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.



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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