“THE APPEARANCE OF CHRIST TO THE PEOPLE”: A Life-long Enterprise

Lyubov Golovina

Article: 
THEORY
Magazine issue: 
#4 2005 (09)

The posthumous fame of an artist can seem paradoxical. It often happens that a painter who has toiled all his life to polish his mastery, changing his manner, creating works that would become landmarks of the dedicated path of their creator, remains known to the general public for a single painting - one which is often far from his best. Thus, Alexander Ivanov has gone down in the memory of art lovers as the painter of "The Appearance of Christ to the People”, despite the fact that his own feelings on the work were rather mixed.

Ivanov's personality is unique in the history of Russian art of his time, a rare example of an artist who was a most serious judge of his mission as a "creator". Any element of the salon style or any superficial attractiveness was absolutely alien to the painter's principles. His whole life was a paragon of the lonely life of an ascetic, a world of "all work and no play" in the name of art. Alexander Benois would write about Ivanov: "There was a child's inquisitive soul living in him, the true soul of a prophet hungry for the truth who dreaded no anguish ..."

When he was still a young artist, Alexander Ivanov conceived a noble idea worthy of a great master, that of producing a painting that would trace the universal appeal of Christianity. True to his dream, the artist dedicated years and years of painstaking work to the achievement of that ideal. Understanding that such a theme called for a new and adequate language, Ivanov, while staying in Italy, made a thorough study of the religious paintings of Giotto as well as of other masters of the Renaissance like Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico and Leonardo da Vinci. He sought to discover the paths the old masters took to their great achievements. Moreover, in Rome, Ivanov made friends with the German painter Johann Friedrich Overbeck, the leader of the Nazarenes, a group of artists who were curious to revive the traditions and ideas of the medieval workshop life and religious mural painting. Finally, it was profound speculation on the concepts of the Gospels that brought Ivanov to paint his "The Appearance of Christ to the People" (1837-57), an attempt to show people at the moment of their most crucial spiritual challenge.

Notably, too, the time when the artist chose the theme for his painting coincided with a universal and dramatic change in people's attitudes towards religion. Why did Ivanov so stubbornly emphasize that his painting was a historical one? The explanation might be found in one of his letters to a friend: "Religion has become a cadaver," he wrote. His contemporaries would have been unlikely to understand and accept his work if it had been just another story of the miraculous events narrated in the Gospels: it was essential to present the episode as a fact of history, not as a legend. The task sounded unusual, and seemed likely to make the canvas too complicated and challenging in its reception. Nevertheless, the painter saw one of the ways of tackling the problem was to create a huge number of studies of both landscapes and people from nature, which would, he thought, accentuate the historicism of the story as well as its sense of local colour.

Given that he was unable to visit Palestine, Ivanov, with the obstinacy and assiduity so typical of him, studied everything he could find on the subject in libraries and elsewhere, writing numerous notes about the place he was going to depict. He was lucky to discover Subiaco, a small town in the neighbourhood of Rome that was situated on a high rocky plateau, and seemed to look like the towns of ancient Palestine. But what excited the painter's attention more than the landscape were the human types, particularly the Jewish people, whom he looked for everywhere to picture an episode from the history of biblical Palestine. That professional interest made him a frequent visitor to the Jewish quarter of Rome situated close to the Theatre of Marcellus. He would also visit the synagogues, or watch rich Jewish merchants rest and bathe at the seaside on warm summer days.

Here, like in everything, Ivanov was unconventional in his search for models for his paintings. Rome's famous Spanish Steps was known as a market place for professional models who would wait there for artists to hire them; they knew the tricks of the trade better than anybody. Thus, most of Ivanov's colleagues used to choose their models there - as did Ivanov himself on many occasions, but not always. Any model for the future painting had to answer to the particular type that the painter had in mind. That accounted for Ivanov's rejecting a well-known young model suggested for the group of the Shivering Man and Boy. The model was, according to Ivanov, "too old for the Boy and too young for the Father ... He had nothing of the spirit of the Jew either." In search of appropriate characters and landscapes the artist also visited Livorno, Perugia, Pisa and Sinigalia.

Compared to Karl Bryullov, who was noted for having the complete make-up of a future painting in detail before he started work on it, Ivanov, when he took up his brush, knew the idea of his future canvas only in its broadest sense. In painting studies, Ivanov seemed to be unveiling, layer by layer, the edifice of his idea to reveal the full and perfect meaning of it only at the end of a long and weary journey, one full of endeavour, corrections and improvements. Largely, this accounts for the fact that his work on the canvas lasted for so long. Nikolai Gogol, the writer and a close friend of Ivanov, warned the artist about the unproductiveness of such a "slow way of work": "You will devour yourself and labour on the same spot for days until consideration of its particular details will emasculate your mental action on the whole thing, which and only which, standing alive in front of your mind's eye, promises close completion, ... which and only which urges you to keep on working, for it is that mental action that makes your heart move and your impulse and inspiration work, the inspiration being able to achieve what no studies or labour can."

It was such zealous plodding that gave birth to Ivanov's own method, one of comparing and contrasting and matching. In his studies, for instance, the painter often juxtaposed the head of a live model and the head of an antique statue resembling the human image. In other cases, the comparison brought together contrasting characters. Both such ways enabled the artist to achieve precision in the portrayal of the most subtle hues of character, those attributes of a personality which were essential for the individual portrait. But, quite often, the painter tended to match a typical, though individual, human face against the classic quality of a Greek or Roman statue. It made the portrait of an individual human being acquire traits of a "pan-human norm".

The huge canvas (540 by 750 cm) pictures the magnificent scene in which John the Baptist is baptizing people in the Jordan, refering to the episode as it was narrated in Saint John's Gospel. Following Ivanov's own conceptualization of the subject, the painting features the first appearance of Christ to the people, as well as John the Baptist proph- esy'ng, the different ways in which particular groups of people perceive his Word, and what is happening. The crowd gathered on the bank of the Jordan is presented compositionally like a frieze. This academic "coup de maitre" gives the viewer a better vision of the qualities that each character in the canvas displays and of his particular role in the wider context of the painting, and a better understanding of the meaning and correlation of its separate compositional elements.

Every character in this enormous picture, all portrayed at the peak of their spiritual excitement, has their dramatic meaning and symbolic terms of reference graphically featured. The most obvious juxtaposition is that of the contrasting age pairs and groups. The old man and the youth rising from the water on the left-hand side of the canvas symbolize the youth and old age of mankind, setting a tone for all its other important comparisons. Old people dominate Ivanov's canvas, which inevitably provokes questions: Is mankind old enough to perceive the truth? Is it too old spiritually? Old age is conservative; old people find it difficult to give up what they have believed in. Nevertheless, the Old Man Leaning on a Stick, as if frozen in the water, and the Apostle Peter straining his ear to hear John the Baptist's prophecy seem to be symbols of wise, reflective old men.

Fanatic opposition and antagonism to the Word are featured in a group of the grey-bearded Old Men in White Turbans and Tunics - Levites, Scribes and Pharisees, supporters of the old religion. The Man Wearing an Auburn Tunic, who was a model drawn from Nikolai Gogol, seems to be trying to dissociate himself from them. So does the Young Nazarene Wearing Long Plaits of Hair over His Head.

Compared to the old men, those representing the young generation in the picture are active and ready to respond and follow the word. One is hurry'ng out of the river, welcoming Christ; another, a goldenhaired pagan who looks like an antique god is immovable as a statue, watching Christ with evident interest. Also listening attentively to what John the Baptist is say'ng are the Shivering Boy and the Apostle John.

Faith becomes the central theme of the painting. The growing attraction of the Word starts with the group on the left of the work. The future Apostle Naphanael seems to stand aside, motionless and doubting, as if letting other people go ahead; his eyes are downcast, his arms crossed and hidden in the broad sleeves of his tunic, indicating his complete disbelief. It was he who would say the famous phrase of doubt, "Can any good thing come from Nazareth?" (John 1:47).

The brothers Andrew and Simon (Peter) and John, son of Zebedee, who were also to become Apostles of Christ's teaching, show different level of eagerness to believe in the messianic nature of Jesus. His future disciples, listening to John's prophecy, are just beginning to understanding the true meaning of the Word, and accepting their own new missions in life.

It is not only age or faith that distinguishes the figures on the canvas. The question is also of wealth - rich or poor? - and of social status - master or slave? Thus, the central part of the painting presents the Master and Slave. The Russian intellectuals of the 1830-40s were encouraged by ideas of improving public morals through art, while hopes of the healing effect of Christian dogmas properly nurtured in the public mind were also current. Following such sentiments Ivanov made the Slave a key element in his composition. The artist worked on this character extensively, making many sketches and studies. The earlier ones show an abject creature, only half-human: an almost beastly grin, shaved head and a brand on the forehead are evidence of terrible humiliation and moral degradation. The final variant shows a man less humble and inhuman: his ugly face, a witness of much torture, shines, perhaps for the first time in his life, with a happy smile of hope. As the painter wrote about this character, "For the first time the agony to which he was accustomed gave way to solace". In such a manner, the grandiose achievement of Christianity, the artist claims, lies in making every humble creature feel that they are heaven-born.

Painting the Master and Slave Ivanov also alluded to his favourite thesis about the major difference between the aesthetic ideals of antiquity and those of Christianity. The cult of the beautiful body in the antique world is seen by the painter as the antithesis of the Christian idea of a beauty which is spiritual, not physical.

Compositionally, the whole painting is built on comparison and contrast. The left- hand group of those who aspire to hear and accept the Word contrasts with the right- hand group of those who turn their back on Jesus. The distant mountain valleys at the top symbolising the heavens are set against the group of humans, ridden with doubts and conflicting passions, at the bottom of the canvas. The space between the top and the bottom is focused on the walking Messiah. Above him there is a boundless blue sky, a snow-white tower visible in the far distance and a town in the valley at the foot of the mountain range. Thus, compositionally, Christ, on the one hand, is presented as part of the harmony of nature and the heavens; on the other hand, he belongs to the world of people, in the vale of human imperfections.

Landscape is, without doubt, essential in Ivanov's composition. Unable to study the landscape of Palestine, where the events depicted originally took place, the artist pictured a landscape typical of the Campagna near Rome, emphasizing its vernacular bright and contrasting light. The painter did not intend to portray historical or archaeological details; instead he sought to reconstruct the atmosphere of the time and the event. To this effect, Ivanov's palette becomes magic in conveying the dazzling illusion of the far-away mist, giving the landscape a symbolic touch. The olive tree with its new green leaves contrasting with the dry old ones, which forms the background for the left-hand group, refers to the life chain from youth to age and, probably allegorically, suggests the gospel story of the earthly death of Jesus and of Christ's resurrection. It also symbolises, according to Renaissance tradition, the end of paganism and the birth of Christianity.

It should be noted that Ivanov viewed nature spiritually. For him, it was God's creation and the artist understood nature as a magnificent temple, more than just the environment of human life. That might explain why many of the landscapes that Ivanov painted have no human figures in them. Only rarely, children and teenagers are allowed into the "temple", as in "Boys on the Shore of the Bay of Naples". In other paintings his landscapes look like something drawn from a natural history museum, as in "Olive Trees by the Cemetery in Albano. The New Moon". The old stones seem to retain the print of thousands of centuries - they are timeless. This kind of philosophical landscape assigns the features of one part of the world to a whole world that has witnessed the death and birth of civilizations, religions and peoples, while Earth remains eternal and unchangeable under the hot, translucent Southern sky.

Ivanov's studies reveal his wonderful gift for colour, and his taste for a lively, vigorous and energetic palette rich in hues and half-tones. He tried to bring just that diversity of colour from his fascinating studies to the large canvas to create a harmonious blend, but unfortunately that shift turned out to be a false one: it made the large work look somewhat artful and spotty. The fact was immediately noted by some critics who were quick to compare it to a tapestry, which at that time was not considered a compliment.

It must also be noted that, after working on the same canvas for about 20 years, the artist was tired and the idea that had inspired him initially had become somewhat stale. Ivanov started the painting encouraged by the assumption that seeing the Messiah appear and hearing and perceiving the Word was a sine qua non of moral improvement and spiritual salvation both for man and for the world. However, during the process of working on his painting the artist reached the sad revelation that the time of simple-hearted optimism and a hope and belief in Christ the Saviour coming and solving all the problems of the world had passed, and that faith alone was not enough to improve human society. As a result, the painting remained unfinished.

In the meanwhile, the end of the artist's 28th year in Italy was approaching, and Ivanov had to return to Russia. It is hard to imagine how troublesome and frustrating his journey was, given that he had to transport his gigantic canvas across the whole of Europe. In Germany he fell seriously ill and had to stay there for a while to consult doctors; meanwhile, St. Petersburg's newspapers were already full of stories of "a most important work of Russian art" due to arrive soon.

When it did arrive, Ivanov's painting was first shown in the Winter Palace and later at the Academy of Arts. Simultaneously with "The Appearance of Messiah" visitors to the Winter Palace could view the gigantic battle canvas by the French artist Adolf Ivonne, "The Kulikov Battlefield", and that work practically overshadowed Ivanov's painting. It was then that the "Syn Otechestva" (Son of the Fatherland) magazine published an article by a certain V Tolbin characterised by its bitter criticism, which claimed that "the painting by Mr. Ivanov rather failed to justify those expectations which it had evidently evoked by its being surrounded with such a veil of secrecy". That was a blow delivered by a person apparently well-versed in art and familiar with the situation - one which made it even more cunning and thus particularly painful. The article concerned played a role in forming a wider atmosphere of overall indifference and stronger feelings which bordered on open rejection of the artist's work. Ivanov was never fortunate enough to find a shrewd interpreter and critic of his work among the contemporaries. The criticism, rather amateurish in its nature, that Ivan Turgenev had pronounced a few years earlier was, unfortunately, of the same, unhappy, sort: "His very talent, that is his talent as a painter, was weak and shaky, as anyone who takes a careful and unprejudiced look at his work will be convinced of ... Should he have the talent of Bryullov or should Bryullov have the soul and heart of Ivanov, what wonderful things we might witnesses".

The cold and wet climate of St. Petersburg, together with its pride and vanity and the painter's disorderly life, proved bad for Ivanov's health. On 3 July 1858 he died of cholera while staying in the house of his friends, the Botkin brothers. Curiously, a few hours after Ivanov's death Mikhail Botkin, the painter, received a messenger who came to inform the artist that the Emperor intended to buy his "The Appearance of Messiah" for 15,000 rubles and award him the Order of Saint Vladimir.

Time proved the critic Tolbin's prediction that ".his [Ivanov's] manner <...> is unlikely to be copied by the new generation of talented artists" mistaken. Alexander Ivanov's method would come to form the basis of Russian realistic art for decades to come.

Illustratiions

The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–57
Oil on canvas. 540 by 750 cm
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. Four Apostles. Detail
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. Four Apostles. Detail
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. The Olive Tree and the group of people in the trees. Detail
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. The Olive Tree and the group of people in the trees. Detail
Olive Trees by the Cemetery in Albano. The New Moon
Olive Trees by the Cemetery in Albano. The New Moon
Oil on canvas. 42.5 by 62.5 cm
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. The figure of Christ and the landscape behind him. Detail
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. The figure of Christ and the landscape behind him. Detail
The Bay of Naples
The Bay of Naples
Study. Oil on cardboard. 41.4 by 60.6 cm
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. The right-hand part of the canvas: Pharisees and Levites in White Clothes. Detail
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. The right-hand part of the canvas: Pharisees and Levites in White Clothes. Detail
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. The left-hand part of the canvas: The Old Man Leaning on a Stick and the Boy Rising from the Water. Detail
The Appearance of Christ to the People. 1837–1857. The left-hand part of the canvas: The Old Man Leaning on a Stick and the Boy Rising from the Water. Detail

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