Alexei Isupov was the son of an iconostasis maker. He worked in icon- painting studios during his adolescence (1903–1908) and later received an academic training at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (1908–1912), where he developed an interest in impressionism. His career is usually separated into four periods: the first Moscow period (to 1913), the Turkestani period (1915–1921), the second Moscow period (1921–1926), and the Italian period (1926). This separation does not strictly follow the evolution of his work, but is based on the artist’s biography. During World War One, Isupov was conscripted into the military and spent seven years in Central Asia. Later, he worked in Moscow and then, in the mid-1920s, he traveled to Italy to recuperate from tuberculosis, remaining there until the end of his life. Stylistically, he fluctuated between academicism and impressionism, the only dramatic swing in his career being the Samarkand series of tempera paintings that he produced in 1921. This series was so different from anything he had made before, or would produce after, that it can best be considered a separate period in the artist’s creative biography.
With the tempera series Isupov departed from his studies of the representation of light, a key problem in both academicism and impressionist painting. Instead, he created forms through the use of gradient in monochrome and sharply delineated spots of color. He renounced his signature succulent brushwork, moving away not only from his personal style but from everything that European painting had achieved since the invention of perspective. Stylistically, the tempera series was a turn toward the icon- painting tradition and early Renaissance painting, in which objects created no shadows and light was seen as a property of the object itself. This sudden change in style cannot be explained by anything other than a visual influence. It might have resulted from Isupov’s collaborations with Daniil Stepanov and later with Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, both members of an informal circle that could be described as “the Pre-Raphaelites of Samarkand.” Isupov’s tempera series featured works in various genres, including ethnographic portraits with details pointing to a particular way of life or a craft (Teahouse Owner, Commandant, Jeweller), genre art (Family, After the Bath), ritual scenes (depicting, in particular, rites of passage, such as The Bride), and icon- type portraits that elevated “Samarkand” characters to the level of Biblical or other religious figures. Isupov produced several images of half-naked women (Mother with Children), which were unique for “the Pre-Raphaelites of Samarkand”, but also, like the other members of the circle, portrayed a number of androgynous young men (Musician with a Dutar, Young Man with a Book), whose thin long fingers bring to mind early Tuscan painting and dramatically bent necks are a variation on the erotic motif found in work by other artists of Stepanov’s circle.