The Russian School of Painting/Chapter I
< The Russian School of Painting
The Russian School of Painting by Alexandre Benois, translated byAvrahm Yarmolinsky
Chapter I.
The Eighteenth Century
Chapter II
HE history of Russian Painting of the Western type begins with Peter the Great. The works of art belonging to Peter's times show almost no trace of the art of old Russia. Only in church painting did the old style persist for any length of time; but it is just this branch of Russian painting that, even before the time of Peter the Great, had already lost its original and traditional character. The Russian icon-painting of the seventeenth century, which had just begun to free itself from the Byzantine canon and to absorb elements of national taste, mainly in the choice of colours and the treatment of ornaments, turns aside at about the middle of the century, and, under the influence of South-Russian and Polish cultures, acquires an unmistakably "German" bent. The Church offered almost no resistance to this current. True it is that the Church sturdily upheld the integrity of Byzantine
traditions as far as the outward demands of iconography were concerned, such as: the choice of subject matter, the postures, the grouping and, to some extent, the vestures. Yet the Church was indifferent to the fact that the very type of the saints, under the influence of German engravings, began to assume a sluggish character, and that the style of the icons became broken, flabby, as remote as possible from the stern grandeur of the Byzantine manner. About the age of Peter, and for some time after, this current became even stronger; and in the middle of the eighteenth century it degenerated into a bizarre mixture of the Byzantine pattern with the wild eccentricities of the German rococo. Academicism wiped out the last traces of Byzantinism from Russian iconography, and in the first half of the nineteenth century we find no traces of it. Only in the popular peasant arts and crafts has the ancient ecclesisatic art survived to this very day.
It is customary to begin the history of the Russian School of Painting of the Western type with two artists sent abroad by Peter for the purpose of study. This is not quite accurate, for neither of these artists had a decisive influence on the subsequent development of Russian art. Of far greater importance for the Russian School were the numerous foreign masters summoned to the country from foreign parts. In the choice of these,
Peter gave evidence, if not of taste, at least of great perspicacity. Among those invited to Russia were excellent artists of their time: the engravers, Adriaen Schoonebeck and Pierre Picart; sculptors, Andreas Schluter, Carlo Barthohomeo Rastrelli, Pinaud; painters, Tannhauer, Louis Caravaque, Tarsius, and Pillement; architects, Jean Baptiste Alexandre Leblond, Michetti, Maternovi; whole pleiads of excellent carvers, weavers, turners, etc. Toward the twenties of the eighteenth century, Russian court life exhibited a perfectly Western appearance. About that time Petrograd was built up; on the site of former huts there grew up the more or less magnificent houses of the Emperor and the most illustrious grandees; the gardens in the young capital and in its environs were decorated after the Italian manner with statues and fountains, and the walls and ceilings were covered with elaborate paintings.
To continue importing foreigners was, however, too burdensome. The Government was considerably worried by the fact that Russian gold flowed to foreign countries. Hence the attempts to create an art of our own, local and "less expensive." It was with this purpose in view that, among other things, several young men were sent abroad to perfect themselves in art.
Only two of these protégés of Peter became
prominent: Andrey Matvyeyev and Ivan Nikitin; but fate favoured neither them nor their works. So few of these have reached us that it is difficult to form a correct judgment about their authors. Andrey Matvyeyev, who returned home in 1727, lived ten years longer, and died in the prime of his life and talent. He received his artistic education in the Netherlands, under the guidance of Moor and Schoor. Several authentic works of his bear witness to the fact that he had mastered the technical methods of Western painting, but they are too few to give an idea of his personality as an artist. His portraits of Prince and Princess Golytzin, kept in the estate Petrovskoye (near Moscow), show fair draughtsmanship and a skilful touch. But what an immeasurable distance between them and the works of his contemporaries: Largilliere, Nattier, Rigaud, Troost and others. Matvyeyev's picture in Stroganov Palace, with its smooth painting and schematic composition, reminds one of a poor imitation of van der Werff; as to his icons in the Cathedrals of St. Peter and St. Paul and in the Church of St. Simeon, it is impossible to judge them, as they have been retouched in later times.
His unfinished portrait of himself and his wife, donated by the artist's son to the Academy of Arts, stands by itself in the common-place painting of the early eighteenth century; it is distinguished by a
pronounced individuality, a vigorous stroke, and its pleasant greenish-brown hue. All the rest of Matvyeyev's works have perished; some have disappeared—for instance, his portrait sketch, from life, of the Empress Anna, which as late as the middle of the nineteenth century was in the Academic Museum. A number of them have entirely lost their original character, owing to repeated retouching. His apocryphal "Kulikovo Battle," in the Museum of Alexandre III, completely confuses our notion of this master.
Of the works of Ivan Nikitin, who returned to Russia in 1720, there remain to us even fewer examples. Our opinion about him must be formed on the basis of a unique work which is fully authenticated. It is the portrait of Baron S. G. Stroganov, kept in Maryino, the Golytzin estate, near Petrograd. The portrait is, from a contemporary viewpoint, a fair but not an extraordinary piece of work. Although interestingly conceived and not devoid of elegance, it is not distinguished either by bright characterization or by any remarkable skill. Of a greater value for the revealing of Nikitin's character would be the portraits "Peter on his Death-bed" and "The Hetman" in the Academical Museum, painted very skilfully in rich colours in a pleasant and noble colour-scale, if it could be ascertained that these works really belong to the brush of Nikitin, and not to
that of Tannhauer. In the reign of Empress Anna loannovna, Nikitin, who was involved in the case of the monk Josiah, was knouted and transported to Siberia in 1736, whence he was recalled in the reign of Empress Anna Leopoldovna. However, it was not given to the artist, worn out by his long exile, to see his home again; he died on the way, in the fall of 1741. It is probable that many of his works are still in existence, scattered in different estates and palaces, but it will hardly ever be possible to ascertain what pictures are really his, as one authentic, although not very typical picture is not enough for the formation of a definite judgment about a painter. The single work of Roman, his brother, the portrait of Vassa Stroganov, is interesting only from the standpoint of costume.
The reign of Elizabeth opens a new period of Russian painting. The queen had a liking and a discriminating taste for luxury; she was dissatisfied with the dulness by which the court life of her predecessor, like that of the petty German courts, was marked; her conceptions were grandiose. From the artistic standpoint, the reign of Elizabeth was to Russia almost what the reign of Louis XIV was to France. In her reign and for a time under her personal supervision, the Anninsky Winter Palace was rebuilt. Later on she erected a new wooden palace and almost completed the new stone
palace of the Russian Emperors. In her reign a great number of vast and magnificent palaces were built, or completely rebuilt, in Petrograd, Moscow, Kiev and elsewhere. Under Elizabeth were erected the best and most luxurious Rococo style buildings in Russia: the Smolny Monastery, the Troitzky Hermitage, the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Kiev, and others. It was in her time that the Russian magnates, Stroganovs, Vorontzovs, Shuvalovs, Sheremetyevs, imitating the example set by the Queen, began to build in a magnificent and truly European manner. Toward the end of her reign Petrograd and its environs assumed the appearance which they have preserved to a considerable degree to this very day. In the talented Rastrelli, Elizabeth found her Lebrun. But new legions of masters were needed for the execution of his innumerable and always excellent projects—all the more since some of the artists imported by Peter were already in the grave. Others, Pillement and Pinaud among them, not finding enough work, had returned home; others again were so old that they could not keep pace with the feverish activity of the young generation. Among the artists imported in the reign of Elizabeth the most noteworthy are: G. H. Grot, a somewhat manneristic master, but an artist of an unusually delicate and soft brush; his brother, I. F. Grot, one of the best animalists of his time; Valeriani,
an expert in perspective, who proved very useful as an educator of the young Russian artists; the decorators Perezinotti, the Grandizzi and the Barozzi brothers. Toward the end of Elizabeth's reign the following artists were added: Stefano Torelli, the rival of Boucher, a somewhat monotonous, but excellent portraitist; Count Rotari, and the French artists, LeLorrain, Lagrenée, Tocqué and Develis. A brilliant, spirited artistic life, such as was to be found in the most splendid European courts of the time, unfolded both in Petrograd and in Moscow during the sojourn of the court in the capitals. Queen Elizabeth Petrovna considered it nearly the main task of her reign to lend to Russian life that illusory lustre of an ever blissful Eden, by which the high life of the West was distinguished.
After the agony of Russian culture under Peter II and Anna loannovna, a reawakening was presently felt. The seeds which were sown by Peter the Great and which for fifteen years had lain in the soil, soon began to sprout. In all fields of endeavour men of original and truly Russian genius began to arise; and there came other men who proved able to appreciate the native talent, to set them working and to support them. Among these the first place belongs to I. I. Shuvalov, the noblest of Russians, who more than any one else was
eager to revive all the educational projects inaugurated by Peter the Great, but whose views of art and artistic education, naturally, shared all the usual defects of those times. The fabulous luxury of those days necessitated the existence of our own artist-craftsmen, but nobody at that day thought of our own, original, national art. The prestige of scholastic æsthetics stood in the way of a deeper insight into the essence of art, into its pure, inspirational nature.
There is a peculiar trait of the Russian School of Painting in its early phase, which has also somewhat influenced its subsequent development. Painting in Russia came into existence not as a response to the demands of her entire society. It was rather the will of the Government and of the aristocracy, who longed for the externalities of life similar to those of the West, that called Russian painting into life. That is why it would be useless to look for an original national spirit even in the best representatives of the Russian School of the eighteenth century. We can find some ten gifted and very well educated artists, who on account of their purely pictorial merits may be placed alongside of the best names of the European schools; but these masters lack utterly the original, personal note, the specific "Russian" sensibility.
That is why the best that was done in Russian
Painting of the eighteenth century is portraits; and, partly, landscapes, nature "portraits," as it were. Portrait painting demands great talent and technical knowledge, but it does not necessarily need a pronounced artistic individuality. The Russian artists of the eighteenth century possessed both knowledge and technical skill, but they lacked imagination and freedom. They had no taste for these precious gifts. Just as the caftans and gowns were imported from Paris, so the æsthetics of the Russian nobility was derived directly from the Parisian Academy. What held the interest of our noblemen was not Watteau or Lancret, or the more intelligible Boucher and Fragonard—those marvellous phantasts of the eighteenth century—nor even Chardin or Chodowiecky, those most delicate poets of the hearth—but rather that bombastic official art, which in the Academies passed for Grand-Art.
In the reign of Peter the Great there was founded a school of drawing at the Petrograd Printing-house. Later on, under Catherine I, an art department was organised at the Academy of Sciences, owing to the efforts of Avramov. In 1748, under Elizabeth, a statute was approved establishing the Academy of Fine Arts, at the Academy of Sciences. At its head was put a typical representative of his time, the "Professor of Allegory" Shtelin. Finally, in 1757, owing to the zeal of I. I.
Shuvalov, a completely organised Academy of Fine Arts was definitely established. Nominally, the new institution was connected with the University of Moscow, but its seat was in Petrograd, the centre of court and aristocratic life. The Academy was an artistic hothouse, similar in character to the entire group of Russian and foreign masters, who were independent of the Academy, and usually lived in the northern capital, leaving it only to follow the court in its migrations.
Under Elizabeth, a number of Russian artists became prominent before the Academy of Fine Arts was founded. Their appearance bears witness to the efflorescence of Russian culture in the forties and fifties of the eighteenth century.
Among these artists the following deserve our attention: Ivan Argunov, a serf of Count Sheremetev, A. Matvyeyev's relative; Alexyey Antropov, a master of design and perspective; Makhayev, Valeriani's disciple; and a group of icon painters, rather mediocre, but interesting for their quaint attempts to combine the demands of the orthodox canon with the cleverness of the Italian Rococo. The icons in the court chapels of Peterhof and Tzarskoye Selo, and those in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas of the Sea in Petrograd, are curious samples of this style.
Only Argunov and Antropov in this group of artists
deserve real attention. As to Makhayev, it is hard to pass judgment upon him, for it is uncertain what really belongs to him in the precious series of engraved views of Petrograd, which were published during the last years of Elizabeth's reign. The originals painted in oil are kept in the Hermitage: some of them,—for instance, the Summer Palace, are painted vividly and skilfully; others, like the great view of Neva, with dull timidity and in a mechanical manner. The first ones seem to be the work of Valeriani, the second, of Makhayev himself.
I. Argunov (1727–1797), despite the researches of S. Dyagilev, is a somewhat obscure figure. Like many other masters of his time he did not hesitate to sign portraits copied from other people's originals, and this mixing of copies with original works makes the estimation of his talent a difficult task. Thus, it is to be regretted that we cannot be certain of Argunov's authorship in regard to one of the best productions of eighteenth century Russian painting: the portrait of Countess Barbara Alexeyevna Sheremetyev, which can bear comparison with the portraits of Tocqué, Rotari and Van-Loo. Of course, all the interest of this characteristic and soundly realistic portrait would be lost if the work proved to be Argunov's copy from the forgotten original by one of these masters. Equally meritorious are the portraits of Count S. B. Sheremetyev,
Countess V. P. Razumovsky, and of the Kalmyk lady, Fatyanov. Incomparably poorer are the series of other portraits of Argunov, but even these, in addition to the charm of the past, interesting costumes, hair-dressing and poses, have many fine, purely pictorial sides. Among these are fairly good painting (I. Argunov was G. H. Grot's pupil) and sufficiently correct design.
Almost equally confused is our notion of the other prominent Elizabethan painter, Alexyey Petrovich Antropov (1716–1795). He was a person, it seems, of no ordinary calibre. His main merit consisted in the establishment of his own school of painting, which counterbalanced the official Academy, and which produced one of the greatest Russian painters, Levitzky. The descendants of the latter have to this very day preserved memories of Antropov, as of an independent man, who held in disdain the official artistic world and warned his young pupil against the pernicious influence of the Academy.
Another fact which speaks in favour of Antropov is the plasticity of his nature. He was all of 41, when, having become an admirer of the art of Rotari, who had just come to Russia (in 1757), he assimilated and made his own the firm and lucid manner of the famous Italian master. It is in this manner that Antropov's two best portraits are executed: the portrait of the unknown in
the Tretyakov Gallery, and the portrait of Countess Rumyantzev in the Museum of Alexander III. The latter work, dated 1764, corroborates, by its coarseness and simplicity, our estimate of Antropov as an energetic and highly independent man. Incomparably weaker are his portraits of the Czars, in which the artist, unable to paint from nature, had to have recourse to other people's data. Having neither virtuosity nor European schooling (he was a pupil of A. Matvyeyev, of the icon painter Vishnyakov and of Karavacci) he helplessly heaped up in these portraits all sorts of details, borrowing them from the works of Tocqué, Grot and Develis. Of greater interest are his icons, preserved in the church of St. Andrew at Kiev.
We do not possess enough documents to form a complete judgment as to what "Shuvalov's" Academy of Arts really was. It seems to have been something in the nature of a large art studio, where almost mature men were admitted, and where the teaching process was more or less free. In keeping with the purely practical spirit of Peter the Great's educational reforms, the aim of the Academy was not "to educate men," but "to form artists." It is natural, then, that what the Academy produced was a number of masters of considerable technical skill. The following artists became prominent: in architecture, Bazhenov, Starov and Ivanov;
in sculpture, Shubin and Gordyeyev; in engraving, Chemesov, Kolpakov and Gerasimov; in painting, Losenko, Rokotov, Sablukov, S. Shchedrin, Serebryakov and Golovachevsky.
Falconet, who knew Losenko (1737–1773) well, later on spoke about him in the following terms:
"The poor and honest fellow, degraded, starving, eager to leave Petrograd for some other place, used to come to tell me his troubles. Then despair drove him to dissipation, and he was far from guessing what he would gain by dying. It is written on his tombstone that he was a great man. It is evident, therefore, that in Russia, and in painting, people manage to make a draughtsman, a fairly accurate copyist and a painter of no talent, a great man, after his death. The Empress desired to encourage him, but at any rate, he had a fine epitaph."
These good-humouredly ironical words, very applicable to Russian art in general, are not altogether true of Losenko. Falconet made his acquaintance when the unfortunate artist was already completely worn out by the duties of the purely bureaucratic office he held in the Academy (he was its director). A few works executed by Losenko at the beginning of his activity present him in a different light. Even if it were absolutely necessary to deprive this master of the charming genre
picture in the Tretyakov Gallery, which is attributed to him, yet, owing to his excellent portraits of the actor Volkov and of Sumarokov, and his admirable studies from nature, Losenko must retain a place of honour in the history of Russian painting. Perfectly cheerless are his historical compositions, in which he painfully strove, but utterly failed, to approach the "noble" style of the Parisian Academy.
Rokotov's personality is even less known to us than that of Losenko, but his great pictorial gift is attested by his numerous works. Rokotov became prominent very rapidly. In 1760 he entered the Academy—not, surely, as a pupil; and as early as 1762 he was nominated adjunct-professor. In the same year he painted two portraits of the Emperor Peter III, hardly inferior to the best works of Rotari. Catherine herself, who never sat for Levitzky, graciously allowed Rokotov to paint her portrait from life. The third portrait of the Empress, in the Romanov Gallery, was considered in Catherine's life-time the most successful likeness of her. At the end of the sixties Rokotov settled definitively in Moscow, came back to Petrograd in the nineties, and died in 1812.[1] This is all we know about the master, in whom Russia may take no less pride than in Levitzky and Borovikovsky.
Dmitry Levitzky
In fact, some of Rokotov's portraits are in no way inferior to the famous works of these masters. Here belong the somewhat coarse-grained portraits of Pete III strongly reminiscent of Rotari, as well as the wonderfully painted and very bold portraits of Catherine II in white satin crinoline (the coronational—in the Academy of Arts). Here also belongs the somewhat motley profile portrait of the Empress, in Gatchina, the portraits of I. I. Shuvalov, P. I. Shuvalov, I. G. Orlov, and others. Sometimes Rokotov soared to a height which brought him near to the greatest European portrait painters: to Gainsborough, Nattier Latour. Such is his portrait of Countess Santi, one of the most astonishing productions of the eighteenth century both for the delicacy of characterisation and for colour, with its charming combinations of olive and pink hues. A corsage of modest field flowers on the bosom of the lady lends to the work an intimacy exquisite in its simplicity, such as can seldom be found in Levitzky and Borovikovsky.
The portraits of Levitzky (1735–1822) are equally interesting to the historian and to the painter. He painted a great many of the prominent leaders of the brilliant reign of Catherine, and he depicted them with perfectly convincing vividness. He succeeded, like no one else in Russia, in expressing the characteristic tone
and glow, the whole outward "manner of living" of the beau-monde of his time, and at the same time he created a series of superb specimens of painting, hardly inferior in their technical perfection to the best works of Western schools. One easily identifies Levitzky's works in a mass of other paintings by the totally peculiar "keenness" of the eyes of the persons presented, by their wholly distinct, slightly mocking smile, and finally, by the celebrated mastery with which silks, laces and jewels are painted. This son of a provincial clergyman, who received a wholly practical artistic education in the studio of Antropov and under the guidance of Valeriani, must have been possessed of an unusual artistic temperament to assimilate to such a degree all the splendours of the technique of the most brilliant epoch in the history of European painting. True, he was a native of the Government of Kiev, i. e., of that part of Russia where Western culture was implanted long before its appearance in Muscovy, and where it had had time to get more firmly rooted. Yet, in the matter of art, Southern Russia in the eighteenth century was not favourably distinguished from the middle and northern sections. The local engraving school, of which Levitzky's father was a representative, presents almost no artistic interest, as it was a poor imitation of German etching; and to consider such an accomplished
master as Levitzky, junior, a product of local Kiev art, is hardly correct. The quick-witted highly impressionable youth found himself in Petrograd late in the fifties, that is, in the very hey-day of the activity of the foreign masters imported by Elizabeth, and, in all probability, his taste developed under the sole influence of this activity. The portraits of Rotari and Erichsen taught him firmness and lucidity in drawing, the pictures of Torelli and Leprince—sumptuosity of composition and elegance of poses; finally, to Tocqué and Roslin he owes his wonderful, purely French technique in the rendition of details. That Levitzky, nevertheless, has avoided the pit of "salon" mannerism, and preserved all the freshness of his provincialism, that he remained the keen, somewhat ironical observer, that his portraits, despite the Parisian caftans and wigs, exhale a great sincerity—all this we owe probably to that simple-natured Antropov, who drew to himself the gifted youth at the time he was painting icons for St. Andrew's Cathedral, at Kiev. It was he who took the young man to the northern capital and shielded him against the influence of the Academy and its bureaucratic spirit.
We distinguish two manners in the art of Levitzky. For the first thirty years of his activity his manner was that which he acquired in his studies of the French masters. The works belonging to this period are, for their
pictorial merits, far superior to the later portraits, which partly show the change undergone by the taste in art. The rich, mellow colouring of the admirable portrait of Kakorinov and of the two portraits of Mme. Lvov remind one of the productions of Greuse at their best; the portraits of the pupils of Smolnoye in the Peterhof Palace are executed under the influence of Roslin's costume portraits, but with a vivacity and picturesqueness which reveal Levitzky's acquaintance with the works of Van Dyck. Other canvases of this period show resemblance to the portraits of Mengs, the older Tischbein, Torelli and Van-Loo, that is, of artists still bound up in their technique and manner with the great traditions of Venice, Flanders and France. Entirely different are the portraits of the second period, such as those of Lady-in-attendance Protasov, the knights of the Vladimir Order, in Gatchina, and others. Here intimacy is replaced by a pursuit of grandiose style; the rich colouring has turned into a dull, tedious colour-gamut, and the technique has, to a considerable degree, lost its vitality.
Borovikovsky (1757–1826), always quoted together with Levitzky, really belongs to another period of Russian painting, and is a representative of the "new taste." Borovikovsky, too, was a native of Ukraina. Catherine made his acquaintance—he was a retired
offficer and an amateur artist at the time—during her famous Crimean "progress" in 1787. The success of his first attempts led the young man to come to Petrograd. But there he found entirely different surroundings, entirely different tastes from those which reigned when Levitzky had moved to the capital. The imitation of the warmth and richness of the old Venetian masters, which lay back of all of Levitzky's models, was now replaced by an infatuation for classical reserve and grandeur. Highly coloured dresses, picturesque hair-dressing, gorgeous combinations of gauze, tinsel and spangle, had gradually disappeared. Fortunately, Borovikovsky had the advantage of being in his early youth a pupil of Levitzky, the guardian of the old traditions. Owing to this circumstance, and also to the fact that Borovikovsky did not get into the Academy, he formed for himself, and preserved, that rich manner of painting and that picturesque design that redeem in his pictures the defects of his times: a certain coldness and stiffness, and also monotony.
Sometimes, however, this stiffness disappeared completely, and then Borovikovsky showed all his Southern good-nature, coupled with such a delicate understanding of life and beauty that these, unfortunately few examples of his work, are on the same level with the best portraits of Levitzky. Among these masterpieces the
first place is held by the poetical portraits of the beautiful princess Suvorov in the Tretyakov Gallery; to these there belong also the portrait of Countess Bezborodko with her daughters, that of the charming Mme. Lopukhin, and others. In former times, when historical and religious pictures were considered necessary for the title of a great artist, Borovikovsky was highly praised for his icons. We do not share this admiration. Borovikovsky's talent was not deep. All his portraits are superficial and have a hackneyed "family resemblance" about them. It is natural that in the field which requires the most concentrated feeling and the deepest penetration, in religious painting, he could produce nothing remarkable.
Around Levitzky, Rokotov, and Borovikovsky, there were grouped several other remarkable portraitists, who received their education partly at the Academy, but to a great extent developed independently. Unfortunately, we have to confine ourselves to the study of their works, as we have no knowledge of their artistic personalities. One of these portraits, that of Count Dmitriyev-Mamonov, by Shebanov (Museum of Alexander III), is worthy of European fame. This small, pictorially modest picture bears comparison with the most celebrated productions of the exquisite eighteenth century art, for its finesse of design as well as for its sure
and delicate technique. But who was Shebanov? We have only two authentic works by him: the portrait just mentioned and another masterpiece, the portrait of Catherine in a fur hat (the original is in the Kamennoostrov Palace). Shebanov appears on the horizon of Russian art like a fantastic meteor. It is certain that he was Prince Potyomkin's serf; it is supposed further that he was a student at the Academy, and, finally, we are told that it was in Kiev that he painted the portraits of Catherine and her favourite, Mamonov. Despite the success of these works, the name of the artist does not occur again in the annals of art.
Only three portraits are left from the work of Drozhzhin, Levitzky's disciple. Of these, one having the character of a self-portrait (in the Tretyakov Gallery) is especially good. The other two are also noteworthy: one is a curious family group (portrait of Antropov with wife and son, in the hall of the Council of the Academy of Arts); the other is an elegant portrait of the handsome dandy, Maltitz (ibid.). In addition to these there are known only a few icons of his, which are mediocre copies from famous originals. Fate has been even less favourable to Miropolsky (1759–1828), and Komezhenkov (born in 1760). Of the works of the first, only two portraits—that of the painter Kozlov, in the Academy, and that of Prince Vyazemsky, in the
Archives of the Foreign Office—have come down to us; the work of the second is represented only by a single portrait of doubtful authenticity. The portrait of Kozlov stands comparison with the best works of Levitzky and justifies the kind of fame which the artist enjoyed among his contemporaries. The portrait of the "animal painter" Grot, by Komezhenkov, is weaker in tone and less perfect in painting, yet it is a work of decidedly European merits. The work of other renowned artists of the times, such as Golovachevsky (1734–1823) and Sablukov (1735–1778) is represented only by copies.
Let us mention here also the portrait of the young Prince Shcherbatov in a hunter's dress, by P. I. Sokolov, who died prematurely (he is better known as an historical painter), an admirable pastel portrait of Count Rumyantzev, executed by Sazonov in the style of the eighteenth century; finally, an energetic oil self-portrait of the engraver Chemesov (property of Mme. Myatlev), and two excellent miniatures by Cherepanov (1765). These are the scattered particles and crumbs, left of the most brilliant period of Russian portrait painting, which developed owing to the influx of first-rate foreign masters, but was not duly appreciated by a society indifferent to art.
The luckiest of these masters was another serf-artist,
"owned" by the refined and sympathetic Count N. P. Sheremetyev. We refer to Nicholas Argunov, the son and pupil of the above-mentioned Ivan Argunov. N. Argunov had no great pictorial gifts. Compared with the portraits of his less fortunate, but more talented colleagues: Shebanov, Drozhzhin, and Miropolsky, Argunov's paintings seem coarse, dry, dull. They have few purely pictorial merits—correct, careful, somewhat mechanical drawing, respectable vivacity of expression, but alongside these are very dull colours and very dull painting. Argunov methodically copied what he saw, and owing to this quiet regularity, his portraits have a value as historical documents. Some of them are invaluable for the history of costume. Others render with perfect accuracy the appearance of curious personalities of those times. First among these is the family of Count N. P. Sheremetyev and his poetical wife, the former singer in the Count's domestic opera, recruited from among the serfs. Argunov's best portraits are kept in Sheremetyev's estate, Kuskovo, near Moscow.
A word must be said, in closing, about Shchukin, after Borovikovsky, the most talented of Levitzky's pupils. In his first-rate Portrait of a Lady, in the Tretyakov Gallery, he reached high pictorial perfection and created one of the most picturesque works of the Russian School; his portrait of himself in the Academy of
Arts, is painted throughout in an unusually harmonious and beautiful colour-gamut, which reminds one of Greuse and even of older masters; and his portrait of Alexander I is by no means inferior in pomposity to the official portraits of Borovikovsky or N. Argunov. Yet our conception of Shchukin is strangely unsettled: he is too versatile and, at the same time, never very pronounced, never very characteristic. He is a good artist of a vivid talent, impressionable, but superficial and vacillating. One masterpiece, however, he did create. It is the portrait of Paul I (in Gatchina), which is worth a whole historical treatise—the most characteristic and expressive of all the portraits of the tragical and enigmatical figure of Catherine's successor.

It has been mentioned already that along with the portraitists of the first period of Russian painting, the landscape painters also deserve the historian's attention. Indeed, some of the masters of landscape, who became prominent under Catherine, still preserve their importance. Already under Elizabeth we find Makhayev, whose works, if they do not reveal any talent, show that the teaching of perspective in the Academy reached a fairly high level. Another artist, Perezinotti's pupil, Alexyey Byelsky, who also became prominent under Elizabeth and who took part in the
decoration of the Tzarskoye Selo Palace, testifies even more eloquently to the height attained by the instruction in technique of the period.
Byelsky was in his time known as a stage decorator, but his oil paintings alone have come down to us. His "Ruins" (in the Museum of Alexander III and the Tzarskoye Selo Palace) are little more than an absurd accumulation of Bibiena's barocco. They have not a trace of the orderliness and grandeur, by which the compositions of Pannius and Hubert Robert are distinguished. And yet, Byelsky is an astonishing phenomenon in mid-eighteenth-century Russia. The very fact that he was able to master such a tremendous mass of forms, that he was able to glue together into one whole all these arcs, colonnades, pilons, and, thus, solve problems most difficult in their way, commands our respect.
Unfortunately, Byelsky had no worthy successors among his compatriots. Russian architectural painting produced one more artist, the feeble Farafontyev, and then fell into a state of complete oblivion. People were compelled to summon foreign stage decorators, of whom the most celebrated were the two Gradizzi, Tischbein, the older Gonzago, Canoppi and Coller. In the middle of the nineteenth century architectural painting disappears completely, as it found no
appreciation in a society which was growing coarser. As to decorative painting, it settles into that dull groove of archaeological realism and cheap féerie effects in which it still runs.
A whole pleiad of artists continued the work of the topographer Makhayev. At that time there was felt a real need for them, born of the same impulse that made the Russian noblemen have their portraits painted. It was the time of proud self-immortalisation. Russia of the old régime, that is, before the reign of Peter the Great, was little more than one vast, uniform, wretched village, with the exception of Moscow, Kazan and, perhaps, a couple of other cities. Civil architecture was in the embryonic state. Even the czar's palaces were accumulations, picturesque, but absurd in their confusion. These home-bred surroundings did not rhyme with the caftans and wigs of the nobility. There arose an urgent need of a regulation of architecture and horticulture. Both Peter and his successors, especially Elizabeth and Catherine, took serious interest in the building of palaces and villas, and in cultivating gardens and parks. Following their example, the magnates began to build, and toward the end of the century all the nobility was seized by the building mania.
Of course, just as all these caftans, rapiers, and wigs
were something in the nature of a masquerade, so this decoration was illusory, but as the deceptive illusion had all the appearance of reality, it captivated and led astray the most sceptical travellers. It was necessary to keep up this valuable illusion to the very last detail; that is why Peter paid so much attention to the art of topographical engraving. Etchings of newly erected palaces and gardens recently laid out spread throughout the world, and everywhere they created the impression of extraordinary prosperity and of the extraordinary, perfectly European refinement of Russian life. Under Paul a special class was established at the Academy of Arts with the purpose of educating such landscape engravers, but soon after the need of that showy branch of art disappeared, partly because the building fever ceased, partly because of the deep change which occurred in European culture. The art of Merian, Silvestre, Lepautre, Perelle, Piranelli, Belotto and others died out together with the generation of the great artists who erected the magnificent palaces and villas.
Of the Russian architectural and landscape painters three gained prominence under Catherine, the older Shchedrin, Th. Alexeyev and M. Ivanov. Others, such as Prichetnikov, Sergeyev, Moshkov and Petrov were almost the equals of these masters.
Semyon Shchedrin (1745–1804) had no great talent. Some of his pictures and paintings in water colours are executed in an amateur-like and even childish fashion. His colours are dry and dark; the design is timid and betrays his lack of skill. Some of his works, however, are distinguished by haunting, although hardly artistic charm, and justify the fame he enjoyed among his contemporaries. Shchedrin knew how to handle a given landscape so as to produce a striking effect; he felt the fascination of fountains playing their jets among verdure, and he revelled in the favourite motives of the times, such as deserted nooks, exquisite meadows, white cottages mirroring themselves in crystalline ponds. At school he learned the now forgotten science of grouping landscape motives, and his naive attitude toward nature developed in him, to a certain extent, the sense of colour. His best works in the Gatchina and Pavlovo Palaces, when compared with Hubert Robert's productions, look like parodies on the works of the latter, yet they are not entirely devoid of decorative beauty and even of intimate gentle poetry.
Mikhail Ivanov (1748–1823) is a greater master than Shchedrin. His water-colour views of Tzarskoye Selo and of sites visited by Catherine and
Potyomkin (kept in the Hermitage, Tzarskoye Selo, and in Parlovsk) reveal a great, almost "English" knowledge of the intricate and troublesome water-colour technique. Besides, Ivanov drew figures very well, mastered perspective, and generally in contradistinction to the modest, home-bred Shchedrin, he came up to Western standards. His répertoire also was broader. He easily mastered complex scenes, even essayed military[2] compositions, and seems to have been a good cartoonist. Nevertheless, his works are less attractive than those of Shchedrin. There is too much skill and dexterity in them, and too little attention to nature. Ivanov, an artist of the manneristic type—in Paris he was a pupil of Leprince—had also all the equipment of a decorative artist, but works of this type have not come down to us.
Infinitely greater than Shchedrin and Ivanov in talent is Fyodor Alexyeyev (1753–1824), one of the best masters of the whole Russian school. Unfortunately, we are able to estimate the pictorial gift of this artist by no more than two or three productions—whereas the rest of his numerous paintings are routine and dull. Amongst Alexyeyev's masterpieces the foremost place
belongs to his first-rate picture in the Museum of Alexander III. It is the "Quay of the Neva," executed in glowing colours laid on thick, with a skill unusual even for Western art, in a wonderfully gorgeous colour-scale. The work makes it evident that Alexeyev diligently studied the landscape-painters of his times: B. Belotto and Hubert Robert, and his numerous excellent copies from these masters corroborate this conjecture. Of nearly equal merit are his Neva landscapes in the Winter and Tzarskoye Selo Palaces, and in the Tretyakov and Yusupov galleries. Far weaker are his Moscow and Crimea landscapes. Educated on the architectural forms of the classical West, having borrowed his noble, somewhat monotonous palette from Belotto, Robert and Guardi—he was dazed in the motley, grotesque Moscow and under the shining sun of the South. And so, quite in keeping with the spirit of his times, he lent Moscow the character of a romantic "Gothic" city. Nevertheless, even in these productions, Alexyeyev is superior to all his Russian colleagues and even such foreign masters as Paterson and Damame.
These pictures, too, are notable for the truly artistic temperament, the sense of colour, and the great technical knowledge they display. What lends a peculiar charm to Alexeyev's paintings are the human figures
Vladimir Borovikovsky
enlivening them. The master delighted in noting realistic details in them, and this trait bestows upon his work a great historical interest.
It seems proper here to anticipate somewhat and to treat a group of artists who, although they lived in the nineteenth, kept up the landscape traditions of the eighteenth century. All these artists were by no means landscape painters in our acceptance of the term. Nature, her moods and colours held no interest for them; they, too, were typical, somewhat narrow "view-painters," to use the contemporary term, that is, portraitists of definite localities. Those, however, who were endowed with a more artistic soul could not help introducing some poetry into their copying. They also mastered, more or less completely, the delicate problems of light and colour.
Among these artists belong Galaktionov, Martynov, Maxim Vorobyov, Alexander Bryullov, partly also Silvestre Shchedrin and M. Lebedev, and finally, the distant epigones of the school of M. Ivanov and F. Alexyeyev: Fricke, the brothers Chernetzov, Erassi, Lagorio, Goravsky and numerous architects who practised water-colour painting. Especially noteworthy are the first four artists. As to Silvestre Shchedrin and M. Lebedev, we shall deal with them later on, in discussing the first steps of modern landscape painting.
Galaktionov (1779–1854) was S. Shchedrin's pupil, yet his works remind one of F. Alexyeyev, rather than of his teacher. This is probably because about the time Galaktionov reached the stage of independent development, "park painting," the typical phenomenon of the eighteenth century, had ceased to be. Alexander I took more interest in cities, camps and campaigns than in epicurean life in the lap of an artistically trimmed nature. Galaktionov evinces the urban, slightly official, slightly bureaucratic spirit of the time. In his drawings and lithographs—almost none of his pictures have come down to us—which are mostly views of Petrograd, we find none of the intimacy, silence, and cosiness of Alexyeyev's pictures. Galaktionov delights in painstakingly tracing the coping-stones of streets, he depicts deserted squares and renders the cold, barrack-like spirit of the Petrograd of Alexander's times. But just because of this is he precious, and even, to some extent, poetical. The typical traits of the epoch found their expression in his productions, and these views, drawn intelligently, if, pedantically, are an image, melancholy in its accuracy, of days bygone. Great charm is added to Galaktionov's paintings as well as to those of Alexyeyev by excellent, well grasped figures.
Martynov (1768–1826), who travelled far and
wide in European and Asiatic Russia and who executed thousands of very common-place water-colour paintings, which are interesting only from the topographical viewpoint, would not perhaps be worth mentioning in the history of Russian art, if not for his water-colours and his coloured lithographs of Petrograd. As a matter of fact, even these discourage one by their childish design and poor technique, but the naive simplicity with which they are executed, the well-aimed character of the chosen points and, especially, their astonishingly just, lucid, and even poetical colour tones, assign them a modest, yet honourable place. There is in them the true mood of the Petrograd summer which is not devoid of a great and elusive charm.
Among all our "view-painters"—Maxim Vorobyov (1787–1855) was a real master and one of the most renowned artists of his times. In fact, Vorobyov is distinguished from all his colleagues by his admirable skill, the many-sidedness and the poetical quality of his conceptions. His aquarelles, modest, but executed with a great deal of taste, his oil paintings, somewhat tenuous in design and ineffective in colour, but nevertheless of a very regular execution,—all this shows an excellent schooling. Vorobyov, too, was a devotee of Petrograd; like Alexyeyev and Galaktionov,
he was captivated by the granite might, the lonely majesty, and the exquisite snobbishness of the capital. At that time Petrograd was freshly built and its deterioration had not yet begun. For its unimpaired, well sustained magnificence, for the austere, harmonious style of its buildings, which mirrored themselves in the incomparable waters of the Neva, it had no peer even in the West. Foreigners considered Petrograd the eighth wonder of the world. The artists who were educated in the Academy on classical models, were well able to appreciate the beauty of architectural forms. They were naturally carried away by the newly built grandiose edifices, such as the Palace Square, the Exchange, and the Navy Office.
Vorobyov, however, did not content himself with the purely architectural side of Petrograd. Gifted musically—Vorobyov was a good violinist—he had a feeling for the fantastic charm of moonlight effects and for the melancholy of white June nights, stretching enigmatically over the noiseless waves of the Neva. And if in these pictures, abounding in most difficult colouristic problems, he now and then fails to master the colours and falls into black tones, the fault is not so much with him as with his age, which, generally speaking, had a poor sense of colour.—Later in life Vorobyov travelled much in the East and South. His
trip to Palestine is especially famous. Unfortunately, the numerous sketches he brought from these voyages are marked by that triviality and poverty of colour with which works superficially felt are stamped, and which damage most of the works of the pupils and followers of Vorobyov.
Among these landscape painters who aimed not so much at the expression of a mood, or, at least, at accuracy in rendition, but rather at striking effects and conventional colouring, who, in short, were, after all, what is aptly denoted by the French term "pittoresque"—among these painters the most noteworthy for their excellent schooling and considerable skill were the following: Maxim Vorobyov's son, Socrates,—the two Chernetzovs, who gave many purely topographic models, in finesse of workmanship sometimes hardly inferior to the best drawing by Galaktionov,—Rabus,—Rayev,—Goravsky,—the water colour painters: Beine, Klages and Premazi. To this list must be added the name of the celebrated landscape-painter Fyodor Matvyeyev (1758–1826), who specialised in Roman views. The later followers of this school were: Bogolyubov, Lagorio, Meshchersky, M. Villier, N. Makovsky, A. Orlovsky, Sudkovsky, Klever and many others. This heterogeneous group of artists may be considered as a whole, for to all of them the main aspect of their
artistic activity was purely exterior, whether it was a display of a dexterous manner, or a desire to strike by picturesque effects. One should not look to them for an intimate, quiet mood or for a concentrated study of nature.
Apart from them stands Alexander Bryullov (1800–1877), a good architect and an excellent master of aquarelle portraiture. He executed a series of lithographical views of Petrograd, which are superior to those of Galaktionov and Vorobyov for correctness and accuracy of plan, as well as for the magnificent design of the figures enlivening the landscapes.
  1. This date is communicated to us by S. P. Dyagilev. (Author's note.)
  2. The artist, who accompanied Potyomkin in his campaigns, painted, from nature, many episodes of the Turkish war, among others "The Storming of Ochakov." (Author's note.)
Last edited on 29 August 2019, at 06:18
Content is available under CC BY-SA 3.0 unless otherwise noted.
Privacy policy
Terms of Use
HomeRandomLog inSettingsDonateAbout WikisourceDisclaimers