Three Colourful Summer Exhibitions…

The landscapes and communities of England, the characters of bohemian Paris and London, the glory of the creative imagination…

There are three very exciting exhibitions coming this summer that will draw us out of the lockdown slumber to thrill us with paint, colour and the exuberance of living. And this common viewer for one is very excited!  

(I’ve included as many links as possible for further exploration, but please let me know if there are any others I can add to build up our Common Viewer Resources!)

At Penlee House in Cornwall, they are celebrating the life and art of Laura Knight from 17th May to 16th September in what they’re calling a “major retrospective” that includes a number of paintings from private collections.

The exhibition will bring together over 60 works by the artist, exploring different themes she became fascinated with over her life. Her stunning landscapes in Cornwall, Yorkshire and Worcestershire will be shown alongside her paintings of circus performers and Gypsies.

There is also an accompanying book “Laura Knight: A Celebration” by art historian and curator Elizabeth Knowles published by Sansom and Company.

And, as I was looking that up, I’ve also discovered not only that Barbara C Morden’s brilliant biography Laura Knight: A Life is being freshly published in paperback, but that Laura Knight’s autobiography “Oil Paint and Grease Paint” is to be republished in February 2022 – and that is excellent news indeed as it brings Laura Knight’s voice directly to us, as well as numerous anecdotes!

Meanwhile, over at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex (19th May – 30th August), there is to be a celebration of Nina Hamnett – the Queen of Bohemia as she was, quite wonderfully, known!

Hamnett’s paintings give us a glimpse into her life in Paris and London’s avant-garde communities, and into the relationships she forged. Her compelling portraits and skilful compositions such as her Parisian café scenes, reveal Hamnett to be one of the most talented and exciting artists of her time.


Again there is a book Nina Hamnett to coincide with the exhibition written by the brilliant Alicia Foster and published in the Modern Women Artists series from Eiderdown Books.

Sadly there’s no sign that Hamnett’s autobiographies are to be republished, but Rachel Campbell-Johnston certainly offers a flavour of the artist’s life in her Times review article “The Painter who became a Magnet for Scandal” as does Lucy Davies in the Telegraph: “Lucien Freud Perched, Rapt, on her Deathbed“.

Eiderdown Books also include Eileen Agar by Laura Smith in their Modern Women Artists series:

Eileen Agar was an artist who explored painting, photography, collage and sculpture. Her independent and inventive experiments with assemblage and colour linked her work inextricably with two major art movements of European twentieth century culture: Cubism and Surrealism.

which coincides with the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition: Eileen Agar – Angel of Anarchy (19th May – 29th August).

‘I have spent my whole life in revolt against convention, trying to bring colour and light and a sense of the mysterious to daily existence. One must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes, and new possibilities of discovery.

– Eileen Agar quoted on the Whitechapel Gallery website.

As Laura Cumming has written in the Guardian:

[Agar’s] art seems infused with a constant sense of the sea and the shore, but also with a characteristically independent joie de vivre. This survey of over a hundred works is long overdue, but better late than never.

Laura Smith has also edited a book “Eileen Agar” to accompany the exhibition that should be especially valuable as it brings together the insights of Andrew Lambirth and Marina Warner. I must also mention Michel Remy’s excellent book Eileen Agar: Dreaming Oneself Awake as well as BBC Radio 4 programme on Sounds about Agar by Iwona Blazwick, the director of Whitechapel Gallery, which is definitely worth hearing as an overview/introduction to the artist.


And of course Art UK | Home is as ever a fabulous website through which to explore all these artists.

Oh, what a summer of gorgeous looking we have ahead of us if we share Eileen Agar’s “hunger for new colour, new shapes, and new possibilities of discovery”.


Russian Art and Artists (8): 1905 and The Blue Rose Group

“By the end of 1904, Russia was close to turmoil. Political violence was spreading, the economy was foundering, and harvest failures and a sharp rise in food prices were stirring discontent among the people.

A strike at the Putilov engineering works in St Petersburg spread quickly to other factories, and within a month 100,000 workers had downed tools. St Petersburg was suffering from a winter of discontent, with electricity cuts and growing shortages of essential goods.

On Sunday 9th January 1905, a procession of around 20,000 workers. Led by the priest and trade union organiser Father Georgy Gapon, defied a ban on demonstrations to march with a petition to the Winter Palace in the centre of St Petersburg. The petition asked Nicholas II to grant concessions to the hard-pressed labouring classes… Gapon had assured the authorities that the march would be peaceful – the workers carried icons and Nicholas’s portrait, and they sang patriotic songs including ‘God Save the Tsar’. But tension was high.

When the march passed a designated point, nervous soldiers opened fire leaving more than a hundred people dead in the snow.” [Martin Sixsmith “Russia”, 2011, BBC Books]


That day became known as Bloody Sunday.

After a summer of strikes and unrest, the Tsar announced the October Manifesto, a proclamation to introduce democratic reform.

Demonstration 17 October 1905 by Ilya Repin [State Russian Museum. St. Petersburg]

This is the moment depicted in Ilya Repin’s painting. However, despite the initial cheer, the Manifesto floundered, the Tsar back-tracked and Russia remained in a state of deep social and political disquiet.

The immediate success of the Manifesto, however, was followed by a return to the cycle of strikes and violence as the Autocracy gradually reaffirmed its power. Within months, executions were numbering more than a thousand. The Government began suppressing political parties; by 1906–07 much of Russia was under martial law. It appeared that instead of being a reform, the manifesto had been little more than a ploy by Nicholas to regain control of Russia. [Quoting: Sheila Fitzpatrick: The Russian Revolution. Oxford [1994; Wikipedia]


In her book “In Memory of Memory” (Longlisted for the International Booker Prize, 2021), Maria Stepanova describes a photograph from her family’s collection:

“It’s winter and the snow under their feet is trampled. Dark shaggy fur coats and hats with a spotting of white – the usual smudging you get on an old photograph, the dots and lines which obscure the picture. Great-grandmother Sarra, first on the left, looks older than her seventeen years. Her hat, the sort that’s fastened with pins, has slipped to the back of her head, a strand of hair has escaped and her round-cheeked face is red raw, you can see how cold she is. One of her hands is tucked into her coat’s cuffs, another is balled into a fist. Her right eye, injured on the barricades, is covered with a black bandage, like a pirate’s patch. This was in Nizhny Novgorod, the barricades were built during the uprising that began on 12th December 1905 and was put down by military after three days of street-fighting.”


The events of 1905 would be the subject of Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin” [1925] with its famous scene at the Odessa Steps when soldiers begin firing: a nanny is wounded, loses her grip on the handle of a pram which continues, baby inside, to roll down the steps.

Bloody Sunday would prove to be a fundamental turning-point in the history of Russia.

“The atmosphere of political turmoil which surrounded the abortive Revolution of 1905 was accompanied by a new vitality in the arts” writes Camilla Gray. And to witness that vitality, as Orlando Figes says, “Moscow really was the place to be… [as] the Russian avant-garde burst onto the scene. Along with Paris, Berlin and Milan, it became a major centre in the world of art, and its extraordinary collection of avant-garde artists were as much influenced by trends in Europe as they were by Moscow’s heritage.”

Detail from Léon Bakst’s “Portrait of Diaghilev with his Nanny” [1906; State Russian Museum]

Indeed, the extent of artistic creativity through the following decade was extraordinarily dynamic and experimental. Again, 1905 symbolises a significant turning point, reckoned by none other than Sergei Diaghilev (who we shall meet ‘properly’ next time). Speaking in March 1905 to a host of artists, writers and curators, and having spent the previous year criss-crossing Russia to collect paintings for an exhibition, he said:

“…we witness the greatest historical moment of summing-up and closing down for the sake of a new, unknown culture which will issue from us but also brush us away. And so, without fear or mistrust, I raise my glass to the destroyed walls of beautiful palaces as well as to the new principles of the new aesthetics.” [Tretyakov Magazine]

That summing-up and closing-down of the old for the sake of an impossible-to-know future art was made visible, perhaps, by a few moments of dance – and the transformation of ballet.

In 1905, the ballerina Anna Pavlova asked choreographer Michel Fokine to create a solo dance for her, for a gala performance. He suggested a routine to the music of Saint-Saens cello solo The Swan [Le Cygne], but this would not be a strictly classical routine. Reflecting back, in 1931, Fokine said:

“This dance became the symbol of the New Russian Ballet. It was a combination of masterful technique with expressiveness. It was like a proof that the dance could and should satisfy not only the eye, but through the medium of the eye should penetrate the soul.”

In 1934, he would claim, further:

“…the purpose of the dance is not to display that technique but to create the symbol of the everlasting struggle in this life and all that is mortal. It is a dance of the whole body and not of the limbs only; it appeals not merely to the eye but to the emotions and the imagination.” [Michigan Opera]

There is a very short film clip from 1925 of Anna Pavlova dancing The Dying Swan on YouTube:

It is compelling, beautiful – almost magical. And as such caught the zeitgeist of Russian art, 1905-8, precisely. As The Golden Fleece art journal, writing in the Preface to their first editions in 1906, noted:

“We embark on our path at a formidable time.

Around us, like a raging whirlpool, seethes the rebirth of life. In the thunder of the fight, amidst the urgent questions raised by our times, amid the bloody answers provided by our Russian reality… [we] are in sympathy… but we believe that life without Beauty is impossible…

Art is symbolic for it bears within it the symbol, the reflection of the Eternal in the temporal.

Art is free for it is created by the free impulse of creation.”  

[quoted in Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and Criticism, ed. John E Bowlt; Thames & Hudson 1988]

These words are very much the manifestation of the Russian Symbolist movement which, in 1907, exhibited under the name The Blue Rose Group.

Really, this was the second generation of Symbolist artists, the first centred on the art of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) – who we met at the Abramtsevo art colony, and working on the mural of the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev.

Angel with Censer and Candle. Sketch for Vladimir Cathedral [1887; Museum of Russian Art, Kiev]

As well as the religious and heavenly, Vrubel’s focus was very much on fairytale, less the story as such, but more in terms of projecting a sense of otherness, an alternative reality; the condition of the soul.

It’s interesting to note that the Wikipedia entry for Russian Symbolism says that the artistic emphasis was on “mysticism and ostranenie”.

Ostranenie is a fabulous word: it means the strangely unfamiliar, the uncanny or unheimlich.

One of Vrubel’s most famous works: The Demon Seated [1890; Tretyakov Gallery]

It’s an extraordinary, beautiful picture, and actually a bit terrifying: a fallen angel with long ‘feminine’ hair and strong ‘masculine’ body; and yet they sit there passive and contemplative; melancholic. There’s a lost-ness, like Christ in the wilderness. And note how, surrounded by a scarlet sunset and heavy impasto flowers, the angel is trapped in the dimensions of the frame.

Along with the strange beauty of the subject, the emphasis on paint – the paint, the colour, the brush-stroke, the texture – is important. We might think again of those last two sentences from the Golden Fleece:

“Art is symbolic for it bears within it the symbol, the reflection of the Eternal in the temporal.

Art is free for it is created by the free impulse of creation.” 

The Demon painting is clearly symbolic – though we don’t know how or why; there’s something ‘beyond’ the everyday about it; something ‘ostranenie’. Moreover, it is clearly expressive of an individual artist working ‘by the free impulse of creation’ – there is neither the classicism of the Academy, nor the Realism/Naturalism of the Wanderers movement. It is a free expression of the artist’s inner sensations and sensibility, created by an innovative (and indeed decorative) use of paint: colour and texture. It marks a distinct shift in Russian art history.

And surely one of the most glorious paintings by Vrubel:

The Six-winged Seraph (Azrael) [1904; State Russian Museum]

Again it’s a somewhat disturbing picture: Azrael is often the Angel of Death; here they are seeking us out with lamp and dagger. Yet how gloriously beautiful; the colours brilliant, like shards of diamond.

Mikhail Nesterov [1862-1942]’s work, in turn, deepens the Orthodox/ religious sensibility, his work creating the impossible-possible dimension of spiritual faith:

Taking the Veil [1898; State Russian Museum]

The Hermit [1889; Tretyakov Gallery]

The Sacred Lake (c.1920s? c/o Christies]

There is a great essay on Nesterov’s paintings at the Christies website:

By turning her back on the viewer, [the nun] seems metaphorically to be choosing a life of solitude — one of the spiritual eternal, as represented by the Russian landscape.

Another type of ‘other-worldliness’ was that produced by Viktor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905) who combined that subtle medievalism present with a gentle (almost)-impressionism: his figures in historic garb creating a distancing effect which, along with the complete lack of narrative, gives his pictures a mysterious dream-like quality.

The Pool [1902; Tretyakov Gallery]

In these first few years of the 20th century, as the Tretyakov Magazine notes:

Art with its credo, “Beauty will save the world”, was again aspiring to beauty. Like other countries in Europe, Russia was looking for an unique national beauty and a national style with original roots reaching back to the Middle Ages and a source in folk art.

This idea leads us to the astonishing Beauty of Pavel Kuznetsov (1878-1968)’s Blue Rose work which is a poetic abstraction, and far less “haunted”…

The Blue Fountain [1905; Tretyakov Gallery]

There is a rhythm to the paint, a diaphanous glittering as the water cascades down. Water will make us think of Christenings and Baptisms… who are these figures placing a crown of flowers upon the child’s head?

The emphasis on blue – the colour of water and sky and infinite space – is a suggestion of transcendence.

Kuznetsov fellow-artist was the Armenian Martiros Saryan (1880-1972):

Fairy Lake [1905; Tretyakov]

Here, the blue inspires our fairy-imagination, but Sarayan would also bring an Eastern landscape and much stronger colour to the fore:

Enchantment of the Sun [1905]

“His use of paint is sensuous, and his colour bold. But there is also mystery” writes Camilla Gray. And it would be easy to recognise the links between the Blue Rose artists and the future work of Chagall and Kandinsky.

Certainly, all of these elements would soon be re-viewed in a new, pan-European context, as the Golden Fleece journal organised three historic exhibitions that combined post-Impressionist works and the Fauve artists of Paris with young, up-and-coming Russian artists, including Natalia Goncharova.

The effect would be a decade of extraordinary, rapid and quite brilliant experiment.



The Art and Artists of Russia (8): 1905 and The Blue Rose Group

I hope this has been of interest and if you are able to ‘donate’ it would be a great help, enabling me to continue this research programme on the art and artists of Russia – thank you!


Next time, on Saturday 1st May, we’ll follow Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes to Paris and London.

Until then take care and stay safe, Mark


Research series: The Art and Artists of Russia (7) – The Abramtsevo Art Colony

As we’ve been exploring over these last few ‘episodes’ of The Art and Artists of Russia, the Wanderers were very much part of the social revolution that was taking place in 19th century Russia: a century in which the cultural sensibility of Russia pivoted away from the elite and the ‘European’ ways of St Petersburg towards a recognition – especially after the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 – of a national Russian heritage: the landscape, its people, history and, indeed, contemporary life. This was all causing immense amounts of social and political turbulence, but the zeitgeist was very much in favour of the ‘peasant’ and the re-evaluation of native traditions, especially when it came to the arts.

Portrait of Savva Mamontov by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) [1897; Tretakov Gallery]

Elizaveta Mamontova Reading by Ilya Repin [1897]

These developments had a powerful impact on Savva (1841-1918) and Elizaveta Mamontov, a married couple who owned the Abramtsevo estate just to the north of Moscow. Savva, a millionaire businessman from a family involved in the pioneering work of railroad construction across Russia, was a great patron of the arts and artists, indeed he was a singer and sculptor himself. Like his wife, he was greatly influenced by the Wanderers’ programme of bringing art back to the people.

Elizaveta was deeply religious and extraordinarily forceful. On her insistence a hospital was built on the estate following a cholera epidemic that had spread through the surrounding population; then a school – the first in the region.

Elizaveta Mamontova is also credited as at least the inspiration behind the creation of matrioshki, Russian ‘nesting dolls’ –

Original matryoshka set by Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin [1892; Sergiev Posad Museum of Toys]

Alongside the school she also had a studio built, and it was this studio that would bring artists, composers, art critics and writers together into what became known as The Mamontov Circle or The Abramtsevo Art Colony. Under Elizaveta’s gaze, and with the knowledge and assistance of Elena Polenova, the studio would soon become a professional workshop in which traditional arts and crafts skills were revived in the production of furniture, ceramic tiles (Russian Majolica – see and fabrics that would then be sold through a shop in Moscow.

Majolica tiles with mythological sirin made for a bench by Mikhail Vrubel at Abramtsevo.

There is a website (in English) for Abramtsevo here; and a great article full of photographs in Russia Beyond here.

Yelena Polenova is a fascinating character, as an article in the Tretyakov Gallery Magazine tells:

“[she] was one of the pioneers of the national-romantic movement in Russian modern art and of the beginnings of symbolism. As an active member of the Mamontov circle of artists, she was among the founders of the museum of folk art at Abramtsevo, as well as the ceramics, woodwork and carving workshops there. Polenova was one of the first artists to turn to book illustrations — over a relatively short period of time, from the end of the 1880s to the 1890s, she created illustrations for and adapted more than 20 collections of Russian folk fairy tales and proverbs”.

Together, Elizaveta Mamontova and Yelena Polenova travelled across the country researching traditional folk crafts:

“In 1885 Polenova and Mamontova started enthusiastically studying folk art and collecting the best samples for the house museum in Abramtsevo. The artist wrote to the critic Vladimir Stasov about her passion: “As long as we could, we bought carved objects which we were able to find during our trips — salt cellars, boxes, donets, shveikas, rollers (spindles), linen rollers, spinning-wheels, beaters (swingles); front parts of carts and sleds; children’s wooden chairs and benches. I sketched or photographed larger objects, such as tables, hanging wall cabinets, arks, benches (mostly not the hanging kind but the ones that are built into the wall and are part of the inner architecture of the izba [peasant house in rural Russia].) Thus, we ended up with a rather inclusive collection at Abramtsevo, and a whole lot of notebooks with sketches and photographs.”

Wall with a door. Sketch of dining room design for M.F. Yakunchikova’s country house in Nara, Moscow region. (Polenov Museum) and Sketch of a table for the carpentry workshop in Abramtsevo (Vasnetsov Industrial and Art College) [both c/o Tretyakov Magazine]

I have to say I find all this fascinating, particularly the folk tradition of Russia distaffs used for spinning and separating wool. Beautifully carved and painted, they were traditionally given by men or boys to daughters and sisters. They’re as much works of art as they are practical tools…

Distaffs from the Ferapontov collection

Most famously, perhaps, the Abramtsevo artists designed and built the Church of the Saviour after a flood across the local district had prevented people from attending the Orthodox Easter Service. Artists and writers all set to on architectural and archaeological research, came up with plans, decided a scheme and then worked on building it.

The Church of the Saviour Not Made by Human Hand, [is] a miniscule church based on the medieval Novgorod designs. Inside the church are icons courtesy of Ilya Repin and Michael Nesterov, and the tiled stove and mosaic floor (in the shape of a blooming flower) are examples of Vrubel’s and Viktor Vasnetsov’s work respectively.

All of the work on the Abramtsevo Colony set off a wave of Arts & Crafts enthusiasm which immediately become “fashionable” and would have its effect, at the turn of the century, on the development of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and well as the avant garde paintings of Kandinsky and Goncharova.

One of the artists most closely aligned with the Abramtsevo colony though was Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926). From the St Petersburg Academy he became friends with Ivan Kramskoi, the leader of the Wanderers’ Movement, and Ilya Repin with whom he visited Paris.

And I just have to take a moment here to note this glorious painting made during that time in Paris 1876-7: “Acrobats. Festival in a Paris Suburb” which is on display at the Mikhailovsky Palace in St Petersburg.

Returning to Russia, Vasnetsov’s work became more closely aligned to the Wanderers and indeed the Abramtsevo aesthetic as his interests in Russian folklore, myth and fairytale grew.

Here, we see three of the most famous legendary bogatyrs, Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich in Victor Vasnetsov’s “Bogatyrs” [1898; Tretyakov Gallery].

The bogatyrs are the poetic heroes of the elite forces of Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015 (they’re akin to the medieval knight errant of Western European legend):

The most notable bogatyrs [are]… the trio of Alyosha Popovich, Dobrynya Nikitich and Ilya Muromets. Each of them tends to be known for a certain character trait: Alyosha Popovich for his wits, Dobrynya Nikitich for his courage, and Ilya Muromets for his physical and spiritual power and integrity, and for his dedication to the protection of his homeland and people. Most of the bogatyrs’ adventures are fictional, and often included fighting dragons, giants and other mythical creatures. However, the bogatyrs themselves were often based on real people. Historical prototypes of both Dobrynya Nikitich (the warlord Dobrynya) and Ilya Muromets are proven to have existed. [Wikipedia]

It’s of note too that The Bogatyr Gates is one of the episodes in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

My own favourite painting by Vasnetsov is:

The Flying Carpet [a depiction of the hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich; 1880; Nizhny Novgorod State Museum]

Ivan is the main hero of Russian folktales. He is almost always portrayed as either the third son of a peasant family or the third son of a king. The friends and foes of Ivan Tsarevich are often mythic figures, from magical animals to deathless beings.

What is so wonderful about the painting though is that whilst Ivan and the Flying Carpet are necessarily fictional, imaginary – here he is with the magical firebird – Vasnetsov makes the possibility so real as Ivan flies over a very naturalistic landscape. It just evokes, to me at least, a glorious sense of wonder (and I’ve always, always wanted to ride on a Flying Carpet!)

And here is another famous character from Russian folktale:

Baba Yaga [1917; The House Museum of Viktor Vasnetsov]

Baba Yaga may help or hinder those that encounter her or seek her out. She may play a maternal role and has associations with forest wildlife… Her depictions vary greatly across tales, ranging from a child-eating monster, to helping a protagonist find his missing bride.

Here, in Vasnetsov’s painting, we see Baba Yaga at her worst – kidnapping a child – as she flies through the forest in her mortar, the pestle sweeping behind her to remove any traces of her being there.

For a Baba Yaga story:

Now Baba Yaga traditionally lives in a hut built on chicken legs which returns us to the Abramtsevo Colony where Vasnetsov built just such a hut!


However, as it is the Easter weekend, it seems more appropriate to finish on another of Vasnetsov’s projects – the interior painting of St Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kiev/Kyiv.

Here again, Vasnetsov reflects the myth and legends of medieval Russia (aka Kiev Rus) when Vladimir the Great brought Christianity to Russia:

(left) Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir [1880; sketch for Vladimir Cathedral fresco; State Art Museum, Kyiv]

(right) The Baptism of Kyivans [1886, fresco, St Vladimir Cathedral]

Illarion Pryanishnikov (1840-1894) Easter Procession [1893; State Russian Museum]

The Orthodox Easter service is one of the most important religious festivals and, although I’m not sure if Kyiv is in lockdown, the usual service at St Vladimir’s would run something like this:

Easter Sunday morning in the Ukrainian tradition begins at sunrise. That is when the faithful arrive for Resurrection Services. The service before the Divine Liturgy consists of a procession which circles the church three times. The journey is made to symbolize the trip of the women to the tomb to anoint the Body of Christ on that first Easter morning. The makeup of the procession is similar to the one on Good Friday, led by a worshipper carrying the crucifix and altar boys using the kalatala (wooden clappers). Parish elders carry the Plaschenytsia (Holy Burial Shroud).

After the third passage, the procession stops in front of the church doors, which symbolize the impossibility of being able to enter the Kingdom of God before the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The priest sings the joyful Easter song “Khrystos Voskres” (“Christ is Risen”) the first time himself.  All of the faithful repeat the triumphant hymn a second time. Then, striking the doors of the church with the crucifix to open them, the priest begins “Khrystos Voskres” a third time, as the congregation joins in. This dramatic entrance reminds us that Heaven is now available to all because our Savior has conquered death with His death. All enter the church and the Divine Liturgy of Easter, the Great Day, begins.


Vasnetsov: Christ the Omnipotent [1886; St Vladimir’s Cathedral]


Next time:

The Art & Artists of Russia (8): 1905 and a Revolution in Art

will be published on Saturday 17th April



Russian Art & Artists (7) – Abramtsevo

If you have enjoyed this little article and are able to help fund ongoing research, do please donate! With many thanks in advance, Mark.


In the meantime: Happy Easter!


Research Series: Russian Art and Artists (6) – Ilya Yefimovich Repin

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) Self-portrait [1878; State Russian Museum]

As a fifteen-year-old teenager with a reputation for his drawing abilities, Ilya Repin was apprenticed to a local icon painter and was successful enough to establish himself as an independent, itinerant self-supporting young artist working on church and portrait commissions. However, the lure of St Petersburg and the Imperial Academy of Arts was too strong to resist and so the young man, with a portfolio of sketches under his arm and 40 roubles in his pocket left the isolated village of Chugaev and journeyed across Russia, arriving in the capital at a time of dramatic change.

Two years earlier, in 1861, one of the most radical changes in Russian society had come with the abolition of serfdom, releasing millions of peasants from bondage. And in 1863 – as Repin tried to find his feet in St Petersburg – the Revolt of the Fourteen art students took place, beginning the difficult process of opening the door to an independent art culture: the portraits of peasants, the Russian landscape and the great dramas of national history.

Initially rejected by the Academy, Repin enrolled on a preparatory course with Ivan Kramskoi – one of the Fourteen who, as we have seen previously, would become a founding figure of the Wanderers movement in 1871. Repin, therefore, finding success with a further application to the Academy in January 1864, would from the very start of his career have a foot in both camps, straddling the classical education and militarist environment of the conservative Academy and the Artel’s Thursday evening sketching club with its radical liberal debates on art and politics.

The effect of this ‘dual’ education was that Repin would try a number of different types of painting from ‘everyday’ genre to episodes from the Bible:

left: Preparation for the Examination [1864; State Russian Museum]

right: The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter [1871; State Russian Museum]

the result of which was, as the Tretyakov Magaine points out, that throughout his life Repin would be able to work on a number of really quite different paintings simultaneously.

The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter won Repin a travelling scholarship, an opportunity he would take up in 1873-6 spending time in Italy and France. Interestingly a painting from this time came up for auction at Christie’s ten years ago that hadn’t been seen since 1916:

A Parisian Café [1875; private; c/o Christie’s]

where there is a fascinating Lot Essay:

Repin met with a broad section of the Parisian intelligentsia (Turgenev introduced him to Zola) and he seems to have thrived in an atmosphere of cultural experimentation. In terms of subject alone A Parisian Café is one of the most interesting and uncharacteristic of Repin’s works, depicting the liberality and license of Paris… Following not so long after the aberrant selection of Manet’s Olympia (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 1863) for the 1865 Salon, Repin’s blatant depiction of an unaccompanied denizen of the Parisian demi-monde; bold, confident, unapologetic and, like Olympia, making brazen eye-contact with the viewer, is an exceptional piece of modern audacity from such a young painter.

That the picture would be shocking to a Parisian audience is as nothing to how ‘disreputable’ it would have been to Russian eyes – despite its academic style and finish. Certainly “A Parisian Café” is unique in Repin’s work, returning to Russia he would focus again on the national themes expected by the Wanderers artists. Yet, even within this remit, his works were often experimental.

The Wanderers’ leading ideologues were horrified when they heard news of Repin’s ‘French’ painting primarily because it was so distant from a picture he had exhibited in Russia before travelling abroad:

The Volga Boatmen, aka Barge Haulers on the Volga [1870-3; State Russian Museum]

The idea and ethics of the painting first stirred in 1869 when Repin witnessed barge haulers just outside St Petersburg on the River Neva. The men were filthy, dishevelled and worn out, whilst around them were stylish houses, orderly gardens and brightly-attired holiday-makers. Then, with a fellow-artist. Repin travelled down to the Volga to prepare the painting he had in mind, sketching the landscape and making both individual and group portraits of the fishermen, peasants and haulers.

The haulers are roped together in full exertion as they heave the boat up river and against the tide. The bright sky contrasts dramatically with their filthy clothes and bodies. The foreground into which the men lumber looks like a desert plain.

The dark, heaving mass of human beasts changes, as we look closer, into a group portrait of eleven individuals – all based on portrait sketches: this was one of the greatest shocks to the Academic viewers of the time, the realisation – in paint – of peasants (so recently serfs) as distinct characters – full frontal, up and personal, leaning as it were out beyond the painting and into the gallery space. It was a confrontation.

And note the youngest of the men, he is caught in light at the centre of the group, his look is outwards, seemingly beyond the moment and the situation in which he finds himself.

The Academics saw the painting as a profanation that art in all its glory should be used for such an irreverent subject, indeed representing barge-haulers in such an iconic way, at the heart of a St Petersburg exhibition. No doubt many a guilty landowner was shocked at the affront. It was so political.

These were the years when the “To the People” movement was underway, in which intellectuals and students were spending time out in the rural regions of Russia hoping to raise political consciousness amongst the masses. This was dangerous.

A second huge canvas by Repin was exhibited ten years after Barge Haulers, again it was controversial in its address to the spectrum of Russian society. According to the Tretyakov Gallery website, Repin wrote: “I apply all my feeble forces to try to give true incarnation to my ideas; the life around me preoccupies me a great deal and gives me no peace – it begs to be captured on canvas…”

Religious Procession in Kursk Province [1880-3; Tretyakov Gallery]

The panorama of Russian society taking an Easter procession has at the forefront, just to the right, a miracle-working icon “Our Lady of Kursk” carried in a gilded and beribboned casement. The crowd comes from all echelons of life – peasants and priests, landowners and merchants, men and women, the well-dressed and the beggared. The priest seems strangely separate amidst the procession in his fine robes. At the very centre is a wealthy, aristocratic landowner’s wife, carrying her own golden icon; alongside her is an apparently drunken man, possibly a tax collector. There are various men on horseback to control the crowds, some are peasants, some in police uniform – note the man in a white uniform just behind the icon, he is about to lash someone with his whip.

“Depicted here is not just a stream of people, but the flow of life” – write Grigorii Stenin and Jelena Kirillina in their monograph The Creative World of Ilya Repin – “a life bereft of joy, full of profound contradictions, social hostility and inequality, but a life that never stops moving for a moment.”

That hostility seems to extend to the landscape as well: the procession is taking place in an extraordinarily dry, dusty and barren setting; indeed, one can pick out the stumps of trees. Repin is commenting on the destruction of the forests. On a trip to his home village, he had written: “Houses and fences seem to have sunk into the earth as if in a deep sleep… Only the exploiters of the land are not sleeping. They have cut down my beloved woods, so full of childhood memories.” This was ecological exploitation and Repin brings it into the painting as if to reflect the stunted life of rural Russia more broadly.

And notice the boy with the crutch to the left, he’s almost as far forward as the icon, leading the peasant crowd full of his own energy and determination, pushing forward despite his disability as as if he has a spiritual compulsion. He reminds us, surely, of the young man in the Barge Haulers.

Other paintings by Ilya Repin are less epic, but aim to reveal multiple aspects of Russian life. One is particularly joyous:

Vechornytsi [“Evening Party”, 1881; Tretyakov Gallery]

It’s an Autumn evening and villagers have gathered together after a day out in the field to feast, play music and dance: a delicious, iconic Russian scene

But it’s Repin’s paintings of the developing political struggle in society to which I’m particularly drawn, as they are such unique visual records. As Yekaterina Scherbakova writes in the Tretyakov Magazine: “Ilya Repin was keenly sensitive to the reformist context of his time, and reflected the political nuances of Russian society in a number of his most important paintings…”

Arrest of a Propagandist [1878, Tretyakov Gallery]

This reflects the To the People campaign. A politically-empowered student has gone out into the countryside to ‘enlighten’ the people and preach reform. However, his judgement has misfired; the peasants were often very conservative in their views and suspicious of outsiders, and one of them has reported him. Here, in the first version of the painting, the student’s papers and leaflets are all over the floor. He has been tied to a post as everyone stands around looking at him waiting for the authorities.

Arrest of a Propagandist [1892; Tretyakov Gallery]

In the second version here, the villagers have mostly dispersed; the police are now in control and the well-to-do – the local landowners perhaps – are scrutinising the seditious leaflets.

Repin’s sympathies seem very much with the student and his failed idealism. Indeed the To the People campaign was failing altogether as rural communities rejected the politics and – after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 – due to the increased vigilance of the state.

It is impossible though not to see the student, bound to the post, as an echo of Christ on the Cross.

The Secret Meeting [1883; Tretyakov Gallery]

This extraordinary painting wasn’t exhibited until 1897, and even then under the title “By Lamplight”. It shows a meeting of the People’s Will party – one of the more extreme elements of the To the People movement: it was a party member who threw the bomb that killed Alexander II.

Again, the man leaning across the table, as if making his point, has a significantly Christ-like demeanour.

An apparently quite different painting is:

They Did Not Expect Him [1884; Tretyakov Gallery]

The arrival of the man comes as something of a surprise to the family; one of the women – his wife? his sister – jumps up, the ties on her bonnet undone suggesting she hadn’t expected anyone. The gaunt expression on the man’s face seems to be one of fearfulness – will she accept or reject him? His muddy boots and heavy cloak suggest that he has been walking for a long time, over a long distance, to get there. At the table the children are also surprised: the boy excited; the girl rather shy and uncertain. In the background another woman also looks surprised whilst the maid looks in through the door to see what’s going to happen, another behind her peeks in to see the drama.

Who is he? A political exile. He is bringing the struggles of society at large – insurrection and imprisonment – here right into the domestic, family room.

And what is particularly fascinating is that this is one version of the picture. Another is:

They Did Not Expect Her [1883; Tretyakov Gallery]

Women had been involved increasingly in the radical politics of the time; indeed the ‘Woman Question’ and liberation was central to many of the debates, polemics and manifestos of the time.

All Repin’s paintings that took the politics of the day as subject matter were potentially hazardous with regard to censorship, but there is one particularly extraordinary picture:

Painted in the 1880s, but not exhibited until the 1890s – and then under different titles – this picture was ‘lost’ until the mid1950s and only came up for auction in 2008 at Christies who declare it to have “explosive content” as it is thought to depict the terrorist Vera Figner in prison. Christie’s continues:

The work… is a testimony to the artist’s famed engagement with contemporary politics and his need to elaborate on such themes and ideas… anticipating that the work’s full import might be exposed in posterity. This work therefore is a rare and important document not only on Repin’s loyalty to this most difficult of themes, but also of his awareness of the increasing political and social involvement of women, something which few of his contemporaries acknowledged, understood or dared to address. It is also, within the artist’s oeuvre, a singular and exceptional work of great cultural significance, the re-emergence of which is a significant event for Russian art history.

In seeking to portray contemporary life and society in late 19th century Russia then, Ilya Repin daringly took up themes that could have seen him sent to Siberia, his career shattered.

Yet there are numerous other elements to his life and oeuvre, one of which we’ll investigate next time: his involvement with the art colony at Abramtsevo.

“Russian Art & Artists (7): Abramtsevo – Arts, Crafts & Folk Tales” will be published on Saturday 3rd April

Russian Art and Artists (6) – Ilya Repin

As always I am extremely grateful if you have enjoyed this piece and are able occasionally to ‘donate’ to the research fund!


Further research:

For further reading, do please investigate the articles on Repin published by the Tretyakov Magazine – so very interesting:

  1. Repin and the Eternal Themes of Human Existence by Galina Churak
  2. Repin as a Mirror of ‘The People’s Will’ by Yekaterina Scherbakova

and although I’ve only scanned this paper from the University of Amsterdam, it looks good:

Rethinking the Revolutionary: Ilya Repin’s Convicted Revolutionaries in the Light of their Time” by Julia van Zandvoort

Until next time! All best wishes, Mark

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:


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)

If you are able to ‘donate’ to help continue this research I would be hugely grateful! Many thanks and all best wishes, Mark



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.



The Art and Artists of Russia (Part 2): Catherine the Great

View of St Petersburg and the Neva River (1753)

Continuing our introduction to Russian art, the Russian 18th century was particularly turbulent when it came to monarchs. Peter the Great died in 1725, leaving the legacy of the St Petersburg project. His wife, Catherine I, took over for a couple of years; then his son, Peter II ruled, again for just a few years. A rather dissipated and resentful young man by all accounts, he even moved the Russian capital back to Moscow, so dismissive was he of his father’s projects.

The decade-long rule of Anna (1730-1740) brought a little more stability, though apparently she was extremely cruel. However, she did turn the focus back to St Petersburg, introducing the Arts to the curriculum of the Academy of Science and instigating fashions for theatre, ballet and opera – mind, this ‘history painting’ made nearly a century and a half later in 1872 by Valery Jakobi conjures up the ‘bawdiness’ of Anna’s court.

Valery Jakobi (1834-1902): Jesters at the Court of Empress Anna [1872; Treyakov Gallery]

Her successors Ivan VI and Anna Leopoldova reigned for less than a year before Elizabeth Petrovna seized the throne, ruling for twenty years (1741-1762). Described as “volatile, vain and violent”, Elizabeth was nevertheless a popular monarch, ushering in an Age of Enlightenment. It was in her reign that the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage) was built for example. A music-lover, she also held grand ‘fancy dress’ balls. Most spectacular were the ‘Metamorphoses Balls’ which required everyone to dress as the opposite sex, Elizabeth favouring the guise of either a Cossack or a carpenter (if only there were photographs!).

It was her relationship (in every sense of the word) with the art collector Ivan Shuvalov that is perhaps most important to us for, in 1757, Shuvalov proposed the establishment of the Academy of Three Noble Arts (Painting, Sculpture and Architecture) for all gifted boys from any part of society.

A. Zyablov: View of Ivan Shuvalov’s Art Gallery [1770s; c/o Wikipedia]

As can be seen from this picture, Shuvalov’s collection was very much of European art. We noted last time that Peter the Great would send promising artists to Italy, Holland or France to study, even if they were serfs*. One young man, we saw, was Ivan Nikitin who had painted Elizabeth Petrovna in her youth.

Ivan Nikitin: Portrait of the Young Elizabath [1720s; State Russian Museum]

Fyodor Rokotov (1736-1808) was also from a peasant/serf family but he would study at St Petersburg’s Academy of Three Noble Arts, becoming one of the most famous and in-demand portraitists of the century.

Fyodor Rokotov: Lady in a Pink Dress [1770s; Tretyakov Gallery]

Elizabeth Petrovna certainly increased the status of art in Russia. She was succeeded by Peter III, who, within months, was deposed and murdered (probably) on instruction from his wife: Catherine II. Styled as Catherine the Great, she would rule from 1762-1796 as the most successful, innovative and cultured ruler since her grandfather-in-law, Peter. As Susan Jacques writes in her introduction to “The Empress of Art”,

“Catherine the Great was one of history’s greatest patrons of art and architecture, both in scale and quality. Under her patronage, Russia experienced a cultural renaissance the likes of which Europe hadn’t seen since the reign of England’s Charles I.”

Valery Jakobi: The Inauguration of the Imperial Academy of Arts [1889; Louvre]

Under Catherine, Shuvalov’s school became the Imperial Academy of Arts (its inauguration would be represented again a century later by Yakobi), and Fyodor Rokotov would be made an Academician, and one of Catherine’s portrait painters:

Fyodor Rokotov: Portrait of Catherine the Great [1763; Tretyakov Gallery]

Portraits such as these would be copied, reproduced in engravings, and used as source material for further portraits; they were symbols of monarchy, majesty and power and consequently sent out to be displayed throughout the Russian Empire and, indeed Europe.

Another Russian artist of note was Alexei Antropov (1716-1795), the son of a government official, who worked as a fresco-painter in palaces and churches alongside studying portraiture. He too would portray Catherine in all her finery of state.

Alexei Antropov: Portrait of Catherine the Great [1760s; Tretyakov Gallery]

Portraiture was definitely the genre of choice for the monarchy and aristocracy through the Russian 18th century and how suitable for the people of St Petersburg – surrounded by waterways and canals across the city, and mirrored interiors in their grand houses, portraits were yet another reflection of their status as ‘new Russians’. The majority of artists working and teaching in Russia did, however, still came from abroad; Europe was understood throughout the age of Catherine as the crucible of civilisation and culture. And perhaps nowhere, and no-one, makes that more obvious than Catherine’s art collection at the Hermitage.

As with portraiture, so an art collection was a symbol of power and prestige, which Catherine recognised in her first mass purchase in 1764: the collection of Frederick the Great of Prussia which included:

Frans Hals: Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Glove [c. 1650; Hermitage]

Catherine turned committedly to the study of art, reading deeply, conversing by letter to Voltaire, and sending agents out across Europe to spend huge amount of money on ‘ready-made’ art collections from Paris, Holland and beyond.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio): Danae [c. 1554; Hermitage]

Notably for those of us in the UK perhaps, the Walpole Collection (see Houghton Hall Revisited] was a particularly esteemed purchase as it included a number of works by Rubens.

Rubens: Landscape with Stone Carriers [c.1620; Hermitage]

[It is possible to ‘visit’ the Rubens room virtually via the Hermitage, just click: here]

 “When [Catherine] died in 1796, Russia’s imperial collection boasted some 4,000 Old Master paintings, 10,000 drawings, 10,000 engraved gems, and thousands of decorative objects” notes Jacques.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn: Young Woman with Earrings [1657; Hermitage]

It’s also important to note that alongside the Old Masters, Catherine also collected contemporary art, such as Joseph Wright of Derby’s “The Iron Forge Viewed from Without” [1773, Hermitage].

The Hermitage website says: “This was the first English painting to enter the Hermitage when it was acquired by Catherine the Great in 1774. We do not know how it was that Catherine had heard of the talent of this artist who was still so little known in his own country, but this purchase characterizes her as a perspicacious collector.”

Moreover, Catherine commissioned work from some of the most famous and leading artists of the day, including Angelica Kauffmann,

Portrait of Countess Anna Protasova and her Nieces [1788; Hermitage]

(a portrait created by means of sketches sent from Russia), and Joshua Reynolds who chose to paint

“The Infant Hercules Slaying Serpents” [1789; Hermitage]

as a symbolic reference to the power of the Russian nation. Catherine was, apparently, not very impressed upon seeing her great Empire portrayed, even symbolically, as a baby! She’d probably have been even less impressed if she’d known: “Reynolds experimented with paints and techniques and the surface of the painting began to show signs of physical distortion and changing colouring even in the 18th century” (Hermitage).

She even “summoned” – as Susan Jacques put it – the British painter Richard Brompton to St Petersburg for “he has great talents”, Catherine wrote after he had portrayed her beloved grandsons.

Richard Brompton “Portrait of Grand Dukes Alexander Pavlovich and Constantin Pavlovich” [1781; Hermitage]

Another artist who came to St Petersburg, this time fleeing the French Revolution, was Elizabeth Vigee le Brun who stayed for six years. Meeting Catherine the day after her arrival, she reports the monarch declaring:

“I am delighted, madam, to see you here; your reputation has preceded you. I am fond of the arts, especially painting. I am no connoisseur, but I am a great art lover.”

Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun: Portrait of Princess Galitzin [1797; Baltimore Museum of Art]

Vigee Le Brun painted numerous notable portraits of Catherine’s Court (see Gazette de Beaux Arts article) bringing striking colour and a romantic, even sensual aspect to Russian portraiture (sometimes too sensual for the increasingly prudish Catherine!).  

One of the last paintings of Catherine herself was by the Ukrainian artist Vladimir Borovikovsky (1757-1825).

Catherine II during a walk in the Tsarskosyelsky Park [1794; Tretyakov Gallery]

Catherine thought it too informal, but it became hugely popular for its Rococo flair, and widely copied.

Catherine the Great died in 1796, her son Paul taking power – a ruthless, much-disliked Tsar but who, nevertheless inherited a love of art and collecting. However, he would be murdered in 1801, and Catherine’s mantle passed to Alexander I.

A new century had dawned.



We’ll discuss the situation of the serfs more fully at a later date. From Wikipedia: The term “serf”, in the sense of an unfree peasant of tsarist Russia, an unfree person who could be sold.


Our “book of the week” just has to be “The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia” by Susan Jacques [Pegasus Books, 2017] which is brilliant: very well written; easy to read, and absolutely packed with research and information.

The Art and Artists of Russia (Part 2)

Thank you so much if you are able to contribute.


Next time:

On Saturday 6th February, we’ll enter the 19th century: the turbulent times of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” to see how the war against Napoleon would lead to a student revolt at the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Until then: take care and stay safe!


Interlude: Russian Impressionism – to brighten the day!


As all the galleries across the world are closed, it’s the online ‘exhibitions’ that come to the fore – not that many of us could just pop over to Moscow even in usual times! But this is just a quick note to direct anyone following my little “Art & Artists of Russia” articles that there are some glorious paintings on the Russian Impressionism Museum website: the English version is at Collection – Russian impressionism museum (

My favourite painting (today!) from the Museum is “Little Church at Abramtsevo” painted by Valentina Diffine-Christi (sometimes Valentina Mikhailovna Diffine-Kristi) in 1953 [website link].

The picture is radiant with sunlight; the brushstrokes so loose and free with paint and colour, that it would be so satisfying to relate its expressiveness to the broader context: 1953 was the year that Stalin died.

Even if that’s not the case, the painting certainly looks back to a previous time. The Abramtsevo estate had been a vibrant and radical artists colony in the 19th century – a community that included perhaps the most famous pre-Revolution artist, Ilya Repin, and artists from the Wanderers movement who excelled in depictions of the Russian landscape such as Konstantin Korovin whose impressionism – inspired by trips to Paris, where he would settle permanently in 1923 – is a direct antecedent of “Little Church”. Here’s his painting “Yalta” from the 1910s (also at the Russian Impressionism Museum [website link]).


Hoping this might have brightened your day!


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.