Creative Discoveries of the Russian Artist-travelers

Margarita Krylova

Article: 
HERITAGE
Magazine issue: 
#2 2010 (27)

The late 18th century saw the appearance in Russia of the “artist-traveler” - artists who accompanied official delegations to new lands, or visited Europe on Academy fellowships, or traveled independently, always recording their impressions of their journeys. Drawing was the most direct form in which to do so: their sketches from nature - the first step towards final, finished compositions - were created using different media (pencil, quill, watercolour or pastel), and preserved intact the freshness of the artistic perception of nature, architectural landmarks, and people. An exhibition of graphic artwork from the Tretyakov Gallery collection, held from June 2009 through January 2010, featured more than 350 pieces from the late 18 th to the early 20th century (up until the 1930s), created by artists during their travels across the Russian empire and the world.

The first, introductory room of the exhibition was devoted to large-scale prints of old geographic maps, an unusual prelude that provoked in visitors a special mood of anticipation of the “sightseeing tour” ahead. The maps of Europe, the Mediterranean and Russia traced the boundaries of the world known to Russians in the 19th century. The prints were made from engravings held at the History Museum, and a lithographed Ethnographic Map of the Russian empire printed in a volume of the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopaedic Dictionary published in 1899.

Rarely-displayed travel sketchbooks of the artists were shown off in glass cases. The images from the journals — quick sketches demonstrating a superb mastery of pencil or quill, as well as finished compositions tinted with watercolour — gripped viewers with the spontaneity of impressions captured in their imagery. Many of the works are real gems of the art of drawing. The artists who traveled across Russia with sketchbooks included the brothers Grigory and Nikanor Chernetsov, Vasily Vereshchagin, Ilya Repin, Fyodor Vasiliev, Ivan Shishkin, Isaac Levitan, and Andrei Ryabushkin. Artists such as Maxim and Socrat Vorobiev, Alexei Markov, Vasily Raev, Nikolai Bryullov, Alexei Bogolyubov, Vasily Polenov, and Valentin Serov, also plied pencil or brush while traveling abroad privately or on fellowships.

A video “Leafing through the Travel Sketchbooks” was created especially for the exhibition, affording visitors a unique opportunity to “leaf through” the memory books and to acquaint themselves with more than 60 other travel sketches which could not be otherwise displayed at the show.

Each of the next five rooms was devoted to a country or region; the first room was themed around the Russian Empire of the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. The age of the Enlightenment brought to Russia a fashion for travel and exploration. In the period from the late 18th century through the 1840s every expedition and diplomatic mission was accompanied by artists tasked with “picturing local views”. Graduates of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts were sent to distant provinces of the empire to commit to paper or canvas views of recently annexed territories, and worked on special commissions to paint panoramic landscapes of ancient and new cities — such assignments were regarded as matters of national importance. Artists traveled both as part of the royal retinue and independently.

Mikhail Ivanov’s watercolours were the earliest pieces at the exhibition. In 1780, with the rank of Premier-Major, Ivanov was sent to the south of Russia, to work under the command of General Field Marshal Prince Grigory Potemkin. He served at the army’s headquarters as a quartermaster, and was often sent on assignments to depict the newly-acquired Russian lands. For ten years (from the early 1780s to 1792) he trekked across the coast of the Caspian Sea, as well as Georgia, Armenia, the Crimea, Malorossia (Ukraine), and Moldova. The legacy of that period includes his big decorative watercolour pictures such as “View of Three Churches against the Backdrop of Mount Ararat in Armenia” (1783) and “View of a Fortress in Bendery” (1790). The “View of Three Churches” features the buildings of the Echmiadzin monastery in one of Armenia’s oldest cities, Vagharshapat, and the “View of a Fortress”, a fortress on the Dniester’s right bank, which was taken without a fight by the Russian troops under the command of Potemkin in 1789, in the course of the Russo-Turkish war of 1787—1791. The tall figure in the fore-ground, standing on a hill in an anticipatory pose and looking into the distance, is considered a depiction of the prince.

Fyodor Alexeev’s landscape “A Square in Kherson” (1796—1797) is the only watercolour landscape known today that was accomplished by the artist when he was sent to Malorossia (Ukraine) and the Crimea to depict localities visited by Catherine II during her journey across the south of Russia in 1787. Upon his return, Alexeev painted views of the southern cities from his watercolour sketches.

Andrei Martynov’s artwork is of great interest. His watercolour “Lake Baikal” (1810) is a piece from a series of Russian and Mongolian landscapes, which were created using sketches from nature made during a long journey in 1805—1806 when the artist accompanied the Russian embassy headed by Count Yury Golovkin, as it travelled across Siberia, the region east of Lake Baikal, and Mongolia and China. A series of gouache drawings “Landscapes of the Baltic Region” (1810—1811) was created when Martynov visited the Baltic coast in the summer of 1810 in the train of Empress Elizabeth I. Elizabeth spent a month and a half in a country seat built previously in the reign of Catherine II in a town called Plyon (now Pliyentsiyems, Latvia) — a fishing village two kilometers from the sea. The landscapes from the series feature small neat rural homes with tile roofs, maids of honour strolling in the forest, riding on horseback or in a carriage in the company of gentlemen, and bathing tents by the sea.

Nikanor Chernetsov, a painter, graphic and watercolour artist, accompanied Count Kutaisov on a journey across the Caucasus in 1829—1831 charged with “picturing local views”. Kutaisov’s mission was to inspect territories annexed by Russia under the treaty of Adrianople, which concluded the 1828—1829 Russo-Turkish war. This journey brought about such watercolours as “View of Pyatigorsk” (1829) and “View of Tiflis” (1830-1831).

In 1833-1836, upon the invitation of the Governor General of the Novorossisk region Count Mikhail Vorontsov, the artist lived and worked in the Crimea. Roaming about its southern coast, he created a number of paintings and watercolour sketches featuring the country seats of noblemen, parks, churches, and architectural landmarks. His thoroughly crafted, elegant and limpid images enjoyed success, bringing Chernetsov quite a quantity of commissions. Thus, watercolours such as “Yalta” and “Crimea. Ai-Petri” (both dated 1835) were owned by the family of the Princes Dondukov-Korsakov, who kept them in a family album, now held at the Tretyakov Gallery.

Recently restored, an early watercolour by Solomon Shiflyar “View of the Chagan River” (1806), once a holding of the owner of the depicted area Alexander Kurakin, is worth attention, as are the views of the Baltic Sea area and the Crimea, including landscapes created in 1836 and 1844 by the St. Petersburg architect Andrei Stackenschneider at Grange Fall, an estate of Count Alexander von Benckendorff, near Reval, and “View of the Palace in Oreanda” (1852), also by Stackenschneider. Both the Grange Fall castle and the palace were built to his design.

In the first half of the 19th century the diplomats and artists alike flocked to the South. The landscape artist Maxim Vorobyev, as a member of the diplomatic mission headed by Dmitry Dashkov, trekked through Asia Minor, the Aegean archipelago, and the Near East (18201821). The exhibition for the first time displayed publicly his numerous drawings and watercolour pieces featuring the outskirts of the Turkish capital city, as well as Greek islands, and the ancient landmarks of Smyrna and the Holy Land - the monochrome sepias, elegant gossamer-coloured drawings, masterful compositions made with a quill, are all marked by their superlative workmanship. Also featured were watercolours and drawings made during the artist’s visit to Italy and Sicily (1845-1846).

The show presented sepias made by the famed artist Karl Bryullov during his travel in Turkey. In May 1835, in Italy, Bryullov accepted an invitation to join an archaeological expedition organized by Vladimir Davydov, which explored sites on the Ionian Islands and in Greece and Turkey. However, while on the way, Bryullov caught a fever and had to leave the team. In Athens, nearly dying, he was taken care of by an old friend, and his erstwhile student, Prince Grigory Gagarin. At Gagarin’s request, the artist was taken aboard the Russian brig “Themistocles” under the command of Vladimir Kornilov, the future hero of the battle for Sevastopol. Reaching Constantinople, Bryullov for several months observed the colourful scenes unfolding on the streets of the huge Oriental city and eagerly immersed himself in the exotic atmosphere of the Orient, drawing sketches and creating compositions, including “The Harbour in Constantinople”, “A Turk Mounting a Horse”, and “Mid-day in a Caravanserai”.

Watercolours by Karl Rabus were restored especially for the show. In the early 1830s the artist journeyed extensively through Turkey and Europe, and in 1831 moved from Odessa to Constantinople, where a letter of recommendation to the Russian ambassador secured for him a warm reception. Rabus was granted an apartment at the embassy, a guide, and permission to depict views of the city. The boldly-coloured, sunny “View of Constantinople” is a legacy of that fascinating trip. Leaving Constantinople, Rabus set off on a voyage across the Mediterranean, sailing past the coast of Greece and Italy, where he could not come ashore because of a cholera epidemic, before arriving in Marseille, in the south of France; from there he went on to visit Austria and Germany. The watercolours accomplished while at sea include the romantic “Moonlit Night in Gallipoli”.

In 1840—1843 the Chemetsov brothers for the first time set out on a tour outside Russia. Traveling for three years, they visited Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, the Island of Rhodes, and Turkey. The southern landscapes displayed at the show included two watercolour compositions sketched from nature in Egypt in 1842 — “Sphinx. At the Foot of the Pyramids in Giza, near Cairo” by Grigory Chernetsov, and “Mosque of Abu Mandur in Rosetta” by Nikanor Chernetsov.

The images created by Russian artists in China afford a glimpse into a barely known chapter in the history of Russian art. The mission of the Russian Orthodox Church in Beijing, set up as early as 1713, served as Russia’s unofficial diplomatic mission in China for 150 years (until the opening of the Russian embassy in 1864). The ecclesiastical mission was instrumental in establishing and maintaining contacts between the two countries, sponsoring academic research into sinology, and producing a whole cohort of Russian sinologists of international renown.

In 1830, on the recommendation of the President of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts Alexei Olenin, the 11th ecclesiastical mission became the first mission to recruit an artist. The new hire was Anton Legashov, who was to spend ten years in the Celestial Empire, like the rest of the mission’s staff. He was instructed to make every endeavour to learn the secrets of the concoction and application of Chinese paints, known for their durability and brightness. Great importance was also attached to painting from nature, especially to the faithful rendition of ethnographic detail. Legashov’s role within the mission was to establish and maintain contacts with local noblemen able to influence the policy of the Imperial court. Legashov’s portraits are worth noting — one features an important official, accomplished while still on the way to China, in Kyakhta; another, a nephew of the Emperor Khubilai Khan, made in Beijing.

The mission of the Russian Orthodox Church employed artists until 1864. In the 1840s, the painter Kondraty Korsalin visited China, in the 1850s Ivan Chmutov, and in the 1860s Leo Igorev. Chmutov’s drawing “On a Street in Beijing” (1850) and watercolour “Behind the Walls of Beijing” (1855) gained fame in Russia in the 1850s; a lithographed print of the portrait of a barber was used as an illustration for Yegor Kovalevsky’s book “Travel to China” published in 1853, and a lithograph from the watercolour piece was published in the “Russky khudozhestvenny listok” (Russian Art Newsletter) in 1858.

European countries attracted Russian artists throughout the 19th century, and the Tretyakov Gallery holds numerous drawings, watercolours, and pastels created by artists journeying privately or as fellowship-holders; these images of architectural landmarks and natural settings, as well as scenes from the life of everyday people, are filled with local colour. Fyodor Tolstoy’s genre scenes and landscapes shown at the exhibition were inspired by his visits to Naples, Paris and Franzensbad in 1845—1846. Views of Italy — Rome and its environs, and Paestum — were featured in pictures by the brothers Alexander and Konstantin Thon, Lebedev, Nikanor Chernetsov, and Socrat Vorobiev, as well as in a series of large watercolour pieces by a still unknown artist from the mid-19th century who signed his works as “painted from nature by Lebedev”. The show for the first time displayed landscapes of Pompeii (c.1851) by the architect Sergei Ivanov, a younger brother of the artist Alexander Ivanov. Other pictures of the city on display included compositions by Ippolit Monighetti, Ivan Kramskoi, and Vasily Surikov.

Surikov traveled the world extensively, visiting Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. Watercolours from his 1884 Italian series became true masterpieces of plein air painting, remarkable for their treatment of colour and light. The new visual language distinguishing the works he created during his second trip to Italy in 1900 augured the master’s future watercolour masterpieces. Surikov’s subsequent trip to Italy, in 1910, in the company of Pyotr Konchalovsky, inspired a series of watercolours in which he fully developed his manner of painting with splashes of colour, which lent a purely decorative quality to the pictures. Viewers had a rare opportunity to compare Surikov’s pieces with the works of Konchalovsky, who, in his own words, learned from Surikov “the craft of pictorial vision”.

Italy remained the most desired destination for artist-travelers in the second half of the 19th-early 20th centuries. They were eager to visit this mecca of the arts where, wherever they went, they came across the creations of famous architects, sculptors, painters, as well as the cultural landmarks of antiquity and the outstanding artefacts of the Renaissance. The beauties of the Italian landscape were equally attractive: the exhibition featured watercolours by Pavel Chistyakov, Karlis Huns (Karl Gun), Valentin Serov, Alexandra Ostroumova-Lebedeva, and pastels by Nicholas Roerich, Alexandre Benois, and Isaac Levitan, the last represented by “A View near Bordighera in Italy” (1890) and “Embankment” (1894).

France (and primarily, Paris) was the second most popular destination for such creative personalities. In summer, the Russian colony of artists would relocate closer to the sea. Brittany in the northwest of France was one of the favourite places of residence for Alexander Benois, while Zinaida Serebryakova also did a lot of work there. Alexei Bogolyubov, Ilya Repin, Vasily Polenov, Konstantin Savitsky, and Valentin Zarubin spent long stretches of time in the village of Veules in Normandy.

Other drawings and watercolours at the exhibition included views of Germany, Spain, Greece and other European countries. Among them were compositions created by Serov on a journey through Greece in 1907: the watercolour “The Royal Garden in Athens”, as well as copies of ancient frescoes from a museum in Candia (now Heraklion) on Crete. Other pictures worth mentioning include coal drawings made by Pyotr Konchalovsky in 1910 in Spain, in 1912 in the Italian town of Siena, and in 1913 in the seaside town of Cassis in France; and the watercolours “Fisherman’s House” and “Landscape with Cliffs”, created in 1915 by Alexander Yakovlev on Majorca. Sometimes travel painting revealed a new side to a well-known artist, as in Alexandra Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s composition “Segovia. View of the Alcazar” (1915), distinguished by a style completely different from her usual manner.

The exhibition covered not only European travel but also journeys through Africa and the Near East as well, including watercolours by the brothers Konstantin and Nikolai Makovsky, who visited Egypt several times in the 1870s (Konstantin worked then on a composition “Holy Carpet Procession in Cairo” — he accomplished a similarly-named painting, now in the Russian Museum, in 1876 in Paris); a large bright easel watercolour by Alexander Russov “Street in Cairo. Noon” (1896); Zinaida Serebryakova’s pastel “Bazaar in Morocco” (1928); and watercolour pieces by Vasily Polenov created in the Holy Land and Greece (1881-1882).

The views and vistas of the Russian Empire were not neglected by artists in the second half of the 19th—early 20th centuries, either. Cruises along the Volga inspired such works as Alexei Bogolyubov’s drawings “The City of Cheboksary on the Volga” (1861) and “Kuzma Minin’s Tomb” (1869); Karlis Huns’ watercolours “A Tatar in Kazan” (1863) and “Village” (1874); and Ilya Repin’s drawings and watercolours “Shiryaev Ravine on the Volga”, “Autumn on the Volga”, and “Fishing Net. Shiryaevo” (all from 1870). Ivan Shishkin’s remarkable image “Por-porog Waterfall” (1889), drawn with a lead pencil and chalk on yellow-brown paper, features a waterfall on the Suna River in Olonetsk province. Albert Benois often visited the Far East, and the exhibition featured three of a series of watercolours created by him in the 1900s: “Holy Cliffs on the Amur: ‘Bear’, ‘Dog’, ‘Hunter’”, “Imperial Harbour”, “Chulyshman Valley”. The major cities of the Baltic provinces of the Russian empire were depicted in watercolours by Mikhail Dobuzhinsky — “Street in Vilnius” (19061907) and “A Steklyannaya (Glass) Street in Vilnius”; Alexandra Ostroumova-Lebedeva — “Reval. Road to Toompea” (1913); and Nicholas Roerich’s pastel “Riga” (1903). The panorama of Russian lands concluded with views of the Caucasus, such as Surikov’s watercolour “Borjomi” (1899), and of the Crimea, shown in pictures by Ivan Shishkin, Valentin Serov, Konstantin Bogaevsky, Vasily Surikov, and Aristarkh Lentulov.

Over a period of more than 150 years the methods employed by artists changed. In the late 18th-first half of the 19th centuries large watercolour landscapes were created in studios, from sketches and studies made from nature, which were often collected in an album. However, the 1830s-1840s witnessed the rise of easel landscapes created directly from nature, something that later became standard practice. The images of Russia and the countries of the world created by Russian masters at different historical periods reflect changing artistic trends and, in general, make for a vibrant and manysided panorama of the world, produced by the talented painters plying their pencils, quills, and brushes.

Illustrations

Alexandra OSTROUMOVA-LEBEDEVA. Segovia. View of the Alcázar. 1915
Alexandra OSTROUMOVA-LEBEDEVA. Segovia. View of the Alcázar. 1915
Gouache and pencil on paper. 52.3 × 75.8 cm
Fyodor ALEXEEV. A Square in Kherson. 1796–1797
Fyodor ALEXEEV. A Square in Kherson. 1796–1797
Watercolour and Italian pencil on paper. 23 × 40 cm
Maxim VOROBIEV. Smyrna. 1820
Maxim VOROBIEV. Smyrna. 1820
Watercolour, ink, brush, quill on paper. 30.3 × 46.2 cm
Andrei MARTYNOV. Baltic Coast. A Cavalcade. 1810–1811
Andrei MARTYNOV. Baltic Coast. A Cavalcade. 1810–1811
Gouache on paper. 45 × 61.2 cm
Alexei MARKOV. View of Posillipo. 1836
Alexei MARKOV. View of Posillipo. 1836
Pencil on paper. 14.2 × 23.4 cm
Karl BRYULLOV. A Turk Mounting a Horse. 1835
Karl BRYULLOV. A Turk Mounting a Horse. 1835
Sepia and pencil on paper. 34.2 × 27.2 cm
Karl RABUS. View of Constantinople. Early 1830s
Karl RABUS. View of Constantinople. Early 1830s
Watercolour on paper. 44.9 × 63.2 cm
Grigory CHERNETSOV. Sphynx. At the Foot of the Pyramids in Giza, near Cairo. 1842
Grigory CHERNETSOV. Sphynx. At the Foot of the Pyramids in Giza, near Cairo. 1842
Watercolour, ink, quill on paper. 22.2 × 28.3 cm
LEBEDEV (Initials unknown). View of the Capitol in Rome. 1850s
LEBEDEV (Initials unknown). View of the Capitol in Rome. 1850s
Watercolour and pencil on paper. 41.8 × 59.5 cm
Vasily VERESHCHAGIN. Ruins of a Temple in Tacheng. 1869–1870
Vasily VERESHCHAGIN. Ruins of a Temple in Tacheng. 1869–1870
Pencil and watercolour on paper. 14.3 × 22.5 cm
Alexei BOGOLYUBOV. The City of Cheboksary on the Volga. 1861
Alexei BOGOLYUBOV. The City of Cheboksary on the Volga. 1861
Ink and brush on paper. 13 × 21.6 cm
Ivan CHMUTOV. Behind the Walls in Beijing. 1855
Ivan CHMUTOV. Behind the Walls in Beijing. 1855
Watercolour and white paint on paper. 44 × 57.9 cm
Karlis HUNS (Karl GUN) French Peasant. 1870
Karlis HUNS (Karl GUN) French Peasant. 1870
Watercolour, pencil, white paint on paper. 40.5 × 32 cm
Emile VILLIERS de LʼISLE ADAM. Yalta as Seen from Livadia. 1875
Emile VILLIERS de LʼISLE ADAM. Yalta as Seen from Livadia. 1875
Watercolour on paper. 14.6 × 23 cm (corners rounded off)
Valentin SEROV. Via Tornabuoni in Florence. 1904
Valentin SEROV. Via Tornabuoni in Florence. 1904
Watercolour on paper. 50.6 × 33.7 cm
Pyotr KONCHALOVSKY. Matador. 1910
Pyotr KONCHALOVSKY. Matador. 1910
Coal pencil on paper. 43.5 × 31.7 cm
Vasily SURIKOV. St. Peterʼs Basilica in Rome. 1884
Vasily SURIKOV. St. Peterʼs Basilica in Rome. 1884
Watercolour on paper. 17.6 × 25.2 cm
Zinaida SEREBRYAKOVA. Bazaar in Marocco. 1928
Zinaida SEREBRYAKOVA. Bazaar in Marocco. 1928
Pastel on paper. 46.5 × 61.5 cm
Alexandre BENOIS. Seaside. Primelle. 1905
Alexandre BENOIS. Seaside. Primelle. 1905
Watercolour and paper mounted on cardboard. 30 × 46.9 cm
Alexander RUSSOV. Street in Cairo. Noon. 1896
Alexander RUSSOV. Street in Cairo. Noon. 1896
Watercolour on paper. 96.6 × 62 cm

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