In the Oeuvre

John and Kathy Wurdeman’s Lazare Gallery in Charles City brings the masters of 20th century Russian Realism to the U.S.

Kathy and John Wurdeman holding “In Thought,” 1962, by Olga Svetlechnaya.

Photo by Adam Ewing

Driving down a winding dirt road in rural Charles City, the last thing you might expect to find is a vibrant center of Russian Realist art. But that’s exactly what Lazare Gallery is. Founded by Kathy and John Wurdeman in 1999, the gallery has developed an international reputation that commands the respect of collectors and scholars alike.

The road to the gallery’s realization had almost as many twists and turns as the track through the woods that leads to it. The Wurdemans founded Lazare (pronounced La-za-ray) following a successful run as the owners of Richmond-based Old World Prints, a decorative art print wholesaler they purchased in 1991 that counted among its corporate clients Crate & Barrel, Waldolf Astoria Hotels and many others. 

It was their son, John, who provided an introduction to the Russian art in which the Wurdemans now specialize. 

An artistic prodigy, he entered the Maryland Art Institute at just 16. An avowed realist who wanted to continue his studies upon graduation, he discovered the Surikov Institute in Moscow, a bastion of the classical academic tradition. He applied and was accepted, embarking on a rigorous—think Bolshoi Ballet school with pencil and paintbrush—six-year course of study. To this day, he remains the only American to have graduated from the Institute.

It is tradition for Surikov graduates to honor their professors, so John Wurdeman approached his parents about presenting a showing of his teachers’ work as part of the Old World Prints exhibit at Art Expo (a major trade show) in New York City in 1999. 

The first day of the show, the senior Wurdemans were busy with the four booths devoted to their prints, while their son oversaw a booth with his professors’ paintings. At the end of the day, John and Kathy were astounded to learn he had sold $265,000 worth of art. 

“I didn’t believe him at first,” says his father. “I thought, ‘Oh, he’s an artist, he didn’t add it up right.’” But the math was correct, and the Wurdemans, who had for some time wanted to downsize, saw the possibility of an exciting new direction for their business.

Their son’s circle of artist friends and his widely-recognized talent and devotion to the tradition gave the couple a rare entrée into the world of Russian Realism and provided them with the support they would need to navigate the Byzantine regulatory system of the Russian Ministry of Culture.

The other thing the Wurdemans had on their side was timing. They hit the sweet spot just before an explosion of wealth in Russia increased competition for the genre. 

Between 2001 and 2008, they often brought 200-300 paintings back to the U.S. annually. The couple was buying so much art in fact, that the CIA took a brief interest in what they were doing. But the wellspring soon slowed to a trickle as wealthy Russians snapped up everything in sight: Russia produced more billionaires between 2002 and 2008 than any other country. According to John, during the same period, the Russian art market was the fastest growing sector at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. 

Since 2008 the Wurdemans have only purchased four works from Russia. However, they have an extensive inventory of around 1,000 paintings and they maintain relationships with contemporary Russian artists from whom they buy work. They also find seminal pieces in other countries, sometimes even relying on a private detective to help suss them out. 

“We hired a detective to seek out works by Nikita Fedosov and the resulting leads led us to a number of the finest ones that we have ever acquired,” explains John.

The prices at Lazare range from $1,000 for a small study to $350,000, though the most expensive painting the Wurdemans sold—by the esteemed Yuri Kugach—went for slightly more than $1 million. 

The Wurdeman’s inventory is composed of a mix of other legends of the era: Nikita Fedosov, Olga Svetlechnaya, Vyacheslav Zabelin, Gennady Korolev, Andre Tutunov and younger living artists including their son, who now lives and works in the Republic of Georgia. Because their Charles City location is remote, the Wurdemans have guestrooms available for clients, scholars and artists who come to see the work or present master classes and symposia at the gallery.

In addition to their extensive collection of plein air landscapes, still lifes and portraits, the Wurdemans have a few examples of Social Realist art, which, during the Soviet era, was the Surikov Institute-trained artists’ bread and butter. 

Designed to appeal to the masses, the works presented the state’s agenda using universally understood and positive themes executed with meticulous skill. What these artists produced on their own time though, was completely different from the doctrinaire Soviet PR works. Adopting the approach and technique favored by the French Impressionists, the artists produced work that has a sensitivity and warmth totally absent from their state-commissioned oeuvre. 

“Among other things, they’re known for their subtle tonalities which blend together to create an overall harmony,” says John. 

While the work shares a similarity in approach, there is a lot of variety. “The Surikov artists were trained in the finest traditions of the great master artists of the past,” says Kathy, “and they use this consummate academic training as a springboard to find their own unique voices.” The Wurdemans feature their Social Realist paintings at lectures and presentations, comparing them side by side with the private works to illustrate the striking difference between the two genres. 

“I believe in the transformative power of art,” says Kathy. “A great painting expands our consciousness and intrigues us from the first glance. We are drawn in, returning again and again to enjoy and reflect on the nuances that it reveals. To be connected to this caliber of art through the artists that Lazare Gallery represents is indeed a privilege.”

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