated so I won’t go into the details. The wolf takes on the form of a horse, then of a princess… But in the end, Ivan Tsarevich returns to his kingdom with a Firebird and a Princess, but the jealous brothers kills him and slice his body into pieces. Later the Grey Wolf finds him and a water of death restores his body. And on the Wolf, Ivan Tsarevich rides back home and marries Princess Helen at last.

The moment of the fairy tale that Vasnetsov decided to portray, Ivan Tsarevich and the Princess riding the Grey Wolf, is a thrilling one because it is during that strange ride through the dark and mystic woods that Ivan and the Princess fall in love; look how his arms provide a shelter for her, and how her head is almost resting on his chest. Viktor Vasnetsov became famous for his folklore and fairy tale inspired paintings, which went well with the second wave of Romanticism that flooded Europe and inspired artists to find inspiration in folklore and fantasy. This isn’t the only fairy tale scene that Vasnetsov has painted, he painted many in fact, so it’s interesting to know that he began his career as a genre painter and was part of the Russian realist art group called Peredvizhniki, known in English as “The Wanderers” or “The Itinerants” who rebelled against the Academy’s strictness and narrow view of the world. Vasnetsov joined the Peredvizhniki colony while in Paris in 1876, and he became acquainted with Impressionism while there. Leaving the realism behind, Vasnetsov took an interest in painting fantasy and fairy tale motives and began working on the painting “Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf” in 1877, while in Paris, before returning to Moscow the same year.

A doll copy of an original art “Ivan Tsarevich Riding a Grey Wolf” by Viktor Vasnetsov

I found a doll version of the painting and I thought it would be interesting to share it too because it is just wonderful! I love all the detailing on the Princess’s dress, her soft hair and tired face. And the Prince, looking in the distance, hoping he will succeed in his quest, slightly worried. They both look charming together on that wolf. But the wolf in the doll version though, he looks dead tired, drunk and worn out, not like the brave, determined and strong wolf in Vasnetsov’s painting. No, this is a Capitalist wolf who works nine to five and is in desperate need of a vacation.

2 Responses to “Viktor Vasnetsov: Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf”

  1. Emily 21st Oct 2019 at 3:55 am #

    I love the painting, but I think I might love the dolls even better – wolf included!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: