Konstantin Makovsky – The Kissing Ceremony (1895)

No one knows exactly how kissing came about, whether it was instinctive or learned behavior, yet its influence is hard to overstate. From greetings to displays of affection, signing papers (seal with a kiss) and marriage pronouncements, New Year’s celebrations and religious traditions, kissing has been part of many cultures for the longest time. And few illustrated the importance of this affectionate act better than the Russians during their kissing rituals.

At the time of Ivan the Terrible, women used to be kept indoors, sheltered from interactions with strangers. The only exceptions allowed were with friends and highly regarded guests during a kissing ceremony. This rite usually meant that the host’s spouse would sip wine from a goblet, bow, and then pass it to the guest. On special occasions the latter was invited to kiss the wife on the lips, which was considered to be a great honor.

Konstantin Makovsky - The Kissing Ceremony
Konstantin Makovsky – The Kissing Ceremony (1895), oil on canvas | zoom in here

You can see how such an intimate setup would have been fertile ground for jealousies and infatuations. It’s no surprise then that one of the most suspenseful scenes in Alexei Tolstoy’s 1862 novel  Prince Serebrenni revolves around this hospitality tradition, which in turn inspired Russian artist Konstantin Makovsky in masterfully depicting The Kissing Ceremony (at the Feast of Boyar Morozov). Boyars were high ranking members of the aristocracy, close to the tsar. According to the plot, the main character  Nikita Romanchov (Prince Serebrenni) and Elena Morozova, the spouse of boyar Morozov, used to be infatuated with each other. Unfortunately, during the prince’s extended absence, Elena was forced to marry Morozov, a much older man who could protect her. The night before the feast, while Romanchov and Elena were talking about love, they were overheard by the jealous husband, who waited until the next day to test the fidelity of his wife.

In the painting, Morozov, the old man to the right with a long, white beard, is waiting to see the reaction of Elena when Romanchov kisses her. Romanchov is the man wearing a green tunic and leaning forward, while Elena is the pale, tall woman holding a large, golden goblet. As Morozov is frowning and tensely gripping the arm of his chair, his right hand rests dangerously close to a dagger. Next to him, a jester whispers devilishly into his ear, emboldening the boyar’s worst suspicions.

The contrast between the depiction of the two genders couldn’t be greater. To the left we have Morozov’s mother, daughters and spouse looking composed and reserved, perhaps even tense. To the right, the men are unrestrained, raucous and drunk. One of them has passed out and another one is sleeping with his head on the table.

A diffuse, golden light washes over the hall, emphasizing the richness of the decor. Although the scene takes place in the 17th century, Makovsky gives the painting an authentic feel, not least because of the intricacies and the wonderful details that he captures. Notice, for instance, the wrinkled carpet under Romanchov’s feet. It looks so natural, a faithful rendering that enhances the realism of the scene.

The authenticity that Makovsky masterfully conveys is, by no means, accidental. The Russian artist consulted numerous historical sources for his paintings and he was an avid collector of costumes, textiles and antiques. All this helped him in recreating a tangible, idealized past of Russia, steeped in gold and long forgotten traditions, which continue to fascinate to this day.

 

Next time: Itsy bitsy spider…

29 thoughts on “Konstantin Makovsky – The Kissing Ceremony (1895)

    1. I’m glad you like it, Robert. I hope you zoomed in too! Makovsky has some really interesting paintings in a similar vein. I, for one, can’t get over how much I like that wrinkled carpet. It’s brilliant!

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  1. Oh my…talk about history in art. I did not know anything about the Kissing Ceremony and even less about Prince Serebrenni. I really enjoyed learning about it today. Hopefully I’ll be able to find some time to read more about it. I keep sayingI’d like to read more about Russian history.

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    1. I haven’t read Prince Serebrenni – it doesn’t sound too interesting or well written, I’m afraid. But if you want to learn more about Russian history, the surest way is to read the classics! The REAL Tolstoy! I learned so much from War & Peace.

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    1. Haha, yes! I’m very cruel. And very ignorant, I’m afraid. All I could make out from the bits of Google translated texts was that Elena fainted and there was some commotion and confusion afterwards. Somehow, the Prince and Morozov ended up helping each other out. I didn’t read anything else about love or Elena.

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  2. It’s a beautiful painting – you can just feel the weight of those heavy robes! It’s funny how narrative painting has pretty much fallen out of fashion, I can’t think of any contemporary artists (I’m sure there are some) who do it, yet its fascinating.

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    1. Hmm, that’s a very good point, Emma! I will try to see if there are any contemporary artists that paint narrative works. I guess this fell out of fashion with the advent of book illustrations. But there wasn’t much place for figurative art in postmodernism anyway. I was reading today about how realistic portraiture was demised by photography and how difficult it was for artists to be given credit for their works. If portrait artists had it rough, I can’t imagine how it was for Makovsky & co.

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  3. This is such a detailed and incredible painting. I spent some time going through as much as details before reading about the story and yet I missed on small details which I learnt about through your writing. Great selection and summary of the story. I will add this book to my To Be Read pile.

    Thank you 🙂

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    1. Oh no no no, you don’t have a pile. It’s a “K2 on top of Everest” to read list. I get dizzy just looking at it! What are your favorite details from the painting?

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      1. The insidious look of the husband, the women almost leaning away from this whole charade yet the youngest one slightly intrigued by the whole setting, of course the paintings on the wall and like you mentioned the displaced rug. So many things. The canvas and the story is so vast. I hadn’t even noticed the man passed out until I read your paragraph. One sees, but how much does one see.

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  4. When I first saw this painting, I thought it was one of a series of 3 or 4 paintings done by Markovsky related to Tsar Alexi Mikhailovich and the shenanigans of Boris Morozov. Morozov appears in “A Boyar Wedding Feast” (1883), which commemorates Boris’ marriage to Maria’s sister Anna; “The Choosing of the Bride” (1885) and “The Russian Bride’s Attire” (1889). Where did you get the story behind this painting? In comparison to the other paintings, Morozov looks like the younger tall man in green.

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      1. Thanks for this information. However, it is confusing, when compared to the other paintings. (I don’t mean to be argumentative, but I am a docent at the art museum that has “The Bride’s Wedding Attire,” which is very popular, and raises a lot of questions with visitors). In this painting (and the one in Washington DC, and the one in Puerto Rico ), Morozov is not an old man. I don’t know where the story of Tsar Alexi’s marriage comes from, but according to other sources, Morozov poisoned Alexi’s first choice of bride and puts forward another candidate, Maria. 10 days after Maria marries the Tsar, Morozov marries her sister Anna (not Elena. . .) in order to put himself in the Tsar’s family circle (see : https://www.museoarteponce.org/buscar.php?s=Choosing+of+the+Bride). The story in Sebrenni might take place much later (Morozov has a second wife?) and doesn’t seem as closely related to the other 3 paintings. It is not clear to me, then, that Tolstoy was the inspiration for the other 3 paintings. One article I read just says, “according to legend. . .” Thank you for any light you can shed on this.

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        1. I reckon Morozov had married a second time, since among the group of women in The Kissing Ceremony are also his two grown-up daughters. By that point, he and Elena wouldn’t have been married for more than a few years.

          I apologize for the link I shared earlier. It was only partially related to Makovsky’s “The Kissing Ceremony/Rite”. Sotheby’s sold several of the artist’s paintings years ago and they have various catalogue notes for those artworks on their website. Here is one I found revealing:

          “Among Makovsky’s literary sources at the time was Alexei Tolstoy’s Prince Serebrenni. Set in 16th century Russia, it inspired a number of paintings including The Kissing Rite (fig.2). Makovsky often represented the old Russia not through its important historical events but rather through intimate scenes set in chambers and terems which brought to focus the old customs and traditions of the Russian people. Such works included A Boyar Wedding Feast (fig.3), Before the Wedding (fig.4) and the almost identical The Russian Bride’s Attire (1887, The Legion of Honour, San Francisco), Sprinkling the Hops (1901, collection of Dr. Sukarno, President of the Republic of Indonesia) and Christmas Eve Fortune Telling (1905, Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, St Petersburg).” http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/russian-pictures-l18115/lot.37.html?locale=en

          I haven’t had the chance to really look into Makovsky’s other paintings and see their connection – I had assumed they were mostly based on historical facts and documented customs and traditions. Thank you for bringing them to my attention. “The Bride’s Attire” and “Choosing of the Bride” story is so full of intrigue!

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          1. Hi Garbriela, thanks so much for the sotheby’s link, it is very helpful. It seems like Markovsky was very interested in Morozov — we might even say he did a series on Morozov’s adventures in marriage. . . It wouldn’t surprised me if Morozov’s wife Anna met some kind of untimely end when she was no longer useful to Morozov. I will share your information with fellow docents, who will be happy to receive it. It wasn’t easy to find the Malaga work — it’s interesting that these paintings are flung so far and wide — even in the royal court of Indonesia!

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