Biography

Anatoly Аlexаndrovich Sokoloff (it was during his long years in Argentina that Anatoly became Anatolio, a Spanish version of the Russian original) was an artist of extraordinary talent and a most unusual fate. The best of his paintings depict epoc­hal events and heroes spanning three continents and two centuries seen through the prism of his romantic vision of the world. At the same time, his own life was molded by the cataclysms and woes of 20th century to such an extent that his biography reads like the history of our times.

Anatoly Sokoloff was born in 1891 in Petrodvorets (Peterhof), into the family of a courtier in charge of the tsar's hunting. The Sokoloff’s, like many other courtiers, lived in Znamenka, the estate of Grand Duke Nicholas. The future artist's mother, nee Olshanskaya, grew up in a general's family along with her 12 brothers, all of whom served in the tsar's army. A military career had been a family tradition cherished through genera­tions. Anatoly's father was no exception. Yet he saw nothing wrong with the fact that from the age of five his son had never part­ed with crayons, paints and paper. In fact, if a child displayed a penchant for beauty and art, it found a great deal of encouragement from the parents. One of Anatoly's two brothers was an accomplished musician, who played a number of instruments and sang, while the other liked to draw.

Anatoly successfully graduated from the elite Nikolayevsky Cadet Corps and was enrolled in the TverCavalrySchool. Yet he continued to paint the world that surrounded him. Later, when Sokoloff became known for his battle pieces, viewers were always amazed at the mas­tery with which he executed mounted figures.

This is easily understood when one considers that Anatoly grew up in a family of tradi­tional animal lovers, spent hours as a boy watching the graceful beauty of the tsar's retinue, and as a young cavalryman acquired first-hand knowledge of horses. While at the School, Anatoly continued to pursue his military studies and hone his artistic talent. His work started to attract the attention it was legitimately due and the young artist was granted permission from the highest quarters to attend the Academy of Arts. It so happened that the road to Saint Petersburg from Vyborg, where Sokoloff was quartered at the time, passed by Penaty, the estate of the great Russian painter Ilya Repin. Anatoly became a frequent guest there, along with virtually all the young artists from St. Petersburg. These visits left an indelible mark on Anatoly Sokoloff’s work.

When in his early twenties, Sokoloff experi­enced the first of what would be many dramatic events. Though he had become a recognized fig­ure in the capital's bohemian artistic circles, he remained, first and foremost, a tsarist officer.
As such, he was assigned to the 20th dragoon regiment upon graduation, and, with the out­ break of World War I, was sent to the front. In yet another twist of fate, the cavalryman became an airman: Anatoly was enrolled into a military aviation school at Gatchina where he found himself rubbing shoulders with the Russian flying elite – Sikorsky, the Seversky brothers,Sergeyevsky. In 1915, he became a flight instructor at the school. But even the war could not stop Anatoly from drawing. Many of his sketches wound up in the regimental museum, while others served as the basis for journalistic reports filed by the famous Russian novelist and short-story writer Alexander Kuprin

The Bolshevik revolution found Anatoly Sokoloff in Finland; tragic events quickly followed.  While in Vyborg, Anatoly learned about his father's brutal death. Alexander Sokoloff, who had served the tsar all his life, was shot in his home at Peterhof. The artist's brothers, offi­cers in the tsar's army, followed the call of duty to fight the bolsheviks. One of them was killed at the outset of the civil war, while all traces of the other vanished. Anatoly quit the school to return to his bereaved mother and sister. During those hard times, painting became the only way to sustain his forlorn household and stay afloat in the tem­pest of class struggle. Then fortune seemed to smile upon the young artist: he enrolled in and graduated from the Academy of Arts, during which time he was tutored by the likes of Dmitry Kardovsky and Boris Kustodiev. His favorite mentor was Alexander Savinov- an expert draftsman and skilled teacher. It is during those years that Sokoloff mastered the key principles of Russian classical painting at their best. His early exhibits met with wide acclaim, his paintings of that period stand out for their dynamism, emotional depth, vivid realism and profound spirituality.

By 1926 life seemed to have come back to normal, Anatoly Sokoloff married Alexandra Ivanovna Matyukhina, an athletic beauty who had come to St. Petersburg from Kareliato to study. Soon their son Igor was born. The happy interlude, however, did not last long. In 1932 Anatoly was arrested. The son and brother of tsarist officers, he spent nine months in solitary confinement awaiting the sentence of a bolshevik court. Condemned to ten years of hard labor in the GULAG, Sokoloff; nevertheless continued to draw, were it only to preserve an element of sanity. Cut off from his family and the entire country for five long years, Sokoloff was allowed back into the world in 1937, albeit with­out the right to live in his native city of Leningrad. Victims of yet more humiliation, the Sokoloff’s were given a mere 12 hours to pack and leave. Following a friend's advice, the Sokoloff’s moved to Simferopol. The Crimea, once a land of plenty, met them with famine. And yet again Anatoly Sokoloff found salvation in painting. He worked night and day. It was his paintings that ulti­mately saved his family from starvation. The local authorities decided to patronize the artist. At the All-Crimean Exhibition in Simferopol, many of his paintings, including "The Taking of the Perekop", "Petitioners Visiting Lenin", and "Khaitarma", were well received by critics. But even in the absence of official recognition, Sokoloff enjoyed a high standing among his colleagues and in artistic cir­cles.

In 1938, Anatoly Sokoloff was elected to a leadership position in the Crimean Artists' Union of which he was one of the founders. The outbreak of World War II, found Sokoloff and his family still living in Simferopol. And once again fate delivers a devastating blow turn­ing his most prized possessions into dust in a blink of an eye: during a Luftwaffe air-raid the building where all of Sokoloffs paintings had been moved for safety precautions was obliterat­ed. Not one painting was saved. The bombings were followed by occupation of the Crimea, and in 1942, fearing for his family and the deporta­tion of his son to Germany as a forced laborer, Anatoly decided, out of desperation, to escape to a neutral country. Disguised as a wounded Romanian soldier, hiding little Igor among his belongings, accompanied by his wife, dressed in a nurse's uniform, Anatoly managed to cross Russia reach Romania and continue their west­ward trek. Seven months later the family found itself in Switzerland.

Stalin's Russia with its GULAG, with the fami­ly's graves, with its wartime hardships and suf­fering was behind them. In  Switzerland they found peace, poverty and uncertainty. And once again painting brought Anatoly Sokoloff back to normalcy. The farther Sokoloff found himself from Mother Russia, the stronger was her pull on his work. In spite of the endless search for a place to live and work, it was pre­cisely during this period that the artist con­ceived a vast canvas dedicated to Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov. Sokoloff visited all the places in Switzerland associated with the famous Russian military commander, delved into historical sources, executed hundreds of tempera and water color sketches before com­mitting himself to paint. The master spent more than three years on the painting "Suvorov Captures the Turkish Fortress Ismail". In addition to monumental battle pieces, Sokoloff was equally successful in portraiture. In Liechtenstein, where the family eventually moved, the artist painted the princess of Liechtenstein, a good friend of his father, and other prominent personalities. He exhibited at many venues in Europe- Tyrol, Innsbruck, Feldkirchen, and others. Such works as "Last Steps in the Motherland", "At the Cross" and "Wilhelm Tell" were highly acclaimed by critics – Anatoly Sokoloff was awarded honorary prizes for these paintings.

However, postwar Europe could not guarantee a safe haven for the artist and his family. Under Stalin's pressure, any Russian who had left the Soviet Union during the war could be deported with tacit agreement of European governments to Moscow, which in fact meant immediate arrest and a forced march to Siberia or the Arctic North – destinations which already were receiving trainloads of former Soviet POWs, Cossacks, and soldiers of the Vlasov army that had fought on Hitler's side.

In 1950, the Sokoloff’s immigrated to Argentina- the first country to have opened its doors to postwar Russian refugees. Not knowing the language or anybody at all in the new country, Anatoly Sokoloff, along with his wife and son, were sustained and driven only by his creative work. Profoundly homesick, it was during this period that the artist produced outstanding Russian landscapes. In what might be seen as an attempt to escape reality, the painter found refuge in the past, this time in the past of Argentina. He began seriously studying the his­tory and literature of his adopted country. Soon, inspired by a heroic saga, Sokoloff embarked on a new project entitled "Liberator General San Martin Crosses the Andes" and dedicated it to General Jose San Martin (1778-1850), Argentina's national hero who had headed the struggle for independence against Spain and won a brilliant victory.

His status as an immigrant did not allow Sokoloff to participate in the competition commemorating San Martin's death centenary. However, the painting "Liberator General San Martin Crosses the Andes" was exhibited and by virtue of its artistic merits and exact historical details was not only accepted as a legitimate entry into the competition, but was awarded the gold medal. Later, the painting was pur­chased by the General San Martin National Museum and in 1953 the National Congress of Argentina commissioned Sokoloff to paint "General Jose San Martin, the Liberator" for its main chamber. Anatoly Sokoloff’s paintings were exhibited in different cities of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay. Mostly, the paintings of the Argentina period were permeated with dramatic subjects from the country's history. However, he also painted everyday scenes full of local color and humor.  The artist spent more than a year in the north of the country studying the lifestyle and habits of Argentine cowboys – gauchos.

Thus, on his third attempt to start life a new Anatoly Sokoloff finally became famous. This time fate was kind – perhaps wishing to com­pensate for all the artist's sufferings: His name started appearing in the press – first in Latin America and then in the United States. One day, Anatoly Sokoloff found a letter from California in his mailbox – a letter from his long-lost brother who had been reported missing in action during the civil war. In fact, he had retreated eastward together with the White Army, crossed all of Russia, reached China and eventually ended up in San Francisco.

Without further delay, Anatoly Sokoloff went to the United States, in 1962 he was joined by his wife, Alexandra, and his son, Igor.   Finallv, things seemed to be looking up, the family was reunited – at last. But the past refused to let go, soon after having moved to California, Anatoly had to undergo open-heart surgery – which wiped out all of his savings. Were it not for his tremendous energy, talent and refusal to give up, Sokoloff could not have succeeded in turning a new leaf and beginning a new life, full of pro­fessional accomplishments and joy. During the last ten years of his life in the United States (he passed away in 1971), Sokoloff produced 19 monumental paintings, all of them stemming from spending long days in libraries where he studied the history of his new homeland.

Of particular interest among the paintings of the period are "Lexington" (a small township in Massachusetts where the first skirmish between American colonists and British regulars took place on April 19, 1775), "General George Washington's Winter March" (a 1777 episode marked by extreme hardships for the Continental Army), " Emissaries of Lord Cornwallis at General Washington's Headquarters" (on October 19, 1781, the British Army headed by General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington, bringing the US War of Independence to a victorious end).

The artist, a consummate draftsman, a master of battle paintings vibrant, powerful and alive with the movement of rearing and plunging horses, marked by the vividly expressive figures and faces of both victors and vanquished, deserves to be put on a par with such famous Russian painters as Karl Bryullov and Nikolai Klodt.

When studying American history, Sokoloff found subjects link­ing American history to his remote homeland. In 1962, he completed the painting "Russian Merchants at Fort Ross", depicting trade between Indians and Russian colonists. Fort Ross, the only Russian outpost in California, was founded in 1812.

While studying the presence of Russians in Alaska, the artist stumbled upon the tragic saga of Conchita Arguello, the daugh­ter of Don Jose Dario Arguello, commander of the Spanish fortress Presidio. She was sixteen when she met Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, a prominent Russian statesman and explorer.  Count Rezanov sailed into San Francisco Bay on the "Juno" and stopped at the Presidio to buy supplies for a Russian colony in Alaska. It was love at first sight for Conchita and Nikolai and they took vow, of eternal love.

Having accomplished his mission, Count Rezanov embarked on the return leg of his trip to Saint Petersburg with the intent of rejoining Conchita in California a few months later. However, on the overland trek to Russia he took cold and died. Conchita waited for her beloved for 35 years. It was only in 1842 that she learned from an English seaman, visiting the Presidio, about Rezanov's death. Devastated by the news, Conchita took a vow of silence and became a nun. This story profoundly moved the artist and he painted several portraits of Conchita Arguello. One of them, the favorite among his family members, was donated to the State Historical Museum of Moscow. The family made this decision upon learn­ing that the museum had a portrait of Nikolai Rezanov among its exhibits.

Thus, after almost two hundred years, these two loving hearts were reunited. In a way, the reunion marked the return of the artist himself, and, thanks to his family, the return of a part of Russia's history – so remote and yet so recent – immortalized in Anatoly Sokoloff’s art and carried through his life experience.

N. Poroshina
E. Orlova