Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova was born on 21 June 1881 to Sergei Nikolaevich Goncharov and Ekaterina Ilinichna Belyaeva in the town of Negaevo in Russia.1 Her father was an architect and mathematician.2 Her mother’s family had close links with the priesthood, and her maternal grandfather taught at the Moscow Theological Academy.3 Raised and educated largely by her mother and maternal grandmother during her early years, in 1892 Natalia moved to Moscow with her family and began her formal education.4 She graduated from the Fourth Gymnasium for Young Ladies in 1898 and began to attend the studio of a local sculptor where she was introduced to the English Arts and Crafts movement and German art nouveau (Jugendstil).5 In 1901 she joined the Sculpture Faculty of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture where she first met Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov, who became her life partner.6
The Salon of the Golden Fleece, the 1908 exhibition of French-Russian painting held at the home of the Khludov family in Moscow, greatly influenced Goncharova and her fellow young Russian painters, who at the time were preoccupied with European modernism.7 Goncharova’s painting Planting Potatoes of 1909 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) was a prototype for her early works which drew on traditional folk art. By 1910 she had begun to incorporate into her landscapes some of the features of the Russian lubok, a popular coloured print with simple graphics, as well as traditional children’s toys.8 This marked the beginning of a time in which Goncharova expressed a particularly Russian identity in her painting. The influence of cubism was apparent in her paintings that were included in the first exhibition of the radical independent group the Jack of Diamonds, which took place in 1910–11;9 these works showed fragmented and abstracted views of subjects informed by Russian folk art.
The Donkey’s Tail, a radical independent exhibition held in Moscow in 1912, was dominated by Goncharova’s work.10 That same year Goncharova and Larionov founded a school of painting based on Russian art – the icon, the lubok print, the signboard, painted trays, children’s toys, and folk art. They also worked with poets such as Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh to publish illustrated books of avant-garde poetry that enabled new explorations of word and image.11 With Larionov Goncharova developed a new form of abstract painting called rayonism, an early form of abstract art characterised by interacting linear forms derived from rays of light.12 Together they published a manifesto of rayonism, Rayonists and Futurists: a Manifesto (Luchisty i budushchniki. Manifest) in 1913.13
September 1913 saw Goncharova’s first solo exhibition open in Moscow, with almost eight hundred works on display.14 Her provocative claim in the preface to the exhibition catalogue was that ‘I have passed through all that the West can offer at the present time, and all that my country has assimilated from the West. I now shake the dust from my feet and distance myself from the West.’15 The huge range of styles and media she employed led Larionov and the writer Il’ia Zdanevich to apply the term vschestvo (everythingism) to her work.16
Goncharova and Larionov took a train from Moscow to Paris on 29 April 1914.17 Their arrival in Paris saw the beginning of Goncharova’s career as a costume and set designer, particularly for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and she worked on the design for the first Paris production of The Golden Cockerel (Le Coq d’Or) that same year.18 The following year she designed sets and costumes for Liturgy (Liturgie), a ballet that included the music of Russian Orthodox hymns; though devised in 1915, the ballet was never mounted in Goncharova’s lifetime.19 In 1919 she moved with Larionov to a studio on Rue du Jaques Collot in Paris where she stayed until the end of her life.20
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Goncharova continued to paint, teach, illustrate books and produce designs for ballet and theatre productions.21 In 1921 she contributed to the Russian Arts and Crafts exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.22 Her designs for the ballets Russian Fair (Foire Russe) 1920, Fairytales (Contes des Fées) 1922 and The Firebird (L’Oiseau de Feu) 1926 all drew on traditional Russian costumes.23 The death of Diaghilev in 1929 meant Goncharova lost the main patron for her experimental stage designs, although she did continue to work on operas. In The Fair at Sorochyntsi (La Foire de Sorotchintsy) 1929, for instance, she took special care to consider how costumes relate to one another, later reflecting that they ‘may work against each other or may stand out from one another … Everything depends upon their colours and their forms and also, obviously, upon the place which they occupy upon the stage.’24
Although Goncharova’s reputation was as a designer in the Russian style, after the death of Diaghilev she began to show more versatility. She worked with Vaslav Nijinsky in 1932,25 and from 1934–8 she designed for Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.26 In 1936 Goncharova contributed to Alfred H. Barr Jr’s Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.27
In the 1940s and 1950s Goncharova and Larionov lived in relative obscurity and poverty, except for their inclusion in a few exhibitions and acquisitions by a handful of major institutions, including Tate.28 A significant wartime project for Goncharova was a commission to design for dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar’s production of Chota Rustaveli, which she worked on during 1943–4.29
In 1955 Goncharova and Larionov were married, and the Arts Council of Great Britain organised a major retrospective of their work in 1961, the same year that Goncharova painted a series of cosmic pictures in response to the launch of Sputnik, the Earth’s first artificial satellite.30
Goncharova died in Paris on 17 October 1962, aged 81.
Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova (Russian: Ната́лья Серге́евна Гончаро́ва; July 3, 1881 – October 17, 1962) was a Russian avant-garde artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer. Goncharova's lifelong partner was fellow Russian avant-garde artist Mikhail Larionov. She was a founding member of both the Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911), Moscow's first radical independent exhibiting group, the more radical Donkey's Tail (1912–1913), and with Larionov invented Rayonism (1912–1914). She was also a member of the German-based art movement Der Blaue Reiter. Born in Russia, she moved to Paris in 1921 and lived there until her death.
Her painting vastly influenced the avant-garde in Russia. Her exhibitions held in Moscow and St. Petersburg (1913 and 1914) were the first promoting a “new” artist by an independent gallery. When it came to the pre-revolutionary period in Russia, where decorative painting and icons were a secure profession, her modern approach to rendering icons was both transgressive and problematic. She was one of the leading figures in the avant-garde in Russia and carried this influence with her to Paris.