The Good Old Times of Tea Parties

A day with paintings and their characters

Merchant's Wife at Tea (1918) by Boris KustodievThe State Russian Museum

Praised by the famous French artist Eugène Delacroix as a discreet art form, painting challenges the viewer to read between the lines. What was daily life in Russia in the past? How is it represented in painting? 

Let's spend a day with some of the painted characters in Russian art to take in all the details from “A Merchant’s Wife at Tea” to an aristocrat hiding his breakfast to a scene at a traditional Russian feast.

A Boyar Wedding Feast (1883) by Konstantin MakovskyHillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens

“A Boyar Wedding Feast”, Konstantin Makovsky (1883)

The painting shows a wedding feast in the 17th-century Russia which has apparently reached its culminating point with the serving of the roasted swan, a traditional dish at the time.

The swan would be served with topeshniks or slices of sweet kalach bread dipped in melted butter and rounded out by condiments such as vinegar, salt, pepper, sour milk, salted cucumbers or plums.

As custom would have it, however, the newlyweds were not allowed to have even a little bit of food. It was reserved for after the bedchamber rite that they would soon be encouraged to proceed to with dances, jokes and singing, the latter even believed to confer marital happiness.

The newlyweds would retire to a separate room for a few hours and would take with them the karavai and the chicken that we can see on a platter next to the bashful bride.

The Aristocrat’s Breakfast (Art of the first half of the XIX century) by Pavel FedotovThe State Tretyakov Gallery

“The Aristocrat's Breakfast”, Pavel Fedotov (1850)

Ironically, the life of the aristocrat in Fedotov’s artwork is all for show. He is that dandy from Ivan Goncharov’s ‘Letters from a City Friend to a Provincial Bridegroom’

...who, ‘In order to put on today the fashionably coloured and striped pantalons that were brought in just three days ago or replace his chain with another one recently obtained he would gladly say yes to two months of undernourishment.'

In spite of the rich interior or the chic clothing à la mode the man looks a mixture of tragic and comic as he breakfasts on a loaf of cheap rye bread, an impoverished aristocrat hiding his true circumstances.

Girl with peaches. Portrait of V.S.Mamontova (1887) by Valentin SerovThe State Tretyakov Gallery

“Girl with Peaches”, Valentin Serov (1887)

Completed in 1887 at the famous art patron Savva Mamontov’s Abramtsevo estate, this painting by Valentin Serov catches Mamontov’s daughter Vera inside the house for a moment after playing in the garden. The girl has popped in to treat herself to one of the peaches on the table.

These are on maple leaves as if on platters and were presumably grown in a greenhouse built as the dilapidated estate was being repaired following its purchase from the daughter of Sergei Aksakov, the author of "The Scarlet Flower" fairy tale. 

Greenhouses had been used to grow decorative or medicinal plants, but the preference shifted in the 19th century to fruits and vegetables that were, however, produced for personal consumption rather than for sale.

The practice was a popular pastime for Russia’s nobility, enjoyed by the likes of the Tolstoys and the Turgenevs. One of the main characters of Leo Tolstoy’s "War and Peace", Pierre Bezukhov, grows pineapples and strawberries in his greenhouse.

Merchant's Wife at Tea (1918) by Boris KustodievThe State Russian Museum

“The Merchant's Wife at Tea”, Boris Kustodiev (1918)

Kustodiev, who often painted genre portraits of Russian merchants, produced this work after the Russian Revolution.

With hunger reigning supreme in 1918, and the imperial Russia out of the picture, the painting is a lament for old times when tea was served at balconies and tables groaned under the weight of food.

Russia had a long tradition of tea drinking complimented with cookies, honey, jam or pies. The late 19th century saw the foundation of several of the most prominent confectionery factories.

These included Partnership of A.I.Abrikosov's Sons’ (now Babayevsky Factory), Einem’s Partnership (now Krasny Oktyabr) and S.Sioux&Co Factory (now Bolshevik).

These were the birthplaces of iconic Russian sweets including the Rakovye Sheiki ("Crayfish Tails") caramel and Mishka Kosolapy ("Clumsy Bear") wafers with chocolate coating.

Still Life. Fish (1959) by Andrey V. Vasnetsov (1924–2009)The Institute of Russian Realist Art (IRRA)

“Still Life. Fish”, Andrei Vasnetsov (1959)

As the early Slavs would settle along the riverbanks and on wooded plains, there were few opportunities for raising cattle. Fish was a staple food and continues to provide much of the daily protein on lean days after the country was baptised.

With meat in short supply, the Soviets replaced the religious practice of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays with "Fish Thursdays".

The propaganda machine backed the move with slogans like "Save time by purchasing fish culinary products" and the infamous 1938 poster that read "Time to savour the delicate taste of crabs". 

Sprat in tomato sauce, a popular and cheap product, entered mass production in the mid-1950s. By the mid-1970s, the Okean ("Ocean") chain of fish stores had spawned across the entire country, with the required equipment sourced internationally. 

This type of fish retail, new to the Soviet Union, was imported from Spain following a visit by the Soviet Fishery Minister.

Soviet preserves (Art of the first half of the XX century) by Boris YakovlevThe State Tretyakov Gallery

“Soviet Preserves”, Boris Yakovlev (1939)

Homemade preserves have always played a crucial role in Russians’ diet. Vegetables and mushrooms were salted and marinated in summer and autumn to last until winter. 

Every family had their own recipe for pickled tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, eggplant caviar or leсso, an originally Hungarian type of ragout.

Fruit and berries were brewed to make kompot beverages and jams that could be consumed as standalone desserts or used as filling in baking or a treatment for colds.

Popular canned food during the Soviet era inсluded meat and fish products such as saira or stew. A separate type of canned food was ironically called ‘A Tourist’s Breakfast’, because it was an optimal pick for travellers or hikers. 

This product could feature golubtsy, or meatballs in cabbage leaves, fish with rice or barley cereal as well as salted meat. 

Moscow Traktir (Art of the first half of the XX century) by Boris KustodievThe State Tretyakov Gallery

“Moscow Tavern”, Boris Kustodiev (1916)

A visit to Moscow coachmen’s favourite diner by the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower in 1915 led to this artwork by Boris Kustodiev, also known as Tea Party. A traktir or tavern once meant a Russian-style B&B, but later became a cheap eatery or pub.

The grotesque depiction of the essence, the heat and the popular spirit of tavern tea drinking is punctuated by the choice of colour from the red of the walls to the blue of the costumes or the bright yellow of the bar. 

A branch of osier behind the icon places the time of the events on Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Easter. In the Russian style, the respectable coachmen in the picture drink tea from the saucers and seem engaged in relaxed conversations just as waiters bring in more teapots.

The menu for a lunch on the day of the coronation of Emperor Nikolai Alexandrovich and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1896-05-26) by Apollinary VasnetsovThe State Russian Museum

“Dinner Menu for the Coronation of Emperor Nicholas of Russia and Empress Alexandra Fedorovna”, Apollinary Vasnetsov (1896)

The 1896 coronation of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas was a key celebration that year. It was held in what was called "the Russian style" to mark the continuity of tradition under the House of Romanov.

The menus for the official dinner were designed by prominent artists that included Apollinary Vasnetsov. Some of the dishes served included mince pies, Russian-style soup, chicken fillet with truffles, and artichokes with mushrooms.

The lower part of the menu shows the imperial flag and the anagram of the emperor and the empress. Postcard views of the Russian Empire are seen under the patterned vaults of a medieval Russian mansion. 

The right corner displays a table with the ritualistic sweet karavai bread and salt next to the bratina cup and a wine chalice with a scarlet griffin hovering above.

Credits: Story

Сhief Сonsultant — Ekaterina Drozdova, restaurateur, gastronomic entrepreneur, food and social activist, Contributors — Proximity Russia, Denis Yershov, Alexandra Grigoryeva

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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