The Unequal Marriage by Vasili Pukirev: Art Analysis

The unequal Marriage cover art

A wedding is usually an occasion of celebration and the union of two people in love. But the 1862 painting “The Unequal Marriage” by the Russian painter Vasili Pukirev goes against the grain and shows a marriage scene that does not check the two boxes; the people in this marriage scene appear to be dull and serious, and the people getting married do not look like they are in love. 

So what is this painting showing? You’ll be shocked to know the story behind this painting, the scene that it shows, and how this painting was both a blessing and a curse to the painter, Vasili Pukirev. 

About the Painting

The Unequal Marriage is a large, oil-on-canvas painting painted around 1863 by the son of a poor peasant named Vasili Vladimirovich Pukirev. The reason why this painting has been painted on a large canvas is because the artist wants the viewers to look at the faces of every person in attendance. Because each face tells a story. 

The artist chose dull and dark colors, with barely any lighting inside the church. This dark setting, along with muted dull shades of brown, gray, and black, truly adds to the effect of a lifeless ceremony where the bride is barely happy while the bridegroom looks at her with disappointment.

Pukirev has also used the lighting to highlight the bride and the groom, telling us that we are supposed to look at them first and then at the rest of the people. The groom stands tall in the middle of the canvas, dividing the painting into two halves. 

The Story Behind the Unequal Marriage

We need not point out the obvious here: the bride is not happy at all. Her downcast eyes, sad expression, and a tear rolling down her cheek is a strong testament to her disapproval of this marriage.

It is not a shocker that she would be sad. Look at the groom; he is almost the age of his father! This painting does not show a marriage, but a sacrifice by the girl. The woman is young, beautiful, innocent, and meek. And to contrast her, Pukirev has placed the groom right next to her.

The unequal Marriage
The Unequal Marriage (1862) by Vasili Pukirev. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Take a careful look at the bridegroom. Tall and stern, with a grave and serious look on his face that screams that he does not like any non-sense. He is old, with all the wrinkles on his dry, lifeless skin. The emblem on his suit shows that he has served military duty, perhaps retiring after being in a very high and powerful post.

There is no doubt that the man here is a very rich and powerful man. But notice how the groom and the bride contrast with each other. The bride, dressed in white, flourished with a youthful glow, while the old man was in black, with a face so dry and pale as if it were covered with ashes. 

The woman is being forced to marry this old and powerful man because her father thinks that is a right match. The woman must be very poor, and through this marriage, her father can secure her in a safe and powerful house. Of course, her desires and will do not matter at all.

The Mysterious People in the Painting

Are the two people—the bride and the groom—the only subjects worth the attention of the viewers? Not at all. The artist has added three interesting subjects to the painting that make the story even more interesting. 

The first is the person standing right behind the bride with his hands folded. That man is Pukirev, the artist himself. He clearly does not look happy about this marriage. Then, on the right side of the groom, you can see an elderly woman looking at the groom with disapproval.

Another woman, who appears to be the twin of the previous woman, is looking at the bride. Who are these women? We do not know. But we can guess. I think that these two women are perhaps related to the groom. They are very likely his sisters. The eyes do match.

The woman on the left side of the man is looking at him with such harsh disapproval for marrying a girl almost half his age. But after all of this has been sorted out, you might wonder: Why did the artist paint himself in this painting? Was he there at the wedding?

The Heartbreaking Love Story

There have been multiple accounts of the story of the inspiration for this painting. The most detailed one says that Pukirev’s friend was supposed to be there where the artist is standing. 

He was in love with a woman, the woman shown here. But she was married to this rich, old guy. The woman also loved him, but they could never be together. Hearing this story, Pukirev decided to paint this painting. 

But when he saw the painting and found himself standing there, he was offended to the point that he asked Pukirev to remove him. So the artist added a beard and a mustache and placed himself in his friend’s place. 

The other story says that this is something the artist faced, not his friend. We have no idea which of the stories is true, but if we have to guess, we think that the first story seems more legit. 

The Impact

What we do know is that this painting created waves in art society. Pukirev became an overnight success, with people and art critics praising his work. He was promoted and made a professor of fine arts. This single painting made him world-famous. And then destroyed him.

After the success of The Unequal Marriage, the artist could never achieve the same level of success with any other paintings. He did try to make similar paintings that show such emotional scenes, some even set in a church and related to marriage. But none of the paintings became famous.

Nobody wants to be a “one-trick pony” but sadly, for Pukirev, that was what fate had written for him. Pukirev died poor and with no recognition, with only one painting carrying his name in the art world.