Discover the “Major’s matchmaking” by Pavel Andreevich Fedotov

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The Russian artist Pavel Andreevich Fedotov was awarded the honorary title of academician for his painting “The arrival of the groom (Major’s matchmaking)”, also known as “The Major’s Marriage proposal”.

This canvas is one of the remarkable works of Russian painting of the first half of the 19th century, and one of Fedotov’s greatest achievements.

Created in 1848 in a style of “comic realism”, it is a 58.3 × 75.4 cm oil on canvas describing the last moments of the preparation before the matchmaking, and is now situated in the State Tretyakov Gallery. 

When the public first saw the picture, the success was overwhelming. The whole of St. Petersburg rolled with laughter, people came to the exhibition more than once to see the Major’s “Wooing” once again. What caused such a violent reaction and made the audience laugh so much?

The plot is based on an ordinary marriage of convenience between the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a ruined nobleman major. At that time, such transactions were commonplace: some sought to get money, while others sought to get titles in society.

The major's marriage proposal - 1851 by Pavel Fedotov -
The major’s marriage proposal – 1851 by Pavel Fedotov –

History of the creation of the painting
Repetition of the painting
Painting Description

History of the creation of the painting

Pavel Fedotov (Павел Федотов) began work on the “Major’s Matchmaking” (Сватовство майора) in 1848. At the request of Karl Bryullov, he received 700 rubles from the Imperial Academy of Arts to be used on sitters , costumes and other materials.

While creating the painting “Major’s Matchmaking” Fedotov carried out a lot of preparatory work, and many sketches which he used to search for the composition of the scene, the images of the characters, as well as their poses and relative positions in the plane of the canvas.

Here are a few sketches for this painting:

Almost immediately before the release of the painting, Fedotov wrote his “Рацея” which is an explanation of the painting in verse, thanks to which one can understand in more detail this simulated role of each of the heroes of the canvas. Pavel read his “Рацея” at the exhibition of his painting, in 1849, where it had great success, making him very happy. His satire was even compared to Gogol’s and Ostrov’s.

Repetition of the painting

In 1852 Pavel Fedotov completed a repetition of the painting “Major’s Matchmaking”, alternatively titled “Bridesmaids in a Merchant’s House” in which the plot and composition have been preserved. This 56 X 76 cm oil on canvas is now in the State Russian Museum. The two paintings have significant differences and we’ll compare them in another article.

Description of the painting

As if watching through the window, we see a merchant family wishing to intermarry with a nobleman, but it turns out awkwardly.

Despite the fact that the arrival of the guest was expected, there is a commotion in the room. The scene resembles a theatrical production with a consistently developing action from the figure of the major to the daughter and mother who are the main characters of the work. With this compositional scheme, the author emphasized the insincerity and false brilliance of what is happening. The relationship of the characters can be traced in their gestures and postures. As a result, a certain dynamics is created in the direction from left to right.

The scene is being played in the antechamber, which is not in keeping with etiquette. It should have been done in the living room or dinning room instead.

 The dining table is not covered with a white tablecloth, but pink, with sewing around the edges which would look more appropriate in an office or boudoir. We can see that the action probably took place on Wednesday or Friday, which are fast days, because there are only lean snack (herring, salmon, slightly salted caviar) on the table which is too small for so many snack.

 A great attention is paid to details, and shows many of the characteristic features of merchant life. We can see that the room is filled with things demonstrating the desire of the owners to live “in the capital”. But if you look closely, it is a “wrong” combination of various objects that betrays patriarchal habits, and creates a comic effect.

In the left corner there is a table with a Psalter as well as icons with lamps on a shelf, obligatory in any house, but impossible in a nobleman’s antechamber. Aristocrats went to pray in the home chapel, or went to church and could have an icon in the bedroom, but wouldn’t in the antechamber.

The ceiling, from which a huge chandelier hangs , is painted with flower garlands, nymphs and cupids.

Paintings hang on the walls, but their plots hint that the owner does not know arts.

They include a lithograph with a view of the Nikolo-Ugresh monastery, portraits of the metropolitan, generals Kutuzov and Kulnev, as well as the owner of the house himself with a book in his hand, to emphasize his literacy .

Champagne in this house, obviously, is drunk infrequently and therefore they do not know how to serve it gracefully. They simply put a tray with a bottle of champagne and glasses on a chair.

The bride

Lighter than her mother’s, the bride’s dress helps to set her apart from the central group as the most important character.

Even though the bride wear a beautiful dress made of muslin and an immeasurable amount of gold jewelry (rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets), at the last moment she tries to run away to another room, feeling naked in this new fashionable dress, which is made according to European fashion showing her shoulders.

The absurdity of the situation is emphasized by the fact that the outfit of the merchant’s daughter is intended for a ball or other evening event, and not for meeting the groom during the day, but the action, judging by the extinguished lamps, takes place during the day.

The mother

The bride’s mother is dressed in a mixed new French and Old Russian fashion. She has a fashionable European dress made of iridescent fabric of the ” chanzhan ” type but instead of the cap, she has a philistine-style scarf tied on her head, and there is no corset under the silk dress. A shawl is thrown over this dress.

As her daughter tries to run out of the room, she grabbes her by the hem of her dress to stop her. Her posture and facial expression betray an imperious and strong willed character and we can deduct that she is probably the one running everything in the house.

The father

Her father, a good-natured peasant with a bushy beard is in the shade in the corner of the room. He is trying to button up his newfangled frock coat with which he is not very familiar.

The matchmaker

To the left of the major is a simple matchmaker dressed in an nice red brocade and a dark skirt. A dark scarf with a small flower is tied around her head. Her clothing is another indication that the major is not a hereditary nobleman, otherwise he would have resorted to the services of a noblewoman matchmaker.

Having come with the major, she already entered the room, and is the link between the major, towards whom the movement of her hand is directed, and the merchant, to whom her gaze is turned.

Majors matchmaking  extract groom by Fedotov
Majors matchmaking extract groom by Fedotov

The major

It is probable that the groom became a nobleman recently, having received the rank of a major. He clearly does not have refined manners, and we notice that he forgot to bring flowers to the bride and future mother-in-law.

To attracts our attention, the major, who is wearing an uniform with epaulettes , and carrying a saber, is standing in the doorway in backlight. At the same time his face is illuminated because he turns his head to the left. His legs are placed in the same way as the chair, slightly curved, his figure is taut, his eyes are slightly screwed up, and a victorious smile is hidden in his mustache.

He is straightening his mustache, and all his appearance is showing a businesslike attitude to a “deal”. It is probable that negotiations with the bride’s parents were held by the matchmaker in advance, and already knowing the answer, he is now thinking of all the benefits of his future marriage.

He does not yet see what is happening in the room where the main action takes place, and is waiting for an invitation to enter .

By the way, to create the figure of a major, Fedotov painted his own face, by looking in a mirror, giving himself a mine of some complacency and correcting his features in some ways.

The servants

Secondary characters help recreate the atmosphere of a merchant’s house.

On the left of the painting, an old woman who looked out with curiosity from the next room, speaks with a sitter holding a wine bottle. He apparently just brought it from a wine shop and the two servants seem to be gossiping about the groom.

In front of them, the cook puts a freshly baked on the table watching what is happening in the room.

The cat

On the lower right corner of the painting Pavel Fedotov depicted a cat cleaning itself: “The cat washes guests”.

There is a saying associated with a cat cleaning itself. If the animal washes thoroughly and tidies up: it’s for the guests, and it means that guests will come soon (guests will come to the wedding).

After looking at this painting we are left wondering the further fate of the daughter of the merchant and the major: are they happy? How does the merchant now place herself in society, given her new relationship with a nobleman? There are many such questions.

In the next articles, we’ll read and translate the Racea of Pavel Fedotov about his paintings “The major’s matchmaking”, then we’ll compare the original painting with its repetition.

I hope you enjoyed this painting as much as I did.

Poem about the painting “The Major’s Matchmaking” by Fedotov Russian/English

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