This article examines several important designs by Elena Dmitrievna Polenova (1850-1898) for art embroideries and textile panels. These are the least studied of Polenova’s works, but offer new insights into the artist’s role as a leader of the neo-national movement in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Russian art. Linking extant designs with photographs of exhibition displays and unpublished archival sources, including contemporary accounts by the British art journalist Netta Peacock (1864-1938), this project seeks to initiate the important process of identifying and analysing Polenova’s designs within the context of the movement.
Maria Vasilievna Iakunchikova designed three works of applied art and craft in a Neo-Russian style for the Russian section of the Paris “Exposition Universelle” of 1900—a wooden dresser, a toy village in carved wood, and a large embroidered panel. Yet, so far as the official record is concerned, Iakunchikova’s participation in the exhibition is occluded. Her name does not appear in the catalogue, for it was the producers, rather than the designers, who were credited for her works. Indeed, her presence might have been entirely unknown, were it not for several reports of the Russian display in the periodical press by her friend Netta Peacock, a British writer living in Paris. The invisibility of the designer in this instance was not a matter of gender, but it had consequences for women artists. In general, women were marginalized in the mainstream of the nineteenth-century Russian art world—whether at the Academy of Arts or in prominent groups such as the Peredvizhniki—and, as a result, enjoyed fewer opportunities at the Exposition. But the Neo-national movement, linked closely with the revival of applied art and the promotion of kustar industries, was one in which women’s art had space to flourish. And, in the so-called village russe at the Exposition, which featured a display of kustar art, by far the larger contribution was made by women, both as promoters and as artists. In this article, I examine Iakunchikova’s contribution to the Exposition within a broader context of female artistic activity, and the significance of the Russian kustar pavilion for a gendered history of nineteenth-century art.