The Image of St. Petersburg in the Work of Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva
On the 150th Anniversary of Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s Birth
The article contains the artworks of Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva from private collections. The photographs of Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva were made by her student Nikolai Sinitsyn and were provided by his family.
St. Petersburg had neither a Piranesi, like Rome, nor a Canaletto, like Venice - the city on the Neva lacked an artist who would devote themselves entirely to glorifying it. In the mid 18th century, Mikhail Makhaev could have been such an artist, but the times would not allow it: having completed a number of glorious etchings of Baroque Petersburg, he was forced to turn to other, more practical projects. At the end of the same century, this was again the case with Fyodor Alekseyev, the creator of wonderful landscape panoramas of the Northern Capital, who was obliged to devote the majority of his canvases to Moscow.
St. Petersburg. Kryukov Canal. 1910.
Colour woodcut. 17 × 23 cm
In all the ranks of renowned cityscape artists, in Russian or world art, there is just one artist whose name is instantly associated with exquisitely beautiful, majestic, faithful and characteristic images of St. Petersburg.
This was a woman of no great height, who moved softly, a little uncertainly, forced by short-sightedness to wear a pince-nez that could not, however, hide the kindly look of her slightly narrowed eyes - a lady whose character was not fully reflected in her appearance. She was possessed of an iron creative will and a rare sincerity of feeling, was straightforward, incredibly observant and preternaturally enamoured of her beloved city - a passion of which, by the way, she avoided speaking. We refer, of course, to Anna Petrovna Ostroumova-Lebedeva.
It was she, along with the poets of the Russian Silver Age - and, above all, Alexander Blok - who created the image of the great city on the Neva that lives on in each and every one of us to this day, an image that is already modern and, at the same time, classical in its unwavering expressiveness and unforgettable distinctiveness. As Blok puts it in his poem “To Pushkin House”:
It’s the ring of the ice flow
On the solemn river,
The roll call of a steamship
To another in the distance.
It’s the ancient Sphinx watching
The wake of a slow wave,
The bronze horseman flying
On an unmoving charger.
What fiery expanses
The river opened for us!
These are precisely the images that form part of Blok’s poetry and the etchings of Ostroumova-Lebedeva: the unique horizons of St. Petersburg, architectural and watery; the city’s celebrated monuments and wonderful buildings: the Academy of Arts with its Egyptian sphinxes on the quayside, Senate Square and the Bronze Horseman against the grandiose backdrop of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the masses of apartment and office blocks that were springing up at that time.
But under snow of night tempests,
Over Neva, so cold and might,
She met a sphinx, as her friend prettiest,
With easy cry of her delight.
She fell in love with buildings’ masses,
Sleeping in wilderness of night,
And quiet icon-lamps through glasses
Joined to the dreams of her sweet heart.
(From the poem “Snow Maiden”. Translated by Yevgeny Bonver)
The artist was born in 1871 into the family of Pyotr Ostroumov, who, by the time his daughter came of age, had become a Privy Councillor, one of the most senior lay posts of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. She studied at St. Petersburg’s renowned Liteynaya Gymnasium with the daughters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Yakov Polonsky, the latter a very close friend of her father. Although she was conscientious in her studies, Ostrou- mova-Lebedeva’s passion for drawing was insurmountable, something that, at times, caused her parents some consternation. While studying at the Gymnasium, she attended evening classes at the Baron Stieglitz School, before insisting on entering the Imperial Academy of Arts - a somewhat unorthodox course of action for a young lady of her social circle.
“‘I am in St. Petersburg, in the Academy, beginning a new life!’ This is the entry in my diary for the 16th of September, 1892... The vastness of the buildings, the huge classrooms. the dark corridors, the spiral staircases disappearing upwards and downwards. all this interested me in the extreme.” Ostroumova-Lebedeva witnessed changes at the Academy, the reform of its statutes, a lessening of the importance of studying the classics in favour of working from life, the arrival of new professors, drawn largely from the “Peredvizniki” (the “Wanderers”).
Her dream was to enter the studio of Ilya Repin, a dream that came true, although their relationship was, at times, turbulent. Ostroumova-Lebedeva wrote “Darling Repin! One moment I love him, the next I hate him! It is interesting to watch him at work - he stands in his smock, his face unrecognisable, seeing nothing but his subject; I can sense a power within him, but, for some reason, pity within me.”
Ostroumova-Lebedeva responded sharply to the rapid changes in the finely tangled, fast-flowing artistic life of St. Petersburg, with all its periodic waxing and waning. In those years, having proven its creative power with its 19th-century literature, Russia was beginning to astound the world with its radical art and would soon come to lead it in the 1920s and 1930s, reaching the culmination of the Avant-garde before returning to the ideal of Neoclassicism in a more complete way than any other national school of art in the 20th century. At the same time, it was exactly at that moment that Russian culture felt most keenly the mood of the “world’s soul”, the surge of new artistic ideas in Vienna and Munich, Milan and Barcelona, London and Glasgow and, most of all, Paris.
It was Repin who advised Ostroumova-Lebedeva to continue her studies in Paris, saying by way of conclusion, “there, you will get a handle on everything.” Her choice of mentor in Paris was not some renowned Frenchman, as one might expect, but, rather, the American artist James Whistler. She recalled that “he ... often sat on my stool, took the brush and palette and taught right on the canvas, on my etude.” Her enthusiasm for Whistler was likely a nod to fashion and the consequence of youthful eccentricity. However, the creative world of the Aesthetic Movement, to which Whistler belonged and which proclaimed the beauty of art as the touchstone of everyday life, may also have been a necessary step between Repin’s school and the new phenomena of Russian art.
As the turn of the century approached, the artist drew closer to the “Mir Iskusstva” (“World of Art”) group. Alexandre Benois called her “one of the most whole and characteristic figures” of the artistic grouping. Although never declaring her adherence to the views of the artists of this group, in my opinion, Ostroumova-Lebedeva was faithful to its artistic principals all her life. She stood out, nonetheless, from its other members, thanks to her overriding passion for engraving - a ‘demanding’, strict and technically difficult artform.
Ostroumova-Lebedeva herself defined her place in the history of art with characteristic straightforwardness: “Engraving in Russia has embarked on a new path since the end of the 19th century and has transformed itself from a craft into the original, self-contained art of engraving. It was I who put this process in motion.” Not without reason was one of the books dedicated to the history of this type of art in Europe from the 16th to the 20th century entitled “From Marcantonio Raimondi to Ostroumova-Lebedeva”.
Ostroumova-Lebedeva very precisely explained the reasons for her preference of exactly this form of art as the means to express her creative ideas. She emphasised that “I prize this art for its incredible concision and laconicism of expression... for the terseness to which it owes its profound acuteness and expressiveness. In woodcutting, I value the merciless determinacy of its lines. The edge of the line is defined by the sharp edge of the cut wood and is not softened by the corrosion of nitric acid - which is to say by chance - as it is in etching, but rather remains sharp ... and clean. The technology itself does not permit corrections, which is why there is no room for doubts or hesitancy in woodcutting.” This suited her own character, even in her younger years. The material with which she worked was also a subject of adoration: “How wonderful is the movement of the instrument over hard wood. The board is finished so that it feels like velvet, a shining, golden surface along which the sharp chisel runs precipitately, while the whole task of the artist is to keep it within the borders of their will.” Ostroumova-Lebedeva remained faithful to her ‘engraver’s passion’ for the entirety of her life: in St. Petersburg during the happy years before the First World War; in Petrograd during the revolution, an event she accepted without much enthusiasm despite an initial optimism that was shared by many artists; in Leningrad during the rule of Stalin, when she was forced to work on images of the Socialist city - the “New Construction” cycle; and in the years of the Siege of Leningrad, which she lived through, managing to preserve her love for the city’s beauty and imbue her works with a special humanity.
St. Petersburg was the theme that reigned unchallenged during the entirety of Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s mature creative life, from the views of Pavlovsk in the 1900s to the mid 1940s, when already gravely ill, she completed her St. Petersburg series with the woodcut “View of the Fortress at Night”. By her own reckoning, all told, she created 85 pieces devoted to the great city.
Although the image of St. Petersburg that Ostroumova-Lebedeva created was formed over the course of nearly half a century, its most important features were discovered by the artist in her most peaceful and joyous years - the first decade of the 20th century. It was precisely then that her works first featured the combination of a sharp, pointed, even glaring lyricism with a powerful resilience and monumentality, along with a precise, geometric sense of perspective and an acerbity of emotional freedom, all of which once again call to mind the words of Blok:
Again the snow-clogged pillars,
The Elagin Bridge
And the voice of a woman in love,
The crunch of sand, the horse’s snort.
And I in my strict clarity
Neither play at submissiveness,
Nor make demands on her domains.
Precise as a geometer,
I count in silence when we pass
The bridges, chapels, and the wind’s
Force, the low islands’ emptiness.
(From the poem “On the Islands”. Translated by Geoffrey Thurley)
When Blok or Ostroumova-Lebedeva portray their native city, there is an almost visible impression of perspective, of the gaze moving along the magnificent panoramas, a clear signification of the exact spot from which a particular part of St. Petersburg is revealed. At the same time, both his St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg of Ostroumova-Lebedeva are shown as being disconnected from the everyday, as something inexplicably beautiful, eternal and prone to reincarnating its forms in new life. Not for nothing does the poet exclaim “O, impenetrable my city...”
In the art of these two Petersburgers, one can find unexpectedly exact parallels. Remembering Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s wonderful intertwining of ships’ rigging, her etchings where ships coexist harmonically with the buildings of early St. Petersburg, it is impossible not to think of Blok’s visions in the poem “Retribution”:
You foresaw the full distance, like the angel
On the fortress spire, and then
(dream or reality) a wonderous fleet,
Turning wide its flanks
Suddenly blocked the Neva...
And the Sovereign Founder himself
Stands on the leading frigate.
As so many really dreamed ...
Under Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s chisel, St. Petersburg becomes an eternal, imperishable space, an indestructible symbol of the period before the First World War, in which her creative powers blossomed to their full extent simultaneously with the broader Russian culture, which accrued a completely unique, refined and monumental character.
The Rostral Columns in front of the Stock Exchange stand like the legs of giants on the Spit of Vasilyevsky Island, as the perspective line of the Neva’s opposite bank recedes far into the distance, along with the wing of the Admiralty building and the glorious parabola of the General Staff Building on Palace Square. No less striking is the perspective line of the dark, powerful greenery of the park bordering this architectural space, converging in the distance with the barely perceptible Yelagin Palace. An unfathomably delicate fragment of the Summer Garden’s fence descends to the granite-surfaced Moyka as it flows to meet the Neva. Every line here is purposeful, at once intimate and monumental. Here the genius of an architect is united with the exquisite vision of an artist alive to beauty. A sunset burns low above the dark Kryukov Canal and the silhouette of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral’s bell tower, famed for its exuberant gracefulness, rises from the water. The dark sky and the dark watery space divide the engraving in two, as the row boats, sailing vessels and barges crowd around the since-vanished palace of Ernst von Biron, built during the reign of Anna Ioannovna.
It was as a farewell present to the city that Ostroumova-Lebedeva created the night-time silhouette of the Peter and Paul Fortress, with its reflection on the smooth waters crisscrossed by the reflected flashes of the street lamps on the embankments and bridges. It is as if the dark city itself was shot through with light, becoming a trembling and living thing. During the period of industrialisation and the wartime siege, the artist was forced to witness a different St. Petersburg - the city either new and newly developed or the city at war. Nevertheless, even in the most difficult times, each of her pieces is infused with a love of St. Petersburg, and the harder the times upon which the great city had fallen, the more humane that love was.
After the war, she acquired a student who was devoted, active and capable of assisting her: the Moscow engraver and teacher Nikolai Sinitsyn. She proclaimed him not only her student and friend, but yet more grandly: “My representative in Moscow.” Ostroumova-Lebedeva, always inclined to precision, concluded a ‘contract of friendship’ with the Moscow artist: “I, despite my age and very reserved character, contract friendship with you, and you, as I do, must sincerely treasure it.” Sinitsyn endlessly admired her work and strove to provide disinterested help to the artist - an aim in which he enjoyed a large degree of success. He was able to support Ostroumova-Lebedeva during the endless commotion around her being awarded the title of Academician at the renewed Academy of Arts, in the publication of her “Autobiographical Notes” in three volumes and in many other issues that burdened and frequently irritated the artist who, at this stage of her life, often suffered from ill-health, especially after the death of her beloved husband, the chemist and Academician Sergei Lebedev.
Sinitsyn’s own work was another frequent topic of conversation between the two of them. Ostroumova- Lebedeva looked upon him as her student and bluntly criticised what she did not like in his work, while sometimes voicing some much-valued praise. However, it seems to me that this was not the most important thing - their relationship is somewhat reminiscent of that between Goethe and Eckermann, the great master and the talented admirer capable of recording his impressions on paper. Sinitsyn’s monograph “The Engravings of Ostroumova-Lebedeva” bears clear traces of their personal communication and is more a systemised collection of the echoes of their face-to-face and written conversations than strictly a work of art history. Thanks to her correspondence with Sinitsyn (which, by Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s own count, ran to more than 200 letters) and his scrupulous collection of every piece of information regarding the creative development of each of her works - from the first preparatory pencil sketch to the finished work - Ostroumova-Lebedeva stands before later generations “full-size”, one of Russia’s female artists who is truly worthy to be called a great master.
The time has come for the oeuvre of this artist to be reborn once again. Her work not only reflects, powerfully and deeply, our shared love for the beauty of St. Petersburg, but transforms this love into an inalienable and indispensable part of Russian culture. Of course, this was also the case a century ago, when her engravings first saw the light of day, but back then, her work lived in fine but strong inter-relation with the artistic culture of a past epoch. However, even among the inexhaustible, diverse and exquisite inheritance of the Russian Silver Age, the images of St. Petersburg created by Ostroumova-Lebedeva stand out to such an extent, conveying so accurately the living and majestic beauty of the city that even in a historical context, their creator has neither artistic competitors nor contemporaries.
Her St. Petersburg will remain an unshakeable monument to the artist in the history of Russian culture, even if, as Brodsky once wrote “in an instant, contemporaries [were to] die” and even were much of that which has survived in memory from those times to be lost in nothingness. Our vision and perception of the great city on the Neva will always be, as it is now, defined by the gaze of a diminutive woman peering through the glass of her old-fashioned corded pince-nez and the movement of the engraver’s chisel in her hands.
- A. Ostroumova-Lebedeva, “Autobiographical Notes” [“Avto- biograficheskiye zapiski”], vol. 1 (Moscow, 1974), p. 61.
- Ibid, p.130.
- Ibid, p.134.
- Ibid, p.148.
- Alexandre Benois, “The Art of Ostroumova” [“Iskusstvo Ostrou- movoy”], (Petrograd, 19-?), p.17.
- From A. Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s letter to N. Sinitsyn dated December 13, 1949 (Sinitsyn archive).
- M. Flekel, “From Marcantonio Raimondi to Ostroumova-Lebede- va. Notes on the History and Technology of Reproductive Engraving from the 16th to 20th Centuries” [“Ot Marcantonio Raimondi do Ostroumovoy-Lebedevoy. Ocherki po istorii i tekhnike reproduktsion- noy gravyury XVI-XX vekov”], (Moscow, 1987).
- A. Ostroumova-Lebedeva, “Autobiographical Notes” [“Avto- biograficheskiye zapiski”], vol. 3 (Moscow, 1974), p. 8.
- From A. Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s letter to N. Sinitsyn dated December 30, 1948 (Sinitsyn archive).
- From A. Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s letter to N. Sinitsyn dated August 18, 1949 (Sinitsyn archive).
- N. Sinitsyn, “The Engravings of Ostroumova-Lebedeva” [“Gravyury Ostroumovoy- Lebedevoy”], (Moscow, 1964).
Colour woodcut. 35 × 22 cm
Woodcut in black and white. 27 × 20 cm
Colour woodcut. 18.5 × 27 cm
Colour woodcut. 16.7 × 24.2 cm
Colour woodcut. 16 × 23.5 cm
Watercolour on paper. 17 × 24 cm
Colour woodcut. 16 × 23.5 cm
Autolithography and watercolour
Watercolour on paper and cardboard. 19.5 × 29 cm
Autolithography and watercolour. 20.4 × 19.6 cm
Colour woodcut. 17 × 24.5 cm