Boris Kustodiev was born in Astrakhan in the family of a professor of philosophy, history of literature, and logic at the local theological seminary. His father died young, and all financial and material burdens fell on his mother’s shoulders. The Kustodiev family rented a small wing in a rich merchant’s house. It was there that the boy’s first impressions were formed of the way of life of the provincial merchant class. The artist later wrote, “The whole tenor of the rich and plentiful merchant way of life was there right under my nose… It was like something out of an Ostrovsky play. The artist retained these childhood observations for years, recreating them later in oils and water-colours.
Between 1893 and 1896, Boris studied in theological seminary and took private art lessons in Astrakhan from Pavel Vlasov, a pupil of Vasily Perov. Subsequently, from 1896 to 1903, he attended Ilya Repin’s studio at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Concurrently, he took classes in sculpture under Dmitry Stelletsky and in etching under Vasiliy Mate. He first exhibited in 1896.
“I have great hopes for Kustodiev,” wrote Repin. “He is a talented artist and a thoughtful and serious man with a deep love of art; he is making a careful study of nature…”When Repin was commissioned to paint a large-scale canvas to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the State Council, he invited Kustodiev to be his assistant. The painting was extremely complex and involved a great deal of hard work. Together with his teacher, the young artist made portrait studies for the painting, and then executed the right-hand side of the final work. Also at this time, Kustodiev made a series of portraits of contemporaries whom he felt to be his spiritual comrades. These included the artist Ivan Bilibin (1901, Russian Museum), Moldovtsev (1901, Krasnodar Regional Art Museum), and the engraver Mate (1902, Russian Museum). Working on these portraits considerably helped the artist, forcing him to make a close study of his model and to penetrate the complex world of the human soul.
In 1903, he married Julia Proshinskaya (1880–1942).
He visited France and Spain on a grant from the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1904. Also in 1904, he attended the private studio of René Ménard in Paris. After that he traveled to Spain, then, in 1907, to Italy, and in 1909 he visited Austria and Germany, and again France and Italy. During these years he painted many portraits and genre pieces. However, no matter where Kustodiev happened to be – in sunny Seville or in the park at Versailles – he felt the irresistible pull of his motherland. After five months in France he returned to Russia, writing with evident joy to his friend Mate that he was back once more “in our blessed Russian land”.
The Russian Revolution of 1905, which shook the foundations of society, evoked a vivid response in the artist’s soul. He contributed to the satirical journals Zhupel (Bugbear) and Adskaya Pochta (Hell’s Mail). At that time, he first met the artists of Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), the group of innovative Russian artists. He joined their association in 1910 and subsequently took part in all their exhibitions.
In 1905, Kustodiev first turned to book illustrating, a genre in which he worked throughout his entire life. He illustrated many works of classical Russian literature, including Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, The Carriage, and The Overcoat; Mikhail Lermontov’s The Lay of Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich, His Young Oprichnik and the Stouthearted Merchant Kalashnikov; and Leo Tolstoy’s How the Devil Stole the Peasants Hunk of Bread and The Candle.
In 1909, he was elected into Imperial Academy of Arts. He continued to work intensively, but a grave illness—tuberculosis of the spine—required urgent attention.On the advice of his doctors he went to Switzerland, where he spent a year undergoing treatment in a private clinic. He pined for his distant homeland, and Russian themes continued to provide the basic material for the works he painted during that year. In 1918, he painted The Merchant’s Wife, which became the most famous of his paintings.