Tsvetana Shtiliyanova: Before the Easel

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

Curator: Ramona Dimova

From my earliest childhood, I loved to draw. Dutiful in everything, my only firm and unbending desire was to become an artist.

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 Moderne were 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.

Drawing the Master

In the period from 1900 to 1911, Peter Deunov, called “the Master” or Beinsa Douno by his followers, dedicated part of his time to traveling around large and small towns and villages in Bulgaria. He met many people along the way, gave lessons, and carried out phrenological research. Among those who listened to the Master’s lectures, there were some who were willing to be measured in order to have phrenological maps made, indicating their strengths, abilities, and gifts. During his visit to Sliven, Deunov made the acquaintance of the Shtiliyanov family. Mihail and Anastasia presented each of their three children to the Master, and he told them what their offspring could be expected to accomplish in their professional lives. For Tsvetana, who at that time was around four years of age, Deunov specified the profession of artist. In the years to come, the members of the family kept in touch with Deunov and were followers of his teachings. His advice was highly valued, and when Tsvetana Shtiliyanova decided to set off for France in the late 1920s, she heeded the Master’s recommendations of what an artist should strive for.

An important moment for the artist was her return to Bulgaria. At that time she was not recognized by the Bulgarian public and fell out of favour. The portrait she painted of Peter Deunov can, to a large degree, be identified as a turning point, after which Shtiliyanova became one of the most sought-after female portraitists in Bulgaria. In the recollections that have reached us, the artist tells how the time passed while she painted the Master. At his wishes, she only painted him in the morning, over a period of five sessions of one to two hours each. While he sat in front of the easel, “he arranged most carefully the folds of the shawl he was wrapped in. He clearly attached great meaning to the portrait.” For the portrait itself, Shtiliyanova did not make preliminary sketches, but during the time of the lectures she attended, she frequently recreated the Master’s image in pencil. She made some 15–20 quick drawings and would give them to other followers, but one day Deunov said to her, “The sketches you’ve made are parts of one image; they cannot be scattered. You will collect them all and bring them to me!” After she had gathered them all, he told her: “Now safeguard them and do not ever give them to anyone again!” The artist subsequently turned the sketches over to Deunov’s follower Petar Filipov.

There is one more story preserved in connection with the portrait painted by Shtiliyanova. In the collection The Dawn of the White Brotherhood Sings and Plays, Learns and Lives [in Bulgarian], it says: “The artist Tsvetana Shtiliyanova painted the Master with his eyes open; this was no accident, because before this, the Master had posed for Boris Georgiev, who drew Him with his eyes closed, at the wishes of the Master, who explained this process and examined this question in detail: “An artist asked to draw me and did so with my eyes closed. Some have asked why the artist drew me with closed eyes. I say: Since there is so much violence, so many lies, and so much wickedness in the world, I don’t want to look. After this, another artist drew me with open eyes. People asked: Why did this artist draw me with open eyes? I say: Since the perfect ones came to the world, I want to see them. In the same way, they could draw all of you with closed eyes. When a person closes his eyes, this expresses a sorrowful condition; when he opens them, it represents a joyous state. I want to draw you with open eyes, for you to be happy and joyful, to take pleasure in God’s Love, in God’s Wisdom, and in God’s Truth. I want you to enjoy the life that has been given to you on earth. You don’t have to dream of angels. Whoever can live on the earth well will live well in heaven, too, among the angels. I want you to rejoice about the three lives: the life of might, the life of rationality, and the live of the good, that is, the Divine, of angelic and human life. These three lives must be united into one in order to acquire a whole, complete life. This is something everyone can achieve – not at once, but gradually. The sun of life has already risen, and it shows that God is on the side of the strong, of the wise, of the good. In a word, God is on the side of the righteous. I want you to live at least one such life.”


Man enlists her entire creative element. For her, the portrait is the peak of her spiritual effort. Here she feels independent, free: for her, any person can be the subject of a painted image. She does not make a selection in the themes of her painting; she does not approach the model with premeditation. You would think that the opportunity was directing her gaze. But in fact, her inner necessity to get as close to nature as possible throws up the most direct bridge between her and people – the search for the person and their humanity provides the scope for her artistic attention. In her aspiration to capture the person, she concentrates her gaze almost exclusively on the face, relegating a secondary role to the setting, pose, and clothing.

Prof. Boris Yotsov (1939)

Her still lifes actually expand upon her love for the subject: the flowers and fruit connected with everyday life hint at man’s intimate world. They are outside of the centre of her artistic observation: there she devotes hours to solitude and rest.

Prof. Boris Yotsov (1939)