Vasily Tropinin was a Russian Romantic painter. Much of his life was spent as a serf; he didn't attain his freedom until he was more than forty years old. Three of his more important works are a portrait of Alexander Pushkin and paintings called The Lace Maker and The Gold-Embroideress.
Vasily Tropinin was born in 1776. The son of a serf, he was an errand boy in the house of his master, Count Minikh. Since early age he developed an irresistible passion for drawing. Often, forgetting about his master's orders, he drew human heads with charcoal or shoe right on the wall, for which he was repeatedly punished. It's hard to say what would've come of him, if it had not been for the count's daughter. She married General Morkov and took the boy with her as part of her dowry. Everyone who saw Vasily's drawings admired his talent and advised the general to send him to an art school. Finally, the boy was sent to St. Petersburg to study — not painting, but pastry-cooking.
There he made friends with a painter living near the sweet-shop where he worked and began to take lessons from him in secret. Whenever the pastry-cook noticed his absence, she would give him a severe dressing.
It was not until Vasily turned 21 that the general decided that he should enter the Academy of Arts. Tropinin did extremely well at the Academy and soon got a silver and gold medals for his paintings, when an unpleasant incident interrupted his studies. One of his canvases "The Boy Mourning For His Dead Bird" displayed at the Academy's exhibition, had the misfortune of being praised by Her Majesty the Empress. As soon as the news reached count Morkov, the latter, fearing he may lose his talented serf, urgently summoned him back. On the estate Tropinin did any kind of work his master would give him: he painted portraits, taught the general's children, assisted in the construction of a church, painted fences and carriages. When the count's family were having dinner, Vasily and other man-servants were obliged to stand behind their master's chair.
Once, the count was treating his guest, a Frenchman to dinner. The latter, seeing Tropinin, whose paintings he had just been shown, enter the dining-room, insisted that he should dine with them. The count was slightly embarrassed. In the evening he relieved Tropinin of man-servant's duties.
Through his master, a high-ranking aristocrat, Tropinin got access to art collections owned by other noblemen. Often, during business trips to Moscow he would spend a lot of time copying works by various masters from private collections. Tropinin quickly established himself as a talented portraitist.
Yet, he remained a serf. Many eminent people solicited for his enfranchisement, but the count was implacable. Tropinin was in his late 40s when he finally obtained freedom and settled in Moscow where he had an art studio. His popularity grew rapidly. Writers, poets, actors, officers, merchants and noblemen, people of all ranks and social positions, commissioned portraits to him. He made one of the best life-time portraits of the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
Tropinin's integrity, his infinite love for painting combined with perseverance and enormous capacity for work enabled him to make his way in art. His contemporaries noted that he was a very kind man, responsive to other people's sufferings. Despite the hardships he went trough, his works are completely devoid of pessimism. A placid smile lights the faces of people he painted.
Vasily Tropinin died in 1857 having outlived his wife whom he adored and whose death was a severe blow to him by less than two years.