Visit an artist’s house, studio and gardens above the broad Oka River Start: Polenovo estate visitors’ centre End: Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo Distance: about 3km
The painter Vasily Polenov, whose landscapes you can admire in the Tretyakov Gallery, was born on June 1st 1844. To celebrate his birthday, why not make the trip out of Moscow to the house where he lived for forty years, now a first class museum.
“The landscapes along the Oka River… are beautiful. I wish we could settle there.”
Polenov wrote these words in 1887 and in the spring of 1890 he bought an estate in the village of Byokhovo overlooking the wide water. As he got to know the area, he came to love the views from a nearby hill and in 1892 he built a new house there, which became a museum while he still lived in it.
Decorated with works by fellow painters like Repin, Shishkin and Levitan, the house attracted a stream of tourists from nearby towns. Polenov wrote:
“My wish came true when we succeeded in building a house on the bank of the Oka, fit for putting up collections, and I am extremely glad to see the visitors coming and examining them.”
Polenovo is 100 kilometres south of Moscow. Trains are relatively infrequent; the weekend 8.34am might be a good option. The journey from Kursky Station to Tarusskaya (212 roubles one way) takes a bit more than two hours and the ten minute taxi ride from there to the estate-museum (pronounced “PaLYENava”) will cost around 250 roubles. You could arrange for the taxi to collect you from the church in four hours or so, or take a number to call when you’ve finished.
Buy tickets in the visitors’ centre (1), which includes a shop and café, for everything you want to see. The main house (90 roubles), the studio and the exhibition hall (50 roubles each) are all worth seeing, although it does mean a lot of taking on and off ‘tapochki’ slippers. Go through the main gates and straight along the tree-lined track towards a circular clearing with a boulder in the middle. The barn (2) on the right contains the cloakroom and changing exhibitions from the museum reserves. The current display is of paintings and fairy-tale illustrations by Polenov’s talented younger sister, Elena Polenova. To the left, the three-storey white mansion (3) where the family lived is made of plastered wood and modelled on Polenov’s parents’ home near St Petersburg.
Repin’s oval portrait of Polenov hangs over the door. The portrait room, covered with paintings and photographs of the extended family, also contains collections from Greece and Egypt, assembled by the painter’s father, Dmitry. Next door, the library, with its painted fireplace, carved wood, stained glass and crowded gallery of masterpieces, embodies the spirit of this exceptional house. Polenov’s study is hung with his own works, including views of the Oka, which you can already glimpse through the windows. Upstairs, a huge sketch for his famous painting of “Christ and the Sinner” dominates one end of a light-filled hall, with a wall covered in delicate studies. The creative flower arrangements in every room and the huge windows with views of the surrounding countryside add to the charm.
In the orange-roofed studio-abbey (4), framed by blossoming shrubs and tulips, the artist’s brushes, compounds, oils and stove are laid out like an apothecary’s kitchen. The side room has an exhibition about the estate’s theatre, including some brilliantly spooky puppets. Polenov started a long-running tradition in 1910, when he invited local people to a play he had staged with his children.
A path leads from the studio door, past the old boathouse (5) with a diorama (tickets at the door), towards a sandy beach (6) on the river. A spectacular view opens up in both directions and it is even possible to swim here if you don’t mind brown water and strong currents. From a little way above the beach, a path leads along the riverbank all the way to the Trinity Church at Byokhovo (7). Simply keep the water on your left and, with a bit of perseverance (it could be quite overgrown in high summer), you will reach the foot of a steep flight of steps leading up to the ancient, cliff top graveyard where Polenov and his family are buried. His grave is a roofed wooden cross above a flowery bank, to the right of a small chapel. From this hill, the views over the meandering river are better than ever.
Polenov designed the picturesque church in 1904 while friends and family helped to decorate it. He called it “our church which celebrates painting, music and poetry … a Temple of Art”. A taxi can collect you from here or you can follow the road beyond the church, past cottages with flowering gardens. Turn right at the end of the lane and right again at the fork to return to the estate-museum.
The station at Tarusskaya is dedicated to Polenov with a bronze bust of the painter and large photos of the house, river and church. There are currently trains back to Moscow at four and 6pm or at 7.10pm, changing at Serpukhov. If you arrive in the station before 4pm, you could visit the small art gallery. There is also a bar on the top floor of the adjacent shopping centre, which will serve you a half litre of draft beer for 60 roubles.
Landmark of the week - Polenov’s studio, Polenovo estate (4)
In 1904, Polenov decided to build this charming studio next to the main house. He wrote to his friend, founder of the Pushkin Fine Arts’ Museum, Ivan Tsvetaev: “This summer I was building a studio, but for some reason it turned out to be an Abbey. Nevertheless I am extremely pleased: the window is large, the light is wondrous; I’ve been dreaming of it all my life and now I can hardly believe that this has come true.”