Monday, February 10, 2014

Vasilyev’s "Reaper"

"Reaper" by Konstantin Vasilyev
In Konstantin Alexeyevich Vasilyev’s painting, simply titled “Reaper” ("Жница"), we find a very unique blend of imagery. “Death and the Maiden” is a long established theme, particularly favored by Scandinavian artists. The maiden is, naturally, a young woman; she is representative of life, whereas death is either a skeleton, Grim Reaper, or just a very old man. Vasilyev has blended both of them into one person in this painting. The maiden has become death as well as life—a profound statement.

When one thinks of death, the image of a dark, cloaked, icy figure is likely to come to mind. Here we find just the opposite. Vasilyev’s Reaper is a young, blond woman with piercing eyes resting against a tree, sickle in hand. While she appears nonthreatening, it is her eyes which give the viewer a hint of her true identity. Her expression lies somewhere between fierce and indifferent; do not let her beauty fool you, to know her is to die.

While her stance at first seems relaxed, a closer look reveals that this is not the case. The Reaper is actually poised for the attack, perhaps playing coy to draw the unsuspecting victim closer or to disarm them. She could easily and at any moment swing her sickle around the tree, reaping yet another soul. Her index finger grazes the blade, perhaps in anticipation.

Another symbol worked into the background is the either setting or rising crescent moon. The crescent moon is the symbol of Artemis, the ancient goddess of the hunt. Artemis, particularly in her Roman form of Diana, is deeply connected to pagan worship and witchcraft. This is not surprising as this artist frequently portrayed pagan themes in his work, especially of females. Vasilyev usually preferred Nordic imagery, however. It is not hard to imagine how his Reaper could easily be refashioned into a Valkyrie. In fact, the Reaper looks quite similar to Vasilyev's painting "Valkyrie" ("Валькирия")

"Valkyrie" by Konstantin Vasilyev

Artemis is usually associated with forests, but in this piece we once more find a mixture. Vasilyev’s Reaper hugs a lone tree, maybe on the cusp of the tree-line where the fields end and the forest begins. This is very appropriate, as death is the guide from one state of being into another. One could also interpret it as the field representing normal, orderly life, and the tree representing the wild and unknown after-life.


No matter how one takes it, Vasilyev’s “Reaper” is a striking, intriguing, and beautiful work of art. Vasilyev was a unique artist with an extraordinary (and sometimes curious) vision. Do not be surprised to see more of his work examined on this blog! 

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