The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Learn about the man who painted the town red

Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky, born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1837, was one of the students who decided in 1863 to leave the Imperial Academy of Arts as part of the Revolt of the Fourteen and form an independent artistic society. He later had a falling out with Ivan Kramskoi and left the "artel" that formed in the wake of the revolt.

From 1877 to 1884 he lived and worked in Paris, during which time he was commissioned by the Russian imperial family to paint scenes from the Russo-Romanian-Turkish War of 1877-1878. But besides the military themes that figured prominently in his work, he sought to draw public attention to the hardships of peasant life.
“Fire in the Village” explores a theme that became popular among Russian artists at the middle of the 19th century. In addition to the narrative element of peasants trying to escape the blazes and salvage whatever they could, the artist included ethnographic and historical details, including architectural elements, clothing, and wares.

Some of Dmitriev-Orenburgsky’s village life paintings were exhibited at The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois. According to his reviewers,

A noticeable feature is the air of sadness depicted in scenes of Russian life, even in those which portray its more cheerful phases. Thus in "Sunday in a Village", by Dmitrieff-Orenbursky, where peasants are trying to make merry, we can see that they are only trying, and with indifferent success. [...] To stand before this canvas is to have very much the sensation of being set down in a Russian village on a Sunday afternoon.

The painter continued to have a distinguished career in Europe but always kept his motherland close to his heart. He traveled and worked in Germany, Belgium, and Bulgaria, and in 1883 was named Professor of Battle Painting by the Imperial Academy of Arts. He passed away in Moscow due to sarcoma on the 21st of April 1898 and is buried in the Smolensky Orthodox Cemetery in Saint Petersburg.

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