The First Fine Arts Museum in Russia

Veronica Bogdan

Magazine issue: 
#1 2013 (38)


In 1724 the Emperor signed a decree "about the academy where I languages are taught, as well as other sciences and distinguished forms of art". Thus the foundation of the "marriage of arts and sciences" was laid, but the institution was officially opened only under Catherine I. Although the Academy of Sciences in 1747 had its name changed to the Academy of Sciences and Arts, its activities remained focused mostly on print-making. Only during the reign of Peter I's daughter Elizabeth, who believed that "sculpture and painting delight love, assuage grief, immortalise virtue and talents, encourage to compete"1, and thanks to the involvement of Ivan Shuvalov, the Academy of Fine Arts, where painting, sculpture, architecture and print-making would be taught, was opened in 1757 in St. Petersburg.

The Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts is St. Petersburg's oldest collection of artwork and Russia's first public museum. It was established almost simultaneously with the Academy, and its mission from the beginning was training future artists through exposure to perfect works of art. The museum had its beginning in Ivan Shuvalov's gift of 100 paintings, drawings and prints by European masters, which he presented in 1758. Today only one piece remains from that initial collection, "The Massacre of the Innocents" by the Venetian artist Andrea Celesti.

Under Elizabeth I the "Academy of Three Most Distinguished Arts" was a department of Moscow University, and its first students were recruited from the pool of that body's students. I n 1764 the next ruler, Catherine II, granted to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts its charter, endowment and special status. The original charter, inscribed on parchment and personally signed by Catherine, is now held in the museum's archive. The design of the document was the product of collective work by several artists and craftsmen led by the painter Gavriil Kozlov, and is a fascinating example of artwork of the time.

The same year saw the beginning of the construction of the Academy's stone building on a site adjoining the Neva River between the 3rd and 4th Lines, to a design by the French architect Jean Baptiste Vallin de la Motthe. Continuing only fitfully, the construction of the building in early classicist style was not finished until 1788, and the interior decor of the main enfilade was completed only at the start of the 19th century.

When Shuvalov fell out of grace with the Tsarina and had to leave Russia for a while, he was replaced in the presidential office by Ivan Betskoi, a follower of the ideas of the French Encyclopedistes and an experienced courtier who set up within the Academy a boarding school which existed until 1797. The principles of student enrolment changed - sons of artisans, low-ranking clerks and soldiers, five- and six-year-old boys enrolled at the school would study the basics of painting, sculpture, architecture and print-making. As well as "high art", they also learnt crafts such as the making of medals, jewellery, clocks, iron-casting, locksmithing, joinery and were taught singing, music and dancing. The full course of study took 15 years, during which period students were not allowed to meet with their families. The children's lodgings were located in the Academy.

The main mission of the boarding school, as Betskoi envisaged it, was engineering "a new breed of people free from society's imperfections", so character- building was essential. Students who did not show much talent for painting or sculpture could study one of the crafts offered by the Academy. Betskoi helped to open a theatre, run by the actor Yakov Shumsky, where students were actors as well as designers of stage sets. Their performances enjoyed popularity even among courtiers - for instance, the ballet "Bringing Light into Past Chaos", performed in 1778 during the last week before Great Lent ("pancake week"), drew crowds of noble ladies and gentlemen. In addition to ancient Greek playwrights, the repertoire also included European classics. Often illumination galas were staged - the birth of the future emperor Alexander I was celebrated by "a resplendent illumination with allegoric placards, the fruit of communal labour of artists on the Neva near the Academy and along the 3rd Line".

It should be mentioned that Betskoi personally financed the study of ten children at the Academy from 1770 to 1786. In 1786 the foundry was set up to cast statues for palaces and country residencies. New items were added to the museum's collection: in 1765 it received from Tsarskoe Selo, "for the students' benefit", more than 40 pieces by Georg Christoph Grooth, the court painter in charge of the "animals and birds" workshop at the Academy2. Today the museum holds only two of these compositions: "A Black Wolf Tearing a Wild Goose to Pieces" and a copy of Frans Snyders' "The Birds' Concert". Betskoi bequeathed to the Academy "two cabinets with fairly old engraved antique images and with rare impressions taken from busts of different historical personalities mostly created by French artists".

The students were surrounded by works of art, with paintings displayed not only in the museum and at exhibitions but also in classrooms. Mandatory assignments for students included copying works by the old masters, as an exercise to learn about colour and composition. In addition, the Academy's students could freely use a rich library, which was at that time a repository of drawings and prints (which could even be borrowed) and splendidly illustrated art publications. The first additions included paintings and drawings brought to Russia by foreign teachers. The credit for this goes to the Academy's curator Ivan Shuvalov, who included in the teachers' contracts and the regulations the relevant provisions for the expansion of the library's reserves.

The Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine II transferred to the Academy some artwork from the Winter Palace, Oranienbaum and Peterhof; the museum received items from private collections - in the early 1830s paintings from the collections of Grigory Orlov and Prince Ye. Sapieha, and in 1836, on the orders of Nicholas I, some of the holdings of Count Vasily Musin-Pushkin-Bryus's picture gallery.

Aware of the great importance attached to the Academy's development by the monarchs, rich noblemen and foreign artists were keen to become its honorary members. The rules required that each new member send his portrait. These acquisitions formed the collection of images of the presidents, professors and honorary members which adorned the walls of the Council Room. Part of the collection is still held at the museum, but many pieces were sent to the Hermitage and Russian Museum in the 1920s and 1930s. The group of first honorary patrons and honorary members included Grand Prince Pavel Petrovich, Counts Alexander Stroganov, Grigory Orlov, Andrei Shuvalov, as well as Count Nikita Panin and Prince Alexander Golitsyn. The achievements of Nikita Demidov, elected an honorary member of the Academy in 1774, are a fine example of good deeds accomplished for the benefit of Russian art. In 1771 this descendant of one of the richest Russian families involved in industrial production, sent 1,000 rubles "for encouraging the youth studying at said Academy for greater achievement". Every year students making good progress in the study of mechanics were paid rewards from the interest on this sum. In 1773 an alabaster copy of the east door of the Florence Baptistery, a creation of Lorenzo Ghiberti, was made on Demidov's order and brought to the Academy. The door was first put up for public display, then taken down and used for the making of a bronze copy, installed in the north entrance to the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Today his gift graces the Raphael Room in the Academy.

All of the Academy's presidents contributed, in varying degrees, to the institution's development. Count Alexei Musin-Pushkin, who replaced Betskoi, donated money to reward those members of the Academy whose works were deemed of outstanding quality and put on public display on a special day in July when the Academy was opened to the public. Marie-Gabriel-Florent-Auguste de Choiseul-Gouffier, a diplomat, archaeologist, connoisseur of antiquity and author of scientific and literary studies related to the history of ancient Greece who fled from France to Russia in the aftermath of the French Revolution, was appointed by Paul I as director of the Public Library and president of the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1798 he opened a drawing class, free-of-charge, "for people of any rank".

From the start of the 19th century the Academy of Fine Arts was involved in "projects for the adornment of the capital and towns" of Russia, and any project for a "memorial to the national glory" had to be approved by it. Its next president, Count Stroganov, a patron of arts and owner of one of the best art galleries, headed the Committee for Construction of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. He took pains to ensure that this cathedral, designed by the architect Andrei Voronikhin, would be built and decorated by Russian craftsmen. The project provided students of the architecture workshop with an excellent opportunity for hands-on training, and artists close to the Academy were in charge of sculptures and paintings for the cathedral.

This project was very important for the development of the still-fledgling national school of art. It is difficult to overestimate Stroganov's contribution - he added new scientific disciplines to the curriculum and paid allowances to students out of his own pocket. In his palace on Nevsky Prospect students were afforded the opportunity to study and copy outstanding works of art which the Count had brought from his travels abroad. A highly educated individual, Count Stroganov patronised poets, writers, composers, such as Gavriil Derzhavin, Ippolit Bogdanovich and Dmitry Bortnyansky, the last of whom donated to the Academy in 1805 two paintings which remain at the museum today, on view at the permanent exhibition titled "Academic Museum" - "The Wedding of Alexander the Great and Roxana", a copy made by un unknown artist from the original by an apprentice of Raphael now held at the Borghese Gallery in Rome3, and "The Aldobrandini Wedding", a copy of the fresco by an unknown Roman artist of the first century B.C. which is presently at the Vatican Library4.

The artistic tastes of such connoisseurs of antiquity and the Renaissance as Academy president Alexei Olenin were formed in Germany. He was fond of archaeology, tried print-making, learned the basics of medal-making and collected antiquities. Appointed director of the Imperial Public Library in 1811, he did much to make it officially accessible to the general public "for everyone's benefit". His parties were attended by artists such as Vladimir Borovikovsky, the Briullovs, Alexei Venetsianov, Alexander Varnek, Samuil Galberg, Fyodor lordan, Orest Kiprensky, Ivan Terebenev and Ivan Martos. His residence in St. Petersburg and Priutino estate were favourite meeting places of poets and writers such as Nikolai Karamzin, Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Krylov, Nikolai Gnedich and Konstantin Batyushkov. Olenin directed Fyodor Solntsev's archaeology-related project and the preparation of the publication "Ancient Artefacts of the Russian State". Olenin also wrote several academic works, including "A Brief Historical Outline of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts 1764-1829". An efficient manager, he was in charge of the Academy's day-to-day operations; construction was continuing both inside the Academy (a cast-iron staircase decorated with painted murals and haut-reliefs was erected in the museum to Alexander Mikhailov's design) and outside it, on the adjoining territory where a structure called the Antique Portico began to be built in the academic garden, also to Mikhailov's design. From the late 1820s the architect Konstantin Thon supervised the team finishing the decor of the Academy's reception rooms, and copies of ancient Greek statues were displayed in the Antique Galleries. The bank of the Neva close to the Academy was faced with granite and graced with sphinxes brought from Egypt. Alexei Olenin resurrected the tradition of music-and-dance soirees and theatrical performances, often attended by the likes of Ivan Krylov, Nikolai Gnedich and Konstantin Batyushkov.

Olenin spent most of his active life under the reign of Nicholas I. It was that ruler who introduced a new principle of appointment for the Academy's presidents - now only a member of the imperial family could take the post. The first president to be appointed under the new rules was Maximilian Joseph Eugene Auguste Napoleon de Beauharnais, Herzog von Leuchtenberg, the consort of the Emperor's beloved daughter Maria; he presided over the Academy from 1843 to 1852. During his presidency a mosaic workshop was opened and various art educational establishments were founded, such as the Moscow Art School and drawing schools in Saransk, Warsaw and Kiev - the Academy supported them in every way and supplied them with teaching aids.

Herzog von Leuchtenberg proposed the idea to organise at the Academy Russia's first ever exhibition of artwork from private collections, which was realised in 1851. Exhibitors included the Stroganovs, Musin-Pushkins, Shuvalovs, Lobanov-Rostovskys and Sheremetevs, prominent collectors such as Henri Louis Auguste Ricard de Montferrand, Fyodor Pryanishnikov and others, as well as collectors of lesser social stature, recruited through newspaper notices inviting to participate "in an art exhibition of rarities belonging to private persons". More than 1,000 items were selected for display in the First and Second Antique Galleries (now the Titian Room and the Raphael Room at the museum), in the Great and Small Libraries (later re-modeled), and in rooms "along the circumference", as the enfilade with windows encircling the round courtyard was known. The organisers of this unique exhibition succeeded in securing for the show European paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries and Russian paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as graphic pieces, works of applied art, noteworthy examples of guns and prints (the latter including works by the students of the Academy's print-making workshop).

The exhibition undoubtedly was very important for St. Petersburg art lovers since it introduced them to high-quality artwork from private collections previously hidden from public view. But it was even more important for the Academy's students. Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaievna, who succeeded her husband as president of the Academy in 1861, arranged an exhibition of rare art objects from the imperial residencies and private collections, thus continuing to put into effect the noble ideas of von Leuchtenberg (who was himself heir to an excellent picture gallery). Both exhibitions were linked to charitable activities - the first one was to benefit a Society for Visiting the Poor, and the proceeds from the sales of artwork from the 1861 show were used to fund the construction of a lodging for the Academy's "needy" students.

The most valuable addition to the museum was Count Nikolai Kushelev-Bezborodko's collection of artwork bequeathed to the Academy in 1862. It comprised 466 paintings and 29 statues. In line with his bequest a part of his collection was given the status of a public gallery and displayed separately, in rooms on the second floor overlooking the 3rd Line, which were connected with the Museum of Painting via the Blue Hall. In addition to masterpieces by the old masters, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Adoration of the Magi", Jacob Jordaens' "The Bean King" ("The King Drinks"), and Peter Paul Rubens' "Christ Wearing the Crown of Thorns (Ecce Homo)", the most interesting pieces were by French contemporary masters - Eugene Delacroix, Jean Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau and Constant Troyon. Artistic personalities as Vasily Perov, Nikolai Ghe, Ilya Repin, Konstantin Korovin, Arkady Rylov and Alexandre Benois wrote about the significance of this collection for future artists. Benois, fully aware of its artistic and historical value, when he worked as the chief curator of the picture gallery at the Hermitage, in 1918 ordered that the works be transferred there, contrary to the will of the initial owner who had intentionally donated his collection to a museum that functioned under the auspices of an institution of higher learning in the field of art. Today the Academy's museum holds only a handful of second-rate pieces mostly by unknown artists.

From the earliest years of the Academy's existence one of its most important goals was to form a collection representative of all stages of the development of the Russian school of art. Since all leading Russian artists were educated at the Academy in St. Petersburg, additions made to the collection over time included the students' best works (drawings, sketches, drafts and graduation compositions), works by fellowship holders, the so-called "pensioners" (copies from European masterpieces and original paintings, sculptures and drawings), as well as works of artists close to the Academy: Anton Losenko, Sylvestr Shchedrin, Gavriil Kozlov, Grigory Ugryumov, Fedot Shubin, Pyotr Sokolov, Mikhail Kozlovsky, Ivan Martos, Ivan Prokofiev, Karl Briullov, Fyodor Bruni, Ilya Repin, Vasily Surikov, Henryk Siemi-radzki and others. The acquisitions also included pieces by foreign artists, honorary members of the Academy and teaching artists (like the Frenchmen Louis Joseph Le Lorrain, Louis Jean Francois Lagrenee, Jean-Laurent Mosnier, and the Italian Stefano Torelli). Jean-Baptiste Greuze's excellent pieces were bought from the artist by Betskoi. Little by little the workshops, such as anatomy drawing, sketching, watercolour, drapery and composition, amassed whole collections of students' best pieces that had earned their creators high grades from the Council of Professors and medals and were designated "exemplars of artistry" to be emulated by future generations. Late in the 19th century all classroom collections, as well as the gallery of portraits from the Council Room, were transferred to the Academy's museum.

Until 1917 the artwork owned by the Academy was distributed between several museums - the literature on the subject references the Museum of Painting, the Kushelev Gallery, and the Museum of Sculpture featuring original works, copies and moulds, all museums located on the first floor "along the circumference". The Museum of Sculpture arose from several antique sculptures and copies of antique statues which Ivan Shuvalov, on Catherine ll's request, acquired in Greece and Italy specially for the Academy. These items together with works by Etienne Maurice Falconet (creator of "The Bronze Horseman") and Marie-Anne Collot, and copies of European statues of the 17th-18th centuries brought to St. Petersburg by Falconet, formed the backbone of the collection. In the 18th century the admiral Georgy Spiridonov donated to the museum marble statues, busts and reliefs he had accumulated on the Greek islands during the Russo-Turkish war. Early in the 19th century the sculpture section was expanded, receiving works by Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli and a collection of a Venetian named Farsetti consisting of gypsum and marble statues, busts, models of sculptures, terracotta haut-reliefs and moulds created by prominent Italian Baroque and Renaissance sculptors such as Michelangelo, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Alessandro Algardi and Francesco Moderati.

Although in the 1920s-1930s most of its holdings were transferred to the Hermitage, the museum continued to hold a small number of gypsum and terracotta pieces (bocetti). By the end of the 19th century the Museum of Sculpture had works by Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman sculptors, as well as Renaissance and baroque masters. Russian statues of the 18th and 19th centuries were displayed in a lobby on the second floor, "along the circumference" and in adjoining rooms (from pieces created by the first head of the sculpture workshop Nicolas-Francois Gillet and his students such as Fedot Shubin, Ivan Prokofiev and Mikhail Kozlovsky, to works of Hugo Zaleman and Vladimir Beklemishev).

The collection of architectural drawings and models, still one of Russia's best, also traces its history to the 18th century. It developed from an album of French architect Jacques-Francois Blondel, who designed a building for the Academy of Fine Arts in Moscow. Later new additions followed: the best design projects by the Academy's graduates and "pensioners" (Ilya Neelov, Vasily Bazhenov, Ivan Starov and others) and technical drawings by the heads of the workshop (Vallin de la Motthe, Alexander Kokorinov, Thomas de Thomon). A wooden model of the Academy's building, accomplished by a team of carvers under Kokorinov's supervision, was acquired for the collection in 1766; 20 years later came a new addition, a model of the Smolny monastery, designed by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (the model features a bell-tower which was never built). During Stroganov's presidency, in 1800, the Academy was given architectural models from the Hermitage. The new items included 34 models made of cork - these miniature replicas of antique edifices, produced by an Italian A. Chicchi and other artisans on the request of Catherine II, were designated for her small grandsons Alexander and Konstantin, who used them to study the history of ancient Greece and Rome. Later acquisitions included models of different St. Petersburg buildings - Vincenzo Brenna's Mikhailovsky Castle, Thomas de Thomon's Stock Exchange on Vasilievsky Island, Antonio Rinaldi's St. Isaac's Cathedral and Montferrand's St. Isaac's Cathedral.

The models were frequently sent to different exhibitions. If an old print is to be believed, in the first third of the 19th century many of the models were held in a gallery on the third floor. In 1910 there were plans to set up a Museum of the Old Academy of Fine Arts. The new museum's opening was timed to coincide with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Academy's foundation in 1764, and planned activities included a display of paintings from the Shuvalov collection, portraits of personalities related to the Academy, tapestries donated by Alexander II, the original of the first charter, furniture and objects of applied art, as well as architectural models of the Academy's building and the Antique Portico. The exhibition was to be located in rooms that had previously housed professors' apartments, on the first floor, to the left from the central door and up to the 4th Line. Regrettably, these plans fell through, but rooms to the left of the main entrance, overlooking the Neva, were assigned to the Academy's museum. The spaces on lower floors housed a portion of the "Historical Exhibition of Architecture and the Industry of Arts" arranged in 1911 by the Society of Creative Architects. The organising committee of that exhibition, chaired by Benois, included the famous collector Count Vasily Argutinsky-Dolgoruky, the professor of architecture Leon Benois, the art historian Baron Nikolai Vrangel, a connoisseur of St. Petersburg Vladimir Kurbatov, the artist Mikhail Dobuzhinsky and other creative personalities.

Other items related to the collection are models, and replicas taken from fragments of the decor, of the Alhambra complex in Granada, Spain, accomplished from drawings and moulds by the academician Pavel Notbek. This is a collection of specimens of the Moorish style of the 13th-14th centuries, consisting of ornaments, impressions from separate fragments of window and archway decorations, and gypsum models of renovated sections of the Alhambra. The architects Karl Rachau and Karl Kolman continued renovation work in Spain, accomplishing in Granada graphic pieces and technical drawings which were purchased by the Academy and then sent, in 1866, to the World Fair in Paris. The Alhambra items, originally kept in a small room adjoining the architecture workshop, remain at the museum to this day.

The Academy had a collection of medals and coins called the "Munzkabinett". Greek, Roman, Byzantine, European and Russian medals and coins, and copies of them, and electroplated impressions from rare medallions facilitated the study of medal-making. The holdings of the now-defunct Museum of Costumes and Objects for Still-lifes (from 1899 titled the Collection of Costumes of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts), established on President Olenin's initiative, were held separately.

For a long time the Academy as an educational institution and its museum were a single entity, and while at first there was little awareness of the necessity of special maintenance of artwork, gradually attitudes changed. Drawings, prints, architectural and technical drawings were kept at the library and at one time could even be borrowed. Until the 1860s the museum and the library were managed by one curator, which had a negative effect on the preservation of its holdings. Archival documents frequently reference write-offs of "worn-out pictures" and the disappearance of paintings and drawings.

The annual "summing-up" exhibitions of artwork by the students and fellowship holders, as well as artists contending for the titles of academics and the professorships, and the springtime exhibitions later, drew large crowds and were widely discussed in society. The Academy was visited not only by members of the ruling dynasty, foreign kings, and Russian and European princes and statesmen, but also by famous writers and poets, such as Konstantin Batyushkov, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky. From the 1850s onwards, the academic exhibitions introduced the public to some of the artwork created by both acclaimed and as yet little-known European masters. The range of themes covered at the exhibitions was widened as well, especially early in the 20th century. In addition to the already-mentioned "Historical Exhibition of Architecture and the Industry of Arts", other shows worth mentioning included "Lomonosov and the Age of Elizabeth" and an exhibition dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, featuring several exhibits sent from Germany.

The Academy of Fine Arts has always taken great pride in its collection. Artefacts from its museum, which by the close of the 19th century had become one of the nation's largest, were regularly featured at international exhibitions and fairs, Russian national exhibitions of arts and industry, as well as itinerant academic exhibitions. Supporting art schools and museums in different cities of the Russian Empire, the Academy not only bought artwork for these institutions at St. Petersburg exhibitions, but also loaned to them paintings, drawings and statues from its own holdings. In 1897 the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts delegated its museum of Russian art to a new institution it helped to create - the Russian Museum of Emperor Alexander Ill. The Academy sent to the building formerly known as the Mikhailovsky Palace masterpieces of Russian painting and sculpture - more than 100 works by acclaimed masters such as Fyodor Alexeev, Pyotr Sokolov, Alexei Venetsianov, Maxim Vorobiev, Orest Kiprensky, Ivan Aivazovsky, Karl Briullov, Fyodor Bruni, Nikolai Ghe, Ilya Repin and Fedot Shubin.

It was a new stage in the history of the Academy, when the support of the art schools throughout the Empire was enlarged and new local libraries and museums affiliated to those schools were opened. Thus numerous textbooks and guides alongside artworks of the Russian and foreign masters were sent to Riga, Vilno (Vilnius), Saratov, Odessa, Kharkov and some other towns and cities. And works by modern artists acquired at exhibitions in the both capitals were added to the Academy Museum collection.

  1. "Description of St. Petersburg and Towns of the St. Petersburg Gubernia. Part 2". By Ivan Pushkarev. St. Petersburg: 1839. P. 245
  2. "Chapters in the History of the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts. 1758-1990s". St. Petersburg: 2009. P. 17
  3. 'The canon of beauty according to Raphael'. In: "The Age of Raphael and the Russian Artistic School: Catalogue of the Exhibition". St. Petersburg: 2008. P. 36
  4. "The Road to Workmanship. European and Russian Art of the 15th-early 20th Centuries". St. Petersburg: 2007. Pp. 250-251





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