My thesis investigates Ivan Kramskoi's well-known work Unknown Woman (1883). In reviewing the criticism concerning Unknown Woman written in the wake of the eleventh peredvizhniki exhibition in which it was first shown, Kramskoi's painting attracted praise, perplexity, and condemnation. One of the major interpretations (though not commonly discussed) was that this work was meant to allude to female sexuality or prostitution in Russian society. The purpose of my thesis is to reinstate the pertinence of this reading, one which has been obfuscated or ignored in the majority of ensuing twentieth and twenty-first century scholarship. The second purpose of this work is to explore some of the ambiguities and complexities inherent in this work in order to better understand some of the complexities facing modernizing Russian society. It is perhaps impossible to state Kramskoi's motivations for painting this work or his attitude towards his subject concretely, but as I will suggest, he experienced both attraction toward and apprehension of the sexuality of his subject. However, this anxiety was also combined with a desire to invoke recognition if not empathy for the plight of the individual prostitute, a desire which can be found in other artistic productions of the age. In addition to Kramskoi's motivations in creating this work, I look at the way this work indicates the social issues of late nineteenth-century Russia. This was a time where ideas of national identity, class, and gender roles were in flux due to the developments of modernity. Unknown Woman encapsulates the complexity of this social milieu, and I examine the largely overlooked elements of the woman's gaze, wardrobe and physical location in order to better understand the questions and persuasions that existed in this period of late nineteenth-century Russian modernity.



College and Department

Fine Arts and Communications; Visual Arts



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Kramskoi, peredvizhniki, prostitution, modernity, ambiguity, Russian empire



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