Galina Andreeva

Magazine issue: 
#3 2004 (04)

'In order to correctly assess a work of art, especially a landscape, one must always bear in mind the particular country and natural surroundings which served as its model.'
Dmitry Grigorovich

Our modest northern valleys possess a charm which is particularly moving to our hearts. Sorrento and the Roman countryside, the towering Alps and the wealthy cultivated farmlands of England were powerless to replace in my memory our own Russian country landscapes. The fine fields of even, endless green are so soothing to the soul! Spreading before us, the Russian countryside is filled with... something that inspires our Russian songs and echoes deeply in our Russian hearts.'
Alexander Herzen


The Russian Landscape
The Groninger Museum, Groningen:
14 December 2003 - 18 April 2004

The Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy
The National Gallery, London:
23 June - 12 September 2004

In art history, the nineteenth century is often referred to as the century of landscape painting. This is due both to the universal acceptance of artists' 'picturesque' view of the world and to the special place held by landscape painting in nineteenth-century art as the area of the boldest creative endeavour. All over Europe, artists were turning to their roots and national character. This vital creative pursuit brought them face to face with their history, present-day life and, among other things, the unique landscape of their native country. The local countryside and the way it was perceived and interpreted by artists and writers formed part of the national Weltanschauung.

In speaking of nineteenth-century English landscape painting, one only need mention two artists: John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. These names speak for themselves. When thinking of nineteenth-century Russia, however, most Europeans are put in mind of its great literature, Pushkin, Chekhov and Tolstoy. To the Russian viewer, the title of the National Gallery's exhibition of nineteenth-century Russian landscape painting - 'The Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy' - may sound somewhat vague and even debatable. Yet for the English art- lover it conjures up perfectly obvious associations. He expects to be shown Russia at the time of War and Peace, to witness the times of Anna Karenina. The exhibition ends with the first decade of the twentieth century - the time of Tolstoy's death. The name of Leo Tolstoy marks an entire era. Thus, the title of the exhibition not only determines the period to be covered.

It provides a historical background which, defined culturally through the work of a great literary figure, is accessible to the Western viewer.

Examining the role of the artist in the broadest possible sense, in 1827 Alexei Venetsianov wrote that he is ' fact a writer who must express his ideas well, eloquently, sensibly and truthfully, and always with good intention.' A renowned master and founder of his own school in art, father of Russian open-air and genre painting, Venetsianov was aware of the indisputable power of literature and mindful of the chief criteria for its assessment. For him, true art was characterised by certain rules, beauty and natural, positive expression. By the first third of the nineteenth century, guidelines for the study of art, models and information were readily accessible and available to Russian artists. The eternal question of the ideal and its relation to reality was hotly disputed. For the talented landscape artists Silvester Shchedrin and Mikhail Lebedev, views of Italy were ideal by definition. Classically trained, they painted Rome and its environs, Naples, Amalfi, and Sorrento. The magical sun of Italy brightened and enriched their palette, whilst the mild climate beckoned them to leave their studios and paint outside, observing the changes in light and atmospheric conditions.

During the mid-1820s, Shchedrin produced at least eight versions of 'New Rome: The Castle of San Angelo.' These were painted in different light conditions and from different viewpoints, some closer to the castle, some further away. Constantly returning to his landscape 'Ariccia near Rome' during 1835 and 1836, Lebedev undoubtedly sought the same goal. The terraces and alleys in the works of Lebedev and Shchedrin are alive with the striking contrast of light and shadow, blistering heat and cool freshness. In Italy, the artists' sight grew keener, yet the ideal beauty 'in which nature was bathed' put them in mind of the invariable models. 'In Italy, you will remember Claude Lorraine. You will be reminded of him at every turn,' wrote Lebedev in a letter to Russia, describing his impression of the Italian countryside. Nevertheless, the impact of nature and contact with other painters, which brought them closer to the international art scene, liberated Russian artists. Their work became imbued with a striking sense of freedom. Unusually for a Russian painter, Shchedrin could be said to have influenced an entirely new movement, the so-called Posillipo school with which the Italian artists Giacinto Gigante, Gabriele Carelli and Achille Vianelli became associated. Mikhail Lebedev, who analysed the work of foreign landscape artists such as the Austrian Josef Rebell, the Norwegians Johan Christian Dahl and Thomas Fearnley and English artists whose names he does not mention, also produced some extremely promising results. In his work outdoors Lebedev, in fact, went further than most of his contemporaries. '.The English, the French, the Germans - they all merely sketch from life and then spend the winter conjuring up Albano, Ariccia or Nemi. I do not like their method. It seems sinful not to paint from life in Italy - after all, what can be better than reality!' wrote the artist in one of his letters to Dmitry Grigorovich in 1835. Sadly, Lebedev's artistic growth came to an abrupt end with the painter's death at the age of twenty-six.

The determined pursuit of truth and similar attempts to perceive and portray the subject directly, bypassing classical models, could also be observed in Russia. In the early 1830s Venetsianov appealed to painters to 'portray everything exactly as it appears in life.' Venetsianov's artistic vision was formed by his non-reflective, Renaissance-style worldview. The well-known specialist in Italian art history V.N.Graschenkov astutely likened Venetsianov to the early Renaissance masters. The artist's surroundings appear to him as a perfect arrangement based on the principle of cyclical repetition. As an integral part of this universe, man is likewise possessed of ideal, eternal beauty. Nature in Venetsianov's paintings is never ugly. His characters are poetic, unhurried, at peace with the outside world. The ideal harmony pervading Venetsianov's views of Russian nature is reminiscent of Shchedrin's Italian landscapes. Yet whilst Shchedrin's figures are staffage, Venetsianov's are images, albeit idealised, of those around him or of Russian peasants.

Worthy of note is Venetsianov's special technique in enlarging his figures, bringing them to the foreground and doing away with all unnecessary detail, thereby lending them an unreal, mythologised quality. A master of perspective, he deliberately imbues his compositions with an even, flowing rhythm which halts the inexorable passage of time. In the landscapes of Venetsianov and his pupil Grigory Soroka one sees a lot of clear, bright sky. These are calm, contemplative views. The poetic nature of canvases by Venetsianov and his followers is akin to the verse of Afanasy Fet, albeit this was written at a later date. A contemporary critic wrote of Fet: 'Mr. Fet's gift and the sensitivity of his soul to nature are truly remarkable. Whilst a large number of poets are fond of portraying only the most striking and powerful natural phenomena, Mr. Fet, on the contrary, turns to the everyday... showing us the unexpected beauty of the most commonplace situations.'

In discussing the history of nineteenth-century Russian landscape, it is essential to note the influence exerted on artists at that time by the writers and literary critics of the so-called natural school. Their leader Vissarion Belinsky was among the first to refer to the Russian landscape as a subject for painters. In his articles of the 1840s he calls upon artists to turn to reality. Interestingly enough, in that decade the exhibitions of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts began to be dominated by landscapes. Views of Russia came to be shown more and more often. In the first half of the nineteenth century, series of paintings and single works showing different corners of the vast empire, including the newly settled territories, were often produced at the will of the ruler or commissioned by influential figures. From the late 1850s onwards, however, it became increasingly common for artists to travel independently. Fascinated by the remarkably diverse landscape of their country, they would embark on journeys to various corners of the empire. These national motifs provided a firm base for their work. They were able to discover new subjects and means of artistic expression which were not merely the product of a romantic imagination; natural rather than artificially invented. Reviewing one of the academy's exhibitions in the mid-1850s, a critic wrote: '...the encouraging aspect of this exhibition, and, indeed, of the whole Russian school, is the lack of that theatrical quality and romantic idealising which have so infected the latest French painting'.

Around this time, Moscow began to emerge alongside St. Petersburg as a new centre of art. With its deep-rooted national traditions, rich church architecture, colourful diversity, ideological freedom and increasingly powerful merchantry, the ancient capital provided an excellent environment for the development of art and cultural life. Whilst the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts continued to produce traditional, classical landscape artists, the Moscow School of Art and Sculpture followed Venetsianov's system of education based on thorough study of the subject. Tutors strove primarily to instil in their pupils a feeling of 'Russianness' and a sense of patriotism. A good example of this is the work of Alexei Savrasov. In the late 1850s, Savrasov began to teach the school's newly established independent landscape class. Recurrent motifs in Savrasov's own work are views of the Volga and Oka, country roads and cart- tracks, symbols of the endless Russian plains.

In 1862, the Art Lovers' Society paid for Savrasov to visit the World Exhibition in London. Returning to Russia, the artist travelled through France, Switzerland and Germany. Certain paintings of that period show that he was influenced by the style of the popular Swiss artist Alexandre Calame, yet in his letters and official report Savrasov claims that he felt more emotional affinity with British landscape artists. The World Exhibition itself clearly made a strong impression on Savrasov. As he admits, ' academy in the world could develop an artist's perception as well as a real exhibition. ' Savrasov's visits to the British Museum, National Gallery and a watercolour exhibition in London helped him to become acquainted with British art. In his letters and report he mentions contemporary British landscape artists such as John Linnell and James Harding. Although Constable is mentioned in neither, his work must doubtless have attracted Savrasov's attention. The Russian artist's preference for national, recognizable motifs and his ability to portray the poetic charm of nature's transitional moments suggest that, of all his British colleagues, he had the most in common with Constable. In the British section of the World Exhibition Savrasov would have seen some of Constable's most famous works, including 'Water-Meadows near Salisbury', 'The Hay Wain', 'A Lane near Flatford' and 'The Lock'. It is interesting to note that, for the contemporary viewer, Constable's 'Water-Meadows near Salisbury' is surely one of the most 'English' nineteenth-century landscapes, whilst Savrasov's 'The Rooks Have Arrived' - one of the most 'Russian'.

Savrasov spoke very highly of English art as a whole, yet he was particularly impressed by English landscapists who 'abandoned convention and went against previously held views. Whilst zealously retaining local traits in their colours and drawing, they render all of nature's different themes with amazing fidelity. Their colours are strong, brilliant, yet true'. In evaluating his English colleagues' method of working, Savrasov praised their originality, freedom from traditional canons and adherence to national motifs. The developments he observed in England lay close to his own heart. They strengthened his determination to turn Russian landscape painting into a well-respected branch of art like any other, with its own national character.

In the years which followed the abolition of serfdom, the dismal life of Russian villages naturally became a common subject in Russian painting. The vast majority of the population were peasants. Culture became increasingly democratic as social issues came to the fore and the injustice of society was denounced. The growth of ideas associated with the People's Will movement could not help but be reflected even in a seemingly asocial genre such as the landscape. Critical realism gave art, including landscape painting, a literary subtext. In genre painting, motifs from nature echoing social themes and the poetry of Nekrasov became extremely common, serving to heighten the emotional impact of the work. Many paintings of that period could be called ascetic. Vasily Perov's famous and well-studied 'The Last Tavern by the City Gate' (1868) is precisely such a work.

In the late 1860s, a talented newcomer appeared among the leading landscape artists. This was the 'young genius' Fyodor Vasiliev, who was to die at the age of twenty-three. Despite his early death and lack of any complete, systematic education, Vasiliev, who never once left Russia, displayed an exceptionally wide range of artistic interests. His achievements were quite phenomenal. His early landscapes put one in mind of the poetic realism of the Venetsianov school. The young artist's distinguishing feature is his lyrical experiencing of landscape. Nonetheless, in his paintings he portrays nature in its dynamic moments. Some of the painter's early themes are connected with such artists as Andreas Achenbach and Constant Troyon, whose works Vasiliev encountered in the Petersburg Academy of Arts. Part of the N.A. Kushelev-Bezborodko collection, they were given to the Academy and made available to the public in 1863. Vasiliev criticised Achenbach, a master of the Dusseldorf school, for his isolation from the subject which, according to the Russian painter, represents the real truth of living nature, the school and source of artistic knowledge. Troyon, on the contrary, Vasiliev praised for his natural style of painting. A series of sketching trips to the Tambov province in 1869 and a voyage along the Volga in the summer of the following year gave the artist the opportunity to meet nature and find truth and beauty in national motifs. It was at that time, claimed Kramskoi, that Vasiliev 'grew up, and his character was formed'. His achievements during that period were deemed by the famous painter to be 'enormous'. The vast expanses of the Volga broadened the young man's horizons, enriched his artistic sense and lent freedom and vigour to his painting. His brushwork became more forceful, more individual: he used his brush as if 'moulding forms', as Repin put it. Out of his youthful impressions of the Barbizon school grew a real interest in picturesque views filled with light and colour, natural, true to the subject and free from any academic carpet-like artificial effect. Vasiliev's sketch 'Clouds' (1869 - 1871, State Tretyakov Gallery) reflects the artist's liberated gaze turned towards the sky and bears witness to his new style of painting. One automatically compares this work with Constable's famous studies of clouds sketched in 1821 and 1822. Incredible though this may sound, both artists contrive to recreate their own clearly recognisable native sky! Vasiliev's clouds flit across the sky, low down, trembling, only slightly heavy with moisture. Beneath them stretches a strip of field edged with trees. Constable paints a soaring, clear sky filled with a sort of dignity. According to him, 'the sky is the source of light in nature and it governs everything'.

The famous 'Thaw' (1871, State Tretyakov Gallery) likewise faintly echoes early models which inspired the artist. The theme of the traveller making his way along a country road, frequently encountered in the works of Vasiliev's European contemporaries, is used by the Russian painter to develop an image which serves to resolve complex technical problems and is at once typified and deeply Russian in its lyrical melancholy.

In the mid- to late nineteenth century, the well-known German art historian Karl Schnaase's theory concerning the link between national character and the soul or spirit present in the nature of a country became popular. According to this theory, the two main traits of the Russian character were sincerity and emotional expansiveness. These were connected with the nature of the Russian landscape which combines endless expanses with modest, yet touching views. Schnaase's conviction that nature reflects in the soul of its people, and that artists and writers bring this to view in their work was shared by many of his Russian contemporaries. Discussing the poetic nature of art, the literary critic V. Botkin wrote: 'Our spirit is the spirit of nature. We are nature, but animate, inspired, conscious. The silent poetry of nature is our conscious poetry: we are able to express nature's mute verse. Hence we possess a feeling for nature in its eternal beauty. Schnaase's ideas were shared among others by the well-respected critic Vladimir Stasov and the artist Ivan Shishkin. Studying Shishkin's Russian landscapes in the light of Batiushkov's famous statement, 'a landscape should be a portrait', we conclude that the land of Russia was impressively healthy and beautiful. Shishkin's paintings are powerful images of nature abounding in endless fields, dense forests, deep rivers, soaring skies and lush grass. His artistic method is characterised by an epic style, almost scientific precision and positive imagery. Shishkin's views are always filled with national symbolism. They are odes to Russian nature, closely and sometimes directly linked with Russian epic literature and national traditions which are passed on to new generations in legends and songs (Amid the Flat Plains', 1883, Kiev Museum of Russian Art). Kramskoi was right in referring to Shishkin as the 'milestone of Russian landscape painting', thereby clearly stating his place in the history of Russian art.

The appearance and wide use of photography in the nineteenth century had an important effect on art. Painters favouring traditional methods and lovers of experiment and innovation alike began to use devices and special effects suggested by daguerreotypes, as photographs were then called. In many cases their efforts would lead to the development of new methods and significant artistic breakthroughs.

Arkhip Kuindzhi is known both for views of his native southern landscapes, which contemporaries likened to the verse of Pushkin and the prose of Gogol, and for his paintings of the Russian North, which impressed him with its grandeur and majesty. Both subjects were treated by Kuindzhi in an original and expressive way.

The landscapist-to-be acquired his first professional skills in the studio of Ivan Aivazovsky, a recognised master of colour effects. In the late 1850s and 1860s, Kuindzhi continued to move towards an artistic career, working as a retoucher in the photographic studios of Mariupol, Odessa and St. Petersburg. His interest in using the possibilities offered by photography in art was strengthened as a result of regular debates with artists and scientists at Mendeleev's famous 'Sredy' (Wednesday meetings). These social events, which Kuindzhi attended for many years, brought together a number of artists from the Wanderers' school (or Peredvizhniki). Under the guidance of Mendeleev and the physicist F. Petrushevsky, Kuindzhi, whom Repin called a 'genius inventor', studied the effect of light on the properties of paint and the viewer's perception of art. Let us remind the reader how one of Kuindzhi's most famous paintings, 'Moonlit Night on the Dnieper' (1880, State Russian Museum) was first exhibited. The painting was hung in a room, the walls of which were covered with dark cloth. Walking in, the public observed the wonderful painting appearing out of the darkness in a burst of light, visible as if through a camera lens. A plethora of shades of black and phosphoric green, the painting created an illusion of a magical image fixed on canvas and destined to imprint itself on the viewer's memory.

For many of his contemporaries, Kuindzhi's 'sorcerer's tricks' had no place in art. The Wanderer Mikhail Klodt criticised Kuindzhi for the artificial 'green lighting', or colour filter effect used in 'The Birch Grove' (1879, State Tretyakov Gallery.) Certain features of Kuindzhi's simplification of form and colour and light effects, as well as the stage-like composition of his landscapes derive from the art of producing theatre sets and the pictorial backdrops used in photographic studios. These methods, combined with Kuindzhi's original vision and vivid impressions of his subjects, served to create an individual artistic style which attracted many followers - painters of the Kuindzhi school.

Vasily Polenov is justly known as a 'Russian European'. With his broad education more typical of a European artist, Polenov nonetheless possessed a deep and fine sense of his native soil. Like other scholarship holders sent abroad in the second half of the century, Polenov was always eager to return home. At the same time, every visit to a foreign country helped him to grow as an artist. During his stay in France in 1874, Polenov developed an interest in plein air landscape painting. 'My talent lies closest of all to landscape genre painting', he admitted. Among Polenov's most harmonious genre landscapes is 'A Moscow Courtyard' (1878, State Tretyakov Gallery; 1902 version, State Russian Museum). In Polenov's paintings subjects such as roads, horse-drawn carts and church architecture are no longer overused national symbols but simply elements of everyday Russian life. The country road leads to a man's home, the cart is his usual means of transport and the church is an integral part of patriarchal Moscow life. The enclosed space beneath the clear, bright sky envelops and protects the inhabitants of Moscow and their world. The mood and sense of the unsuspected beauty of the everyday which this painting conveys remind the viewer of the Venetsianov school and the prose of Turgenev. Indeed, Polenov gave his second version of this painting to Turgenev, who kept it faithfully in his study.

Polenov paid particular attention to the technical side of his art, the clarity of his drawings, the purity and harmony of his colours. The artist's views bear witness to his well-developed sense of the aesthetic nature of art, his 'obvious bent to seek beauty. 'He was the first to start talking about pure art, how something is painted. He talked about variety of colour,' reminisced Konstantin Korovin. Many young painters first heard of the Impressionists through Polenov. Apollinary Vasnetsov claimed that he was 'the first to introduce the European influence in art'. In Moscow, a new artistic community - the so-called young Moscow school - developed around Polenov.

Towards the late 1880s, Polenov's epic landscapes such as 'Zhukovka', 1888, and 'Early snow', 1891, both in the State Tretyakov Gallery, acquired certain elements typical of Russian landscape paintings: wide, leisurely flowing rivers, sweeping expanses disappearing into the horizon. These would be further developed in the work of Polenov's pupils Isaak Levitan and Mikhail Nesterov. Entranced by the picturesque beauty of the countryside around 'Mother Volga', both artists painted a number of views of the river, which fed a considerable part of European Russia, serving as its 'circulatory system'. Levitan's views of the Volga painted between 1887 and 1890 ('Evening on the Volga', 'After the Rain. Plyos' and 'Quiet Abode', all three in the State Tretyakov Gallery) are full of poetic diversity. Skilfully rendering the nuances of mood and the different faces of nature, these paintings earned Levitan his reputation as the top Russian landscape artist. In turning to the Volga as a 'source of strong artistic impression', Levitan continued the tradition which originated with his predecessors, the brothers Chernetsov, Alexei Savrasov and Fyodor Vasiliev, and which Ilya Repin and other masters then followed. The special place held by the majestic Volga - 'the blessed river' - in the hearts and minds of Russians gave it the status of a mythologema, a philosophical concept deeply embedded in the Russian outlook on life.

Levitan's 'Above Eternal Peace' (sketch and painting both 1894, State Tretyakov Gallery) is a deeply thought-provoking painting. It shows a wooden church, crosses in a cemetery and an enormous sky like the sky at Austerlitz, into which prince Andrei stares in War and Peace, suddenly comprehending the fleeting nature of human life and the eternal beauty of the world. Mikhail Nesterov's 'On the Hills' (1896, Kiev Museum of Russian Art) is based on the same natural- philosophic idea, although the female figure in the foreground, clothed in a white dress with patterned border and carrying a bunch of flowers gives the painting a warmer, brighter feel.

With their fine shades of colour and emotion, Levitan's works came to be known as 'mood landscapes'. His laconic views of nature and expressive images caused him to be compared to his long-standing friend, Anton Chekhov. Their relationship could be seen as a symbol of the common aesthetic aims pursued by artists and writers. Chekhov valued Levitan's work highly and observed his progress with interest. Many other men of letters, including the poet Pleshcheev, shared Chekhov's high opinion of his friend. Levitan himself approvingly called Chekhov a 'landscapist' and took an interest in poetry, his favourite being Baratynsky. Teaching the landscape class in the Moscow School of Art, Levitan would ask his students to paint compositions inspired by poems about Russian nature. He was firmly convinced that a Russian painter could become a true landscape artist only in Russia, by painting on his native soil and adhering to his own national motifs. At the same time, Levitan was aware of developments in contemporary European art and showed great sensitivity in this area. This can be seen from his landscape 'Twilight Haystacks' (1899, State Tretyakov Gallery). Whilst addressing themes typical of the Impressionists, Levitan, his compatriots were convinced, produced finer, deeper, 'much more serious' work than the French artists. Writing to his sister from Paris, Chekhov exclaims that 'Compared to the local landscape artists... Levitan is king!'

The Russian people have always seen the search for truth and beauty as linked to the search for faith and God. This direction in the development of the Russian landscape is represented by Mikhail Nesterov, whose paintings are closely connected with Russian Orthodox art. Nesterov's landscapes are filled with silent reverence for the world which is seen as a divine universe, an all-embracing temple. His Rus is the land of wise elders, holy men and silent, ascetic nature: nature that is free from all the doubt which men bring into the world. Nesterov's aesthetic imagery is reminiscent of the pre-Raphaelites. Compare, for instance, his 'Sergius of Radonezh' (1899), and Hunt's 'The Light of the World' (c. 1854).

Russia is a vast land of broad expanses, great natural wealth and firm religious awareness. Its land scapes have inspired many memorable and diverse works of literature and visual art. The constant search for truth and beauty produced ever changing aesthetic demands on art, encouraging technical experiment and bringing many achievements. New themes were discovered and, most importantly, an original national school was formed. The paintings in this exhibition, carefully selected (with the only one omission of Alexander Ivanov's Landscape studies) by an international group of specialists, show the Russian landscape in the age of Tolstoy to be a prominent and original part of nineteenth-century European culture.

ALEXEI VENETSIANOV. Harvesting in Summer. c. 1825
ALEXEI VENETSIANOV. Harvesting in Summer. c. 1825
Oil on canvas. 60 by 48.3 cm
ISAAK LEVITAN. Spring Flood. 1897
ISAAK LEVITAN. Spring Flood. 1897
Oil on canvas. 64.2 by 57.5 cm
MIKHAIL LEBEDEV. Ariccia near Rome
MIKHAIL LEBEDEV. Ariccia near Rome
Oil on canvas. 54.2 by 44 cm
SILVESTER SHCHEDRIN. View of Amalfi. 1827–1828
SILVESTER SHCHEDRIN. View of Amalfi. 1827–1828
Oil on canvas. 44 by 61.5cm
Oil on canvas. 53,5 by 107cm
ALEXEI SAVRASOV. Country Road. 1873
ALEXEI SAVRASOV. Country Road. 1873
Oil on canvas. 70 by 57cm
Oil on canvas. 107 by 187 cm
ISAAK LEVITAN. Quiet Abode. 1890
ISAAK LEVITAN. Quiet Abode. 1890
Oil on canvas. 87,5 by 108 cm
ARKHIP KUINDZHI. The Birch Grove. 1879
ARKHIP KUINDZHI. The Birch Grove. 1879
Oil on canvas. 97 by 181 cm
MIKHAIL NESTEROV. The Little Fox. 1914
MIKHAIL NESTEROV. The Little Fox. 1914
Oil on canvas. 101 by 127





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