This painting’s vibrant colors almost obscure its subject. At lower right an archer on horseback leaps through a radiant landscape of towering trees and rock formations. Men in Russian dress stand in the left foreground; behind them is a group of buildings with onion-shaped domes. This folkloric scene evokes Kandinsky’s native Russia, and it also bears the influence of Murnau, the southern German town where the artist lived when he made this work: the black outlines enclosing bright colors recall reverse glass painting, a local craft. “Color,” Kandinsky wrote a year later, “is a power which directly influences the soul.”
Gallery label from 2019
Kandinsky painted this landscape using a patchwork of vibrant colors. If you look closely, you’ll see a little town, two figures with pointy hats, and an archer on horseback. The archer seems to be aiming his bow and arrow at something out of view. What might be happening beyond the picture frame? What do you think the archer is riding away from?
Kids label from 2019
Kandinsky studied law and economics and cultivated an interest in ethnography before fully committing himself to his art at the age of thirty. His academic pursuits brought him to Russia’s remote northwestern regions, where he became immersed in the folk art traditions of his homeland. There he encountered Siberian shamans who used wooden horses, often fashioned from birch branches carved to resemble a horse’s head, to transcend time and space and travel to other worlds.
In Picture with an Archer, an ocher horse leaps into a sumptuous chorus of colors. Its rider twists to point his bow at some threat beyond the frame, gazing back while galloping forward into a sweeping landscape of viridians, blues, and crimson reds. To the left, figures process from a distant cluster of buildings, whose forms resonate with the trees and strange rock formations that appear in this dreamlike scene.
For Kandinsky, the motif of the horse and rider alluded to shamanism as well as to medieval knights and religious icons. It also came to represent spiritual triumph over materialism, aligning with his belief that color and form possessed their own affective power that acted on the viewer independently of images and objects. While still discernible, Kandinsky’s archer charges into a realm where recognizable imagery dissolves into planes of color, and line flows freely. Four years later, in 1913, he would produce his first truly abstract works.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Galloping under the trees of the wildly radiant countryside in Vasily Kandinsky’s Picture with an Archer, a horseman turns in his saddle and aims his bow. In the left foreground stand men in Russian dress; behind them are a house, a domed tower, bulbous mountains, and a bent spire in the picture’s center. The painting‘s abstract, patchwork surface and vibrating, vivid colors nearly overwhelm the figurative forms—so much so that the scene may be hard to make out.
The lone rider with his archaic weapon, the traditional costumes and buildings, and the rural setting suffuse the scene with a sense of folktale or fantasy. When he painted Picture with an Archer, Kandinsky was living in Germany, far from his native Russia. He made a number of visits to the small town of Murnau, in the south Bavarian Alps, famous for its local folk art, especially paintings on glass. Kandinsky collected these paintings and perhaps felt particularly at home in Murnau, which was similar to the rural towns he knew in Russia.
Two years before he made Picture with an Archer, Kandinsky wrote an influential text in which he laid out an argument for abstraction. While the painting portrays a recognizable landscape scene, it reflects his increasing movement toward pure abstraction.