It’s a long, long way from the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers in eastern Russia to the rural farm community of Broomfield, Colorado – both geographically and culturally. One family who made this transformational journey, landing on a Broomfield farm in the 1940s, was Gleb and Natalie Ilyin and their son and daughter, Alex and Natalia.
Gleb Ilyin was an exiled Russian aristocrat and noted portrait artist, born in 1889 and raised on the family estate outside Kazan City in eastern Russia. He and his brother, Peter, showed early talent as artists and received extensive training as young men. In 1917, the Russian Revolution swept across the country and members of the aristocracy had the choice to fight or flee. Gleb Ilyin joined the White Army (loyal to the tsar). Along with other family members, he was soon obliged to flee to Siberia as the Red Army took over the country (and eventually created the Soviet Union).
In Siberia, Ilyin met his future wife, Natalie Malnikoff, whom he married in Chita, Siberia around 1920. They soon made their way to Japan where they lived for several years. During this period, Ilyin supported the family by painting portraits of wealthy patrons (most of their family wealth was seized by the communists.)
In 1923, the family moved to San Francisco, where Gleb Ilyin quickly established himself as a painter and sculptor. His brother, Peter, and sister-in-law, Nadine Komov, also enjoyed successful careers there as artists. Among their commissions was a series of mural insets bordering a sky and cloud canopy painted on the ceiling of San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium, and religious murals at the Holy Trinity Russian Eastern Orthodox Cathedral at Van Ness and Green Street in San Francisco. Gleb Ilyin also gained renown for painting a portrait of the American president’s wife, Mrs. Lou Hoover, in her Girl Scout uniform. (Mrs. Hoover helped establish the Girl Scouts.)
Gleb and Natalie became U.S. citizens in 1930. In the late 1930s, Ilyin was commissioned to come to Colorado and paint a portrait of a prominent Denver family. He and Natalie fell in love with Colorado and relocated the family from San Francisco. In his book, “Colorado and Its People,” western historian Leroy Hafen wrote that the Ilyins owned a small farm in Lakewood and a 330 acre ranch in Broomfield. Census records show the Ilyins in Lakewood in 1940, and city directories from the period show the family living in Broomfield from 1949 to 1955. According to Hafen, Natalie Ilyin and their children, Alex and Natalia, worked on the farm and raised dairy cattle while Ilyin continued his career as a portrait painter.
Among Ilyin’s local commissions was a portrait of Dr. Florence Sabin, a pioneering Colorado physician, professor, researcher, and public health advocate. The portrait, commissioned by University of Colorado, hangs in the reading room of the CU Health Sciences Library at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.