Kramskoy Contemplation: A Painting That Makes You See Thinking

Kramskoy Contemplation

When it comes to art, it is mostly Europe that people turn their eyes towards. Russia has been generally reserved for literary masterpieces. And if you have experienced the brilliant writing of Russian authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his famous book Brothers Karamazov, the author has referenced a painting. That painting is Contemplation by Ivan Kramskoy. Let’s see what this painting is trying to convey. 

About Ivan Kramskoy, the painter. 

Ivan Kramskoy was a painter with a resolute personality, a strong desire for truth and justice, and a love for liberty, both in society and in the arts. If I were to describe his achievements, I’d say that he was the Russian version of the Impressionists in Europe, trying to make art more universal, more unique. 

Kramskoy’s magnificence was in painting portraits. Capturing still moments, focusing on one subject, and bringing out the scene both emotionally and aesthetically. The artist had a grasp of understanding skin tones and textures. Much of his skills will be evident in the analysis of the painting. But there’s more to him than just painting. 

Kramskoy was more of a philosopher than an artist. Instead of words, he sought truth and liberty through and in art. He was the founder of the Wanderers, a group of 14 students in the Imperial Academy of Arts. The Wanderers demanded liberty in painting whatever they felt like, unfettered from the rules of imperial paintings, much like the impressionists of Europe, Claude Monet, et al.

The connection of Kramskoy and Leo Tolstoy 

Kramskoy painted the portrait of Leo Tolstoy. This was difficult for him to achieve because Tolstoy was not consenting for his painting. But with some convincing, he agreed. But here’s something interesting for the admirers of art and literature: The portrait of Leo Tolstoy was made and completed when Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina, one of his most famous literary works (and my favorite). 

Kramskoy (also spelled Kramskoi) painted the picture of Fyodor Dostoevsky on his deathbed. Apart from the mention of the artist in the book Brothers Karamazov, Leo Tolstoy also created a character based on the artist in the book Anna Karenina. Let’s analyze the painting. 

Contemplation by Ivan Kramskoy

The painting shows a vagabond wearing torn clothes (kaftan) and bark shoes. He stands in the middle of a forest, on a snow-covered path. He holds a cloth satchel and a stick to help him with the thickets. He’s also wearing an ushanka, a Russian winter cap. The clothes show that he is not doing very well economically, clad barely to ward off the cold. But it is not about what he’s wearing, but what he’s doing. The medium of the painting is oil on canvas. 

Before we describe what the subject of the painting seems to be thinking or doing, it would be better to see what Dostoevsky said in his novel Brothers Karamazov about the painting:

“There is a remarkable picture by the painter Kramskoy, called Contemplation. There is a forest in winter, and on a roadway through the forest, in absolute solitude, stands a peasant in a torn kaftan and bark shoes. He stands, as it were, lost in thought. Yet he is not thinking; he is, contemplating. ‘ (…) There are a good many, contemplatives’ among the peasantry. Well, Smerdyakov was probably one of them, and he probably was greedily hoarding up his impressions, hardly knowing why”

Chapter “Smerdyakov”, Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Smerdyakov is an intriguing character in the novel who is unpredictable, quiet, and contemplative. So what does our vagabond in the painting is doing? When you ignore the entire scene and focus on the face of the subject, that’s when you’ll realize the mastery of Kramskoy and his grasp of portraits. 

Thinking vs Contemplation 

There’s a difference between thinking and contemplation. Thinking is more about the things of immediate effect. Thinking about eating, doing daily tasks, etc and thinking comes instantly and goes very soon. But that is not what the subject of the painting seems to be doing. 

Contemplation comes to use out of nowhere and they stay for a long time. They come uninvited when we are solitary. The eyes of the vagabond look straight into the road, wide open and with pursed lips. He seems to be contemplating a lot of things. Going through the impressions he has had and evaluating them. This is why he seems lost.

So what is he thinking? No one knows and not just that, but even the vagabond has no idea what he’s thinking. We collect impressions, impressions that stay with us, existing in some parts of our mind, only to come up and ask for contemplation. Perhaps a distant memory, perhaps the yearning for something lost, or perhaps both. But these strong and deep impressions make us wonder, cutting us from the world for a moment. 

This is what the painting is conveying to the viewers. The vagabond has stopped contemplating about something and we’ve stopped for a moment, doing the same. This was all about the painting Contemplation by Ivan Kramskoy

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