“POETS OF THE HUMAN VISAGE”: FYODOR ROKOTOV AND THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH
We owe this characterization, “Poets of the Human Visage”, of these two portrait-painters to the art historian Alexei Lebedev: it dates from 1945, when the Soviet researcher’s enthusiasm was encouraged by the rapid progress in building ties with the UK. His comparison of the Russian and English painters caught on, although Rokotov was never called “the Russian Gainsborough” in his lifetime. Nor had the fame that each artist enjoyed in his own land spread to the other country. At the 1862 International Exhibition in London Russian portraiture was represented by Levitsky and Borovikovsky: Rokotov was then simply forgotten in his homeland. Nor did Russians have any knowledge of the British artist: the remarkable “Portrait of a Lady in Blue” now at the Hermitage - Gainsborough’s only masterpiece in a Russian collection - was acquired as late as 1912. So what do the great Russian and British artists, so apparently different from one another, have in common?
Gainsborough (1727-1788) was a decade older than Rokotov (1736-1808). He was born in 1727 in sudbury, a charming small town in Suffolk, the ninth child in the family of a wool-seller with deep local roots. The young Tom inherited his artistic gift from his mother, who was skilled at painting flowers. in his school days the boy would run away to a picturesque area outside the town and paint the magnificent greenery of the meadows, the quiet bend of the river, and the solitary trees: interestingly, Gainsborough considered himself a landscape artist. At the age of 13 he moved to London, where he picked up a job in a silversmith’s shop. There the teenager became fond of sculpting. His first tutor in painting was Hubert Gravelot (1699-1773), a Frenchman working in London; later Gainsborough studied under the portraitist and illustrator Francis Hayman (1708-1776) at an art school, St. Martin’s Lane Academy.
Rokotov’s life is not so easy to trace. The year of his birth, 1736, can be determined from "confessional books” - the population records of a Moscow church. A document found by irina Romanycheva states that Rokotov was 26 in 1762, confirming 1736 as his year of birth. The version of Soviet researchers, that he was born a serf, currently seems unlikely. Nina Moleva has argued that Rokotov was never "a master’s man,” and there is every reason to agree with her on that score. in the 18th century Russian aristocrats were firmly convinced that serfs were not ready, either intellectually or psychologically, to become "free citizens”. The records of one Moscow orphanage clearly stated that "those born to slaves have a smitten spirit”. But can we believe the version about the painter’s noble origins? A record from January 19 1762, in a journal kept by the Senior Master of Court Ceremonies, indicates that a junior officer named Rokotov was on duty at a ceremonial dinner. in 1769 a Captain Rokotov was "on his own volition” seconded to the Military institute. Alexei Lebedev believed that the artist was the offspring of an impoverished aristocratic family from Pskov, and there is indeed a surviving document called "The Rokotov File of the Senate’s Office of Heraldry in Pskov,” dating, however, from 1861. The academician Rokotov’s "nephews” and sole heirs, who printed an announcement of his death in the "Moskovskie vedomosti” (Moscow Gazette) newspaper, had the ranks of "a retired Artillery Major” and Staff Captain.
The question of Rokotov’s origin is therefore important. But what is even more important for modern researchers is his "new aristocratic nobleness as the variant of a gentleman’s nobleness, which does not at all necessarily require an aristocratic pedigree”. Rokotov was indeed Russia’s first gentleman painter: his signature is featured under the charter of Moscow’s English Club.
Rokotov’s artistic legacy does not include any selfportrait recognized as such. However, igor Grabar, who compiled the first scholarly catalogue of Rokotov’s art, believed that the "Portrait of an Unknown Man” (1757, Tretyakov Gallery) featured the painter as a young man. This opinion was shared by another Rokotov scholar, Yulian Anisimov. The piece depicts a youth in a green uniform with shining buttons, a green turndown collar, and galloons embroidered with gold: according to Boris kosolapov, it is the uniform of a staff Captain of a Guards regiment. but the work does not look like a formal portrait of a military man of the period: the young guardsman’s image is free of bravado and any sham glamour.
The piece reveals the painter’s desire to gain insights into the inner life of its sitter. The model’s fine features and the serious stare of his clear eyes bespeak strong self-respect and refinement - evidence of the agile wit and inner energy of this remarkable individual. The portrait is distinguished by a certain stiffness of form and a shy, "dryish” style of painting. its composition has much in common with Pietro Rotari’s graceful "little heads”: it is a shoulder-length image, the space of the composition seems too narrow for the human figure, and the face is pictured close-up and in maximal proximity to the viewer. Nevertheless, the expressiveness of the image implies a broader vision of character. Even this first piece with the painter’s signature arguably signals a new stage in the development of portraiture, at a time when Russian society’s "spiritual” life was becoming more complex and Enlightenment ideas, which asserted the primacy of reason and awareness of moral obligations, were gaining hold.
In 1808, the year of Rokotov’s death, 20 years after that of Gainsborough, the latter’s daughter Margaret gifted her father’s last work, a "Self-portrait” (1787), to the Royal Academy. Gainsborough had painted himself many times during his lifetime. The earliest such piece, "Portrait of the Artist with His Wife and Daughter” (1748), was in the genre of "promenade portrait”, while the artist’s self-portrait in a tricorne hat (1754), was in "chamber” style. The self-portrait of 1759 in London’s National Portrait Gallery is one of the artist’s most impressive and accomplished compositions. Gainsborough, already a mature master enjoying recognition and success, has an intelligent look in his eyes, which are directed at the viewer, and a soft smile. The painter is pictured without the attributes of his trade: the artist "as a dresser made London’s dandy his professor” (to borrow from Pushkin’s "Eugene Onegin”). He wears a fashionable brown frock coat, a snow-white shirt with lace, and a black handkerchief around his neck, holding the tricorne hat under his arm. Gainsborough’s contemporaries described him as a fairly elegant dresser, an open-hearted and kind man of modest comportment. The emotional restraint and deliberate "understatement” in the facial gestures and background lends the image a certain slightly cold abstractness. it should be noted that in Gainsborough’s portraits the background plays a much more important role than in compositions by other English portraitists.
An individual of inquisitive mind, Gainsborough was a versatile painter: he was fond of sculpture and engraving, and also loved music. His friends and clients included renowned composers and antiquarians, musicians and actors. One of Gainsborough’s most compelling pieces is the portrait of Sarah Siddons (1785, National Gallery, London), in the style of the Western European ceremonial portrait. In 1782 siddons joined the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which was led by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Soon she scored a resounding success in the role of Isabella in David Garrick’s play "Isabella; or, The Fatal Marriage”. Siddons became truly famous when she played Lady Macbeth, while her other successful performances included Volumnia in Shakespeare’s "Coriolanus” and Desdemona. She combined classic beauty and a passionate temperament, intellectual depth and great vocal skills. In the Gainsborough portrait the celebrated tragic actress has a regal appearance: "the Queen of the stage” sits on an armchair as on a throne, with heavy velvet drapes in the background. Her pose is grand and impressive, the proud profile with the slight forward thrust of the chin evidence of a strong will.
"Proudness is what distinguishes her visage,” the secretary of the French diplomatic mission in St. Petersburg Claude-Carloman de Rulhiere would write about Catherine the Great, and Rokotov’s image of the Empress largely matches such a characterization. The painter conveys thoroughly the receding forehead, compressed lips and determined stare. The heavy chin is balanced against the powdered hair swept up high, skilfully adorned with strings of pearl and topped with a light graceful crown. The profile portrait calls for a certain idealization of the sitter’s forms and evokes classical art, antique cameos and ancient medals. Thus the viewer inadvertently sees analogies with images of great rulers of the past.
Both portraitists became phenomenally famous during their lifetimes. Their contemporaries valued the portraits of Gainsborough and Rokotov because each artist skilfully rendered their sitters’ real-life appearances while also responding to their expectations. Both Gainsborough and Rokotov were consistent in their approach to the depiction of physical features. The British artist’s clients could expect an idealized full-dress image of astonishing diversity. in the best traditions of the style, Gainsborough’s ceremonial portraits hypnotize with their splendour. Coronation scenes and equestrian pieces, sitters in military uniforms and hunting apparel, fancy-dress or allegorical costume - all these compositions were designed to show the models off in the best possible way and emphasize their high social standing. Especially in the portraits of the royal family: a specific individual imaged in a ceremonial portrait - for instance, the Prince of Wales, the future George IV - embodied the ideals of his historical era.
The Russian artist’s clients did not expect a portrait original in size or in format but were confident that they would be represented most accurately and in the loftiest fashion. Rokotov’s "gentlemanly status” allowed him to approach his wealthy and high-profile subjects as equals. The Orlovs and Golitsyns, Vorontsovs and Kurakins would solicit the painter’s services, eager to become owners of Rokotov’s masterpieces. Unlike serf painters (like Ivan Argunov), Rokotov did not kowtow or cater for every whim of the sitter, but worked along the lines of his personal mythology of portraiture. Perhaps this is the reason why his portraits of professional and amateur poets - Vasily Maikov, Alexander Sumarokov, Nikolai Struisky - came off so well.
Gainsborough’s models are people who live in the era of the English Enlightenment. They show themselves off, their poses and gestures are the product of an elaborate system of education. The Englishman and the Russian engage with the viewer differently. Gainsborough’s models are absolutely interested in the viewer’s reaction: the stare directed out expects mutual understanding and emphatically addresses the audience. Rokotov’s models, however, can get along well without any reaction from beyond them, so rich is their inner world.
Gainsborough did not appreciate his growing popularity. The succession of self-satisfied physiognomies, one replacing another, sometimes pushed him into depression. "To hell with all the gentlemen!” he complained in a letter to a young colleague. "They are an artist’s worst enemies, if the artist can’t keep them at a fair distance. They think, and maybe you think so sometimes as well, that they reward your achievements with their company and attention.” However, in spite of Gainsborough’s grumbling, the public’s appetite grew only stronger. Clients put themselves on a waiting list long in advance, buying huge luxurious frames for their drawing-rooms, and then had a long wait for their window of opportunity in the painter’s schedule. The delay could last a year, even two. "The nature of portraiture is such that there is a permanent chase,” Gainsborough philosophized, "with one fool appearing after another, as if they all have been bitten by a flea, and it is quite enough to drive me mad.”
Unfortunately, none of Rokotov’s letters survive. To a certain extent the artist’s voice can be "heard” in letters exchanged by Prince Alexander Kurakin and a junior officer V. Merzlukin: Rokotov was hired by Kurakin, the rich patron, to create a portrait of Merzlukin. in detailed accounts sent to the prince, Merzlukin quoted entire exchanges between himself and the painter. Rokotov carried himself quite independently. "He told me that his working this holiday season would be out of the question,” Merzlukin wrote on December 25 1783, "and on the days immediately after the holidays he won’t be able to resume working on my portrait because he has two female images to finish.” Rokotov set about the Merzlukin portrait on January 18 1784 and finished it on February 26. The sittings took place on fridays, starting in the morning, and could last "until two in the afternoon”. But the client was satisfied and wrote that the image came off "very much like the original”.
Rokotov could afford to be selective about his clients, even turning down lucrative proposals. Thus, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Moscow Orphanage, Bogdan Umsky, indignantly wrote to its supervisor Ivan Betskoy: "We should have a portrait of Profiry Akinfievich Demidov at the Board’s office but don’t know how to go about this, and moreover, there is no painter at hand. Only Rokotov, made vain and self-important by fame.”
There is a well-known account from Prince Ivan Mikhailovich Dolgorukov about Countess Skavronskaya, who "placed an order with the notable painter Rokotov” for portraits of herself and her relatives and left for Italy. "Rokotov made the images and was waiting for payment and a courier to collect them, but when neither came he presented the pieces to one of his apprentices, who sold them, as the famous artist’s work, to the already-mentioned krymov, an aficionado of painting.”
Unlike Gainsborough, Rokotov used virtually no attributes in his portraits: the artist needed no such pointers. In his portraits Rokotov evoked his sitters’ moral or professional standing most of all by means of colour; a neutral background and style of costume also helped convey a person’s characteristics in their entirety.
Gainsborough’s special achievement arguably consisted in his discovery of the potential of cold colours. Whereas Reynolds believed that grey and blue colours should be used only for setting off rich red-brown tones, Gainsborough used blue as a colour in its own right. He was the first to show the emotional depths that could be conveyed with cold colours, findings that were applied in a series of portraits, including "The Blue Boy” (1770, Huntington Library, San Marino, California) and "Portrait of a Lady in Blue” (Hermitage). in these compositions Gainsborough skilfully plays with different hues and half-shades of the main colour, setting off either its silveriness, or pearliness, or nacreous tones, or the violet of a still sea.
The colour scheme of Rokotov’s "Portrait of a Woman in a Pink Dress” (1770s, Tretyakov Gallery) is based on the subtlest gradations and shades of the warm tone. The colour pink in costume is traditionally considered a feminine attribute. If the English language has two words for the same colour, rose and pink, the origin of the Russian word is closer to the colour of the buds and petals of the wild rose or hibiscus. The artist created the finest show of rose tones: the richest shade (magenta) is on the lips, a soft pink is on the sitter’s cheeks, and bright pink (redbud) is on the lining of the cap and the ribbons. The shade of the dress is hard to pinpoint - in the Rococo such a pale pink is known as "the thigh of a frightened nymph”. Not only its delicate colour scheme and the fanciful exquisiteness of its halftones, but also the characterizations make this composition a rocaille piece. Rokotov tries to capture in the sitter’s irregular facial features the charm of youth and coquettish grace, which are the most valuable, most popular characteristics of the Rococo.
It is interesting to compare the "Portrait of a Woman in a Pink Dress” with the "Portrait of a Lady in Blue”. The young lady in Gainsborough’s composition from the Hermitage wears a semi-transparent open dress; a blue silk scarf almost slips from her magnificent shoulders, which her thin hand adorned with a gold bracelet barely manages to keep in place.
The powdered hair is swept up high, arranged in an intricate fashion and topped with a small hat with ostrich feathers and a blue ribbon. The beautiful aristocratic lady rolls her eyes dreamily, her tender little mouth sensually half-open. The Russian young lady, too, is dressed and coiffed in line with the latest European fashion, but her apparel is quite modest, no naked shoulders or plunging neckline. Rokotov depicted the chaste ideal of beauty of a girl from the Moscow patriarchal milieu. Her facial features are very regular, but how attractive this "charmingly plain girl” is with her purity and seriousness! Here we clearly see how "ideal is not opposed to individual but is realized through and in it”.
Something similar happens if we compare the "Portrait of Anna Tulinova” (late 1770s, Tretyakov Gallery) and "Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Montagu, Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry” (c. 1767, private collection, UK). There is so much similarity between the fashionable garbs of these two young ladies, despite the distance between the worlds in which each lived: the expensive satin dress with decolletage, a bowknot on the bodice, on the level of the breast, and an equally flirtatious band at the neck. The coiffures resemble each other: the hair swept up high on the head, decorated with an aigrette and round diamond earrings. But how different these models are. Annushka was the daughter of a Moscow merchant named semyon Zhuravlev, the owner of a house in Sadovaya Bolshaya sloboda. in the late 1770s she was married off to a Captain Tulinov. Perhaps Rokotov was depicting "a marriageable maiden”: the image of the full-blooded, round-faced and ample-bodied Anna Tulinova stands in distinct contrast to the dainty and pale Lady Montagu.
Comparison of male subjects gives no less food for thought, as with "Thomas Linley the Younger” (c. 1772, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London) and "Prince ivan Bariatinsky” (early 1780s, Tretyakov Gallery). Rokotov’s sitter, the young Ivan Ivanovich Bariatinsky, came from an old aristocratic Russian family - he was 27th in the long line of nobles descending from the legendary founder of Rus’, the Varangian Rurik, while his mother was Princess Catherine of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck. Bariatinsky’s handsome looks had won him fame since his youth, and he received a first-rate education, knew several foreign languages and was a professional musician. The prince had a brilliant diplomatic career ahead of him: during the reign of Alexander i he served at Russia’s diplomatic mission in London, and then as ambassador in Munich. In 1812 he left the service, settling at his family estate Ivanovskoe in Kursk Province. Several years spent in England and his marriage to Lord Sherborne’s daughter (who died young, in childbirth) had turned Bariatinsky into a true Anglophile. He devoted the rest of his life to improving and upgrading his estate, called Marino in honour of his second wife. Living in the Russian heartlands, the prince put into practice the knowledge of agronomy that he had acquired during his travels abroad.
A bright shaft of light dramatically highlights the youth’s figure, harmoniously inscribed into an oval. The future diplomat, as if anticipating his eventful life and brilliant career, looks haughtily down on the viewer. The high-born music lover is exquisitely dressed: the crimson frock coat provides a picturesque contrast to the black bowknot on the powdered hair and the golden camisole. Rokotov responds to the allure of the youth’s serious visage, his impressionability, the freshness of his soul. in Bariatinsky’s personality the portraitist captured the features that supposedly distinguished educated young men of that historical period.
Thomas Linley wears a similar camisole, only of a brighter, red-brick tone, his white shirt and black tricorne complementing the apparel. Gainsborough emphasizes the slight forward thrust of the lower lip and the condescending stare directed at the viewer. The young Englishman is distinguished by his coldness and arrogance, the aloofness of the image stressed by the lad’s surface emotional restraint and deliberate "understatement” in his facial gestures and the neutral background of the composition.
Fyodor Rokotov and his older contemporary Thomas Gainsborough are both truly "national” artists who were influenced by their native environment. Both portraitists enjoyed a fantastic rise in their popularity in the 1770s-1780s. That was the period of England’s rapid development which saw the growth of its economic and political power and a flourishing of the arts. Rokotov worked in the "golden times under the reign of our mother Catherine”, a period of military victories, expansion into vast new territories, and Russia’s final transformation into a mighty empire - a century of valiant warriors and "great eccentrics”, sophisticated connoisseurs of the "fine arts” and a landed gentry which ruthlessly ruled its serfs.
The work of both painters can be called "history through personalities”. In the sitters of both artists, irrespective of their social standing and age, there is the feeling of rich inner life, internal independence, and remarkable individuality, all features that also distinguished the painters themselves. The artists had different artistic temperaments and were exponents of different trends that can be traced throughout the entire history of portraiture. In their different ways, Gainsborough and Rokotov signalled new stages in the development of their respective national schools of portraiture. With them, visual imagery gained both spiritual refinement and poetic sensitivity.
- Lebedev, Alexei. "Fyodor Rokotov”. Moscow-Leningrad: 1945. P. 14.
- A record in the so-called "confessional books” (population records) of the Church of Nikita Muchenik (the Martyr), Ivanovsky Sorok (church cluster), for 1787: "Academician Fyodor Stepanov, Rokotov’s son, 51 years of age” // Lapshina, N.P. 'On Some of Rokotov’s Early Pieces’. in: "Iskusstvo” (Art), 1951, No. 5. P. 84.
- Romanycheva, Irina. "Fyodor Stepanovich Rokotov. His Life and Art”. St. Petersburg, 2008. P. 22.
- The author’s views are set out in detail in the article 'The Phantom of Fyodor Rokotov’. in: "Russkoe iskusstvo” (Russian Art), 2016, No. 2. P. 45-50.
- Moleva, Nina. "The Secrets of Rokotov, or, The Life of the Great Portraitist who Worked during the Reign of Catherine the Great”. Moscow, 1994. P. 70.
- Marasinova, Elena. '"Slaves” and "Citizens” in the 18th Century Russian Empire’, in "introducing European Mores and Customs among a European Nation. Essays on the Problem of Adaptation of Western ideas and Practices in the Russian Empire”. Compiled by Doronin, Andrei. Moscow, 2008.
- Lapshina, Natalya. "Fyodor Stepanovich Rokotov”. Moscow, 1959. P. 82.
- in effect there is a clarification that the person in question is Dmitry Rokotov. Russian State Military-Historical Archive (RGViA). Fund 314. File 1. item 3369.
- Lebedev, Alexei. "Fyodor Rokotov: Essays for the Monograph”. Moscow: 1941. P. 15.
- Russian State Historical Archive, fund 1343, file 28, document 2361. The Rokotov coat-of-arms is featured in the "Collection of Russian Noble Families’ Coats of Arms Not included into the General Heraldry Compendium”, Part 12. P. 40.
- "Moskovskie vedomosti” (Moscow Gazette), 1809, No. 8. P. 177.
- Bobrikov, Alexei. "Another History of Russian Art”. Moscow, 2012. P. 65.
- "Fyodor Stepanovich Rokotov: Catalogue of the Exhibition”. Moscow, 1923. P. 10.
- Anisimov, Yu. 'F.S. Rotokov’ // "Iskusstvo” (Art), 1938, No. 3, 1938. Pp. 77-96.
- Claude Carloman de Rulhiere. 'The History and Anecdotes of the Revolution in Russia in 1762’ (Russian translation of "Anecdotes sur la revolution de Russie en 1762”) // "Russia in the 18th Century Through Foreigners’ Eyes”. Leningrad, 1989. Pp. 264-265.
- Nekrasova, E.A. 'Thomas Gainsborough’s Letters as a Source for Studying His Aesthetic Views’ // "The Philosophy of Art in the Past and the Present”. Moscow, 1981.
- Alexeeva, T.V. 'New Findings Concerning Rokotov’ // "Russian Art of the 18th Century. Documents and Research”. Moscow, 1968, Pp. 280-281.
- "Russky arhiv” (Russian Archive), 1906. No. 8. P. 635.
- Dolgoruky, ivan Mikhailovich. "The Shrine of My Heart, or The Vocabulary of All individuals with whom i’ve Had Relations of Different kinds during My Life”. Moscow, 1890. P. 757.
- Lotman, Yury. 'Portraiture’ // "Articles on the Semiotics of Culture and Art”. St. Petersburg, 2002. P. 349.
- The latest research shows that in 1789 and 1791 Rokotov was renting accommodation from heirs of "the senior lackey of the court Gerasim Tikhonovich Zhuravlev” // Garmash, T.; Oxenuk, A. 'Heirs of the Academician Rokotov’, in "Antiquarian World”. 2013, October. Pp. 63, 65.
- See: Markina, Lyudmila. 'Rokotov’s Portraits. New Acquisitions of the Tretyakov Gallery’ // "Iskusstvo” (Art), 1986. No. 9. Pp. 66-67.
Oil on canvas. 76.5 × 63.5 cm. Hermitage
Oil on canvas. 155.5 × 139 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 126 × 99.5 cm. National Gallery, London
Study for the coronation portraits (1763, Tretyakov Gallery, Pavlovsk). Oil on canvas. 59.5 × 46.9 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 76.2 × 63.5 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London
Oil on canvas. 62.7 × 51.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 44.2 × 33.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 127 × 101.6 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Oil on canvas. 58.8 × 46.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 76.2 × 63.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 70.5 × 59 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
il on canvas. 58 × 49 cm. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall
Oil on canvas. 56.5 × 46 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 60 × 47.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 59.3 × 46 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 77.5 × 64.8 cm. Tate Gallery, London
Oil on canvas. 72.5 × 56 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 67.5 × 52 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 76.1 × 63.5 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Oil on canvas. 64.2 × 50.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 75.9 × 63.5 cm. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London