At the Easel

120 Years Since the Birth of Tsvetana Shtiliyanova (1903–1994)

Curator: Ramona Dimova

Born in Kazanlak and having spent her first years there, Tsvetana Shtiliyanova not only dreamed of becoming an artist from her earliest years, but she also tirelessly pursued her goal. The artist began her long creative career in the 1920s, when she appeared on the artistic scene in Bulgaria for the first time. Over the years, her presence at exhibitions was noted positively by critics. Not merely gifted, but diligently striving for self-development, Shtiliyanova remained active as an artist until the 1990s. She owed her success, to a large extent, to her stay in France of several years (1929–1933), which turned out to be key with regard to her creative progress. After this, she travelled outside of Bulgaria a number of times over the years, with the goal of becoming acquainted with the artistic trends of the times (1956 – Czechoslovakia; 1969 – Germany; 1978 – the USSR, Poland). In Bulgaria, the artist found her place as a portraitist, depicting the leading faces of her day.

Throughout the years she mastered not only the technique of portraiture in oils, but also of working with dry pastels. From the very beginning, she chose to dedicate her time to art, and this made her an accomplished freelance artist both in the years before as well as after the changes in Bulgaria in 1944. This was probably one of the many factors that marked the spread of her legacy. It is difficult to say how much and what kinds of works she succeeded in creating over the years, but we know with certainty that only a small part of what she painted is preserved today in state art museums throughout the country. Thanks to the private collection of Toma Nikolov, we can see more than fifty paintings gathered in one place, the majority of them signed and dated by the artist herself. It is through this large body of works at the present exhibition that an attempt is made to follow the artist’s visual development over the decades. The works are selected from the genres of portraiture and still life, produced from the late 1920s to the late 1980s. Although her work is not distinguished by much diversity in terms of approach, through the pictures displayed, the viewer has the chance to enjoy her masterful technique in dry pastels. 

The painter’s ability to penetrate the portrayed object and/or subject does not simply show the parameters of her talent, but it also gives us the opportunity to peek beyond the visible side of the image.


Tsvetana Mihaylova Shtiliyanova was born on April 17/May 1, 1903, in Kazanlak. She grew up as the youngest of three children in the family of Mihail Shtiliyanov (1876–1955) and Anastasia Dzhamdzhieva (1873–1935). Her sister, Roza Haralampieva (1896–1951), had musical talent, and her older brother, Asen Shtiliyanov (1901–1944), developed a knack for optimizing different processes and created a factory for covering buttons. Everyone in the household called the youngest member of the family “Tsvetka,” and for most of her close friends, this was the preferred form of address.

In the period from 1914–1915, the Shtiliyanov family settled in Sofia, renting a free-standing house at 51 Evlogi Georgiev Blvd., where the family lived during the following decade. There, at seventeen years of age, Tsvetana Shtiliyanova fell in love with her cousin Kostadin, called Kosta for short, five years her senior. Shtiliyanova never got over his untimely death in 1925, and he remained her great love till the end. Before this event had marked the course of her life, she graduated from middle school, in 1917, and after passing the entrance exams, she enrolled on September 15 as a regular student at the Art and Industrial School (AIS) in Sofia. Several years later, on July 10, 1922, she received Certificate No. 195 from the Academy of Art (AA) in Sofia (the AIS had been renamed in 1921), graduating with a major in Painting with Prof. Tseno Todorov (1877–1953).

Her first artistic attempts led her to the conclusion that she was in need of further self-improvement, and so she ended up again at the doors of the AA in 1925, until on June 30, 1928, she received Certificate No. 338, issued by the school, which vouched for her higher artistic education. She graduated under Prof. Dimitar Gyudzhenov (1891–1979), and from this moment on she had the right to work freelance in her specialization. In his commentary on the works presented in the annual exhibition of graduating students, Stefan Mitov wrote in the newspaper Literaturni novini: “One of the best in terms of drawing, characteristically individualized brush stroke, and bold painting treatment is the portrait by Ts. Shtiliyanova.”

A key time in Tsvetana Shtiliyanova’s creative growth was her stay in France. In 1929, her sister Roza set out for Paris with her husband, the musician Yordan Simeonov,  and the artist accompanied them. In her four years in France, she tirelessly observed, copied, drew, and read in order to build upon the solid foundations she had already laid, succeeding in uncovering the potential of her talent. A kind of ending to this sojourn and a positive assessment of her artistic development was the acceptance of her work My Mother into the Spring Salon of the Grand Palais in 1933. The reviews in the print periodicals such as La Revue Modernewere positive, and this encouraged her to continue her development in her chosen direction. In the autumn of the same year, Tsvetana Shtiliyanova came home to Bulgaria, where with her participation in an association exhibition of Contemporary Art, she commenced a new, more mature stage of her long and fruitful artistic career.