Update (Originally published December 2018)
Valentin Firsov Shabaeff (1891-1978) was born in central Russia. He was admitted to the Moscow Art Academy at the age of 16, where he studied for five years; subsequently, he studied at the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburgh for four years. After this formal training, he travelled for three years in Japan, China, and Indonesia prior to moving to the U.S.A. in about 1925. He moved to Canada in 1929.
He lived mainly in the Montreal area during many of his years in Canada. However, he was known to move around quite frequently to various locations in Ontario and Quebec.
He married his first wife, Grace Dempster (1920-2009) in September, 1946. She is described in press reports as being a former school teacher of Montreal and Toronto. Valentin and Grace had a daughter together, Agnia, born in 1950. The marriage was dissolved at some point and Valentin married Sonia Shabaeff (her pre-marital surname is unknown by me).
Shabaeff in Vancouver
Valentin Shabaeff spent 1939-40 in Vancouver. He was in the city principally to create art for the current Hotel Vancouver in anticipation of the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the city in May 1939. The Royal Couple would be staying at the hotel.
While he was in Vancouver working on his contributions to the Hotel Vancouver, he taught elementary drawing at the Vancouver Art School (Jack Shadbolt and P. V. Ustinov were teaching intermediate and advanced drawing, at the school, respectively). Shabaeff had a studio, which also served as his residence, at #60 – 429 West Pender (in the still-standing Hutchinson Block).
Two Panels in the Cafe of the “Golden Inn”²
The best documented work by Shabaeff was in the hotel cafe; it consisted of panels at opposite ends of the room.
In the splendid cafe, Valentin Shabaeff, Russian-Canadian artist of great reputation, now living in Vancouver, has created two wonderful panels in gold-leaf and Venetian red for the ends of the room.
— Vancouver Sun. April 29, 1939
Whether the panels were made of metal or some other material, isn’t clear to me. I’m inclined to believe that it was metal, given the appearance of the panels in photographs and the mention of “gold-leaf” above, but I’ve not seen any documentation explicitly confirming that.³
The primary panel was at the end of the cafe space where the podium would be situated (if there were a speaker at an event).
Irina Rajewsky, upon reading a much earlier version of this post, contacted me to let me know that she had a Shabaeff painting on which the principal cafe panel was based. The painting, called Wealth of Canada, was originally owned by her parents, Vladimir and Svetlana Rajewsky and today is owned by Irina. She offered to send me a photograph of the Wealth of Canada; it appears below.
Wealth of Canada is a much busier work than the hotel panel which was based on it. While there appear to be five indigenous figures in WoC, there are two in the hotel panel, and both those in the panel are bearing fruit above or near their heads. I make no pretence to be expert in identifying indigenous people, and I suspect that Shabaeff wasn’t much of an expert in that area, either. The teepee in the upper left corner (as well as the brave on horseback) speaks to me of plains natives; but plains people, in my opinion, would have been very unlikely to have had access to the exotic variety of fruit held above the heads of the central figures in WoC.
Happily, these hints at plains people didn’t make it into the hotel panel. The clouds and sunbeams were introduced in the Hotel panel and the cloud formations are complemented well by the mountains/foothills landscape as well as the seascape.
The other panel in the cafe was at the opposite end of the long, narrow room, above the doors through which diners would have entered. The photograph shown below was made of a Shell Oil Co. banquet held in the room. The second image shows a close-up of the panel (it is a crop of the first photo).
This panel appears to consist of mirror images of a female human (indigenous?) figure. The grain theme surrounding the primary panel was echoed in the secondary panel.
There is just one reference, that I was able to find, to Shabaeff’s work in the Hotel Vancouver lobby. A caption in February 11, 1939 Vancouver Sun (the photo is too poor to merit reproduction here) claims that the artist was working on “a Neptune and Steamship theme” for the lobby.
I was able to identify lobby art that appeared to be “Neptune”, but nothing that seemed to speak to a “steamship” theme. Neptune appears above the main lobby entry in the photo below. Neptune appears to me to be composed of similar material as that of the cafe panels.
I assume that the “Mermaid” figure (also in the lobby) was part of Shabaeff’s Neptune theme.
Shabaeff’s remaining art work for the Hotel Vancouver was perhaps the oddest. It was located in the ballroom. It was odd because the subject matter of this painting was outside of Shabeaff’s ‘wheelhouse’; the George III period really wasn’t his thing.
The Vancouver Sun had this to say about the mural in 1939:
At one end of the ballroom is the stage. At the other end is a large mural painting by Valentin Shabaeff. It is an outdoors scene, costumed for the George III period, in which the Adam brothers rose to fame, and beautifully worked out in color.
— Vancouver Sun. May 27, 1939
So, the ballroom art was a painted mural of English ‘lords and ladies’, I’m assuming, who were dressed in the style of the George III period.
Why would a mural in the style of the ‘mad’ King George III be thought to be honouring to George VI? Who can say what the motivation was to create this mural. One thing remains pretty clear, however: this subject would not have been Shabeaff’s choice if he’d had any say in the matter. It seems plain to me that he was told to paint such a scene.
All of the art created by Shabaeff for the hotel (as well as most of the work created by other artists for the opening of the hotel in 1939 – including that of Beatrice Lennie, Jock Macdonald, and Lawrence Smith), is gone, today. It was lost during demolitions to renovate the hotel; probably most of them went during 1960s ‘improvements’ when the hotel was part of the Hilton chain.
Shabaeff died in 1978. I couldn’t find an obituary, but according to Irina Rajewsky, he was killed by a drunk driver who veered onto a downtown Montreal sidewalk upon which Shabaeff was walking.
¹Several of these bio details came from a feature article about Shabaeff in the Ottawa Journal, March 23, 1957.
² In the Hotel’s earliest period – particularly prior to its opening and for about a year after – it was known as the “Golden Inn”. (When the prose was really purple, it was sometimes called the “Great Golden Inn of the West”). I suspect that the “Golden Inn” name was conferred by the press (or perhaps by the PR people attached to the hotel) as way of distinguishing the new HV from the older one which was still standing at the SW corner of Granville and Georgia. The moniker may have been due to the appearance of the new hotel’s exterior due to the copper on its roof. The copper later changed appearance from its initial ‘golden’ colour to green. The Hotel Vancouver seems not to have been referred to as the Golden Inn in the local press after 1939.
³There is a hint in an article in the Vancouver Sun that his panel work (both in the cafe and in the lobby) may have been composed of bronze. This is by no means certain, however: “[Bronze] was used in the new hotel for many purposes — office fixtures, ornamental cornices and canopies, doors, balustrading, rails….In every case the metal was cast, wrought and finished in Vancouver…” (Vancouver Sun, May 27, 1939).