Exploring the mysteries behind a recently acquired gouache painting led us to the staging of a famed opera. Initially, this painting, donated from the estate of Nicholas and Helen Bogolubov, raised more questions than it answered. Our investigation shed some light on the possible origin of the object, yet some pieces of the puzzle remain missing. 

The painting in question depicts buildings in an old Russian style, bathed in sunlight. In the lower right corner are two truncated signatures. Who created this work, and what does it in fact depict? These questions sparked our research, revealing a link to the premier of a famous Russian opera.

Set design. Gouache on cardboard. Russian History Museum collection

In 1909, “The Golden Cockerel” opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov premiered on the stage of the renowned Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The costumes and stage sets for this lavish production were created under the direction of Konstantin Korovin (1861–1939), a prominent Russian painter and stage designer known for his impressionist style. 

The connection between this production and the artwork in our collection became apparent when we discovered a photograph of the stage set for the third act of the “Golden Cockerel” premier, depicting the “Grad-stolitsa” (“City Capital”). The black and white photograph, preserved in the archives of the Bolshoi Theatre Museum, shows a stage set that is nearly identical in its design to our museum’s painting. The unmistakable resemblance between the two suggests that our painting is a preliminary sketch for the state set that was ultimately built at full scale for the Bolshoi’s 1909 production, and was documented in the photograph held at the Bolshoi’s museum.

Stage set for the third act of "The Golden Cockerel" for the Bolshoi Theater production, 1909. Photographic print. Museum of the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow

To better understand the scene of the third act, we referred to the libretto of “The Golden Cockerel.” The opera, based on Alexander Pushkin’s eponymous fairy tale, unfolds in the fictional kingdom of Tsar Dadon. The third act’s setting, as described in Vladimir Belsky’s libretto, reads as follows: “A bustling street of the capital in front of the staircase leading to the royal palace. […] Elaborate terems [tall residences] of citizens crowd around from all sides. Streets, terem windows, and even rooftops are full of people. […] It is hot and still sunny…”

Interestingly, the 1909 production of “The Golden Cockerel” at the Bolshoi Theatre nearly faced cancellation due to state censorship, echoing challenges that Pushkin encountered 75 years earlier in publishing his work. In Pushkin’s time, many saw the figure of Tsar Dadon, an inept and capricious ruler, as a satire of Nicholas I. Similar issues resurfaced in the early 20th century, when the opera’s political undertones were seen as a critique of the monarchy and the tsar, Nicholas II. In fact, shortly before the premiere in 1909, Korovin himself suggested canceling the production due to its controversial character.

Despite these challenges, the opera premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre on November 6, 1909, a year after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death. Several critics highly praised not only Rimsky-Korsakov’s music but also Korovin’s stage sets, which stylistically complemented the music. 

While it is clear that the painting at our museum relates to the “Golden Cockerel” opera, several questions persist. Perhaps the most obvious is that of authorship: who painted this stage design? And when? There are two signatures in the bottom right corner of the piece, but neither of them matches Korovin’s. Both are partially cut off and difficult to decipher. One appears to be “_. K. __ileeff,” while the other reads “Vladimir _am_.” Why are there two signatures and to whom do they belong? Could they have been Korovin’s assistants?

Detail of set design with two signatures. Gouache and graphite on cardboard. Russian History Museum collection

Notably, both signatures are in the Latin script rather than Cyrillic. This observation pointed to the possibility of a connection with a later production of  “The Golden Cockerel,” this time in France. 

Following the revolution, Korovin immigrated to Paris in 1922, where he continued his artistic endeavors. In 1934, the “The Golden Cockerel” was staged in Vichy by the Casino Theater. Konstantin Korovin was commissioned to design the production, including costumes and sets, largely replicating the designs he had created for the opera’s premier a quarter of a century earlier. 

The actual stage set for act three of the 1934 production survived, and is now housed at the Bakhrushin Central Theatre Museum in Moscow. The visual character of this stage set is very much akin to the painting in our museum’s collection, though the architectural elements do not match up as closely as they do in the stage set of the 1909 premier at the Bolshoi. Could our museum’s painting have been created as part of the design process for the 1934 production? Do the signatures belong to Korovin’s assistants? Perhaps they had access to black and white photographs of the 1909 premiere and reproduced the set design in color to serve as a guide in building the set?

Stage set for the 1934 production of "The Golden Cockerel" in Vichy, France. Design by Konstantin Korovin. Collection of the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum

While our investigation continues, we invite you to see the painting in person in our current exhibition, “Mysteries and Odysseys.” Perhaps you’ll share your hypotheses with us.