Vasily Perov – Hunters at Rest (1871)

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling”, contemplates Rebecca Solnit in her non-fiction book The Faraway Nearby. “Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”

Few artworks capture as well as Hunters at Rest the binding magic of storytelling, an art as ancient as speech itself. Combining still life, figures and landscape, this painting has it all. Three men are taking a break from their hunting, stopping to rest and grab a bite, gathering around a picnic. In the foreground we can notice the game they have killed, as well as their rifles and accessories. The man on the left, the eldest and most experienced of them all, delights his small audience with thrilling, engrossing stories about his exploits. You can see from his facial expression and gestures how passionate he is about bringing his words to life. In the center, a peasant is incredulously weighing the words of the storyteller, smirking and scratching his head as if saying ”meh, I don’t know about that”. To the right, a zealous, younger man, dressed in fashionable hunting clothes listens, so absorbed in the tale that he forgets to light the cigarette he holds in his right hand. Nothing would please him more than to be the hero of those stories himself.

Vasily Perov - Hunters at Rest
Vasily Perov – Hunters at Rest (1871), oil on canvas | zoom in here

By choosing to focus on the psychology of the three hunters, Vasily Perov lets us in on the ritualistic nature of this violent pastime, which was very popular in Russia at the end of the 19th century. The depictions were based on real people, all doctors. The storyteller was Dmitry Pavlovich Kuvshinnikov, a hunting fanatic, whose salon entertained the cultural elite of Moscow at the time. The man in the middle was his friend and amateur artist V. V. Bessonov, while the youngest was 26-year old N. M. Nagornov, a colleague and friend of theirs.

The profiles of these men speak volumes not only about the types of hunters and their varying expertise, but also about the stages of life they symbolize: youth with its naiveté and unbound ambition, maturity with a more balanced and critical outlook and old age, a time when one’s fruitful life experience can be picked for ripe, delectable stories to share.

Although it is a gray and gloomy autumn day, the storytelling ritual gives the painting a cozy and warm feeling. Each and every one of us would like to enthrall audiences with captivating stories, as the older hunter does. But, as Rebecca Solnit cautions, we must first master the skills of listening and questioning, just like the two other hunters, before we become storytellers ourselves:

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”

12 thoughts on “Vasily Perov – Hunters at Rest (1871)

    1. I’d like to hear that story too. It reminds me of those scenes in movies when someone is telling a really good joke and everyone is having a laugh, but we only get to hear the ending, at best. Very tricky!

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  1. You made the painting more interesting by drawing my attention to the details and getting me to contemplate the subject matter. On the face of it, I think, if I were to have seen it in a museum, I’d do a cursory glance and keep walking. When I ask myself why, it’s because of the aspect of comedy and it looks staged (how could it not?), and then that combined with the enormous amount of skill and dedication needed to pull it off. It doesn’t appeal to my sensibility (which many people would say about most my own work).

    Nevertheless, I now appreciate it. This is the good thing you do with keeping painting alive.

    About the questions of stories. I don’t come to an easy answer here. There is so much inherent significant to stories, as your initial quote describes, in which, without them we are lost in an endless landscape. Without them we don’t have any footing. On the other hand, there’s a notion that to see reality as it is one needs to escape all stories. I think it’s part of the goal of certain strains of meditation, in which case all stories are a kind of agitation and superimposition of intellectual artifice upon the pure state of being. Something like that. I suppose one could be a story teller, but also be able to escape the binds of believing it or being harnessed by it.

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    1. Thank you so much, Eric. That’s a very heartwarming compliment. I think it’s like you say, that these stories, as important as they are in shaping our identity and values, shouldn’t control us. Meditation is all about that, stopping the endless narratives spinning in our minds. But to be in charge of your own story and of the storytelling process, then that’s a goal pursuing all your life.

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      1. “To be in charge of your own story”. I’ve never thought this way in this succinct of terms. I wonder if it is even possible, because everyone will have competing stories, and they will be subsets of much bigger stories. But I like the concept.

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  2. One of the key tenets of photography is make sure the eyes are in focus whether it’s people or animals. When zooming in on this painting the first thing I noticed were the subjects eyes. It looks as though Perov had a photo editing, sharpening brush that he put to full use. I assume this was to imply drama or other emotions to a story that we neither see nor hear.

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    1. That’s a great parallel between photography and painting, David. The eyes are very intense, for sure. And the hunters’ depictions are intently exaggerated, almost to a fault, according to some critics, to drive the point across.

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    1. Hmm, I don’t know. I find Rockwell more kitsch. Here the hunters look almost like caricatures, but the landscape itself is gloomy. It’s amazing we still get that feeling of warmth out of it. I also like how the humanity of the storytelling ritual takes our minds away from the cruelty of hunting.

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