Research series: Russian Art and Artists (5) – The Wanderers: History Painting

The Wanderers Art Group (1886)

The Wanderers group changed the art of Russia dramatically. Whilst painting had, for centuries, been the spiritual craft of icon makers, and whilst Peter the Great had introduced European visual culture as part of his modernisation programme, the Wanderers recharged the whole art scene by developing both an audience and a market for ‘native’ subject matter. In the mid-late 19th century, Russian viewers could, for the first time, see pictorial representations of their country’s varied landscapes at exhibitions held in towns right across the nation; indeed, they might also find themselves reflected in the portraits of ‘ordinary’ people. And with the rise of the merchant classes and industrial wealth, more and more people could actually buy paintings for their own homes. Art-making and the public interest in paintings began to expand far beyond St Petersburg and Moscow, beyond the remit of the Imperial Academy of Arts and, indeed, the eyes of the aristocracy.

These developments linked in very closely to broader changes in popular politics and a turn away from the presumption that European ‘civilisation’ was the gold standard. After the Victory over Napoleon in 1812, and the Liberation of the Serfs in 1861, artists, writers, musicians, social commentators and political activists wanted to research, recognise and represent the deep culture of Russia itself – aligned to democratic change and based on peasant community and folk heritage. Alongside landscapes and portraits then, the Wanderers began painting the stories of Russia, past and present.

History Paintings

Within the expectations of the Imperial Academy, History Painting – the highest form of painting – meant, as it did across Europe, subject matter derived from the Bible, episodes from Ancient history or classical mythology: all were meant to instil educational moral values. And with all eyes on Europe, this meant that subjects concerning Russian myth and history were generally unacceptable and denied. Early artists, such as Anton Losenko (1737-1773) who trained in France and Italy, for example, presented dramatic Russian history scenes cloaked, as Peter Jackson puts it, “in a swathe of classical drapery and grandiloquent gesturing” such as:

Vladimir and Rogneda [1770, State Russian Museum]

The picture represents a very disturbing story. We are taken back to the 10th century and the land known as Kievan Rus – the just-before-dawn, as it were, of Russia – which centred on the city of Novgorod. To increase his area of rule, Vladimir the Great forced himself on the Princess Rogneda, marrying her and killing her parents. In the painting, the deathly swoon of Rogneda is far more realistic than the apparent heartfelt entreaty of Vladimir.

Whilst Losenko classicised the subject (the chap in armour seems somewhat incongruous, and the architectural detail seems to have a hint of Rome), a century later artists such as Vyacheslav Shvarts (1838-1869) sought to paint with a much greater historical accuracy in terms of the Russian setting, the background scene, the clothes people were wearing and so on.

One of the best – though it’s another rather disturbing scene – is:

Ivan the Terrible next to the body of the son he has murdered [1864, Tretyakov Gallery]

To summarise the scenario c/o Wikipedia:

[The relationship of Ivan the Terrible with his son Ivan Ivanovich] deteriorated when on 15 November 1581, the Tsar, after seeing his pregnant daughter-in-law wearing unconventionally light clothing, physically assaulted her. Hearing her screams, the Tsarevich rushed to his wife’s defence… Yelena subsequently suffered a miscarriage. The Tsarevich confronted his father on the matter, only to have the topic changed to [political matters]. The elder Ivan accused his son of inciting rebellion, which the younger Ivan denied… Angered, Ivan’s father struck him on the head with his sceptre. The younger Ivan fell, barely conscious and with a bleeding wound on his temple. The elder Ivan immediately threw himself at his son, kissing his face and trying to stop the bleeding, whilst repeatedly crying, “May I be damned! I’ve killed my son! I’ve killed my son!” The younger Ivan briefly regained consciousness and was reputed to have said “I die as a devoted son and most humble servant”. For the next few days, the elder Ivan prayed incessantly for a miracle, but to no avail, and the Tsarevich died on 19 November 1581.

Grim, grim, grim – and it would herald a time of great instability for Russia. However, looking at the painting, we can see an immediate contrast to Losenko’s ‘classicisation’. Here, this really does feel like a Russian scene. We seem to be in a Kremlin palace bedroom, small and enclosed but grand (note the wall paintings and the richness of the textiles); Ivan the Terrible’s clothes are that of a Tsar, fur and velvet but not at all like the ‘fairy-tale dandy’ outfit of Vladimir the Great, above, and whilst the supporting characters of Losenko’s earlier painting seem to be fairly generic, here we have the priests – and we can almost hear their prayers and quiet readings murmuring in the candlelight.

Other history paintings by Schwarts include this gorgeous religious promenade:

Palm Sunday in Moscow [1865; State Russian Museum]

The richness of the vestments, the particularity of the architecture, the authority of the participants – all unite in the painting to register the reality of a distinctly non-European heritage; a native and uniquely Russian civilisation.

One of the Wanderers’ greatest history painters was Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) and perhaps his best painting is:

Boyarina Morozova [1887; Tretyakov Gallery]

(which if you go to see c/o Google Art you can move the cursor over the picture to investigate the painting bit by bit, including Surikov’s sketches &c.)

The Boyarina (Noblewoman) was Fedosia Morozova (1632-1675) the matriarch of one of the most ancient and aristocratic families of Russia, and she was openly opposed to the mid-17th century reform of the Russian Orthodox Church. This reform, imposed by the state, led to a split (‘raskol’) in the Church – one of the most dramatic events in Russian history – and included numerous changes in liturgical ritual such as making the sign of the cross which would, henceforth, be done officially with three fingers. Those who opposed the reforms – known as the Old Believers – would however make the sign of the cross with only two fingers, as Morozova does in the painting. The rift of old and new soon became a power struggle between the role and power of Church and State in Russian life – in the painting we see those who support the reforms on the right, whilst Morozova’s supporters are on the left. Many Old Believers burnt themselves to death rather than submit. Others were sent into Siberian exile. (Yet many Old Believers continued in secret across the country and, indeed, through the centuries).

Boyarina Morozova herself was incarcerated in an underground prison and, slowly deprived of provisions, she starved to death, which makes her an interesting figure to depict in such a full-scale history painting. On the one hand, Surikov is following the general line – representing the key characters and stories of Russia. Yet might the Wanderers’ art be seen as more political than that? Ivan Kramskoy, one of the founders of the Wanderers’ Movement, certainly thought that history painting should not be simply ‘story-telling’ but part of a commentary on contemporary life. In that case, Boyarina Morozova becomes a ‘popular martyr’ fighting for Russian heritage and the people’s traditions against westernisation.

Many of the Wanderers’ history paintings are similarly up for debate, indeed “reading in” to these paintings was all part of the censorship culture and the conservative state vs. populist politics. Another painting by Surikov, for example, is

Stenka Razin [1906; State Russian Museum]

Stenka – or Stepan – Razin had led a revolt against the Tsar and the Muscovite State in 1760 (the Time of Troubles after Ivan the Terrbile had killed his son). Setting out from the Cossack heartlands on the River Don, Razin gathered thousands of people to march with him along the way and even proclaimed himself the true tsar promising an end to exploitation and the equality of all. The Kremlin had to undertake a full military campaign to subdue him and Razin was eventually executed, drawn and quartered on Red Square. The crowds refused the official orders to cheer.

Again, this could simply be a story-telling painting or one might read all sorts of radical politics into it.

Certainly the concept of history painting remained a questionable practice for the Wanderers movement. For the most part, they regarded ‘history-in-the-making” – that is, pictures of contemporary Russian life – as their preferred subject matter, so-called “critical realism”. And one of the greatest painters of ‘critical realism’ – perhaps the greatest Russian painter ever – was Ilya Repin, whose work we’ll look at next time.


Russian Art and Artists (5) The Wanderers – History Painting

If you enjoyed this article, please – if you are able – ‘donate’ to help support ongoing research. Many thanks, Mark


Next date:

“Research series: Russian Art & Artists – The Paintings of Ilya Repin” will be published on Saturday 20th March, 2021.


The story-telling element of artists such as Shvarts, these recreations of episodes from Russian history would continue.

Let’s go back to the story of Ivan the Terrible and the Times of Troubles. Having murdered his eldest son, the Tsar’s heir was Fyodor – yet he was too young, and far from suited to be ruler, and so his uncle, Boris Godunov, became regent. And as Fyodor’s brother Dmitry had been murdered, when Fyodor himself died, Godunov was crowned Tsar.

This psychological and historical drama – not to mention the possibility/probability that Boris had murdered Dmitry (nor that there was also a pretender, a False Dmitry claiming the throne) – was perfect for Alexander Pushkin to make into a play in the 1820s. However, censorship meant it wasn’t performed until the 1860s when it was taken up by the composer Mussorgsky who turned it into an opera, which was itself revised by Rimsky-Korsakov. It was Rimsky-Korsakov’s version that Sergei Diaghilev took to Paris in 1908, opening the path that would lead to the world famous Ballets Russes. To end, then, here’s the mighty actor Feodor Chaliapin, portrayed by Aleksander Golovin (1912; State Russian Museum) playing the role of Boris Godunov in Diaghilev’s production:


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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