Valentin Serov was born in Saint Petersburg, son of the Russian composer and music critic Alexander Serov, and his wife and former student Valentina Serova also a composer in her own right. Raised in a highly artistic milieu he was encouraged to pursue his talents by his parents and in his childhood he studied in Paris and Moscow under Ilya Repin and in the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts (1880–1885) under Pavel Chistyakov. Serov’s early creativity was sparked by the realistic art of Repin and strict pedagogical system of Chistyakov. Further influences on Serov were the old master paintings he viewed in the museums of Russia and Western Europe, friendships with Mikhail Vrubel and (later) Konstantin Korovin, and the creative atmosphere of the Abramtsevo Colony, to which he was closely connected.
The greatest works of Serov’s early period were portraits: The Girl with Peaches (1887), and The Girl Covered by the Sun (1888), both in the Tretyakov Gallery. In these paintings Serov concentrated on spontaneity of perception of the model and nature. In the development of light and color, the complex harmony of reflections, the sense of atmospheric saturation, and the fresh picturesque perception of the world, there appeared the features of early Russian impressionism (though Serov was not yet aware of works of French impressionists at the time of making those paintings).
Initially abstaining from the polychromatic, brightly colored painting style of the 1880s, Serov often preferred a dominant scale of black-grey or brown tones. Impressionistic features appeared sometimes in composite construction of a portrait, or to capture a sense of spontaneous movement.
At the start of the 20th century, Serov was at a stylistic turning point: features of impressionism disappeared from his work, and his modernistic style developed, but the characteristic truthful and realistic comprehension of the nature of his subjects remained constant.
Serov frequently called upon various graphic techniques – watercolors, pastels, lithographs and so forth. Figures in Serov’s portraits gradually became more and more graphically refined and economical, particularly during the late period. From 1890 to 1900 Serov produced many landscape compositions on country themes, in which the artistic direction took a romantic turn.