Svetlana Usacheva

Magazine issue: 
#3 2008 (20)

The Tretyakov Gallery expresses sincere gratitude to OAO Bank VTB and Anatoly Novikov whose support made this project possible. Our special thanks to the “YEKATERINA” Cultural Foundation for their support in the publication of the album.

In September 2008 the Tretyakov Gallery opened the first solo show of the Russian landscape artist Fyodor Mikhailovich Matveyev (1758-1826), commemorating the 250th anniversary of his birth. Matveyev spent most of his life in Italy, where he gained European acclaim. The great artist’s legacy had the same fate as academic art in general - appreciated by his contemporaries, it was later relegated to oblivion and for a long time considered outmoded and lacking in originality. The present exhibition re-introduces Matveyev to modern audiences. The project brought together many Russian and international museums, including the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the National Art Museum of Belarus, and private collections. The work led to many interesting discoveries: the discovery of previously unknown facts about the artist’s life, a more accurate attribution of the content of his landscapes, and a better knowledge of the specifics and dates of their creation. The catalogue published as a part of the exhibition project is the first dedicated to Matveyev’s works. The panoramic views of Italy and diverse graphic pieces, including journey sketches on display in the Gallery’s Engineering Building, take the viewer on a “painterly journey” in the spirit of the 18th century together with an artist more than fond of the beauty of nature.

In 1764 Fyodor Matveyev, the son of a soldier of the Izmailovsky guard regiment, was enrolled at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. The six-year-old boy was admitted to the Academy’s elementary school in the first year of its existence. The first models used by the future landscapist were paintings and prints by Western European artists, usually generic countryside scenes with ubiquitous idyllic swains and shepherdesses. Studying the other artists’ works or, as they said then, “the originals”, the students mastered traditional European art principles for creating “ideal” landscapes. The composition of such landscapes was like that of a theatre set, expressing the inner harmony of an enclosed space. The splendour of the southern scenery was coupled in the ideal landscapes with ancient architectural landmarks symbolizing the history of mankind. It was believed that in real life you can find such settings only in Italy, so landscapes that had no counterparts in reality and symbolized generic ideas about the beauty of nature were often called “Italian”.

In 1778-1779 competition entries from Matveyev, then a fifth-grade pupil of the landscape department, were awarded a small, and then a big gold medal. The exhibition features a piece made by Matveyev as a student — “Landscape with Herdsmen Looking after Their Cattle”(1778)1, which has miraculously survived. The painting was made in 1778 as a class assignment “to represent herdsmen looking after cattle at the foot of a hill by a river”.2 Graduates awarded gold medals were to continue improving their skills at the school’s expense abroad: Matveyev was sent to Italy, where he saw real-life natural surroundings and architectural landmarks already known to him from paintings.

When the young landscapist came to Rome in the early 1780, he found himself in a milieu of artists from different countries and acquainted himself with new trends in landscape art. Connoisseurs and art enthusiasts at that time started to appreciate in landscape paintings “portrait” features, not just sublime harmonies of composition and colour design. Such combinations distinguished the works of the German artist Jacob Philipp Hackert, who, as the great Goethe put it, “could represent and picture real-life scenery with utmost taste”.3 At the request of Johann Friedrich Reifenstein, Catherine the Great’s adviser, Hackert agreed to help Matveyev with advice. A few years later, reporting to St. Petersburg on the progress made by the Russian artist, Reifenstein noted that Matveyev “changed his colour scheme making it crisper and more harmonious and at the same time more confident and rich, that he paid more attention to nature as well as the works of many superb artists working in this genre”.

According to Reifenstein, Matveyev, working independently, “started to prefer, for his sketches from nature, scenery a la Nicolas Poussin”.4 The works of outstanding 17th-century landscape artists such as Poussin and Claude Lorrain forever remained for Matveyev, and for other landscape artists of that time, paragons of exalted landscape imagery. Matveyev in his art always looked up to the achievements of his seniors and contemporaries and was an exponent of the most important principle of academic art — emulating the techniques of famed masters, a practice which in the academic tradition was considered as honorable and even mandatory. Matveyev made many copies of Lorrain’s and Poussin’s works, and used their compositional techniques in his pieces. This did not prevent the Russian artist from developing a unique style of his own, for the beautiful nature of Italy was his main teacher.

Matveyev’s drawings and paintings afford the viewer a “painterly journey” all around Italy, as well as Switzerland and Sicily of the late 18th-early 19th centuries and reflect a practice that left a deep trace in the art of that period. Noblemen seeking to educate themselves and art enthusiasts were eager to see historical and architectural landmarks and their “notable” natural settings. Such travelers were often accompanied by professional artists who captured impressions from the journeys in drawings and paintings. As such a “companion” artist, Matveyev accompanied in 1783 Count Trubetskoy in Florence. A year later, in the company of Prince Andrei Vyazemsky he traveled all around the central and northern parts of Italy visiting Bologna, Padua, Parma, Milan and Turin. Crossing the Savoy mountains, the travelers came to Geneva and then moved on to Bern, Switzerland’s biggest canton. The artist would also often set out on a journey for his personal self-improvement, in order to see and capture in a picture places upon which “nature bestowed its adornments”.5

In 1781, as a stipend holder, he traveled to the south to picture “antiquities” in Naples and its environs. In 1788 Matveyev wrote to the Academy, “This year, in 1788, I visited nearly all cities in Sicily and traveled all the way to Malta, where I made pictures of everything I could”.6 Matveyev might have visited Sicily more than once, for there are extant drawings of Sicily’s landmarks made in the mid-1810s. They feature an old city by the Ionic Sea Taormina, an antique theatre in Syracuse, and Lake Fusaro with the ruins of the tomb of Gaius Marius. The drawings are now kept at the Tretyakov Gallery, Russian Museum, and Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Probably they are what remained from an album that belonged in the first half of the 19th century to Prince Nikolai Trubetskoy. Nestor Kukolnik published information about the album: “100 landscapes, mostly Sicilian, made in the open air with a pencil, bistre, etc. A real journey...”7 The exhibition also features a single known engraving printed from one of Matveyev’s picture — it was made by Alexander Breithorn for a book “Travel Across Sicily in 1822.”8

The drawings department of the Tretyakov Gallery has fragments of another of Matveyev’s travel albums, dated to 1820, with austere sketches that seem to capture the artist’s spontaneous impressions. With a flourish of a pen the artist traced the silhouettes of stone pines, ancient ruins, the surface of water, and hills on the horizon. Even these modest sketches manifest the artist’s eagerness not only to picture the individual traits of a neighbourhood and the southern flora, but also to create a holistic image of the place. The combination of figurativeness in representation of the surrounding world, where every detail matters, with a sense of space is even more tangible in full-fledged compositions such as the landscapes with stone pines from the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum. Each of them can be easily imagined as a part of a large painting containing many similar landscapes.

Matveyev’s impressions from such surrounding nature have been preserved in the terse text of his reports to the Academy of Arts. In the reports the artist described the natural and architectural landmarks he saw near Rome, the city where he permanently lived and worked. Matveyev often walked about in nearby villages, where antique ruins and medieval houses were plentiful. In his reports he wrote about Tivoli, Frascati and Terni, localities with “various natural waterfalls” and “plentiful country palaces built on elevated terraces with big steps”.9 Matveyev’s pictures feature the Cascata delle Marmore (Marmore Falls) by the Terni River and the famous waterfalls in Tivoli. The artist was especially fond of Tivoli, an ancient city spread over lofty natural terraces forming along the Anio (now Teveron) River natural waterfalls. The works of the Russian landscape artist were focused on the villa of Gaius Maecenas and the Villa d’Este, and the temples of Sibyl and Vesta in the Tivoli region. The exhibition features waterfall pictures from the Rybinsk Art Museum collection which can be rightly called the artist’s masterpieces. It has been established that one of the pieces features the Villa d’ Este in Tivoli.10

In this and other landscapes the artist followed the most important principles of classic landscape imagery where real-life impressions are neatly arranged and ennobled through a universal compositional structure. Seen in the middle distance, the villa’s buildings, surrounded by a park, blend smoothly with the natural settings, which are changeless in their stately beauty. Streams falling from the hilltops create a unique effect of continuous motion, drawing the viewer’s eye into the depth of the landscape and then taking it back to the picture’s foreground. Compellingly persuasive, the rendition of the motif of nature is also laden with symbolism. Waterfalls in that era were likened to the swift-flowing river of time carrying into oblivion human desires and deeds.

A similar symbolical element in Matveyev’s works is shown by architectural structures which often comprise the compositional centre of the panoramic paintings. Not accidentally, the artist’s most famous work “View of Rome. Colosseum” (1816, Tretyakov Gallery) is considered one of the best examples of Russian classical landscape art. Portraying with archaeological precision the ancient amphitheatre, the artist aptly reproduced the august historical image. This is how the Colosseum was perceived by the artist’s contemporaries: “Of all the landmarks of ancient Rome, whose ruins are the pride and adornment of modern Rome, none has such a lasting impact on the viewer as the Colosseum. The view of this amphitheatre which crumbles on all sides and which even lost its name irresistibly gives rise in the thinker’s mind to thoughts about the insignificance and, at the same time, the greatness of man.”11 Situated amidst landscape “accessories”, the amphitheatre dominates the surroundings making a whole with them; the frontal composition, traditionally consisting of three parallel grounds, has an elliptical shape reproducing the building’s shape, the building becoming the centre of a universe delimited by the finished surface of the painting.

When he went to Italy, Matveyev hardly anticipated that his “painterly journey” was to last for a lifetime. His scholarship term ended in 1782, but the artist was in no hurry to bid farewell to the country that epitomized an ideal landscape imagery in art. Return home was further complicated by debts — an inevitable concomitant of Academy students’ stay abroad. Several times Matveyev asked the Academy to send him money to pay off debts and the cost of his travel back to St. Petersburg, but all his requests were turned down. In 1805 he wrote to the Academy’s president Alexander Stroganov, “Sojourning in Italy from 1779 until now and having seen and made pictures of the best landscapes in all of its countries including Sicily, Malta and partly Switzerland, I have amassed a plentitude of pictures bringing which [to St. Petersburg] would require quite a lot of expenses ... If my humble request is kindly granted and I am to receive employment at the Academy suitable for my specialization in art, given such an encouragement I will put aside all private commissions and set to work to finish paintings for the Academy or whenever they will be assigned. ”12

Apparently the artist’s request was not granted and Matveyev remained in Italy for good. Nevertheless, the European fame of the Russian painter led to his recognition in his homeland. In 1807 the already 50-year-old master was “in absentia” awarded the title of Academician of Landscape Painting for a picture he sent to St. Petersburg — “a view of a part of Naples with environs” (“A View of Naples from the Foot of Posillipo”, 1806, Russian Museum). In 1818, having learned that it was impossible to make the old artist return to St. Petersburg, the emperor Alexander I awarded him a pension for life. Matveyev lived for more than 40 years in Italy and was considered one of the patriarchs of the Russian artist colony in Rome. Together with Orest Kiprensky he mentored and took care of young artists. Matveyev’s contemporaries especially admired the artistic perfection of his works, his skills in rendering the depth and dimensions of space using subtly hued colours.

One of the first collectors of the Russian artist Pavel Svinyin wrote about him: “Matveyev has lived in Rome for over 30 years and is regarded in this Artists’ Kingdom as one of the best landscape painters. His works are distinguished by a bluish tonality which, not at all chilly, forms a pleasant gauze, especially over distant objects.”13 However, to the new generation of landscape artists the idealized nature of Matveyev’s landscapes, their bright local colours and compositional universality seemed dated. The exalted “turn of visual phrase” of the old master remained forever a thing of the past. In the circles of art lovers and art historians Matveyev was to gain thereafter an enduring reputation of an academic painter whose works do not make for easy viewing and require a background in the classics.

Fyodor Matveyev’s jubilee exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery proved that the artist’s talent deserves wider appreciation, and conveys to the public the compelling and uneclipsed charm of the austere and exalted art of that era.


  1. Oil on canvas. 87.5x107.5 cm. Yekaterina & Vladimir Semenikhin's collection, Moscow
  2. Collection of historical documents about the Imperial St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts covering 100 years of its existence / Ed. by Pyotr Petrov in 3 volumes. 1st vol. St. Petersburg, 1864. p.140.
  3. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von. Italian Journey // Goethe's oeuvres translated by Russian writers // Ed. by Nikolai Gerbel. 10 volumes. 7th volume. St. Petersburg, 1879. p. 127.
  4. Quoted from: Fyodorov-Davydov, Alexei. Russian Landscape of the 18th-early 19th Centuries. Moscow, 1953.p.169.
  5. Fyodorov-Davydov, Alexei. Op.cit. p. 170.
  6. Russian State Historical Archive. Fund 789. File 1. Part 1. Item 1060. 1789. Sheets 1-2.
  7. Kukolnik, Nestor. Miscellany. Russian news // Khudozhestvennaya Gazeta (Arts Newspaper). 1836. No. 2. p. 33.
  8. Norov, Avraam. Travel Across Sicily in 1822: in two parts. St. Petersburg, 1828. Part 2. Between pages 192 and 193.
  9. Fyodorov-Davydov, Alexei. Op.cit. p. 170.
  10. Italian Landscape. 1805. Oil on canvas. 99.6 x 137.3 cm. Rybinsk Open-Air Museum of History, Art and Architecture.
  11. Colosseum (Roman architecture) // Khudozhestvennaya Gazeta (Arts Newspaper). 1838. No. 18. p. 652.
  12. Pyotr Petrov, Op.cit. p. 589.
  13. Places of Note in St. Petersburg and its environs. By Pavel Svinyin. 5 books. St. Petersburg, 1817. Book 2. p. 80.





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