At first it should be said that the 19th century Russian art constituted a part of the world art and culture and it absorbed recent trends that were particularly popular in the world in that epoch. In such a way the current situation in the world art and culture had a significant impact on the development of art in Russia. Like many artists in different countries of the world Russian painters had their own organization and many of them were the members of Academy of Arts in ST. Petersburg, founded in 1757. The Academy played a key role in the development of many artists and shaped their styles, especially classicist that was extremely popular in Europe in those days.

Speaking about the legacy of outstanding Russian artists of the 19th century, it is necessary to point out that it is characterized by such works as: “The Portrait of Maria Pototskaya; Her Sister Sophia and Ten-years-old Ethiopian Girl” (1835-1836) created in romantic style by Orest Kiprensky, the portraits of prince Oleander Mechchersky (1849) and Semion Lichonin (1841) by Karl Brullov. These portraits are characterized by great emotional power and skillfully reveal model’s soul.

One of the most outstanding Russian painters of the mid-19th century, Pavel Fedotov created the tragic picture “The Gamblers” (1852), which is considered to be one of the best works characterizing natural school of painting of that epoch. The works of Nicolai Ge (The Portrait of A. Herzen – 1867) are typical for the late 19th century. The canvas of Vasily Perov, “God’s Fool” (1875-1879) shows a long figure in the snow. This work reveals great emotional power and vitality. Illya Repin plays a noble part in the Russian painting too. Among his most famous works may be named “Head of a Peasant” (1880-1883), the dramatic image of Gogol’s character in “Notes of a Mad Man”, “Poprishchin” (1882), and “St. Nicolaus of Myra Delivers the Three Innocent Men” (1889). This painting is characterized by sincerity shows people sentenced to death. Particularly interesting seems to be the work of Victor Vasnetsov “Three Tsarevnas of the Underground Kingdom” (1884) that produce great impression due to its brightly colors. This painting, being created on a theme from a Russian fairy-tale, is among the more significant and characteristic of his works.

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It is also noteworthy that Russian painting of the 19th century was very productive and it is in this period when a separate genre in national art appeared. It was landscape painting A. Kuindzhi, I. Aivazovsky, S. Vasilkovsky, I. Shishkin, I Levitan devoted their efforts to depicting rural scenery at its most beautiful. So, Russian art at the turn of this century saw the search for a new content and a new form, complex and acute images.

In the last few decades of the 19th century Russian painters were deeply influenced by the “Peredvizhniki Society” (the Itinerants’ Society of Traveling Exhibitions), formed in 1870 in St. Petersburg by the painters who were opposed to the classicist traditions of the Academy of Arts. 

The aim of the Society was:

  1. to give the opportunity to everyone in Russia to get acquainted with its modern art;
  2. to develop love for art in Russian society;
  3. to make selling their works easier for the artists.

Artists who became active in the Society were I. Repin, N. Ge, I. Kramskoy, A. Kuindzhi, M. Kuznetsov, K. Kostandi, P. Levchenko. Many other artists were influenced by its ideas to paint realistic genre pictures.

Ivan Kramskoy is an outstanding artist of the democratic culture in Russia of 19th century. He is known as a wonderful painter, a remarkable art critic and theoretician of art, a talented teacher.

“Unknown Woman” is the title of the picture, which the artist gave to it. Many contemporaries were offended with this painting, critics named it “Coquette in a carriage”, “Women of her sort”, “Product of big cities”. Tretyakov even refused to buy the picture of “immoral woman” for his gallery. Unfortunately, the painter and his works were not understood by many people that made him very disappointed but partially it was his own fault for he never explained his paintings.

On my mind, the idea of this work has nothing common with absurd claims of Kramskoy’s colleagues. The person on this canvas embodies the eternal ideal of a woman, which every painter and every man dreams to find. This picture is a long look of a man charmed with a beautiful woman. Imagine crowded street, horses, carriages in a hurry, people stepping up. A young man is crossing a street to have a dinner in the restaurant and thinks about nothing – he is dandy and likes himself in the mirror. His new hat is perfectly coupled with a suit of latest fashion. He is single and his life is an ordinary screenplay. Everything stops in a moment: a beautiful unknown woman takes a look at him and disappears in a moment. But her face is staying in his mind for ever. A great mysterious secret is in her eyes. They are filled with dignity and immense forcefulness, sincerity and vagueness, pain and love. They are magic. Sometimes they are cold and in the next moment they burn. This woman is graceful and, she has a proud posture and she is sure to have something common with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The endless of eternity is concentrated in her delicate, but lonely soul. Nobody can look beyond, understand and penetrate, because she is embodiment of Mystery. And this mystery inspires painters to create masterpieces.

The later viewers saw in the woman Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. She was mysterious too, wasn’t she?

Kramskoy’s works are sure to represent high moral and social ideals of his time. Artistic reality and beauty, moral and visual values were inseparable for him. We should notice that his works influenced greatly his generation’s principles. And even today they still have an effect on people because the artist’s attitude to life was based on love and respect of people, on his belief in truth and justice.

At about 1833, another famous Russian painter Alexander Ivanov took a decision to create a big size picture “The Appearance of Christ to the People” (The Appearance of the Messiah)” (1837-1857) – its size is 540 x 750 cm. It was not so easy task, working on this picture, the painter draw over 100 sketches, many detail drawings, and large-scale design, basically in oil. So, seeking the figure of St Andrew, he at first scrupulously reproduced the features of an old man with a stiff beard and an open forehead, but seeing that was just a model and nothing else, he exposed the significant character of St Andrew the Fisherman in the next study. However, this didn’t satisfy Ivanov either, and he needed a lot of time to eventually create the desired image full of wisdom, warmth and understanding.

It took a lot of time for the artist to finish his picture: Alexander Ivanov had been working on it for twenty years, so this canvas became the effort of his life.

To describe this work it’s necessary to admit that in the foreground of the picture there are numerous male figures, some already with nothing on: they are waiting to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. John the Baptist has a clothe of animal skin under a long cloak, and keeps a crosier in his left hand. He turns and raises his arms towards the lone figure of Christ, who appears on a rocky rise. All the composition is full of emotions, inspiration and faith. A great idea is concentrated in it: “People will finally find the satisfaction of their spiritual desires and truth will be declared on earth”.

Ivanov also painted several genre pictures such as “Ave Maria” (1839), “Bridegroom Buying a Ring for His Fiancee” (1839) and very beautiful landscape studies: “Olives Near Cemetery in Albano”, “New Moon” (1842-1846), “A Tree Branch” (1840s-1850s), “Via Appia” (1845), “Water and Stones Near Palacculo” (1850s).

Although Alexander Ivanov worked during the period of Romanticism, he did not accept it and its aesthetics. Ivanov is known to have said that Romanticism ruins art. This thought found proof in all of his creative efforts. His huge painting “The Appearance of Christ to the People” is unparalleled in Western European art in both spiritual greatness and the manner of execution. That period saw the struggle between Romanticism and the old style, which is usually called Classicism.

Ivanov was influenced by the academic doctrine at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. But in his own works, Ivanov always tried to show his independence from academism. Whatever he illustrated – whether historical characters or biblical legends, women or peasants – we would always sense in them the force of his intellect, which manifests itself strongly.

To finish with it’s necessary to say that every masterpiece is a drop of artistic legacy in the Grail of the World – and people should keep it in safe.

The Sources:

Ghyka M. The Geometry and Art of Life. Dover Publications, 1978;

Hall S., Firth K. Europian painting. Washington, 1992:

Olsen A.H. The history of Russian Art. London, 1999;

Stoyanov U. Russian artistic legacy. Arkana, 1996;

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