Boris Kustodiev was born in Astrakhan into the family of a lecturer of philosophy, history of literature, and logic at the local theological school. His father died young, and all financial and material burdens fell on his mother's shoulders. The Kustodiev family rented a small wing in a rich merchant's house. It was there that the boy's first impressions were formed of the way of life of the simple merchant class.
The artist later wrote, "The whole tenor of the rich and plentiful merchant way of life was there right under my nose... It was like something out of an Ostrovsky play." The artist retained these childhood explanation for years, recreating them later in oils and water-colors.
In 1905, Kustodiev first twisted to book illustrating, a genre in which he worked throughout his entire life. He illustrated many works of classical Russian literature, including Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, The Carriage, and The Overcoat; Mikhail Lermontov's The Lay of Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich, His Young Oprichnik and the Stouthearted Merchant Kalashnikov; and Leo Tolstoy's How the Devil Stole the Peasants Hunk of Bread and The Candle.
In 1909, he was nominated into Imperial Academy of Arts. He continued to work intensively, but a grave illness—tuberculosis of the spine—required urgent attention. On the advice of his doctors he went to Switzerland, where he spent a year undergoing treatment in a private clinic.
He pined for his distant homeland, and Russian themes continued to provide the basic material for the works he painted during that year. In 1918, he painted The Merchant's Wife, which became the most famous of his paintings.