Research Series: The Art and Artists of Russia (1): Peter the Great’s Vision

The Old Testament Trinity by Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430) [1420s; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

Greetings! I’m thrilled you are able to join me on this journey into the art and artists of Russia, a series of ‘sketches’ exploring the breadth and depth of Russian painting.

The header here is an image of one of the most beautiful and venerated icons in Russia, by one of the most acclaimed icon-painters, Andrei Rublev. No story of art in Russia can avoid the tradition of icon painting that reaches back to Byzantium, supports the Orthodox faith and, we might say, forms the spine of everyday Russian life and culture. Indeed, looking back to the turn of the 17th century, Orlando Figes writes in Natasha’s Dance: “Icons were encountered everywhere – not just in homes and churches, but in shops and offices or in wayside shrines.”

This might suggest that this is where we should start: with icons. However, Orlando Figes goes on to note: “There was next to nothing to connect the icon to the European tradition of secular painting that had its origin in the Renaissance.” Therefore, as my west European eyes and ways of seeing are rooted in centuries of a very different visual history, I propose that rather than beginning at the beginning as it were, we must find another ‘way in’ to Russian art – noting, as Virginia Woolf did, that we may well fly off at a tangent far from the truth.

Whilst we’ll return to the art of the Russian icon in weeks to come, our research journey here begins then not in ancient Moscow, but in London, at The Queen’s Gallery in Kensington Palace.


Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) [1698; Royal Collection Trust]

It still astonishes me that Peter the Great was ever in Britain, but from 11th January to 21st April 1698 he visited William III in London. It was part of Peter’s “Great Embassy” – primarily a diplomatic mission which, as the Royal Collection Trust website notes, turned into a fact-finding tour. Peter was fascinated by science, industry and rationalist philosophy – forces that were dominant in shaping Renaissance Europe; they signalled a way in which Peter could bring the Russia of medieval Muscovy into the modern world.

The portrait itself, painted by the leading portrait painter of the day in Britain, is thought – and a huge thank you to Alex Buck, Assistant Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection Trust for this – to have been developed from sketches Kneller had made of Peter when he was in Holland the previous year. Indeed, Peter – overcoming, apparently, his initial dislike of putting himself ‘on display’ – had commissioned the portrait himself and would present it to William as he took leave of London. Noted as an astonishingly true likeness,

“Kneller portrayed Peter as young and virile, the encumbrance of armour failing to disguise his shapely leg and lanky frame.  The Tsar’s status is conveyed by the crown in the alcove and the cloak embroidered in silver thread with the double-headed eagle of Russia’s coat of arms.  These are balanced compositionally by a view of ships on exercise, which alludes to Peter’s investment in the Russian navy and the strength that this was bringing to his reign.” (Jeni Fraser in “Hurrah for the Tsar”, The Arts Society, October 2020)

In fact, as he had in Holland, Peter spent much of his time working in the London shipyards at Greenwich, and there is a painting “Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard” by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) ‘documenting’ the scene.

“Peter stands on the left with his foot resting on the timber he has been sawing. He was keen to get as much hands-on experience as possible. When he spent the winter at Deptford, it was reported that he worked as hard as any man in the dockyard. The active figure of the Tsar contrasts to the more passive –looking figure of the English King William of Orange who stands on the right in sombre but luxurious attire”. (Royal Holloway)

It was this hands-on experience and knowledge that, on his return to Russia, stood Peter in good stead, for he was immediately drawn into war. Brenden Woldman writes (in History is Now), that the Tsar “established a large shipbuilding program in the Baltic Sea which, by his death in 1725, had 28,000 men enlisted in a Navy of nearly 50 large ships and over 800 smaller vessels.” Moreover, “in Peter’s greatest fight, the Great Northern War against Sweden, [this] newly established Russian Navy was a key component to the Russian victory in the war”.

It’s an essential moment in the story of art in Russia for it was whilst fighting on the Baltic coast that Peter had his ‘vision’.

Alexander Benois. “Peter the Great contemplating the building of St. Petersburg” by Alexander Benois [1916]

Now shrouded in myth and legend as Benois’ painting illustrates, the story goes that Peter stood looking out onto the swamps, rivers and seas and declared he would build a new city, right there: a Window onto Europe.

Mikhail Makhaev: View of Neva Downstream between Winter Palace and Academy of Sciences [engraving; 1753; Hermitage]

Bringing in architects and craftsmen from Europe, workers and materials from across Russia, slowly but surely the city of St Petersburg was built. Nobles and aristocrats were “invited” to move from Moscow to build houses and palaces. It would be an Amsterdam or a Venice of the north. And it would be modern: from stone pavements to a police force and up-to-date fashions. The ‘new Russians’ of St Petersburg had to dress in European style, the men had to shave off their beards, the women would dance at balls and galas.

And art would become part of their new cultural life.

Mikhail Makhaev: View of the Fontanka River [engraving; 1753; Hermitage]

As Alex Buck has noted, portraits such as Kneller’s would influence the course of painting in Russia. Whilst there had already been a very limited turn to portraiture, it was rooted in the icon tradition. Orlando Figes reckons that the first secular portraits (called ‘parsuna’) weren’t seen until the 1650s, and that Peter’s father, Tsar Alexei, is the first ruler of whom we have something of a “reliable likeness”.

Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich [unknown artist, 1672, Hermitage]

Lindsey Hughes writes in Picturing Russia that Tsar Alexei “appears in the guise of a Byzantine emperor” with four crucifixes and fully bearded. Certainly, his parsuna stands in complete contrast to Kneller’s representation of Peter just thirty years later; a difference that symbolises the dramatic shift from the habits – and ways of seeing – of ‘medieval’ Moscow to the ‘modernity’ of St Petersburg.

Recognising the power of art, Peter invited European artists to work in St Petersburg and, in turn, sent promising Russian artists to study in Holland and Italy. For example, Ivan Nikitin (c.1690-1741) studied in Florence and Venice, returning to become court painter to Peter in 1710.

Left: Nikitin’s “Portrait of Crown Princess Elizabeth Petrovna as a Child” [c.1713; Hermitage] ; Right: Nikitin’s “Portrait of a Hetman (military commander)” [1720s, State Russian Museum]

Nikitin has been described as “the father of Russian portraiture” for, whilst his earlier work – such as the Princess – still has that “naivete” of the parsuna, his later portraits are much more expressive of the individual sitter’s unique personality. Of the Hetman portrait, for instance, the State Russian Museum describes: “the military commander appears before us devoid of ceremonial armour, orders and medals… there are signs of the fatigue of battle, he is grown old and grey.”

Another painter of Peter’s time is Andrei Matveev (1701-1739), who was sent to Holland to study. He returned to Russia after Peter’s death, and himself died young.

His “Self-portrait with Wife” [1729; State Russian Museum] is gorgeous in both colour and sentiment, and his “Allegory of Painting” [1725; State Russian Museum] is thought to be the first Russian nude.


Peter the Great died in 1725, yet his projects for building St Petersburg and creating a ‘modern’ Russia were continued (for the most part) by his successors. But it was under Catherine the Great (1729-1796), that this ‘new culture’ of visual art would fully flourish with the Hermitage and the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts.

“The Art and Artists of Russia (2): Catherine the Great” will be published on Saturday 23rd January, 2020.


The Art and Artists of Russia (1)

If you have enjoyed this ‘sketch’ are able to support my ongoing research into Russian art and artists, then a huge thank you in advance!


References and resources…

I have included as many links as I can through the text (please just click on the highlighted website), and I shall add to the bibliography (below) as we go along.

Do please also contact me with anything relevant you have read or any television or radio programmes: the more the better!

For a broad, general history, I’d suggest

Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith (BBC/ Ebury Books)

and a brilliant cultural history (essential reading, I’d say!) is definitely

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes (Penguin Books)

There is also a short (10 minute) “Witness History” programme from BBC World Service: “Peter the Great in Russia

Other books I’ve used here (available at all good bookshops):

“Sunlight at Midnight: St Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia” by W. Bruce Lincoln (Ingram Publishers)

“Picturing Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture” essays edited by Valerie A. Kivelson & Joan Neuberger (Yale University Press)

“Russia: Art, Royalty and the Romanovs” exhibition catalogue is available from the Royal Collection Trust bookshop

“The Russian Point of View”, an essay by Virginia Woolf, can be found in The Common Reader Volume 1 (Vintage Publishing)

“St Petersburg: A History” by Arthur George & Elena George (nb. currently unavailable)

and one (more academic) collection of essays online: “A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture” edited by Anthony Cross (Open Books) is at:


The statue of Peter the Great (often known as The Bronze Horseman) in St Petersburg by Etienne Falconet.


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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