Malevich gradually established a reputation as a talented painter. Alongside other young artists, such as Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, he aspired to develop a uniquely Russian form of modernism, fusing the innovations of the western avant-garde with the simplified forms and expressive colours of popular prints and religious icons. It was only recently that icons had begun to be viewed as works of art rather than sacred artefacts, and the young artists saw them as the root for a tradition of Russian painting.

In December 1910 Malevich took part in an exhibition organised by the Knave of Diamonds group, in which Russian work appeared alongside specially invited foreign artists. The following year he exhibited with the Donkey’s Tail, a breakaway group led by Goncharova and Larionov in protest against this over-reliance on the West.

Malevich was now focusing on Russian subjects and settings, and particularly on the image of the peasant – often regarded by writers and artists as the embodiment of the national soul. In paintings such as The Scyther (Mower) 1911–12, which depicts a simplified figure against a backdrop resembling a patterned textile, Malevich was forging a distinctive and original painterly language.