The Real Wives of Russia: 3 things you did not know about Repin's muse

“Behind every great man there is a great woman” – unfortunately, for way too long great women were constrained to the shade of the great men they inspired, married and supported. Fortunately, we are now lucky enough to finally begin learning stories of countless ladies who managed to change the world against all odds.

It is our honour to introduce to you Ms Natalia Nordman – Severova (1863—1914). You might have heard of her partner, a famous Russian artist called Ilya Repin, but until the new “WIVES” exhibition at the Russian Impressionism Museum, her persona remained largely unknown to the mass audience.

Ms Nordman - Severova is one of many whose story is being told through 40 portraits loaned from 15 museums and 17 private collections, and what a story it is!

 

  Two representations of Ms Natalia Nordman - Severova: life model & a painting by Ilya Repin (1909, Novgorod Museum)

 Two representations of Ms Natalia Nordman - Severova: life model & a painting by Ilya Repin (1909, Novgorod Museum)

Natalia Nordman – Severova was a second “wife” of Ilya Repin, one of the most famous Russian realist painters of the 19th century, yet they were never officially married. The legend says, that it was Ms Nordman – Severova who refused to make the union official. She was considered very controversial at her time, yet looking back at her persona now, we would call her a visionary.

Why? Glad you asked!

  • Natalia Nordman – Severova was a 19th Century feminist. She passionately advocated for women’s rights to self-realisation beyond her marriage, husband and kids (#preach), which went against what has been the custom in Russia for centuries.

    She also fought for equality between men and women. Had she dedicated more time to writing, it would undoubtedly make for an inspiring and captivating read. Yet she made a choice to devote her life to her husband and social work, proving on practice that a woman can be both a feminist and a housewife. 
     
  • Being a housewife in the 19th Century Russia meant being responsible for running a household of different scale: planning food supply and managing its demand, running a farm, an atelier, a cleaning company, a kindergarten and many other activities now classified as a "small business".
    As Margaret Thatcher wisely noted, ""Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country." Natalia, the goddaughter of Emperor Alexander II (the one who began the emancipation of peasants in Russia), was closer to understanding the needs of ordinary citizens than some of the last Emperors of Russia. Ms Nordman - Severova was one of the very few who introduced an 8-hour work day for people employed in her household, instead of an 17/18-hour one.
    As you can imagine, such actions from (God forgive us!) a woman were often met with ridicule, reproaches, anger and misunderstanding of others. Regardless, she persisted and even introduced a "spinning table", at which she and Ilya Repin dined together with their employees. Talk about #leadershipskills

 Ilya Reping and Natalia Nordman - Severova with their employees at the spinning table

Ilya Reping and Natalia Nordman - Severova with their employees at the spinning table

  • Ms Nordman – Severova was a vegetarian. She was in a great company of Leo Tolstoy (most famous for War and Peace or Anna Karenina); while he wrote lengthy passionate essays explaining the core ideas of vegetarianism, Natalia wrote “A cookbook for the hungry. Dedicated to the sated.” With the help of vegetarianism, she dreamed of helping Russia win a fight against hunger. Unfortunately, the violence and tumultuous political environment of the early 20th century prevented many great artists and humanist thinkers to develop their ideas further.

These three facts might seem rather normal and adequate now, yet do not forget that the reality of the 19th Century was not very friendly to any of these ideas. And Natalia Nordman – Severova was one of the many unsung heroes who, by practicing the radical notions of respect for human rights and life, brought about the change in attitudes. 

 Portrait of Nadezhda Nadezhdina by Vladimir Lebedev (1927, Russian Museum) A dancer, choreographer, Bolshoy Theatre performer, founder and art director of the State Academic Choreographic Ensemble "Berezka"

Portrait of Nadezhda Nadezhdina by Vladimir Lebedev (1927, Russian Museum)
A dancer, choreographer, Bolshoy Theatre performer, founder and art director of the State Academic Choreographic Ensemble "Berezka"

The are many more stories of women behind the genius, behind the social, political, economic change we are yet to discover. There are certainly many more stories of love, friendship, loss, family, and change hidden in the portraits of “WIVES” at the Russian Impressionism Museum. We highly recommend you visit it while it’s on (01.02.2018 -15.05.2018).