A quarter of a century has passed since Valeritin Alexandrovich left us. So much has happened, so many things have come and gone during this time, but the image of Serov stands out, fresh and important, not only in the history of art but in the minds of all who knew him in life.
Precisely in the importance of that image is contained that convincingness which accompanied his creativeness and his life. It was Serov who used to say, "No matter what a man is, at least once in his life he will have to show his true passport." And Serov's real passport was known to all his friends. His sincerity and honesty became proverbial; he truly followed firmly the dictates of his heart. If he did not like something, it was shown even in his glance. But if he was convinced of something and sensed devotion, he was not afraid to express his conviction in word and deed.
The same sincerity and thoroughness was revealed in all his work. Even in his sketches, seemingly carelessly drawn, one could observe the complete inner attentiveness, refinement, and depth with which his entire being lived and breathed. His taciturnity was the result of his watchfulness. Many a time, after a long silence, he performed some action that indicated how attentively he had followed all that had been taking place.
He rarely participated in any gatherings. For the most part he was silent, but his inner conviction greatly influenced a decision. It took him an extraordinarily long time to paint a portrait. Not infrequently he demanded many sittings even for a drawing. The same stern penetration which guided him through life demanded his utmost attention, in order that he might bring out all that was most characteristic.
Let us recall some of his portraits, beginning with the unforgettable girl in the Tretyakov Gallery. Remember Mr. and Mrs. Hirschman, Morosov, Rimski-Korsakov, the portrait of the Czar in a military tunic, with remarkably painted eyes. I was told that after the revolution this very portrait, mutilated, with the eyes cut out, was brought to our school of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, having been picked up by somebody on the square of the Winter Palace. Were the eyes cut out because they were painted so well? Such cruelty! Were some other portraits by Serov spared? Often the destiny of the treasures in private collections was so unspeakable. One may also justifiably worry about the destiny of a huge mural curtain which Serov painted for Diaghilev. He painted this mural not in the simple way such decor is usually done, but with the greatest care, as if it were a fresco. Could it happen that amidst outworn theatrical canvases this mural, unusual for Serov, will also be found among the discards? I recall how my "Battle of Kerjenetz" and "Polovetzky Camp," suffered indescribable vicissitudes because of constant transportation. I do not know where this mural by Serov could be at present. I only know that if it has not been mutilated during cruel wanderings, its place should be in one of the best museums.
It is instructive to observe that in his early portraits (for example that characteristic one of the girl in the Tretyakov Gallery), Serov, without changing his ideals, forged ahead as if upon the crest of a wave — in all his quests as well as in his technique. I remember his later works, "The Rape of Europe" and "Pavlova," and his penetrating works of the epoch of Peter the Great. He always remained himself, yet he spoke the language of contemporary life. These were not passing imitations, because there could not be any imitative quality in his nature. He always remained original id true to his heart. He did not imitate, but used a language understandable to all. Quite naturally, at times he searched for new materials. I remember his coming for advice about a new priming for canvas, and about the so-called Wurms and Munich colors, which I liked greatly at that time.
Now, with passing years, the figure of Serov becomes more and more important in the history of Russian art. In the "Mir Iskusstva" group the presence of Serov gave unusual prestige to the entire structure. If there were arbiters of elegance, then Serov was always an arbiter of artistic honesty.
In recalling his participation on the Board of the Tretyakov Gallery, one may definitely say that he was most impartial, a just and stern member of that Board. The period of his participation in the affairs of the Gallery remains especially valuable, and his insistence upon impartiality and thoroughness in its selections influenced the subsequent conduct of its affairs.
There was no casualness in the actions of Serov. This man, self-contained, silent, with occasional piercing side glances, knew what he was doing. And he accomplished creative, honest, beautiful work in the history of Russian art. Unchanging in his heart, Serov also changed little outwardly. I have a sketch by Repin of Serov in his youth. It is one of Repin's character drawings, made lovingly and, as it were, seeing through the essence of the impressive face. The same introspection, the same penetrative eye, the very same realization of creativeness as was always present throughout the entire life of Serov.
How fine it is that alongside Surikov, Repin, Vasnetzov, Nesterov, Kuinji, we had Serov, glowing like a beautiful precious stone in the necklace of invaluable Russian art.
January 31, 1935