He was born to a retired cavalry captain who was also a landowner. His primary education was in Kharkiv then, after his fathers death, he was taken to Saint Petersburg in 1839, where he was enrolled at the Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy; where his aptitude for drawing was first displayed.
He graduated in 1845, and began to attend classes at the Imperial Academy of Arts with Fyodor Bruni, intending to become a history painter. Soon, however, he discovered a preference for painting scenes from everyday life.
While there, he made the first known portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, (his former fellow student at the engineering school), became involved in the Petrashevsky Circle and narrowly avoided arrest. In 1849 he returned to the relative safety of his family estate, which soon passed to him, following his mothers death. He painted throughout the local villages, visiting Saint Petersburg or Moscow only to arrange exhibitions.