Watercolors of Erast Sukouski in the New York Public Library

Lyudmyla Shpylova
New York Public Library

The Slavic and Baltic Division of New York Public Library has numerous rare, even unique materials. Among them a special place belongs to the collection of iconographic, illustrative materials, and photo albums. This collection stands out, along with such famous collections of pictorial materials in the West as the Hoover Institution, Harvard University, and Helsinki University. The Division energetically pursues the growth, preservation, and conservation of this collection, as well as its use by scholars who come from many countries around the world.
This article is about one of the finds that has an interesting history tied to the Imperial Russian dynasty, the politics of the government of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, Belarusan artist Erast Sukouski, and American collector Paul M.Fekula.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Soviet Russia, later the Soviet Union, was in constant need of Western currency, and therefore chose the path of selling anything that would find a buyer in the West, including museum treasures and library collections requisitioned by the State. The New York Public Library belongs to those institutions that had the foresight to seize this unique opportunity to acquire valuable, sometimes priceless manuscripts, incunabula, and rare books at very moderate prices. The Library also acquired materials from the Imperial Library belonging to Grand Duke Vladimir Aleksandrovich, Emperor Alexander II, and Nicholas II.
In March of 1934 the then Slavonic Division of the New York Public Library received, together with various other manuscripts and books belonging to the Russian imperial family, a large folder entitled Виды Полесья (Views of Palessie). It contained two old photographs of a newly-built canal and the meadows along the river Viedryи, and seven lithographs — the marshes of Belarusan Paleъsie. All have distinct labels in Russian, such as Переправа черезъ жидкое болото съ твeрдым дномъ между деревнями Загальем и Яменскомъ Бобруйскаго уезда [A Crossing through a Swamp between the Villages of Zahalle and Jamiensk in the Babrujsk Region] (Fig. 1). Upon a careful examination, one can ascertain that five works were done by one artist and two belong to another. The album was properly processed and catalogued and became a part of the Division's Art Collection.
A brief digression into the life of American collector-bibliophile Paul M.Fekula is in order here. Fekula was born in 1905 into the family of a priest in Winnipeg, Manitoba. After graduation from Harvard University, he began his business career. His interest in collecting Russian books and art objects manifested itself early in life. With the passage of time his collection became one of the largest of its kind in the United States.
In 1998 the heirs of the late Paul M.Fekula donated the remaining part of the collection to the Slavonic and Baltic Division of the New York Public Library. Among thousands of newly acquired volumes, attention fell on a large folio with a familiar title, Виды Полесья. A duplicate? No, an original! This portfolio contains seven watercolors, executed in the same technique, with the same color resolutions, identical subjects, and compositions as those that the library acquired in 1934. In addition, there are four (!) sepia photographs and a map of Palessie with markings of already completed as well as projected canals.
Through comparison and analysis of the two portfolios one can draw certain conclusions. It would seem that the existence of the original works and photographs are connected with the activities of the famous Western expedition for the drainage of the Palessian marshes that took place in the years between 1873 and 1898 under the Direction of Iosif Ipolitovich Ylinski (1834–1916). This expedition was organized for the study of nature and climatic conditions of Paleъsie, to research the possibilities of drainage and melioration, and the building of trenches and canals. This project, initiated by I.I.Ylinski, – was the recipient of the Gold Medal at the World's Fair held in Paris in 1878. In support of this version are the following elements: the careful and precise labeling of the watercolors and photographs as well as the inclusion in this portfolio of a detailed map, Карта Полесья съ показателемъ исполненной и предлагаемой канализаціи [A Map of Palessie indicating completed and proposed canals] by I. I. Ylinski (St.Petersburg, 1882); and also the character of the watercolors themselves executed in the style of travel sketches, where not only a general view but also minute details are depicted. The label on one of the photographs, Meadow with Haystacks, gives the date 1878, which also indicates the correctness of our assumption as to the date of the pictorial materials. And most importantly we were able to identify one of the artists. By comparing and studying the artist's signature on five of the seven plates, which were undoubtedly done by the same person, we can state unequivocally that the five watercolors belong to Erast Sukouski. What do we know about this painter? Unfortunately, the details of his life are scarce. According to the Памятная книжка Минской губернiи [Almanac of the Miensk Gubernia], for the years 1878 and 1898, in 1872 Erast Sukouski held administrative positions, first as an assistant to the tax supervisor in the Babrujsk Region, then regional tax supervisor for the Navahradak Region in the Miensk Gubernia. He attended the First Cadet Corps (Military School) but, for some reason, never graduated. Belarusan scholars assume that E.Sukoыski studied at the St.Petersburg Academy. He was married.
In any event, by the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, his name was well known to Miensk art connoisseurs. In 1891, eighteen of his paintings appeared for the first time at an art exhibit in the Gentlemen's Clubhouse in Miensk. The artist exhibited his sketches, landscapes, and life studies, among them Сям'я цесьляроў [A Carpenter's Family]; Апраўданая [The Acquitted]; and Тройка [Troika]. The exhibit was sponsored by the Miensk regional architect, V.F.Maas, who had earlier worked as an architect in Odessa and taught in an art school. In 1889 he came to Miensk and decided to open an art school there, patterned after the one in Odessa. However, he lacked the necessary funds. Thence came the idea of benefit exhibits to obtain the financial backing to permit the founding of an art school for children in Miensk. Sukoыski was one of those who offered his assistance gratis for this cause.
The nature of his administrative services required that Sukouski travel widely throughout Belarus. As a result of these travels numerous etudes and landscapes of Palessie, the marshes of Pinsk, and Lake Њviciaџ. Paintings such as Дарога ў Палескіх балотах у завіруху [A Road in the Palessie Marches during a Snow Storm]; Зімовая дарога на рацэ на Палесьсі [A Winter Road on a River in Paleъsie]; Раніцай на пароме [Morning on a Ferry], and others were successfully exhibited in 1891 in Miensk, and later at exhibits that took place annually each spring in Vilnia.
Subsequently Sukouski's name can be found at other art exhibits in Miensk, Vilnia, and Kouna (Kaunas). The most successful was the exhibition, sponsored by the Miensk Literary and Art Society in 1908. In 1910 Sukoыski's watercolors, Сядзіба ў Пінскіх балотах [Homestead in the Marshes of Pinsk] and others were displayed in the Museum of Applied Arts at the Miensk School of the Arts.
Erast Sukouski worked primarily with watercolors, but occasionally turned to oil paintings. His Тройка [Troika] merits especial mention. Done in oil, it was shown at many exhibitions, including one held in 1940 at the Exposition of Creative Arts of the Belarusan Soviet Republic in Moscow. Although documentation indicates that before World War II this last painting was in the Belarusan National Art Museum, its present whereabouts are unknown. In 1915 Sukouski became ill. His illness was mentioned in an article, About an Art Exhibit in the newspaper, Minskij golos (April 13, 1915). S.Paleyes, a scholar of Sukouski's work, opines that the artist died that same year.
Art historians include Erast Sukoыski's name in the same category as such Belarusan artists as Ju.Pen, Ja.Kruhier, I.Jaromienka, S.Bohush-Siestrancevie.
The Belarusan art scholar, L.Drobau, notes that Sukouski's works are no longer to be found. In view of this fact, the present find takes on that much greater importance.
We deem it imperative to provide a complete list of the watercolors by Sukouski now held in the Slavic and Baltic Division of the New York Public Library.
For the sake of accuracy, the titles are given in the original Russian.

1.Накатная гать по болоту въ долинe реки Бобрика Пинскаго уeзда.
2.Мельничья запруда на рeкe Руденкe Речицкаго уeзда и болото, образованое под ея вліяніемъ.
3.Видъ неосушенаго болота.
4.Переправа черезъ жидкое болото съ твердымъ дномъ мeжду деревнями Загальем и Яменскомъ Бобруйскаго уeзда.
5.Житель южной (зарeчной) части Пинскаго уeзда, одержимый колтуномъ.

In the portfolio Виды Полесья from the Paul Fekula Collection can also be found two watercolors by an unknown artist:

1.Магистральный каналъ въ Брожской казенной дачe и часть строящагося по осушенному болоту почтоваго тракта изъ Бобруйска въ Мозырь.
2.Видъ осушеннаго болота въ Василевичской казенной дачe Речицкаго уeзда въ урочищe Ведричъ.

and four sepia photographs:

1.Магистральный каналъ съ приспособленіями для образованія береговъ осадками весеннихъ разливовъ, проведенный по болоту затопившемуся во врeмя существованія уничтоженной мельничной запруды.
2.Видъ луга со стогомъ снятаго льна и растущей отавой на мeстe осушеннаго въ 1878 г. болота близъ Ясеновскаго перекопа въ долинe реки Ведричъ.
3.Общій видъ магистральнаго канала и строящагося перекопа въ урочищe Ясеновка, въ долинe р.Ведричъ.
4.Видъ осушеннаго болота въ Василевичской казенной дачe, близъ дер.Тишковичи.