A native of St. Petersburg, Polenov studied under Pavel Chistyakov and at the Imperial Academy of Arts from 1863 to 1871. He was a classmate and close friend of Rafail Levitsky, a fellow Peredvizhniki artist and famous photographer. Their letters, which are now stored in the Polenovs House museum, are an interesting account of the many art exhibitions, movements and artists of their day.
As bachelors, Polenov and Levitsky lived and worked together in "Deviche Pole" (the name of the street "Maidens Field"), in an attic of the Olsufevsky House (the home of Rafail Levitskys future wife Anna Vasilevna Olsufevskaya). This house is illustrated by Polenov in his painting “Grandmothers Garden” (1878).
Polenov was a pensioner of the academies of arts in Italy and France, where he painted a number of pictures in the spirit of Academism on subjects taken from European history, such as "Droit du Seigneur" (1874) Tretyakov gallery; at the same time he worked a lot in the open air.