But Shemyakin operated on a lower level, as a
teacher of future engineers; painting remained his private affair. He continued
to portray his home life in pastels, emphasizing the play of light on the
peaceful faces of his wife, sons, and sister-in-law. He painted hyacinths, the family’s
favorite flower, as Stalin’s purges cut a swath through Moscow’s
intelligentsia, and as conservatory professors and artistic colleagues
disappeared in the dead of night.

In 1938, one of the most tragic years of the
purges, the Union of Artists held a retrospective show of Shemyakin’s paintings
as a sign of respect for the quiet man. The exhibit commemorated the 25th
anniversary of his work as a teacher and 35th anniversary of his creative life.

Archivists at the Museum of Russian
Impressionism located stenographer’s notes from a three-hour organization
meeting before Shemyakin’s exhibit. The notes reveal that only one critic
brought up Shemyakin’s lack of “Soviet themes,” according to Petrova.

Shemyakin continued to teach drawing through
WWII and he died peacefully of natural causes in 1944.

A Delight to the Eye

The Museum of Russian Impressionism has laid
out Shemyakin’s work in two rooms that display the quiet dignity of the
artist’s life. Most are portraits, but there are still lifes of flowers
sprinkled throughout. His wife and young children bathe in a summery haze as
they smile at the viewers and each other. In the portraits of musicians, brown-black
brushstrokes radiate outwards from his subject’s clear gaze becoming rough and
heavy at the periphery of the canvas. Shemyakin’s serious palette echoes the
musicians’ formal dress and wooden instruments, a striking contrast to the
hyacinth paintings which revel in their rainbows of white, blue and deep violet.

In general, the Shemyakin exhibit offers art
lovers respite from the ambitious intensity of better-known 20th century artists
displayed in Moscow’s world-class museums. Sheltered in the cozy Museum of
Russian Impressionism, itself tucked away in the former Bolshevik Chocolate
Factory, Shemyakin’s paintings tempt art lovers to “stop and smell the roses”,
or in this case, hyacinths.

Mikhail Shemyakin’s work can be seen at the
Museum of Russian Impressionism through January 17.