Yellow Diamond: Valentin Serov’s portrait of Vera Mamontova


Girl with Peaches, 1887

Valentin Serov, 1865-1911, Russian. 

Tetryakov Gallery, Moscow




Here is a most delicious  and disciplined use of yellow: the first colour the eye sees.



You would like to think that your eye alights at once on the face of this girl.



In fact, your eyes have been grabbed first by the yellows parallel to and above her head outside the window.

It is early Autumn: September, 1887.


Thence, your eyes travel down the yellow foliage to her face.



Your eyes cradle gently back and forth

 from her eyes to her golden left ear to the  yellow  (gilding) at the top of a wooden frame (mirror? painting?) visible over her right shoulder.  It is on the floor behind her. 




Your eyes move from her eyes to her golden ear and downward along the gold which makes up her left neck,



to the irregular dot of yellow  on her skin just above her left collar. 




Downward along the pale sunlight of her right sleeve to the peach in her hands.




Thence, zig zag down to the peaches and the yellow of the maple leaves on the table. 


The peaches came from the family greenhouse and they ripened in August and September: the two months it took Serov to paint this portrait.




You linger on her face  and you realize that she is the center of a yellow diamond.




The apex of the diamond is an invisible point outside the picture frame.


It is in a straight line above the handle which opens the window behind the girl.   





The bottom of the diamond is the stem of the maple leaf closest to the front pane of the picture.  Its tip is in a straight line below the window handle.


The western point of the diamond is the yellow banding on the chair in the adjoining room. Left. 


The eastern point – in a direct line passing through her eyes – is the yellow band on the chair placed at a desk in the right of the image 




The yellow diamond is delineated by a line which passes from its apex down through the yellow roundel of reflected sun on the white-and-blue porcelain on the wall




downwards to its western point at the yellow band on the wood of the chair in the adjoining room




Thence, zig zag downwards towards us to the yellow bands on the chair to the right of the young girl




and thence to the peach in the girl’s hands;

and in a direct line through peach-maple-leaf-peach on the table




The third peach, with its blue-grey shadow, tarries your eyes on the lusciousness of summer fruit and on the soft white of the cotton tablecloth – now gone from most of our lives.




The diamond line moves upwards sharply from the stem of the maple leaf to skirt the bottom corner of her pink blouse to reach its eastern point: the yellow band on the wood of the chair at the desk


and up and westwards, touching the yellow corner of the chair in front of the window,




to meet the diamond’s origination point directly above the handle of the window in an imagined welter of autumn yellows.




A diamond of yellow which the artist has flecked with gold.

There are flecks everywhere: 

in her face, in the cotton pink,  in the white of the table linens; in the wallpaper.  Yellow reflections on the white wood frame of the window.





The discipline of this yellow is that it is not overwhelming:

so much is a mere hint to keep our eyes alight: a sprinkling of gold dust to hold and captivate us as his sitter captivated him.


The life of this master portraitist was taken in 1911 by illness when he was 46. 


His subject was the 11-year old Vera Mamontova, ten years his junior. The artist knew her from her babyhood because he had summered on her father’s estate since he was 10 years old.


Her life was even shorter than his:  she died in 1907 at 32 of illness; the mother of 3 children.


Their world would be shattered by the Bolshevik Revolution. 





This most famous of Serov’s many works is a reminder of the circle of Russian artists and writers who came to maturity in the dying decades of Imperial Russia.





The philosophical legacy of this painting in its fullest context is this: 

relish this moment.



Vera Mamontova, 1875-1907, Russian. 

Photo, 1880s, of unknown provenance taken from the net