A Merchant's Wife At Tea - Boris Kustodiev
(State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia)

In the painting 'A Merchant's Wife at Tea' (Boris Mihajlovic Kustodiev - 1918), we have a captivating picture of a dignified Russian beauty, full-busted and glowing with health. The radiant yellows, pinks and blues of the background landscape set off the reddish-brown tone of her dress and her flowery shawl, and everything mingles together in her bright colorful bouquet; a wonderfully indulgent, baroque tea and samovar and cakes and fruit and cat tea time occasion.

The young woman, dressed in a black dress with the magnificent lace and despair, sits at a table, covered with tea, face to the audience. In the background is a Russian city scene with domes, church and trees. Signs of abundance abound - the shiny samovar, the tea service, sliced watermelon, plates of lush fruit and baked goodies. The woman apparently belongs to a rich merchant family. Her ample white physique, once a sign of feminine beauty, illuminates the table and the surrounding area. She is as round and as succulent as the fruit on the table. A cat nuzzles her indulgently. She is not quite looking at the viewer, her mind appears to wander absently and she seems reflective and pensive.sipping tea from a saucer with a customary gesture; She is drinking hot tea from the saucer to cool it, pinkie pointing away from the steaming flavorful liquid Yet, as she sips her tea, the picture is one of peace and tranquility; apparently, she is enjoying her tea.

The introduction of tea to Russia is said to have been in 1638, when Czar Mikhail Romanov was gifted a foreign herb from the Mongolian Altun Khan. He tried to chew the bitter herb and the Khan’s emissary finally had to instruct the court how to brew the tea in hot water. The tea drinking habit caught on and by the turn of the 20th century, Russia’s tea consumption ranked second in the world. Many artists painted scenes of samovars and tea drinking, such as this one Boris Kustodiev - Kupchikha (Merchants Wife) Drinking Tea(1918).

In 1996, the Russian samovar celebrated its 250th birthday. Stemming from sam (self) and varit (to boil), the samovar came to represent the warmth of the Russian soul and was even given a place of honor in the household. Samovars were made mainly from copper, silver, platinum and porcelain, and decorated in the style of the times. One made from gold (fashioned as a rooster) won a grand – design prize at the Vienna’s World Fair in 1873. Samovars were to boil up water for the favorite national pastime — drinking a cup of chai or hot tea. It was popular to sip tea through a cube of sugar held between the teeth (known as vpriskusku) rather than mixing the sugar directly into the tea (vnakladku). As Alexander Pushkin wrote, Ecstasy is a glass full of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth. It was customary, in the 1700s, to pour the hot tea directly into the saucer, from which cooler mouthfuls could be taken. By the 1800s, Russians enjoyed sipping their steaming tea from a tall glass placed in a podstakan’nik (metal holder).

Boris Kustodiev was born in Astrakhan. His father, a schoolteacher, died young, and all financial and material burdens lay on his mother's shoulders. The Kustodiev family rented a small wing in a rich merchant's house. It was here that the boy's first impressions were formed of the way of life of the provincial merchant class. The artist later wrote, 'The whole tenor of the rich and plentiful merchant way of life was there right under my nose ... It was like something out of an Ostrovsky play.' The artist retained these childhood observations for years, recreating them later in oils and water-colors.

In his paintings of the merchant class Kustodiev added the spirit of satire. Using the bright reds and blues of Russian folk art, he delighted in painting the merchants' plump wives in their leisure activities. His poetic paintings on themes from the life of the people, in which he conveyed the inexhaustible strength and beauty of the Russian soul. He wrote, 'I do not know if I have been successful in expressing what I wanted to in my works: love of life, happiness and cheerfulness, love of things Russian—this was the only "subject" of my paintings ...'. This work, like many others, has an oriental richness of color that Kustodiev saw as part of his Astrakhan heritage.

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