Research series: The Art and Artists of Russia (4): The Wanderers (i) – portraits and landscapes

The Revolt of the Fourteen – the student artists who in 1863 had left the Imperial Academy of Arts to set up their own Artel in St Petersburg – was a significant turning point in the history of art in Russia – a break for creative freedom as it were and, as such, a small parallel to the freedom given to the serfs just a couple of years earlier.

One of the leading artists of the fourteen was Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887)

left: Self-portrait (1867; Tretyakov Gallery); right: Portrait of Tolstoy (1873) [Tretyakov Gallery]

Primarily a portrait artist, he would paint many of the ‘radical’ figures of Russian art and culture, such as the author Tolstoy – one of the key social and literary voices of the Russian 19th century. These would bring in the money, but he also pictured a number of ‘peasant’ sitters. Most glorious perhaps is that of Mina Moiseyev (1882, State Russian Museum) who delighted Kramskoi with his story-telling:  

Ivan Kramskoi regarded the creation of collective images of the common people as one of the most important tasks of modern art. He wrote to Ilya Repin: “And what the people have to offer! My God, what an enormous source!” This painting reflects the artist’s ability to concentrate on the most essential things in a portrait. The peasant’s outer appearance and free and relaxed pose evoke a sense of inner calm and independence. The old, wrinkled face radiates warmth and kindness, reflecting the sitter’s great age and wisdom. This portrait was painted in Siverskaya near St Petersburg. [online Russian Museum]

And Kramskoi’s painting The Beekeeper (1872; Tretyakov Gallery) is just wonderful; the artist delights in the ‘everyday life of everyday people’ – such a contrast to the aristocratic portraits that had dominated Russian art to date.

Kramskoi’s belief in the ‘democracy’ of art and the need for a native Russian artistic practice aligned him with the more radical cultural movements that were underway in Moscow. As depicted in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia had brought the French army right into Moscow. Rather than allow him to take it, however, Muscovites set fire to their city as they fled, burning much of the old medieval Moscow to the ground. Napoleon had barely a chance to sit down in the Kremlin palaces before he was forced to flee, chased – along with his frozen soldiers – back to Paris.

French retreat from Russia in 1812 by Illarion Pryanishnikov (1840-1894) [1874, c/o Wikipedia]

Following the Russians’ 1812 victory, Moscow was rebuilt and – given the anti-European sentiment – its architecture was in the so-called ‘Russian Revival’ style, including the great Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Tsar Alexander I’s memorial to the sacrifices of the Russian people.

The Cathedral would be torn down by Stalin in 1931 – then rebuilt under Putin – but it’s interesting to note that the interior painting of the original dome was the work of artists such as Ivan Kramskoi. Whether the current painting reflects that of the 19th century I’ve not been able to find out.

Also of note: the Cathedral was the site for the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” (aka “The Year 1812 Solemn Overture”). Here’s the description from Wikipedia:

The piece begins with the simple, plaintive Russian melody of the Eastern Orthodox Troparion of the Holy Cross (also known as “O Lord, Save Thy People”) played by four cellos and two violas. This represents the Russian people praying for a swift conclusion to the invasion. Then, the French National anthem, “La Marseillaise”, is heard, representing the invading French army. Then, the melody of “La Marseillaise” is heard competing against Russian folk music, representing the two armies fighting each other as the French got closer and closer to Moscow. At this point, five cannon shots are heard, representing the Battle of Borodino. This is where “La Marseillaise” is most prominent, and seems to be winning. After this, a long descending run represents the French army retreating out of Moscow as the freezing winter rages on. At the end of this run the hymn that the piece begins with is repeated. This can be interpreted as prayers being answered. The grand finale culminates with eleven more cannon shots and the melody of God Save the Tsar!

I’ve included this description because of the reference to Russian melodies and folk songs – as with the Cathedral, Tchaikovsky’s music might be seen as ‘Russian Revival’ which ties in very closely to the cultural zeitgeist: other composers of the time, particularly Rimsky-Korsakov, Ge, Borodin, Balakirev and Mussorgsky (known as The Five, or The Mighty Handful) would take these ‘references’ to folk song and rhythm further by abandoning Western musical composition and expectations for a much ‘more Russian’ sound. Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (1874), based on pictures by the artist and architect Viktor Hartman, of course springs to mind.

Alongside the rebuilding projects there was also a realignment in terms of the city’s social make-up, for it was in Moscow that new factories, business and shops were opening at a rapid scale, creating in turn a ‘merchant’ (or bourgeois) class whose wealth would soon come to rival that of the St Petersburg aristocracy. The commercial zeal of this merchant class was, however, checked by a strict sense of social duty.

Kramskoi’s portrait of Pavel Tretyakov (1869) and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

Pavel Tretyakov, for example, was a self-made and self-educated textile baron. As Orlando Figes describes him: “With his long beard, full-length Russian coat and square-toed boots, he cut the figure of an old-school patriarch” – a recognition that as much as he was a leading member of the new merchant class, he was also an Old Believer of the Orthodox faith who believed that people, especially the wealthy, had a duty to society. This he fulfilled in part by purchasing art, initially Old Masters but, increasingly, works by native, living artists. By the time he left his collection to the nation – the Tretyakov Gallery – in 1892, there were 1,276 paintings.

This shift from the ‘European’ ideas of St Petersburg towards the recognition and support of Russian life, history and culture – known as the Slavophile movement – was increasingly dominant in Moscow and it would lead some of the Artel painters to join with Moscow artists and critics to form, in 1871, the Wanderers Movement – sometimes translated as the Itinerants – and formally named The Collective of Travelling Art Exhibitions.

Kramskoi was very much a leader of the Wanderers; their aim was to open up art to all classes of society, exhibiting and teaching right across the country, so developing a vigorous (commercial) art scene independent of the Academy.

Whilst the style of their paintings retained the Academic qualities of fine painting – naturalism, realism – (they rarely engaged with experimental Impressionism for example) it was the subject matter that focused the most radical element of their work. Along with portraits of ‘the people’ such as Kramskoi’s beekeeper and Mina Moiseyev, it was primarily landscape that came to the fore.

Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897): The Rainbow [1874; State Russian Museum]

See the Tretyakov’s online selection of landscape paintings here.

Portraits and landscapes? Hardly revolutionary you might think. But remember this was a society restrained and restricted by Tsarist censorship (Dostoevsky was almost shot – and ultimately sent to Siberia – as punishment for setting up an underground printing press). Those portraits of ‘the people’ might be seen as the populist promotion of the (majority) peasant class – a political statement against Tsarism and autocracy.

And landscape… In a sense it was the landscape paintings that were truly revolutionary. For the first time ever, Russian artists were painting scenes from their own country, from birch forests to grasslands, the mighty river Volga to the coastline of Vladivostok. In turn, people were seeing the extent, the variety and differences of their own country at exhibitions that travelled to towns and villages across the land. Politically, this might be ‘nationalism’; generally, it was an eye-opening delight – paintings of the Russians’ shared homeland.

Figes writes “The impact of these tours was enormous… ‘When the exhibitions came… the sleepy country towns were diverted for a short while from their games of cards, their gossip and their boredom, and they breathed in the fresh current of free art. Debates and arguments arose on subjects which the townfolk had never thought before’.”

And in terms of landscape painting in particular, David Jackson writes of how it went beyond ‘simple’ geographic description and beautiful pictures because Russia, as land, homeland, motherland “encapsulate[d]… [a] sense of belonging that was entangled with a heady mix of fierce national pride and lachrymose nostalgia. Traditionally, this was the place of home, the receptacle of the Russian soul, a birthright surpassing social divisions and binding all.”

For me, two particular artists stand out. Firstly, Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) who painted the countryside with extraordinary precision to create, as Jackson writes, “a series of iconic images depicting the might and fecundity of the great Russian forests.” Just indulge your eyes with these three gorgeous paintings!

Birch Forest [1871; Donetsk Regional Museum of Art]

Distant View of the Forest [1884; Tretyakov]

Rye Field [1878; Tretyakov]

These really are ‘great’ Russian scenes of forests and fecundity and note how, in ‘Distant View of the Forest’ for example, Shishkin pictures the huge extent of the landscape itself, the vastness of Russia. The ‘Birch Forest’ brings us into the detail – the birch forest itself ingrained in the Russian psyche through fairy- and folk-tales. And note how, in ‘Rye Field’, there is a pathway into the painting – this is typical of the Wanderers’ landscapes – a sort of invitation to the eye, leading the viewer in by bringing a path, a flat area of land, or a river right up to the lower frame offering an entry point.

Isaak Levitan (1860-1900) is an even more evocative landscape painter, elevating the Russian landscape to an envisioning of the Russian soul itself. Here I shall limit us to one extraordinary (to my mind) painting:

Evening Bells [1892, Tretyakov]

Walk along the path and down to the riverbank; climb into the rowing boat and be taken across the river to the monastery. Can you hear the church bells ringing in the soft evening light? These bells have been calling out since the dawn of Russian Orthodox Christian faith, brought from Constantinople by Prince Vladimir of Kiev, in the tenth century. Levitan presents the Russian homeland steeped in heavenly sunlight and resonant with holy, ancient sound. In landscape paintings such as this, we see the birth of a truly Russian – native – modern art.


Broadly, we might say then that where Peter the Great had opened a ‘window on the West’ with the building of his European city St Petersburg, by the mid-19th century and starting in Moscow, there was a social and cultural turn to look back in to Russia – the landscape, the people and, as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, Russian history, folk- and fairy-tale and contemporary life.

“The Art & Artists of Russia (5): The Wanderers (ii) – Painting History” will be with you on Saturday 6th March 2021.


Russian Art & Artists (4)

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One of the truly great artists we’ll meet in the next few weeks is Ilya Repin, and – whilst there are so few Russian paintings in British public collections – it’s intriguing to know that one of Repin’s portraits is in the National Gallery (though not on general view). As with Kramskoi’s picture of Mina Moiseyev, the Repin is of an elderly peasant man. Though unnamed, he conveys an extraordinary sense of wisdom, a repository of folk knowledge, as if he is looking out with those clear blue eyes and remembering the whole history of ancient Russia.

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) Study of an Old Man [1878; National Gallery, London]



Have a look at a Moscow Times article on the exhibition of another Wanderer, Vasily Polenov’s paintings here.

There’s an archive programme from Radio 4 on Russian bells and music here.

To see further examples of Isaak Levitan’s work, please visit Sotheby’s website here where you’ll see this gorgeous:

Issak Levitan: “Woodland Study” (no date; c/o Sotheby’s)


Research series: The Art and Artists of Russia (3) – War and Peace

Battle of Moscow, 7th September 1812 – by Baron Lejeune Louis-Francois [1822; Palace of Versailles]

“As readers of War and Peace will know, the war of 1812 was a vital watershed in the culture of the Russian aristocracy. It was a war of liberation from the intellectual empire of the French – a moment when noblemen… struggled to break free from the foreign conventions of their society and begin new lives on Russian principles” – Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance.


As we’ve seen, the city of St Petersburg had been built as a ‘European’ capital city; its architecture, canals, people’s lifestyles – from fashion to dance – were directed along the lines of Italian and especially Parisian expectations; even the Russian language was spoken only ‘below stairs’ and then very badly.

The war against Napoleon, however, created cracks in that ‘window onto Europe’. In Russian politics, for example, an underground movement of nobles sought to bring about dramatic social change. They would meet in secret to discuss democracy, government and the rule of law, all of which would lead to the Decembrist Revolt when, on the death of Alexander I in 1825 they attempted to prevent the coronation of Nicholas I.

The Uprising of December 14, 1825 on the Saint Isaac’s Square – by Georg Wilhelm Timm [1853; Hermitage]

The nobles’ aim was to upend autocracy and to end serfdom once and for all. Unable to secure enough last-minute support, the plotters inevitably failed. Many were exiled to Siberia. Nicholas took his place as Tsar and kept an even stronger grip on Russian life through networks of spies and wide-ranging censorship.

The St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Fine Arts had since its inception been an essentially ‘European’ institution, with teachers coming in from across the continent and, in turn, students often training abroad – a necessary arrangement according to the writer Nikolai Gogol who observed in his story “Nevsky Prospekt” that Petersburg artists ‘often nourish a genuine talent, and if only the fresh air of Italy were to blow on them, it would probably develop as freely, broadly, and brilliantly as a plant which is finally brought out of a room and into fresh air’.”

The artist Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858), for example, worked in Rome for ten years and his work is steeped in Biblical and classical subjects. The most famous painting is:

The Apparition of Christ to the People (The Apparition of the Messiah) [1835; Tretyakov]

Ivanov called this [a universal]story, he sought to show all humanity in a decisive moment determining its fate. In the centre of the picture is the figure of John the Baptist, who is baptizing the people in the Jordan River and pointing to the approaching Jesus. On the left hand side, the man with the staff looking onto the scene is the artist himself in the guide of a wanderer [from the Tretyakov]

And, on the classical side of things, I love:

Apollo, Hyacinthus and Cyparissus singing and playing [1834; Tretyakov]

Apollo, the god of the sun, art, music and poetry, is playing music along with his favourites in the lap of nature – notes the Tretyakov Gallery, saying that Ivanov has in fact left the painting unfinished as the artist had lost his ‘cheerful disposition’ and was unable to continue imagining such a ‘golden age’.

One of the most famous Academy artists was Karl Bryullov (1799-1852) who went to Rome to study in 1825 where he painted:

“The Last Day of Pompeii” [1833, State Russian Museum].

Briullov visited Pompeii in 1828 and made sketches depicting the AD 79 Vesuvius eruption. The painting received rapturous reviews at its exhibition in Rome and brought Briullov more acclaim than any other work during his lifetime. The first Russian artwork to cause such an interest abroad…

Again, it’s Gogol who called it “a brilliant resurrection of [Russian] painting, which for some time had remained in some half-lethargic state.” Pushkin even began a poem dedicated to the work (it was never completed). The excitement was due to the drama of the painting, a great burst of Romantic energy. Yet even as Bryullov began teaching at the Petersburg Academy, doubts were growing about his famous picture: could it signify the last days not of Pompeii, but of Petersburg itself?

That post-1812 shift – from regarding ‘Europe’ as the fount of civilisation to a new-found respect for, indeed the discovery of, Russian culture – was beginning, slowly but surely, to take effect in ever greater spheres of Russian society. Even in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts where, dominated by the personal supervision of the Tsar, students found a militarist, repressive and bureaucratic culture. There was even a policeman on the Academy staff as well as a state censor.

Students were doomed, as David Jackson writes, to: “the role of state servants set on a structured career path in pursuit of lucrative state commissions. Beyond that little was possible.” Antagonism was brewing amidst the student body. And when, in 1861, the new Tsar, Alexander II at last ended serfdom – liberating over 23 million people from servitude – the cry for change grew louder. So, in 1863, a group of fourteen students decided they would reject the subject matter they were told to paint for their final examination. It was a strike for artistic freedom, creativity and self-expression. They left the Academy and, kept under police surveillance, set up their own private Artel. It was a difficult course of action to choose: inevitably seen as political, even anti-Tsarist; moreover, there was only the smallest prospect of surviving as an artist on private art commissions when the Russian art world was dominated and controlled by the Academy.

However, there were artists who served as examples to the dissenting students, most importantly, perhaps:

Self-Portrait [1811; Tretyakov]

Alexei Venetsianov (1780-1847), an engraver and painter who had no formal training and who remained outside of the Academy throughout his life. Instead, with his wife, he moved to a small estate in Tver where – on a meagre income – he supported himself and several peasant artists.

Orlando Figes calls him a pioneer of Russian culture.

Not only did Venetsianov paint in a more realist manner than the classicists of the Academy, he painted directly from nature. And whilst his pictures have a certain ‘idyllic’ sensitivity to them, his subjects were the Russian people and the agrarian life around him.

left: Peasant Girl with Cornflowers [1820s; Tretyakov]; right: Fortune Telling [1843; State Russian Museum]

And perhaps his most glorious painting is:

In the Field. Spring [1820s; Tretyakov]

Orlando Figes writes: [Here, Venetsianov] combines the distinctive Russian features of his female labourer with the sculptural proportions of an antique heroine. The woman in the field is a peasant goddess. She is the mother of the Russian land.


The mood was changing in mid-19th-century Russia, culture was becoming – just a little – more liberal. The dissenting artists of the Artel had shown that the Academy could be questioned. And, in 1871, a new independent society of artists was formed: The Society of Travelling Art Exhibits – better known as The Wanderers – which would change the whole course of Russian art.


Russian Art & Artists (part 3)

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The formation of the Wanderers movement begins a rapid development of ‘native’ Russian art, completely changing the creative landscape and the ways in which Russians understood themselves and their country, as we’ll see next time: 20th February.