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Tchaikovsky's favourite painting "Melancholy"


I've read that the painting "Melancholy", which hangs in his bedroom in Klin, was the composer's favourite. Despite extensive searching, I have not been able to find the name of the painter or anything else about the painting. Can you help?


Jack Hogan
23/02/02 11:42

First of all, here is a link to a photograph (from the RIA Novosti archive) of Tchaikovsky’s bedroom in which the painting Melancholy can be seen hanging directly over his bed:[history][period]=1960

The resolution is not optimal, but the painting shows a gloomy seascape in which a full moon, partly obscured by clouds, is reflected in the waters underneath.

An article providing some very interesting information on the painting and its origins was published some years ago by Polina Vaidman, senior curator of the Klin Museum, in P. I. Chaikovskii. Zabytoe i novoe (Moscow, 2003), p. 349–354. Her article was entitled “Tchaikovsky and the Fernow Family: The Story of One Painting and an Unknown Letter by the Composer” and the following is based mainly on Dr Vaidman’s findings. The letter in question is letter 1332a, written in Berlin on 12/24 November 1879. It is in French and reads: “Mademoiselle! Allow me to thank you with all my sincerity for the enchanting painting which you were so kind as to present to me through our mutual friend. I am happy that my work inspired you to create this splendid painting, which shall henceforth serve as a principal adornment of my humble abode. Still, may you be visited as rarely as possible by the sweet, though sad thrill of melancholy, and may there in your heart always reign joy without sadness! I wish you this as your humble and grateful servant. P. Tchaikovsky.” (Only a Russian translation is given in the article, and the original as yet remains unpublished).

In one corner of the painting, whose title is also in French — Mélancolie — there are reportedly two signatures, one of which is not entirely legible. They read: “79. Fernov” and “An[ox?][ux?][?]. Fernov. 1879”. As Dr Vaidman has established, the “mutual friend” mentioned in the above letter was the violinist Iosif Kotek (1855–1885), who, shortly after graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, went to Berlin to study further with Joseph Joachim. While in Berlin, Kotek, in early 1879, made the acquaintance of a certain Mme Fernow and her three daughters and he began spending a lot of time with them, playing croquet in their garden, reading Gogol to them (in French), accompanying them to museums and to the Sanssouci palace in Potsdam, and, in particular, making music with the youngest daughter, Sophie, who was an accomplished pianiste and like her sisters an admirer of Tchaikovsky’s music. We learn these details from Kotek’s letters to Tchaikovsky, which have survived in the Klin archive and one of which, written in Berlin on 20 July 1879, is most relevant: “Tell me, my friend, did you receive Mlle Fernow’s painting? I told them off the top of my head that you had received it and that you were very grateful.”

In an earlier letter to Tchaikovsky, at the end of March 1879, Kotek had mentioned the ages of Mme Fernow’s three daughters: “32, 28 and 20”, adding that the pianiste was the youngest. From this and other circumstantial information, including a remark made by Kotek in another letter: “The Fernows are a wonderful family and are not at all like Germans. Why, they’re not even from Berlin but from the Polish provinces”, it is possible to identify the family in question. Interestingly, a number of them would end up in the United States. Thus, during his American tour twelve years later, Tchaikovsky would unexpectedly meet Sophie in Baltimore, as he noted in his diary on 3/15 May 1891: “I found a big company there: Mlle von Fernow (a former friend of Kotek), who came to Baltimore as a music teacher”. (Quoted from E. Yoffe, Tchaikovsky in America. The Composer’s Visit in 1891 (1986), p. 131). The letter which Sophie wrote to Tchaikovsky (in German) shortly after that meeting and the signed photograph which she enclosed with it have both been published in Dr Vaidman’s article. Interestingly, Sophie mentions in this letter that her mother was with her and that she also sent Tchaikovsky her regards. Sophie was the sister of the well-known Prussian-born American forester Bernhard E. Fernow (1851–1923), who had already settled in the USA as a young man in 1876: 

The Fernows were an aristocratic family, with large estates in East Prussia (the “Polish provinces” which Kotek refers to) but of diminished means. Bernhard’s father, Eduard Ernst Leopold Graf von Fernow, as we learn from a biography of the forester, “was married three times and by each marriage had children: Berthold (1839), Marie (1843), Anna (1844), Hans (1845), Paul (1847), Hermann (1849), Bernhard (1851), Clara (1853), Sophia (1857), Eduard (1860), Frederick Wolfgang (1864), Helena (1865), and Frederick Leopold (1866)”. (See Andrew Denny Rodgers, Bernhard Eduard Fernow: A Story of North American Forestry, 1968, p. 14).

Assuming that the three Fernow sisters with whom Kotek became acquainted in 1879 were Anna, Clara and Sophie, their ages at the time would have been 35, 26 and 22 (close enough to the ages which Kotek gave in his letter to Tchaikovsky and which he probably did not himself know precisely). Bernhard’s mother was called Clara Nordman, and it is very likely that she was also the mother of Clara and Sophie. We do not know when exactly Sophie, a pupil of Hans von Bülow, decided to join her brother in America, but a history of music life in Baltimore describes her as giving an “outstanding” performance of “Rubinstein’s Concerto” already in 1888 (cf. Lubov Keefer, Baltimore’s Music: The Haven of the American Composer (1962), p. 213).

Significantly, during his stay in Berlin in early 1888 as part of his first European concert tour Tchaikovsky met both the elder Mme von Fernow and the daughter of hers who had painted Melancholy nine years earlier. Thus, on 25 January/6 February 1888, he noted in his diary: “Dinner at the Fernows’. Grigorovich. Charming Mme. Fernow and the spinster who once painted a picture for me.” (Quoted from Wladimir Lakond (transl.), The Diaries of Tchaikovsky (1945), p. 229). From Sophie’s later letter to the composer, it is clear that she herself was not the author of Melancholy and that she had not been in Berlin when Tchaikovsky was there in 1888. Thus, the “spinster” in question must have been one of her two older sisters: Anna or Clara. The partly legible signature on the painting would suggest that it was Anna. Unfortunately, we know even less about her than we do about Sophie, who achieved some recognition as a piano teacher in America. On the other hand, the fact that Tchaikovsky attended a “dinner at the Fernows’” while in Berlin suggests that it was hosted by none other than Hermann Fernow, the deputy of his German concert agent, Hermann Wolff, and makes it very likely that the former was in fact the brother of Anna, Bernhard, Clara and Sophie.

As for the work of Tchaikovsky’s which inspired Anna von Fernow to paint Melancholy and to present it to the composer through Kotek, it may well have been the Sérénade mélancolique, which the young violinist, with the help of Sophie, might have played at one of the Fernow family gatherings in the spring or early summer of 1879.

Luis Sundkvist
26/02/2012 16:49

With the kind assistance of Dr Polina Vaidman of the Tchaikovsky House-Museum at Klin, we are now able to bring you the text of the letter to "Mademoiselle Fernow" mentioned above (see letter 1332a)

Brett Langston
21/03/2012 19:28

Thanks to further kind assistance from Dr Vaidman and Dr Galina Belonovich (director of the Klin House-Museum), and their colleagues, we can now also bring you a photogaph of Tchaikovsky's favourite painting, Melancholy, which hangs in his bedroom at Klin. Close examination of the signature on the painting confirmed that the author was indeed Anna Fernow, and we are most grateful to Luis Sundkvist for investigating this on behalf of Tchaikovsky Research readers.

Brett Langston
18/04/2012 15:25

What a beautiful painting! Thank you to all who were involved in bringing this to light! Think there’s any chance we’ll see a reprint of this painting someday?

Craig Sayer
19/04/2012 18:31

I have been informed that there is a high-quality reproduction in colour of this painting in John Warrack's book Tchaikovsky (London, 1973), p. 188, with the following caption: "Tchaikovsky's favourite painting, Melancholy, still hangs in his bedroom at Klin". The source given is a RIA-Novosti photograph. In the 1989 paperback edition of Warrack's book there are unfortunately no illustrations.

Brett Langston
20/06/2012 22:45

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