SHUBIN. TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
THE REIGN OF CATHERINE THE GREAT WAS BOTH GLORIOUS AND IGNOBLE: "SOME SPOKE OF THAT TIME WITH ENTHUSIASTIC ADMIRATION AND UNCRITICAL SENTIMENTALISM: A SPLENDID AGE THAT IMMORTALIZED RUSSIA’S ACHIEVEMENTS BY THE GLORY OF ITS EMPRESS, A TIME OF HEROES AND HEROIC DEEDS, AN EPOCH OF SWEEPING, UNPRECEDENTED GROWTH OF RUSSIAN CAPACITIES THAT AMAZED AND ALARMED THE WORLD", SO WROTE HISTORIAN VASILY KLYUCHEVSKY. HE IS ECHOED BY POET AND AUTHOR ALEXANDER RADISHCHEV: "OH, MEMORABLE IS THAT CENTURY! YOUR ELATED MORTALS ARE GRANTED TRUTH, FREEDOM AND LIGHT, YOUR ASCENDANT STAR BRIGHTLY BURNING FOREVER…" IRONICALLY, THE ROMANTIC RADISHCHEV WAS LATER TO SUFFER A PAINFUL DISILLUSIONMENT; MORE REALISTIC OBSERVERS WERE AWARE OF THE DETERIORATION IN PUBLIC MORALITY, WITH A RISE IN SECULARITY AND GREED.
However, in the second half of the 18th century Russian art changed from its purely religious character to the study of humanity, including individuals. This change was reflected in its art. Historically, sculpture had never been in the mainstream of Russian art, but with the rise of humanism, the plastic possibilities in sculpture became popular. In particular, sculpture of this period is associated with Fedot Ivanovich Shubin.
Born in a village in the Arkhangelsk region of the far north, Shubin's family were free peasants, unlike the paedial serfs who constituted the majority of Russia's population at that time. Besides agriculture, peasants in the north fished in the sea; they were good at shaping figures from walrus ivory and bones; many were artists in scrimshaw. From the time of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, father of Peter the Great, they were known as skillful craftsmen, and some were invited to work in the Moscow Kremlin. Their scrimshaw was in great demand by Russian nobles, merchants and the clergy. Yakov, Fedot's older brother, is known to have been commissioned to carve in ivory "The Tsar's Family Tree” with fifty-eight figures of Russian Princes, Tsars, Emperors and Empresses. Fedot may have assisted him with this piece.
The Russian north has always been rich in talent. Almost simultaneously it produced two geniuses: Mikhail Lomonosov and Fedot Shubin. They were family friends. Fedot's father helped young Lomonosov to learn to read and to write (a rare and valuable skill among Russian peasants and fishermen in the 18th century) and later, when 19-year- old Lomonosov, eager for knowledge, moved to Moscow, he gave him money for the trip.
In 1759 when Fedot Shubin came of age (a free peasant could get his passport at nineteen and leave to seek his fortune, particularly in Moscow or St. Petersburg), he left home for St. Petersburg. His early years in the capital were not as hard as they might have been: he appears to have had orders for scrimshaw in bone from influential people whose good offices, as he would write later, helped him to become a stoker in her majesty's service in 1761, which position he occupied for three months. There is no direct evidence, but Lomonsov, who owed his father so much, may have helped Shubin to land this position.
That year Count Ivan Shuvalov, Curator of St. Peters-burg's Academy of Fine Arts and a good friend of Lomonosov, addressed Her Majesty's Office with a letter that, incidentally, mentioned "Stoker Fedot, the son of Ivan Shubnoy, whose crafts in scrimshaw give hope that, with time, he could make a skillful craftsman...". At the time Russia was at war. As his passport was to expire in 1761, he might have been recruited for military service, which at that time meant a term of 25 years. Fedot managed to escape because of his position as a "Household" stoker and his enrollment in the Academy of Fine Arts. But a few years had passed before, thanks to Count Shuvalov's good offices, he was endowed "with the rights and allowance all the other students of the Academy of Fine Arts are entitled to". From November 1761 Fedot Shubnoy was upon the books of the Academy, and his family name was changed from Shubnoy to Shubin.
For Russians, the Fine Arts Academy was the centre of their national cultural life. Its teachers were leading world figures and its graduates went to Europe to perfect their skills. For twenty years sculpture was taught by Nicolas Jillet, whose methods copied the Paris Academy: step by step he led his students from copying engravings to making plaster casts from world famous sculptures and, eventually, to making sculpture from life, in accordance with the classical canons. As Shubin, with his natural curiosity, observant eye and keen intellect, was an outstanding student in the copying of prints or studying the rules of composition, Jillet, did not object to his pupil's sculpting from contemporary life. In his student days, Shubin made two figurines: "Valdai Woman Selling Round Cracknels" and "Woman Selling Hazelnuts". In 1766 his graduation work, the historical bas-relief "Assassination of Askold and Dir", won the Gold Medal and the sculptor was awarded a Certificate "with a sword", that is he was granted officership and ennobled. According to the Academy tradition, the Gold-Medal winners were sent abroad to learn from European masters; normally Russian graduates went to Paris, considered the heart of European artistic life.
The Academy sent them abroad with this advice:
Voyages are not devised, to change places and see cities and towns. They are for you to get educated, to learn the laws, customs and traditions of various peoples of the world in order to share their knowledge, to mould your manner following their taste in your artistic practice, in order to, eventually, take in everything that is good with them and to reject anything that is bad ... Be like bees that fly away to the fields and gardens in search of flowers to benefit from their quintessence and who come back carrying that precious haul to store it carefully in their beehives. Such ought to be your purpose and your behaviour on a voyage you are going to undertake with the money the Academy that has brought you up is giving you."
In Paris Prince Dimitry Golitsyn, the Russian Ambassador, took care of the young artists. A man of great knowledge and exquisite taste, Prince Golitsyn had often undertaken purchases of art for Catherine II. As a connoisseur he adhered to Diderot's philosophy that encouraged artists to strike a balance between classicism and naturalism:
Those who ignore ancient art for the sake of nature risk being just second-rate, insignificant, weak and bad at drawing, sketching of the character, outlining the background and being expressive. Those who ignore nature for the sake of ancient art risk being cold and lifeless; they cannot see the hidden and secret laws which only nature can reveal. Diderot, a French encyclopedist, advised Golitsyn to take Shubin to the studio of the famous sculptor Jean Baptiste Pigalle.
Shubin found a ready welcome in Paris; he had the opportunity to meet remarkable French masters, such as Francois Boucher, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, besides Denis Diderot himself; this was of enormous benefit to his professional development. On Pigalle's advice he sculptured figures from paintings by Nicolas Poussin and Rafael, and made many sculptures from life. While his first teacher, Nicolas Jillet, encouraged him to find his own style, Jean Pigalle helped him to advance in skill, even if, sometimes, his early works showed traces of his mentor's influence.
As Shubin's time in Paris came to a close, he anticipated, with some trepidation, his move to Rome. Influenced by Diderot's maxims, such as, for example, that "antiquity is often a cause of mannerism", he was both intimidated by, yet exhilarated with, the prospect of examining great classical monuments. But, when he arrived in Rome, the eternal city and mother of ancient art, all memory of Paris began to fade.
Rome in the 1770s was dominated by the ideas of J.J. Winkelmann, the archaeologist and antiquarian. The artistic community, regardless of nationality, was divided into "Germans", being the followers of Winkel- mann, and the rest. Among the 'Germans' any preference for nature over antiquity was considered sacrilege. While the young Russian artists may have admired Winkelmann's fanatical devotion to Hellenic culture and classicism, they were also influenced by the Italian Rococo tradition. Influenced by both, the young sculptors sought their own style Setting up in Rome, Shubin lost himself in studying the riches of various art collections, spending hours in the museums of the Vatican, musing over the numerous ancient busts and statues of emperors and orators. In this period he made busts of Catherine II and a bas-relief of Count Shuvalov, his patron. The busts of Her Majesty were much admired by connoisseurs, and he was to copy them many times in the future. Indeed, he was recommended by Shuvalov to the Orlov brothers, for whom he made their sculptural portraits. He became famous in Rome. Even the Earl of Gloucester paid a visit to Shubin's studio and ordered copies of the Orlov busts for his collection.
Patronage gave the sculptor a degree of financial independence allowing him to stay abroad for another year. While his classmates had to go home in 1771, he returned to Paris. There Shubin met Nikita Demidov, the owner of a famous ironworks in the Urals, who commissioned him to make sculptures of him and his wife. The image of Nikita Demidov demonstrates obvious improvements in the sculptor's technique: the face is more detailed and the character of the sitter is more graphic; his heavy features, steady, arrogant look and firm chin depict a man of exceptional personality.
In the summer of 1773, after six years in Europe, Shubin returned to Russia. His prospects were brilliant. To be nominated a member, or academician, of St. Petersburg's Academy of Fine Arts it was compulsory to sculpt Endymion, the sleeping Greek shepherd. But Shubin had other plans; he undertook a marble bust of Prince Alexander Golitsyn. Critics agree it is the best of Shubin's sculptures, a testimony to what he had learned in Europe. The Golitsyn face is a study in complex emotions: skepticism and arrogance mask the bitterness and disillusionment of a Russian Voltarian. The delicate texture of the stone looks alive: the face feels smooth, the sheen of the clothes is highlighted by the spongy fineness of lace. The elusive play of light on marble creates a subtle impression; details flow together, with an
extraordinary plastic perfection. His years in Europe had enlarged his vision, deepened his insights and augmented his technical skills. He had found his own individual style; his creations were both impulsive and passionate; the work of a true master.
At this time, Shubin felt sure of his creative potential. Elated with his initial success, and encouraged by his peers, his future looked bright: but he was mistaken. Like many of his contemporaries, Shubin was deluded with Russia's momentary glory, with its military victories, with constant rumours of coming reforms. Moreover, he underestimated the vanity of his models.
The bust of Golitsyn won praise from the Empress, Catherine II: Shubin was honoured with a gold snuffbox, and a directive to sculpt Her Majesty. As mentioned above, while in Rome in 1771, he already made a bust of Catherine. The Empress was represented as she might like to imagine herself to be seen; her image and bearing follow classical Greek ideals; while her features are preserved, she is made to represent a goddess or heroine. The 1774 bust of Catherine was in the same heroic style, and on the basis of its merit Shubin was admitted to the Fine Arts Academy. Incidentally, another Shubin's early copy of the Rome bust is presently in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, while the 1774 sculpture is in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Unlike most academicians of that time, Shubin did not rely on state patronage. Flattered by the attentions of the Empress, and being a darling of the Court, Shubin depended solely on his talents, and like many Russian artists, died in poverty. However, initially he was overwhelmed with commissions. From 1773 to 1789 his career was very fruitful: he made sculptures and sculptural decorations for newly-constructed buildings in St. Petersburg - forty pieces for Marble Palace, fifty-eight sculpture portraits for Chesmensky Palace, sixteen anaglyphy pieces for St Isaac's Cathedral, twenty fretwork figures of saints for the St Alexander Nevsky's Laura Cathedral and many others. But his major passion was sculptural portraits.
While exalting the ideal, Shubin carefully examined the individual in all his or her human complexity. The master followed the elevated standards of the Enlightenment, he gave his subjects a very human face. His sitters included all the worthies of his time: Prince Golitsyn, the ardent follower of Voltaire, A.A. Panina, the beauty who died so young, the successful energetic Orlov bothers, gallant General Field Marshal Count Zakhar Chernyshev. While the portraits might appear heroic and grand, Shubin's insights into human nature revealed their inner being, something they may have wished to hide: whether pompous, secretive, pretentious or insincere. The sculptor's sharp eye and steady hand took off the conventional masks; it was unlikely the high- blooded snobs appreciated such unveiling. Shubin's popularity began to decline. By 1789 'the darling of fortune' wrote to Ivan Betskoy, President of the Academy of Fine Arts: "... as I have nothing to support myself with - everything being so dear - no Academic allowance, no orders. Considering all that I humbly appeal for enlisting me in the Academy of Fine Arts . and providing a flat and allowance." He appealed to the omnipotent Grigory Potyomkin for the cherished position of Adjutant Rector of Academy, but to no avail. Sadly, he was to prove the maxim that it is almost impossible for an artist in Russia to survive by talent alone.
Years passed and Shubin's portraits became more subtle, more psychological. Gradually they lost the decorative effects and traits of classical idealization; but the clients did not appreciate the change; they liked it better when the sculptor presented them as ancient gods and heroes; it flattered their vanity. Again, Shubin had to seek help from the high and mighty, this time none other than the Empress herself. But tastes were changing, including in sculpture; it tended to mannerism, theatrical rusticity of an Arcadian eclogue. Shubin's portraits looked old-fashioned.
By the 1790s, under the blows of circumstance, he repented of having chosen to be a portrait sculptor; he seemed to realize the futility of his career and suddenly remembered that he had originally sculptured historical scenes. According to the Academy standard, portrait painters and sculptors were not considered deserving the title of Professor; Shubin had the title, but not a paid position: his being a portrait painter was a sad and naive excuse.
Despite such discrimination against the portrait genre, the sculptor went on doing his craft: the ceremonial portrait of Emperor Paul I was among his best. The bust impresses with the fanciful flourish of the dress and the luxury of the accessories: the ermine mantle cunningly drapes over Paul's narrow shoulders; the heavy chain and the Maltese Cross hang down from the neck; the chest is decorated with all his honours. At the same time the portrait strikes one with its almost grotesque sharpness: the Emperor's inwardly tense face looks both cruel and sentimental, hysterical and fidgety; he strives for action but lacks the strength of will. The sculptor shows the true chemistry of Paul's complicated, yet ambiguous character - the tragic face of the most romantic Russian Emperor, nicknamed "Russian Hamlet", hated and misunderstood by his contemporaries.
Shubin spent his last years in misery and poverty, forgotten by all. To make matters worse, the wooden house the sculptor lived in went up in flames in 1801. But God had mercy on the poor artist: Emperor Paul I remembered Shubin, gave him a diamond ring and the rank of Collegiate Assessor according to the Russian Table of Ranks and Classes. Eventually, influential members of Court pressured the Academy to find him an official flat and a paid position as Adjunct Professor.
Fedot Shubin died in 1805. Unfortunately, he left no pupils; fashions had changed and he could not find artists who were willing or able to follow his realistic manner; nevertheless, he taught many craftsmen his exquisite technique of marble chiselling. Finally, Fedot Shubin is remembered by his admirable portraits of the people who lived at the sublime time of Catherine II. It was he, a clever and attentive craftsman from a peasant family, who looked behind the curtain of great extravagance, driven by ambition, vanity and egoism, to unveil the truth hidden behind the pompous and false front of the glorious Age of Catherine the Great.
Marble. h 50 cm
Marble. h 70 cm
Bronze. h 74 cm
Marble. h 63 cm
Marble. h 60 cm
Plaster. h 66 cm