Vera Mikhailovna Ermolaeva was born in the Volga region to a family of landowners. A fall from a horse as a child left both her legs paralysed, for which her parents would seek treatment in Europe. In 1911, she took classes in Saint Petersburg from Mikhail Bernstein, who introduced Russia to French avant-garde art, and became interested in Cubism and Futurism. In 1914, she went to Paris, where she studied the works of contemporary painters such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and André Derain. Upon returning to Petrograd in 1918, she became a founding member of the “brigade” of artists Segodnya (Today), along with Nathan Altman and Yuri Annenkov, who published handmade picture-books for the Russian people, including books for children. V. Ermolaeva herself illustrated Nathan Vengrov’s Petukh (The Rooster) in a style combining Neo-primitivism and Futurism.
In 1919, the Narkompros (People’s Commissariat for Education) appointed her to teach at the Art School in Vitebsk, alongside eminent artists such as Robert Falk and Mtislav Dobuzhinsky. She replaced Marc Chagall as the school’s director in 1921 after he left his position. Having invited Kazimir Malevich to Vitebsk, she joined the master and his students to create Unovis, the artistic laboratory of Suprematism. In 1922, she was in charge of the colour laboratory at the famous Ginkhuk (State Institute of Artistic Culture) in Petrograd. She reverted to illustration in the late 1920s, and collaborated with children’s magazines, creating her own books, and later broadening her activity to painting in a schematic and vividly coloured style reminiscent of Post-suprematism. The dictates of Socialist realism sealed her fate: she fell victim to the first wave of repressive measures against “nonconforming” artists, was accused, like many of her counterparts in Leningrad, of “promoting anti-Soviet ideas”, and was sentenced to five years of Gulag incarceration in Kazakhstan, where she was put on trial a second time, found guilty, and shot dead.