One of the best portraits:
Valentin Serov (1865–1911)
Portrait of Maria Nikolaeyevna Yermolova, 1905
Oil on canvas, 224 x 120 cm (88,3 x 47,3 in)
Signed and dated, bottom left: Съровъ 905 (Serov, 1905)
The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia, Inv. No. 28079
Maria Nikolaevna Yermolova (1853–1928) was a famous dramatic actress. She was the “hero of her time” for whom art acquires the status of high levels of devotion and public service. Critic V.A. Gilyarovskiy characterized the appearance and the elegance of the great actress, “ Rigorous, perfectly formed face features, deep black eyes, … stiffness of classical figure, she looks through the space…” Valentin Serov embodies all that in his famous canvas. The Literary and Art Circle commissioned the portrait due to the 35th anniversary of Yermolova’s artistic career.
Portrait of Maria Nikolaeyevna Yermolova is penetrated with the romantic enthusiasm of the artist, which was typical for him after the revolution in 1905. Austere, majestic, the female figure stands proudly, like a column, with raised head. Her face, her eyes, the whole complexion executed with creative enthusiasm. The great actress is conveyed by Serov as if from the stalls, fearlessly speaking from the stage of justice and truth, to inspire people to great deeds. 
Yermolova’s head and the entire figure as a whole are completed with exceptional spirituality, whereby the artist gives it a very strict, clear silhouette. The contour line of the figure, clear and continuous, draws a majestic monument, towering freely in space. This monumental pose is perceived as a huge concentration of the human spirit. In a painting of restricted colour, the black dress plays the key role and gives a tense tragic tone.
Contemporaries immediately perceived the image of the actress as a symbol of the era and a timeless stoic burning soul, “sorrow, which opened the heavens”. “Here is not Yermolova but Drama and even Tragedy”, exclaimed Grabar. Looking for majesty, the artist worked hard over the general solution of the picturesque portrait, using a combination of different points of view, a technique ascending to the ancient traditions. He was trying to create the illusion of long-term reduction in the shallow space. That is why the viewer looks at the heroine from the bottom up, as at a monument lifted up above the crowd, as being on the stage in front of the filled theatre hall. The black silhouette of the dress is firmly inscribed in straight horizontal lines against patterns on the wall, in front of which stands Yermolova. Lightened features are framed by the interior reflected in the mirror.
Together with Portrait of Fiodor Ivanovich Chalyapin, 1905, these portraits embodied a definition of “universal humanity” and appeal to us as one of the last manifestations of the heroic spirit of the time.
Circle of Literature and Art, Moscow; Maly Theatre, Moscow; The State Tretyakov Gallery since 1935.
Russian Art, Paris, Berlin, 1906, nos. 511, 423;4th Exhibition of the Union of Russian Artists, Moscow, 1907, no. 219; St. Petersburg, 1914, not listed in the catalogue; Moscow, no. 207; The State Tretyakov Gallery, no. 152, The Russian Museum, no. 145; Berlin, Dresden, Halle 1953; Soviet and Russian Pre-revolutionary Art, Budapest, 1954; Russia and the Arts. The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, 2016.
Grabar, Serov, 1914, pp. 158, 291; Radzimovskaya, 1956, pp. 209–223; Liberfort, 1960, pp. 51–53; Simonovich-Yefimova, 1964, p. 81; Eisentein, 1964, 2, pp. 376–392; Grabar, Serov, 1965, pp. 166–169, 339; Sarabyanov, Reforms by Valentin Serov, 1971, pp. 20–25; Leniashin 1980, pp. 106–135.
 Golovina, 2012, p. 29.
 Zolotov, A.I., 1964, p. 7.
 Grabar, 1965, p. 168.
 Golovina, 2012, p. 29.
 Ibid., p. 31.