Zinaida Serebriakova, who came from a family of artists, was a major figure of Russian painting in the early 20th century: her French father, Evguni Lanceray, was an equestrian sculptor, and her maternal grandfather, the painter and art critic Alexandre Benois, was a founder member of the Mir Iskusstva [World of art], who encouraged the teenage girl’s artistic calling. He sent her to St. Petersburg to study painting at the school founded by the art patron Maria Tenisheva, followed by a period spent with the famous realist painter Ilya Repin and the portrait painter Ossip Braz. In 1902-03, when still a teenage girl, she made a journey to Italy. In 1905 she married her cousin Boris Serebriakov, and attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. Her early colourful pictures, with intentionally monumental forms, depicted the Russian landscape, its peasants, people working in fields, and popular traditions, in a vein still inspired by the spirit of I. Repin. But she also painted nudes, imbued with sensuality, and portraits.
In 1909, her Autoportrait à la toilette, with its surprising modernity, brought her much acclaim, a rare thing in those days for a woman. Up until the revolution, her career went from strength to strength. Then came a dark period: her family’s estate was burnt to the ground; and her husband died of typhoid. She found herself alone and penniless, with four children to bring up. She then started to produce works with pencil and charcoal, expressing an obviously melancholy mood. In 1920, she set up home in Petrograd, but refused all commissions involving propaganda. She confined herself to the portrait genre and did not take part in any revolutionary avant-garde experiments. In 1924 she returned to Paris, where she lived a withdrawn life. She embarked on a cycle of portraits, depicting fishermen and peasants. Travelling to Morocco, she transposed that country’s luminosity in her portraits of young Berber women. In 1966, 50 years after first being recognized, she was given major exhibitions in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, and her albums were printed in large editions.