The Russian School of Painting/Chapter III
< The Russian School of Painting
Revision as of 14:33, 22 May 2014 by EncycloPetey (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Chapter II
The Russian School of Painting by Alexandre Benois, translated byAvrahm Yarmolinsky
Chapter III.
Chapter IV
T is customary to apply the somewhat vague and nebulous term Romanticism to the singular efflorescence of European thought which occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century. The materialistic philosophy of the eighteenth century was superseded by an enthusiasm for mysticism, poetry, and religion; the rigid ideals of neo-classical art gave way to a thirst for uncouth sincerity, for "beautiful ugliness"; the cult of the line was supplanted by the unrestrained worship of colour. In literature, Schiller, Hoffmann, Byron, Shelley, Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Musset, Th. Gautier eclipsed the glory of Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot; in music, Beethoven, Schubert and Weber overshadowed the austerely classical Glück, and the fascinating Haydn and Mozart; in painting, Géricault, Delacroix, Decamp, and the Nazarenes diverted the universal attention from infinite repetitions of the patterns of classical beauty.
In Russia, the Romantic movement found an unexpectedly loud echo, but this was confined almost
completely to literature. Young Russian literature—it made its appearance under Elizabeth—presently found itself represented by men who could compare favourably with the greatest European talents. Russian letters at one proud, easy sweep soared up to the highest summit of Western culture, but neither Russian life as a whole nor particularly Russian art, was able to keep pace with literature. The fabulous precocity of Russian literature can be explained by the fact that during the long reign of Catherine II the higher class of society achieved a remarkable degree of refinement and culture. With the exception of Krylov and Koltzov, that period did not produce any great literary talents or call forth any valuable creative efforts outside of the aristocracy, or the nobility, in general. But, while the ranks of the writers were filled from the higher classes, Russian artists, on the contrary, were recruited from the middle and lower classes, which at that time possessed very little culture. Small wonder that the artist could not come up to the level of such profound and mighty representatives of Russian literature as were Pushkin, Gogol, Zhukovsky, Lermontov and the pleiad of the minor poets, known as the "Pushkin Group."
The origin of our best artists was lowly: Kiprensky and Tropinin were serfs, Varnek's father was a cabinet-maker, Alexander Ivanov was the son of a
foundling, etc. This fact laid its seal on their entire life, and its effect could not be removed by either the Academy, or the French language, dancing lessons, and all the drilling and schooling they went through.
The stream of outside life could not penetrate beyond the high hermetically sealed walls of the Academy. At home,—the stifling atmosphere of middle-class vulgarity and coarseness; at school,—the arid and merciless grind of a rigid education. Men moulded by such an existence could not walk hand in hand with the inspired creators of Russian literature, who absorbed both the exquisite culture of the eighteenth century and the passionate striving for spiritual regeneration which seized aching humanity after the French Revolution. Only those among the alumni of the Academy who, owing to their foreign origin, possessed a culture superior to that of their Russian comrades, created something beautiful and daring. Such was the case of Bruni and Bryullov. As for Alexander Ivanov, the greatest of this generation of gifted artists, he succeeded in freeing himself from the influence of his surroundings only after many years spent abroad, when it was already too late, on the very eve of his death.
And yet, despite its secondary position as compared to literature, Russian painting, in the first half of the
nineteenth century, went through a period of efflorescence, which has not, since, repeated itself. Despite the trammels of the Academy, the lack of culture among the artists, and their humble position in society, despite the vagueness of their aspirations and the eternal compromise between the impulses of the mind divided between the general movement and the scholastic precepts,—despite all this, there rests on these Russian artists the reflection of Romanticism, and all of them, unconscious, weak, and bewildered, as they often were, are nevertheless true children of their time.
The series of these masters of the Romantic period begins with Kiprensky, who, despite his serf origin, is in artistic temperament one of the most truly aristocratic of Russian artists. Of course, Kiprensky's personality is not so clear, pronounced, and significant as those of some French masters, his contemporaries and brothers in spirit. It is nevertheless true that Kiprensky was drawn irresistibly to what it is customary to call Romanticism,—at least, to some of its characteristic aspects. Neither the Academy nor our bureaucratic society, indifferent to problems of art, was able to check this impulse. Regardless of the example of Ugryumov, Yegorov and Shebuyev, Kiprensky took a greater interest in the old colourists, than in the cold, white plaster-of-Paris casts. Colour was his main
concern; he preferred it to drawing. Yet, education is second nature. The Academy inoculated him not only with a practical knowledge of drawing, but also with a theoretical cult of it. This combination of a natural inclination for colour with a thorough scholastic training could have produced the most felicitous result,—that is, a truly great master, had only Kiprensky known toward what aim to direct his powers.
His misfortune consisted in that, though a possessor of great knowledge, he did not know what to apply it to. That is why his portraits are his best achievement, the most inspired and original part of his work. Here the subject-matter is supplied by nature, yet, strange as it may appear, he is freer in his portraits than in his "free" compositions, which his academic education taught him to approach with a stock of superannuated, dead ideas and patterns. Naturally, his best portraits are the portraits of himself, where his clients' demands were not in his way and where he could give free rein to his colouristic impulses. There exists a great number of these self-portraits, and none of them resembles the other,—a manifest proof that Kiprensky, like Rembrandt, was interested not so much in resemblance as in colour effects. The most curious ones are the two likenesses in the collection of E. G. Schwarz, which came originally from the collection of Tomilov, the
patron and friend of many artists of the early nineteenth century. A gloomy, greenish tone, glaring light with deep shadows, which lend Kiprensky's good-natured face an enigmatic and weird air, mellow colours laid on thickly, somewhat slipshod drawing,—all this betrays the fact that the artist was not greatly moved by the lucidity and transparence preached by Winkelmann.
In other portraits Kiprensky is more sober, probably in order to please his clients, yet he is ever overflowing with life and passion. With the exception of his last works, Kiprensky's canvases are never dull. In the portraits of Denis Davydov and in his incomparable numerous drawings of the heroes of the Fatherland War (with Napoleon, 1812) there lives a vivid reflection of that turbulent and beautiful epoch. In his portraits of ladies Kiprensky rendered the somewhat studied sweetness and the poetic delicacy of the fair readers of Karamzin[1] and Mrs. Radcliffe. Even his portraits of venerable and heavy statesmen arrayed in stern surtouts and propped with huge frills, owe to a magnificent combination of colour tones a certain agreeable softness and a great artistic value. Unfortunately, Kiprensky's career was just the reverse of that of similarly gifted
Western masters. He began with bold and vital works, but little by little he grew stiff and lifeless. This change was undoubtedly furthered by his life in Rome, which he visited twice, in 1816 and in 1826, and where he died in 1836. In spite of his passionate temperament and his astonishing love of adventure, in spite of his fantastic romance, which resulted in his marriage with his own adopted daughter, Kiprensky was transformed, in Rome, into a pedantic, at times even a commonplace, worker. In the very heyday of Romanticism Rome was still the centre of classical theories which had already served their time in other countries. In the years which saw the creation of Delacroix's "Dante and Virgil," Rome still believed in the exclusive worth of the classics and of the rigid line; and, of course, the alumnus of the Petrograd Academy, the son of the house-steward Adam Schwalbe,[2] was not the man to set at naught this doctrine. On the contrary, it took hold of him, made him seek "more dignified subjects" than portraits, and bade him ignore "frivolous colour."
Together with Kiprensky there must be mentioned the Pole, Orlovsky (1777–1832), who came to Petrograd early in the nineteenth century, after a whole series of adventures, such as a duel, an escape with a
band of jugglers, service in the army in the capacity of a private, and the like. In Petrograd he found numerous patrons and admirers. A pupil of Norblin de la Gourdine,—who had taken up his residence in Warsaw and was one of the best French draughtsmen of the eighteenth century,—Orlovsky, nevertheless, completely broke off with Fragonard's exquisite style. He gave himself up to caricatures and grotesque devices, and he sketched untiringly everything ugly that fell under his eye. He seemed to have taken as his motto the words "Le beau c'est le laid," long before "Jeune-France" inscribed them on its banner.
Orlovsky must not be judged from his pictures. Most of them are dull studies from nature, servile imitations of Potter and Wouwerman, aimed at pleasing the Russian patrons, who were desirous of having specimens of the work of our "Russian Wouwerman." The real Orlovsky appears only in his drawings, sketches, aquarelles, gouaches and pastels. It is true that he is very uneven in them. There are among them dull, commonplace landscapes, coarse and hackneyed, rough sketches, and so on. But if this accidental portion of his œuvre is discarded, there remains a sufficient number of works in which Orlovsky appears with all the foibles and fads of a flippant adventurer, whom one would take either for a quack or for a buffoon, but who,
nevertheless, was really a poet and an artist. You find among his works caricatures ridiculing the snobbishness of Paul's reign and jeering at the faded grandeur of Catherine's age; you find also—long before Decamp—a great many Oriental types, and sundry most extravagant jokes in colour and line; and there are, in addition, portraits of the heroes of the Alexandrian epic, scenes from Shakespeare's tragedies, sensational landscapes, sketches of furious skirmishes and battles. Technically, many of these works stand comparison with drawings of old masters. Perhaps Orlovsky, too, was hindered in his development by the lack of understanding on the part of the society which surrounded him. It willingly pardoned him his entertaining pranks on paper, but it would never think of admitting that this "fooling" had a serious artistic value,—at any rate, a far higher value than all his academic exercises in noble style and all his timid plagiarisms of Dutch "parlour" pictures.
It is customary to mention in connection with Kiprensky's name that of Tropinin,—next to Kiprensky the best portraitist of the beginning of the nineteenth century. But the surname of the "Russian Greuse," bestowed on Tropinin, indicates with sufficient clearness that the two masters had very little in common. Tropinin (1776–1857), Count Morkov's serf, was set
free only in his mature age. He did not have the advantage of studying abroad, and his life was one of ceaseless misery and solitude, as he shunned his own rather coarse circle and had no access to higher society. The pupil of the most uneven of Russian painters, Shchukin, he borrowed from him the "pleasant" colouring and the soft stroke, which make Tropinin the heir of the eighteenth century school. But Shchukin could not give him either firmness or great technical knowledge. With Greuse, Tropinin has in common the choice of young, sentimentally pretty heads, and mellow, quiet colour tones. Unfortunately, Tropinin later on developed a cold and smooth manner, which, evidently, was more to the taste of his chief patrons, the Moscow merchants. However, with regard to local colour and costume his portraits of the thirties and forties are of considerable value, and in skill of characterisation many of them are quite excellent. In his genre portraits Tropinin is very much like Venetzianov. His "flower-girls," "lace-makers," and other pictures from the life of "Moscow grisettes" breathe a candour, homely, touching, and quite distinctive. This is the only Russian offshoot, weak and short-lived, of that branch of Romanticism which in France produced Béranger and Murger.
Kiprensky and Orlovsky may be looked upon as the
forerunners of Russian Romanticism in painting. The rôle of the Russian Delacroix was played by an artist of the next generation, Karl Bryullov, who, while still at the Academy, manifested a natural gift amounting almost to genius, and who, even before his trip abroad, attracted the attention of connoisseurs. To reckon Bryullov among the romanticists is, to be sure, to force the account. The precepts of the academic school were too deeply rooted in him; moreover, by nature he was rather light-minded and external. But the cycle of subjects he treated, his own life, burned up in a sort of bacchanalian whirlwind, his yearning for high ideas and eternal glories amidst the welter of workaday prose, his intimacy with the best Russian poets, and, finally, his irresistible gravitation toward wildest colour effects,—all this makes us consider Bryullov a representative of that same current of European art, which in Western painting brought forth Géricault, Delacroix, Decamp, and many others. Unhappily, Bryullov's colossal talent could not fully unfold itself in the Russian academy or society, nor could his life in Rome further his development. His excessive arrogance, coupled with the lack of thoughtful penetration in his attitude toward his surroundings was also responsible for his failure to produce an art of all-human significance and eternal beauty. The French would even
consider it strange that we rank Bryullov among the romanticists. They would rather classify him with Ingres or even Delaroche, Cogniet and Gallet. In fact, our "genius" Bryullov had too much in common with these masters of "Juste Milieu," in his subject-matter, as well as in the ensemble of his far too external technique.
Karl Bryullov (1799–1852), the son of a skilled carver of Catherine's times, was a sickly and pitiable child, but very early he manifested a remarkable gift for drawing. His father developed this gift. Without taking pity on the boy, he forced little Karl to an unremitting study of nature, and punished him severely for laziness or blunders. Small wonder that, having passed through so severe a preparatory school, Bryullov outstripped his schoolmates at the Academy, and caused the whole Academic Areopagus to go into transports of delight. His immediate instructor, Andrey Ivanov, went so far as to buy with his own, hard-earned money, Bryullov's painting "Narcissus," an allegorical work of a purely academic character, not entirely devoid of eighteenth century affectation. A wholly mature master, but not a fully developed personality, Bryullov came to Italy, on a scholarship given by the recently established Society for the Encouragement of
Artists. The narrow æstheticism which the Russian Academy had taught him and which combined a worship of the ancient, as well as of the Bolognese masters,—screened from him living reality. He did not go beyond what the models of Piazza di Spagna gave him. He did not feel the sheer stupidity of that pink-coloured, mawkish idealisation, pleasant but trite, which made Italian life appear in the eyes of tourists as nothing but an illustration to their favourite operas, canzonettas, and romances. His compositions from Italian life differ little from the album and keepsake platitudes, supplied in hundreds by specialists in depicting "happy Italy." But, at the same time, ambitious plans tormented him, and he tried one theme after another, in his eagerness to justify the expectations founded on his talents.
Only eight years after his arrival in Italy Bryullov struck a subject which captivated him and led him to the creation of the long-expected chef-d'œuvre. The thought of painting "The Last Day of Pompeii" was suggested to him by his visit to the ruins of the buried city and by the opera of the now forgotten Paccini "Il ultimo giorno di Pompeii," which he saw at Naples. In three years Bryullov's masterpiece was completed, and, naturally enough, it reflected all the defects of his
nature as well as of his education. As a result we have a work rich in striking effects, full of studied arrangement, but superficial, and of dubious taste.
Nevertheless, "The Last Day of Pompeii" cannot be denied a considerable permanent artistic value. Its glaring, frigid colours, its smooth stroke, the classical triteness of the figures, the lack of movement and vitality in the composition,—all this is unable to do away with the general impression, which is one of great power, although, of course, it is the power not of Weber or Schubert, but that of Meyerbeer or Halévi. Whatever its failings may be, Bryullov's "Pompeii" is a good theatrical spectacle, à grand fracas executed with an astonishing amount of technical knowledge and with contagious enthusiasm. It is true that this enthusiasm was the cold passion of an ambitious man, whose aim it was to astound the world. True fervour and genuine passion are alien to the beauty of this painting, but with the public at large this very peculiarity of "The Last Day of Pompeii" could pass for a merit,—for, genuine passion, the cry of a soul deeply wounded or transported with delight, is least agreeable to "reasonable" people. The best portion of the picture is the disorderly group of fugitives forcing the door of a falling house. In this intertwined knot of human bodies, among which the calm face of the artist himself stands
Fyodor Bruni
out, producing a striking effect, Bryullov exhibited such consummate workmanship, both in drawing and in painting, as it would perhaps be hard to find in the school of David or even in the works of the Bolognese masters. How true an artist dwelled in this painter is attested also by his numerous sketches for "The Last Day of Pompeii," all of them far more "Romantic" than the masterpiece itself.
It is as to a triumph that Bryullov came back to Russia, but, naturally, the artist who in his best, most ardent years had not freed himself from a compromise between the antiquated scholastic precepts and his own propensities, was not able now to create something more vital and beautiful. What awaited him at home was least favourable for the development of the artist: he found in Russia a society, at heart utterly indifferent to art; then along came honours, official orders, and an intoxicating cult formed by his pupils and other artists. Despite his many failings, Bryullov at once occupied the foremost place in the artistic world, and this kingly role put him in a false position, raised him above life, and cut off his connections with it. Bryullov made an attempt to create something even more magnificent than "The Last Day of Pompeii," but his "Siege of Pskov," the first manifestation of the ill-fated nationalistic and official current in Russian art, remained an
unfinished and absurd cacophony of the widest colours. In his decorations of the cupola of the St. Isaak Cathedral, Petrograd, he attempted to reproduce the swing of the Bologna masters, but he produced little more than a trite pastiche. Unnerved by dissipation, deeply disappointed in his own artistic efforts, he fell ill and died at the age of fifty-two, in Rome, his country by adoption.
The best of Bryullov's work that has remained is incontestably his portraits, as well as various, unfortunately too few, studies from nature, landscapes, types, especially those sketched during his travels in Minor Asia, in 1835.
His portraits undoubtedly belong to the best created in this branch of painting during the entire nineteenth century. Truth to say, even here he is not free from his habitual defects, such as somewhat motley colours and a composition rich in importunately sensational effects. Nevertheless, these paintings make a deep impression, owing to their vitality, to the great talent they reveal, and to the technical skill with which they are executed. In them, Bryullov, the virtuoso, appears in all his splendour. But, strange to say, this artist, external, and prone to histrionic effects as he was, is least successful in those of his portraits which are of an official, or, in general, of a grand, showy character.
They are too superficial and banal. On the contrary, his intimate portraits are of the highest merit, and among them the best are his aquarelles and pencil drawings, in which he rendered the features of his numerous friends with the delicacy and precision of an Ingres and often with a great charm of colouring.
In spite of Bryullov's success, which was unprecedented and has never since repeated itself, he did not create in Russia a real school. Yet his ascendency manifested itself in the entire academic art; moreover, it has outlived academicism by many years and has disappeared only in our own generation. Closest to him stood Count G. G. Gagarin and von-Moller—both amateurs rather than professional artists. Gagarin (1810–1895) was brought up, so to speak, on the cult of Bryullov. The latter frequented the house of his father in Rome, and the young count had the opportunity of watching, day by day, the development of the master and of assimilating his manner as it unfolded itself. Hence—the striking similarity of Gagarin's manner to that of Bryullov, noticeable more in drawing than in painting. With respect to colour Gagarin remained a dilettante given to glaring effects. His drawings, on the contrary, are among the best that have been done in the Russian school. His sketches of mountaineers, his Caucasus landscapes, his portraits, all kinds of odds
and ends—bear the imprint of high craftsmanship, of classical simplicity, and of a great power of characterisation. Equally superb are his water-colours, which are free from the customary defects of his oil paintings. Moreover, even his canvases illustrating different episodes of the conquest of Caucasus are, in spite of all their technical defects, probably the best war paintings of the reign of Nicholas I. At any rate, they overflow with ardent nervosity and romantic boldness, and have the convincing power of an eye-witness's tale.—In the second part of his life this big artist became enamoured of Byzantinism and began to preach, by word and deed, this beautiful, but incontestably superannuated art. It was then that Gagarin turned into that dull icon-painter and insipid architect, who is sufficiently known by his buildings and projects, as well as by the drawings which found hospitality alongside his magnificent sketches in the room of the Museum of Alexander III, which is devoted to the œuvre of the master. It must not be forgotten, however, that this enthusiasm for Byzantinism was a logical deduction from the romantic cult of the Middle Ages. The feeble and unsuccessful attempts to revive the Byzantine and Russian styles are nothing but a local version of the "Gothic Propaganda" of the West.
Von-Moller (1812–1875) won fame by a painting
Orest Kiprensky
which Bryullov in his best days could have signed. It is the famous "Kiss," hackneyed by innumerable reproductions. This work, naive, and somewhat motley from the standpoint of colour, but fairly animated, breathing the youth of its author, belongs to that Italian, masked-ball variety, in which the European public took so much pleasure after the successes of L. Robert and Riedel. In the same spirit Moller executed a few other quasi-Italian and quasi-Romantic themes. Then came a change. Carried away by Overbeck's preaching, he devoted himself completely to his vast composition: "St. John Preaching at Patmos" (1857). The failure of this picture was the result of its ugly pink-azure colouring, of its conventional rounded composition, of its naïve contrasts and the mawkish expression on the faces of the personages.
With the exception of Alexander Ivanov, who stands somewhat aloof from the main stream of Romanticism, this movement did not produce in Russia a single great and original artist, but each of the romantic currents found there an echo. If Bryullov must be considered the representative of the historical tendencies of Romanticism, Bruni (1800–1875) is undoubtedly the echo of the Nazarenes. Only, however, a very faint echo. The mystical aspirations of the Nazarenes were mingled in his æsthetic formula, in a most bizarre manner,
with academic Classicism. He never emerged from this compromise: on the one hand, owing to his education, he was too strongly impregnated with Classicism, on the other hand, his inner nature did not allow him either to break off with the Nazarene art, or to devote himself to it, heart and soul. His very life was not favourable to the development in him of an all-consuming passion and of a singleness of purpose: it flowed too quietly. Hardly out of school, he became famous through his magnificent painting "The Death of Camilla," which he completed at the age of twenty-two, and which is the best specimen in the Museum of Alexander III of the classical Russian school. In Rome, he fell in with sympathetic and restful people, among whom he continued his studies quietly and methodically. Bryullov's fame and the importunities of his admirers led him to essay his powers in the field of "colossal" art. Bruni's "Brazen Serpent" came seven years after "The Last Day of Pompeii." Although its success was not so great as that of Bryullov's masterpiece, it was met with universal, though calm enthusiasm. Henceforward, the names of Bryullov and Bruni, strangely alliterative as they are, become inseparable, and are always uttered in the same breath. When the new Petrograd Museum, now the Hermitage, was built, these two giants of Russian Painting
found place on one wall. When, later on, they were transported to the Museum of Alexander III, they were again hung together, as if they were really twins. After the creation of the "Brazen Serpent" Bruni's life flowed on in an even and undisturbed stream. Struggle was unknown to him. He was overburdened with orders for church decorations; in addition, his small icons and images were immediately bought up by amateurs. The rest of his time he devoted to pedagogical activity at the Academy, where he held the office of rector for sixteen years. He was also in charge of the Mosaics Department, and of the Hermitage.
Bruni is looked upon in Russia as a mystic. In fact, this intelligent and keen man was not averse to the profundities of religious thought and religious poetry, yet it can hardly be asserted that his art possessed a great depth. Bruni is, above all, a decorator, a great master of grouping, colouring and painting, but all these merits of his are purely external. On the contrary, the types he created are mere conventional outlines, his pathos is theatrical, and his mystical "visions" show too clearly the threads they are sewn with, what the French call "truc." Of course, this in no way deprives him of the high place he occupies. Let us remember that Raphael's, too, was an external talent. In the magnificence of his well sustained and nearly flawless
workmanship, Bruni is far superior to the uneven and often insipid Bryullov; but, in his turn, Bruni is second to Bryullov in temperament. Herein lies the cause of the unpopularity of Bruni; his art completely satisfied the official demands and delighted the experts, but it was not given to it to impress the crowd,—a quality possessed by the works of Bryullov in an eminent degree.[3]
Bryullov's prestige was so great, that the number of his pupils was simply tremendous, yet there were no genuine artists among them. Tyranov (1808–1859), known by a charming, intimate picture, made the lovers of Bryullov's conventional manner very hopeful by his "Girl with a Tabourine," a worthy pendant to Moller's "Kiss." Kapkov (1816–1854) comes near to Bryullov in his portraits, but he remained a half-developed, lifeless artist. Petrovsky,—Rayev, a good
landscape painter, who turned, for no reason whatever, to historical painting,—Lapchenko,—Zavyalov, and Shamshin, Basin's pupils, hopelessly dull official painters, who did not escape the contagion of Bryullov's sensational effects,—all these do not add any charm to this current of Russian painting. Greater values were contributed by the next generation. True followers of Bryullov were: Gay, who will be treated shortly,—Flavitzky (1830–1866), a master not without temperament, responsible for the touching "Princess Tarakanov," one of the most popular works of the entire Russian school,—Plyeshanov (1829–1882), known chiefly as the painter of "Ivan the Terrible and the Priest Silvestre,"—and P. P. Chistyakov, the painter of "Sophie, the daughter of Vitovt." Finally, Bryullov's influence can be traced in the last great representatives of our academic art: in K. Makovsky, G. Semiradsky, Mikyeshin, Polyenov and Iacobi.
The foremost among these masters is K. Makovsky, incontestably one of the greatest talents of the Russian School of Painting. Makovsky's misfortune lies in his age; the formative period of his artistic personality coincided with the reign of what may be termed "the décadence of Romanticism," and all his life K. Makovsky remained an epigone of Romanticism, In spite of his temporary infatuation with the civic propaganda of
the sixties, and the rare concessions he made to the æsthetic programme of the "Wanderers," He came too late to join the "school," which trained Bryullov, and it is as a half-schooled genius that he appears throughout his motley, multiform art.
In the fifties and sixties, when all of "Jeune-France" and "Jung Deutschland" had turned into venerable professors, the romantic currents degenerated into something decrepit and senile. The narrow, cold rationalism of Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Jean Flandrin replaced the ardent ecstasies of the Nazarenes; costume painting of the type produced by Piloty and Gérome flooded historical painting; frivolous and mawkish fancy took the place of Hoffmannesque fantastic flights, so characteristic of the twenties and the thirties; loose drollery supplanted the caustic satire on which was brought up the great school of political caricaturists with Daumier at its head. The spirit of true Romanticism continued to live, just as it lives in our own times, but the forms of its manifestation had changed. In a certain sense, Millet, all the Barbizon painters, Böcklin, the English Pre-Raphaelites, our own Ivanov—were romanticists, but in their own times they were apparently antagonists of Romanticism, for at that time it is such genuine decadents as Kaulbach, Delaroche with his numerous followers, the Düsseldorf
masters, and the "Belgians," who considered themselves,—with the complete assent of the public at large,—the true heirs of the Romantic æsthetics. The genuinely great art of the West did not reach Petrograd. Neither Millet, nor Böcklin, nor the Pre-Raphaelites, nor our own Ivanov found a single vivid echo in Russia,—at any rate, not a single true follower. But this senile pseudo-Romanticism penetrated into all the pores of the culture of our higher classes, together with the fashions and morals of the Second Empire. Characteristic of those times is the great success in Russia of artists like the sugared Chopin, the mawkish Neff, and, especially, Zichy, who came to Russia late in the forties. The latter, a highly gifted master of a perfect technique is such a pronounced representative of the Romantic decadence that he would merit to be treated here at some length, did he not rank himself among Western painters.
It is in this atmosphere that K. Makovsky was brought up, and its reflection lies on the whole of his output. His colours are derived from the palette of Neff and Zichy, his themes have the insipidity peculiar to all "costume" painters; as a fantastic artist he does not go beyond the sensuality which marks all the salon art which flooded the art market in the middle of the nineteenth century, at the moment of the triumph of
materialism. In addition, K. Makovsky, we repeat, came too late to find a school. The Academy, once a secluded and inexorably rigorous educational institution, but now a free art-school, was no more the guardian of drawing and of strict and systematic technique, as in the days of Bryullov's youth. Masters like Yegorov and Shebuyev had disappeared. Bryullov, it is true, inaugurated something in the nature of a revival at the Academy, but this had only negative results, such as a neglect of drawing and a pursuit of cheap sensational effect. In the fifties, the Academy, despite the effort of the council headed by Bruni, was falling into decay, and it was then (in 1858) that K. Makovsky entered it.
Makovsky's vast canvases with their almost indecent nymphs, with their tasteless conglomeration of theatrical properties, with their glaring sugared colours, with their uncertain drawings—are far from making an agreeable impression. But in the course of time the attitude toward him is likely to change. For all his defects, Makovsky stands forth on the dull, grey background of Russian art, a vivid figure, an artist of a passionate temperament, and one who was able to infect other people with his enthusiasm. The patina of time will not shield his pictures from harm, for the patina of time beautifies only that which is beautiful in itself.
Karl Bryullov
At any rate, Makovsky's pictures will remain a monument of the tendencies of a definite period of Russian culture, and, as such, they will retain a great, though not purely artistic interest. Quite apart stand several of his genre pictures with subjects taken from Russian reality. These are the monuments of his temporary adherence to the camp of the "Wanderers." To them belong "The Show-booths at the Palace Square," a vivid and touching illustration of the old Russian carnival which is now a thing of the past.
Semiradsky (1843–1902) is, in comparison with Makovsky, a greater master. In some respects this artist could even pass for an innovator. The splendour of his colours, a correct rendering of sun effects, a beautiful, picturesque technique in places,—all this was a real revelation for the generation of Russian artists of the sixties and seventies. Unfortunately, in vitality of talent Semiradsky was inferior to Makovsky. His compositions on antique themes are little more than excellent landscapes and "still-life's," among which, to meet the demands of historical painting, are placed, for no apparent reason whatever, lifeless and dull figures. Only in those pictures where these figures, in comparison with the landscape and the accessories, play a subsidiary part, does Semiradsky retain a certain charm. On the other hand, in his vast and intricate
composition, the eye is struck by his lack of dramatic gift, the poverty of his imagination, and the schematic character of the faces.
Closely related to Semiradsky is V. Polyenov, who deserves the attention of the historian of Russian art, as a socially spirited leader and as a man of unusual refinement and culture. The best that he created are unassuming, but poetically conceived Russian landscapes. Much poorer are his celebrated Oriental sketches, which strike one disagreeably with their mawkish colours and amateur painting. Least comforting are his historical compositions, which, while having all the defects of Semiradsky's paintings, are inferior to them in colour and technique.
Mikyeshin (1836–1896), to be considered with K. Makovsky, is one of the most gifted Russian artists. He entangled himself in his own talent, so to speak, and his bootless imitation of Zichy turned him into a disagreeably dashing, trivial and superficial mannerist. A few drawings and sketches and some of his modest aquarelles—are the sole title to a place in the Pantheon of Russian painting of this monument-designer and "historical" painter. This cannot be repeated of Iacobi. The whole of his œuvre with its wardrobe of insipid masquerade costumes, and all its badly drawn puppets,—would have been relegated to the archives,
if not for his painting, "The Convicts at the Resting-place," one of the first Russian denunciatory pictures. It is true that its artistic merits are not great. Its colours and painting are below criticism. But the picture is too deeply characteristic and too cleverly arranged not to make us regret that Iacobi did not remain faithful to this realistic kind, in which he surely would have given Russian society many a successful and well-aimed illustration of the burning problems of his day.
In addition to these masters, the following two groups of epigones of Romanticism are noteworthy: Bronnikov, Smirnov, the brothers Svyedomsky, and Bakalovich,—all followers of Semiradsky; Beideman, Vasilyev, and Wenig, the disciples of Bruni. Quite alone stands the curious, but undeveloped Lomtev, and the "sea poet" Ayvazovsky, a highly gifted, but somewhat monotonous Romanticist. We shall return to him in the chapter on Russian landscape painting.
  1. Karamzin (see note to p. 62) was the author of tales, written in the sentimental manner which was fashionable at that time in Germany and in England. (Translator's note.)
  2. Kiprensky was the natural son of A. S. Dyakonov. Officially he belonged to the family of Adam Schwalbe, Dyakonov's serf; his last name is derived from the village where he was baptized. (Translator's note.)
  3. The "Nazaritic" movement influenced also the art of von-Moller, who has been already treated, and of G. von Reutern (1794–1865). The latter was more of an amateur and produced a very limited number of paintings. His best works are sketches,—of extreme delicacy and executed in the spirit of the Dutch primitives,—and also portraits, characteristic and pedantically accurate. His painting, "Abraham's Sacrifice," in the Museum of Alexander III, is very popular among admirers of scrupulous accuracy in painting, but it is of small artistic interest. It must be admitted, however, that the angel on this picture would be a credit to any one of Dominichino's canvases.—It will be proper to mention here that the Nazaritic movement was first made known in Russia by two Germans, who settled in Petrograd in the twenties. These were the two bosom-friends, Hippius and Ignatius, both of them—tender, naïve romanticists without talent. (Author's note.)
View edit history of this page.
Content is available under CC BY-SA 3.0 unless otherwise noted.
Privacy policy
Terms of Use
HomeRandomLog in Settings DonateAbout WikisourceDisclaimers