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Gallery Goer

Russian Art: 18th century
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

G. Golovkin “Portrait of I. Nikitin” 1720

The 18th century marked a unique stage in the history of Russian art, brought about by the rapid transformation of Russia into a great European power. In advanced circles of society lofty concepts were formed of man as an active entity, and this found its reflection in portraiture, which became the leading new genre in painting during the reign of Peter the Great.

One of the first Russian painters to master the techniques of realist art was Ivan Nikitin (circa 1690-1742). He resolutely renounced the formality and the conventional flatness of the 17th century, the then popular style, producing several life-like portraits of his contemporaries. Peter the Great thought highly of the young artist and sent him to Italy to perfect his skill. Apparently the portrait of count Golovkin, an experienced diplomat, who held the office of Chancellor, was painted by Nikitin upon his return to Russia some time in the 1720s. The portrait, done in severe colors with dark, rich shades, is a character study of a strongwilled and sagacious statesman.

Nikitin’s work is a highly individual, creative interpretation of the experience of modern painting.

The work of Fyodor Rokotov (1735- 1808) established a poetic principle in Russian portrait painting, affirming the beauty of inspired images and the elegant freedom of genuine skill. Rokotov opened a brilliant chapter in Russian portraiture of the second half of the 18th century.

D. Levitsky “Portrait of P. Demidov” 1773

The Academy of Arts was founded in 1757 as a school, and at the same time as an institution through which the state exercised its guidance of art in the country. Classicism became the prevailing trend; they affirmed the ideas of patriotic valor and the moral staunchness of man obedient to the call of reason and his civic duty. The historical genre was considered the most important one in the Academy. Anton Losenko (1737-1773) was a prominent Russian classical painter. One of his best works is the unfinished picture on a subject from Homer “Hector’s Parting From Andromache.”

Genre paintings were very rare in the 18th century, and so the more interesting is Ivan Firsov’s “Young Painter” (circa 1765), while paintings on the subject of Russian peasant life were even rarer. If peasants were portrayed at all, it was usually a peaceful and happy pastoral scene with pretty village maidens dancing in a ring against the background of their master’s mansion. As an exception to the rule are the two remarkable pictures by Mikhail Shibanov, the “court painter” of Prince Potyomkin, an outstanding statesman and a favourite of Catherine II. His keenness of observation and intimate knowledge of the people are well manifested in his painting “Celebrating a Marriage Contract” (1777) where the characters are Suzdal peasants.

V. Borovikovskytsy “Maria Lopukhina” 1797

The emergence of Dmitry Levitsky (1735-1822) was a major event in Russian 18th century art. A versatile artist, Levitsky painted a magnificent gallery of splendid portraits of people from different strata of society. One of his well-known works is a portrait of P. Demidov (1773), the biggest proprietor of mining and metallurgical enterprises in the Urals.

The last 18th century portrait master was Vladimir Borovikovskytsy (1757- 1825). His most famous portrait in the Tretyakov is that of Maria Lopukhina (1797), with its idyllic mood and poetry. The formal portraits of Prince Kurakin (circa1801), which adorned the palace of this powerful courtier of the Tsar Pavel I, summed up the achievements of 18th century art. It is impressively resplendent and immensely decorative, while even the smallest detail is perfect and brings out the individuality of the sitter.

One more famous name is Ivan Martos (1754-1835), the leading representative of Russian classicism. Although mainly a monumentalist, his smaller works are equally worthy, for example, the tombstone for Princess Volkonskaya (1782). The image of grief is stern and imposing in its noble simplicity. Sculptured tombstones became a custom in Russia only towards the end of the 18th century, and Ivan Martos made a valuable contribution to the development of this form of art.

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