Svetlana Usacheva

Magazine issue: 
#3 2004 (04)


View of the Palace Embankment from the Peter and Paul Fortress, 1794
View of the Palace Embankment from the Peter and Paul Fortress, 1794
Oil on canvas. 70 by 108 cm

Towns and cities very often play the role of a muse for landscape artists. Towns are constantly changing, and their "portraits" preserve the images of times gone by. This explains why townscapes are becoming more and more interesting, not only for connoisseurs of art but also for those interested in historical aspects of life. More than two hundred years ago, Fedor Yakovlevich Alexeyev (1753 or 1754-1824) painted portraits of Moscow, St. Petersburg and a number of other Russian towns. Alexeyev was one of the first Russian landscape painters, and one of the great names of the 18th century Russian art. Being a talented disciple and follower of Venetian masters of the "theatrical perspective" and "vedutas", Alexeyev managed to create and reveal the national peculiarities of the Russian school of landscape painting. He achieved a high level of fame as a Moscow and St.Petersburg cityscape painter. Alexeyev was also acknowledged as being a good copyist of Western-European landscapes, and achieved recognition as head and tutor of the "perspective" class of the Academy of Fine Arts. Thus the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition is to demonstrate all aspects of the artist's creative activity - from his green years as a disciple, through to when he became an outstanding master and teacher.

The exact date of Fedor Alexeyev's birthday is not known. Nevertheless, some facts given by the artist himself in his biography point to the year 1754. Born into the family of a retired soldier, Alexeyev studied at the Academy of Fine Arts from 1767-1773. A year before his graduation from the Academy, he was sent to attend landscape classes. For quite some time, the future painter was to obey the Academy officials who merely saw him as a scenery artist. In order to study the art of theatre perspective, Alexeyev spent three years in Venice. But the best professional classes for him proved to be in copying the town vedutas of the Venetian masters, in particular those of the famous Antonio Canaletto, whose paintings influenced Alexeyev's creativity to the greatest extent.

On his return from Italy, Alexeyev started his artistic career as a copyist. In the 1780s when he worked as a scenery artist for the Board of Directors of the Imperial Theatres, Alexeyev copied paintings by Antonio Canaletto and his disciple Bernardo Bellotto in the Hermitage. This particular work was ordered by the Russian Empress, Catherine II. It is quite possible that at that time, Alexeyev also copied the landscapes of the renowned German painter of the 18th century Jacob Philipp Hackert.

The copies, though smaller than the originals, confirmed Alexeyev's bright talent as a painter who was able to perceive and reveal both the decorative and image-forming possibilities of colouring. Thus Alexeyev slightly changed the linear graphic approach to the depiction of the architectural object and cold colournig of Bellotto's painting "View of Zwinger", making it milder and warmer, adding a fleur of romanticism to the original. It is no surprise that they called him "Russian Canaletti" and that the Empress enjoyed and highly appreciated Alexeyev's works.

The beginning of the 1790s is considered to be the starting point of Alexeyev's artistic career. It was at that time that the artist managed to find his original theme - views of St. Petersburg. Alexeyev, witnessing of the rapid growth the capital, applied all his artistic experience as a copyist and a scenery painter, to portray an ever- changing image of the capital. Though Alexeyev was not a pioneer in depicting St. Petersburg - the Capital of the North - in Russian art, he made quite a number of fine and harmonious "portraits" of the city that have already preserved their charm for more than two centuries. Alexeyev was awarded the title "Academician of Perspective Paintings" for one of his oil canvases - "View of the Palace Embankment from the Peter and Paul Fortress".

Alexeyev's contemporaries appreciated his ability to find "the happiest viewpoint" from which to catch the best and most picturesque views. There is everything in his St. Petersburg cityscapes: consummate composition and the subtlest gradations of light, which add an aura of peculiar lyricism to the fascinating "planned" beauty of the city. The artist brilliantly united architectural silhouette with air and water spaces, so vividly manifested in the then modern ideas of city building.

The inner harmony of Alexeyev's cityscapes cannot be ascribed to "the happy viewpoints" alone. It is born of the light-bearing soft bluish-grey colouring of the water and the sky, reinforced by the contrast with the dense warm colours of the foreground. One cannot fail to see Canaletto's influence in Alexeyev's views of St. Petersburg, but the artist changed the golden radiance of Venetian cityscapes into the silver glimmer of the transparent twilight of the Moonless North summer nights. The artist created a dream-city - a city seen as if through a transparent veil of light - a peculiarity of St.Peters- burg that had never once been noticed by all those who had previously visited this city on the Neva river. All Alexeyev's works are true to life, but far from humdrum of life: quiet waters, slowly flowing vessels, a few almost motionless figures of people on the bank, rhythmical movements of the oars of a boatman, resembling a Venetian gondolier, - all these elements put together, comprise the fairytale-like beauty of "the main fagade" of the city, whose main avenue is the Neva river.

In his later pictures of the city, the artist paid keen attention to the monumental architectural constructions that were being built at the beginning of the 19th century, such as the new buildings of the Admiralty and the Stock Exchange. And the staffage became more detailed and diverse, depicting the everyday scenes and festive events of city life. In his "View on the Stock Exchange and the Admiralty from the Peter and Paul Fortress", the artist united the space of the Vasilyevski Island Point with the panoramic view of the embankments. The whole of the city is in movement: the figures of people are not static, the coaches are moving in front of the Stock Exchange Building, a crowd of people are gathered at the Neva, probably not far from the Admiralty, where the flags decorating the ship in the stocks are streaming in the wind - all these tell of some festive event that the painter wants the viewer to be involved in.

The views of St. Petersburg were the focus of Alexeyev's artistic activity for almost three decades. Each of his cityscapes can be found in a number of variants. It should also be noted that the painter enlisted the co-operation of his disciples - the students of the Academy of Arts where Alexeyev had himself been tutored in the perspective painting classes - to fulfill some of the ordered works for the Court or for private collectors. Alexeyev's activity as the manager of his own shop was also connected with the other most important theme in his activity - Moscow.

Alexeyev lived in Moscow with the students of the Academy from 1801 to 1802. During that time, he managed to create an absolutely unique series of watercolours, comprised in the so-called "portfolio of Moscow sights". Alexeyev's widow donated this "portfolio", containing fifty-eight views of Moscow and its suburbs, to the Hermitage Museum. Later it was distributed among several museum collections in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The whole of the collection will be presented to the public at the jubilee exhibition.

Being connected with each other, these studies reconstruct the image of pre-1812 Moscow. Many a mansion and architectural monument depicted by Alexeyev were completely destroyed in the fire of 1812, which was caused by the Napoleonic invasion. Henceforth, the cityscapes acquired a new significance - that of historical artifacts. These watercolours were the source of inspiration for the artist when he painted his oil canvases in his studio during the 1800-1810s. The majority of these paintings depicted the views of the Kremlin and its surroundings. Thus, thanks to the works of Alexeyev and his students, contemporary viewers can appreciate and admire the perspective of the Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral, the ancient Kremlin walls and towers, the Voskresenski Gates, and the building of the Main Drug Store (Apotheke), in which the Moscow University was placed. A glance at Alexeyev's paintings is enough to feel the atmosphere of old Moscow, its Cathedral and Ivanovskaya squares, and the old Kremlin Palace.

The Old Russian capital with its middle-aged architecture impressed the artist, who had been "brought up” in the atmosphere of St. Petersburg's classicism. Here, everything was so different from the Capital of the North: the intricate architectural decor, bright colours, peculiar views of inter-wound streets - all of which reminded him of a theatre setting with the stage surrounded by magnificent cathedrals, towers (terems) and palaces. The artist's imagination was fired to the extent that he sometimes neglected precise details, in order to achieve a festive, decorative effect.

The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, described the capital as diverse, live, and colourful. Alexeyev managed to portray the unique peculiarity of the city. In his pictures, Moscow - the stronghold of patriarchal traditions and moral principles - is a strong attraction with its special ancient colouring, and live cityscapes of the time. Such is Alexeyev's picture "The Red Square in Moscow”. Everything is in movement: the coaches, the people in bright clothes busily buying and selling goods. All this makes a vivid picture of a bustling, everyday life in Moscow.

Alexeyev was able to bring his cityscapes to life; to pass the atmosphere of his times down through the centuries, to viewers who never fail to gain the purely historical experience derived from his paintings. The simultaneous exhibit of his studies and paintings, will give the opportunity to follow all the stages of the work of the artist and his disciples. Some watercolour copies of Alexeyev's paintings, made by the students of the landscape classes of the Academy of Arts, will be exhibited alongside prints of his works, and the items of applied art decorated with the views so brilliantly depicted by the artist on the canvases.

View of the Palace Embankment from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Detail
View of the Palace Embankment from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Detail
The Red Square in Moscow. Detail
The Red Square in Moscow. Detail
The Red Square in Moscow. 1801
The Red Square in Moscow, 1801
Oil on canvas. 81,3 by 110,5 cm
View of the Voskresenskie and Nikolskie Gates and the Neglinnaya Bridge from Tverskaya street in Moscow. 1811
View of the Voskresenskie and Nikolskie Gates and the Neglinnaya Bridge from Tverskaya street in Moscow, 1811
Oil on canvas. 78 by 110,5 cm
View of the Voskresenskie and Nikolskie Gates and the Neglinnaya Bridge from Tverskaya street in Moscow. Detail
View of the Voskresenskie and Nikolskie Gates and the Neglinnaya Bridge from Tverskaya street in Moscow. Detail
Copy of Antonio Canaletto’s picture 'Inner yard with the garden. Logge in Venice'
Copy of Antonio Canaletto’s picture "Inner yard with the garden. Logge in Venice"
Oil on canvas. 74.5 by 46.4 cm
Copy of Jacob Philipp Hackert’s picture 'View of Catania and Etna'
Copy of Jacob Philipp Hackert’s picture "View of Catania and Etna"
Oil on canvas. 59.8 by 85.5cm
Copy of Bernardo Bellotto’s picture 'View of Zwinger in Dresden'
Copy of Bernardo Bellotto’s picture "View of Zwinger in Dresden"
Oil on canvas. 48.4 by 64.8 cm
View on the Stock Exchange and Admiralty from the Peter and Paul Fortress. 1810
View on the Stock Exchange and Admiralty from the Peter and Paul Fortress, 1810
Oil on canvas. 62 by 101 cm
The Cathedral Square in the Moscow Kremlin. Detail
The Cathedral Square in the Moscow Kremlin. Detail
The Cathedral Square in the Moscow Kremlin
The Cathedral Square in the Moscow Kremlin
Oil on canvas. 81,7 by 112 cm





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