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Art History

Russian Art
End of 18th - First Half of 19th centuries.
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

The various stylistic trends of development, typical for this period, were given expression in landscape painting. Landscape, of course, had always occupied a place of prominence in Russian art; in prints, printings on historical themes, murals and decorative panels. But with the 18th century sentimentalists’ cult of nature, landscapes were later developed by romanticists, this engaged even more of painters’ attention. Landscape painting became an independent branch towards the end of the 18th century.

Out of the famous names of the period, Fyodor Matveyev (1758-1826), embodied traditional heroic ideals of classicism with its penchant for the “eternal” beauty of antiquity, in epic imagery in which the scenery and architecture of Ancient Rome is interpreted. In “A View of Rome. The Coliseum” (1816) at the Tretyako, balanced symmetrical composition creates an impression of solemn calm. Wide spatial views are distinctly alternated, clear drawing emphasizes the dimensions of the Coliseum, and the comparative tiny size of humans seem to magnify the impressiveness of this edifice, one of the largest in its day and truly timeless.

The war of 1812 left an imprint on the development of art. The war created a mighty upsurge of patriotic sentiments in all strata of Russian society, and brought to view the glaring contradiction between the historical role of the people who had forced Napoleonic armies to withdraw from Russia accepting defeat, and their utter lack of rights in conditions of serfdom. This caused a new wave of emancipatory feelings, climaxing in the Decemberists’ uprising against the autocracy. In spite of the ruthless reprisals taken against the insurgents by Nicolas I , the ideas of struggle against the existing order were taken up and developed in various forms by the Russian democratic movement of the 1830s and the 1840s. Progressive-minded artists wanted to know more about people and contemporary reality. These principles were formed in the struggle against the narrow-mindedness of academism, which, once a motive power of progress, had become a hindrance to the further development of national art towards the mid-19th century.

The new ideas of personality, nurtured in romantic sentiments and developing in the first three decades of the 19th century, were most expressively embodied in the portraits painted by Orest Kiprensky (1782-1836).

Unlike the classicists who affirmed a serene harmony of a personality’s mind and will, and unlike the sentimentalists with their idyllic day-dreaming, Kiprensky accentuated the uniqueness of his heroes’ emotional world. They were people moved by passions and noble impulses, they had the inspiration of poetic natures that raised them above the everyday life.

The Portrait of Alexander Pushkin (1827), painted in a severe and clear manner, typical for Kiprensky’s mature work, is the best ever done in the poet’s lifetime. Pushkin’s enlightened heart and mind, and his profound inner concentration are rendered with great subtlety. The dignity of the colors, and the measured rhythm of the lines enhance the loftiness of the image.

Another outstanding name is Vassili Tropinin (1776-1857). A serf painter, he did not receive his freedom until the age of 46, when he already was a well-known master. As a freeman he settled in Moscow and lived here for the rest of his life. In his early youth Tropinin had studied at the Academy of Arts, but did not finish the course, because on learning about his popularity his owner ordered him back for fear of losing a private serf painter. Tropinin worked prolifically in Moscow in the 1820s-1830s painting a great number of people from different strata of society – the old Moscow nobility, the merchant class and famous writers and artists. His paintings of the common people – serf peasants and manor serfs – chosen from among his numerous relatives and even more numerous friends bespeak a warmth of sincere feeling.

From the large collection of Tropinin's works on display at the Tretyakov Gallery, one might single out the portrait of his son (1818) and his self portrait.

Tropinin gradually evolved a new type of portrait, in which the individuality of the sitter was toned down as it were; the features common to that type of person were emphasized, and details of everyday life were introduced to augment the characterization. An example is the “Lace-maker” (1823) – a slightly sentimental and cozy picture of a sweet working girl shown in a silvery light.

A major phenomenon in Russian art was Karl Bryllov (1799-1852) whose vivid, spirited paintings, executed with consummate skill, were a rapturous paean to beauty. After graduating from the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg with top honours, Bryllov went to Italy where his ardent admiration of antique models made him reconsider the conventional concepts of beauty instilled in him since childhood by academic dogmas. It was in Italy that he painted ‘The Last Day of Pompei’ (1830-1833), which brought him European fame. In that same period, Karl Bryllov painted ‘A Lady on Horseback’ (1832) – one of his masterpieces. It portrays Giovanni Paccini, an Italian young lady, with her little sister who were brought up by the Russian countess Yulia Samoilova. The excellence of the composition, the ornateness of the glorious colour scheme; everything in the painting affirms the beauty of life, youth and carefree happiness.

In his later work, especially in the portraits of writers and artists who were close to him in spirit, the characterization acquires depth and a distinct individuality. Bryllov's self portrait (1828) is a masterpiece of portraiture.

The work of Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858) is distinguished for the loftiness and perfection of the images, and the tremendous impact of the moral and philosophical message they carry. Ivanov was a confirmed believer in the civic mission of art and in its ability to enlighten and improve society with utopian idealism.

After finishing the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, Alexander Ivanov went to Italy for twenty years, where he worked on a picture “Christ's Appearance to the People” whose very size is huge – 5.4 x 7.5 metres. In his painting, Ivanov embodied his passionate desire for a complete reorganization of human principles, his hope and faith in freedom and a better future for the Russian people.

Ivanov interprets the Gospel scene in a novel way, not traditionally as a miracle, but as a real event in the ancient history of Palestine when it was ruled by Rome. At the same time he stresses the symbolic character of the scene, regarding the moment as a turning point in the spiritual development of mankind, a conversation of the ideals of Christian morality, and the beginning of a new life.

In this masterly composed scene, the artist shows the reaction of the people to John the Baptist's announcement that the one coming down to them is Christ, the Messiah. One of the important figures is the slave who is about to hand his master his clothes. The face of the long-suffering slave, whose attitude is habitually humble, glows with hope, with an awakening sense of his human dignity.

Ivanov paved the road for the very different and very important journeys of such outstanding 19th century painters as Nikolai Ghe, Vassili Surikov, Mikhail Vrubel, and others. Alexander Ivanov's painting ‘Christ's Appearing to the People’ was the peak of Russian late classicism, and at the same time proof that historically it had outlived itself.

Alexei Venetsianov (1780-1847) was another champion of the new tendencies in Russian art. He started out as a portraitist, but in the 1820s-1830s was considered an unexcelled master of genre painting. In his not very large pictures, truthful and ingenuous, done in soft bright colors, he painted scenes from the life of the peasantry rendering the images with a sincere warmth of understanding. It was, in fact, Venestianov who established the peasant theme, rarely presented before, in national art. He painted his personages against the background of Russian scenery, and was one of the founders of the lyrical Russian landscape.

Pavel Fedotov (1815-1852), an officer who renounced a military career for that of a painter, died in his prime at 37, but the work he did do in the few years he dedicated himself to painting was of exceptional significance for the development of art. It was Fedotov who started the school of critical realism in Russia, which was to become the main trend in the second half of the 19th century painting. He believed in ‘learning from life’ and embodied his great store of observation in vivid, humorous scenes, and small but perfectly executed portraits.

One of Fedotov's greatest achievements was ‘Matchmaking’ (1848). We see the dining-room of a merchant class house and a happy, flustered, family – no wonder, a nobleman, an officer has sought their daughter's hand. Fedotov brings into prominence the main characters of the story: the embarrassed girl dressed up for a ball, and the over confident Major who has decided to get out of the hole he is in by marrying money. As if in a comic pantomime the characters disclose their individualities by pose, gesture, mime and general behavior. The details of the room give a deeper insight into the situation and sharpen the viewer's appreciation of the artist's biting criticism of contemporary society.

The experience of the first half of the 19th century prepared Russian art for a new stage of development in the 1850s.

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