The Argunovs in Russian culture

Natalya Presnova

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#4 2005 (09)

2004 marked the 275th anniversary of the birth of the Russian painter Ivan Argunov, while this year celebrates the 235th anniversary of the birth of his son, the artist Nikolai Argunov. The exhibition currently on display at the Tretyakov Gallery is dedicated to the two events, displaying the work of Ivan Argunov and his sons, Nikolai and Yakov. It includes works provided by the Tretyakov Gallery and other major museums of Moscow and St. Petersburg, among them the Historical Museum, the Russian Museum, the Hermitage, and museums of Rostov-the-Great, Nizhny Novgorod and Novgorod-the Great, Yaroslavl, Samara and Barnaul.

Ivan Argunov was born into a serf family. First the Argunovs belonged to Prince Cherkassky, but in 1743 they were passed onto Count Sheremetyev who received them with his wife's (the Princess Varvara Cherkasskaya) dowry. The Sheremetyevs belonged to one of the most eminent and distinguished families of the Russian nobility whose names recurred in Russian history. Boris Sheremetyev was famous for his military achievements, and became the first general-field marshal in Russia. He was the first to receive the title of count from Peter the Great, and founded the Count Sheremetyev family line. He was not only a participant in all major battles with the Swedes in the Northern War, but also went on a series of diplomatic missions: during one of them he traveled to Malta where he became the first Russian to be dubbed a Knight Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem (or Knight of Malta).

Unlike his father, his son Count Petr preferred court service. He became an arch-chamberlain, senator, general-inchief, and knight of numerous Russian orders. In addition he was a collector, patron of the arts, and the organizer of the entertainment residence in Kuskovo where he received Catherine the Great on a number of occasions. A lover of the arts who encouraged serf talent, he was a patron of Ivan Argunov. His son, Count Nikolai, is known for his charity work: he founded a hospital in Moscow and a poor- house in St. Petersburg, and made donations to churches and monasteries. His main passion was the theatre he built and equipped with the most modern facilities at Ostankino. A fan of music and painting, he contributed to the development of Nikolai Argunov's talent, as proof of which he liberated Nikolai and his brother Yakov from their serf dependence.

Much like their serf owners, the Argunovs also made a considerable contribution to the development of Russian culture in the mid-18th and early-1 9th centuries. Among the well-known members of this talented family are Alexei Argunov, a "master of urns" (mason, modeler); the architect Fedor Argunov, one of the creators of the court and park ensemble at Kuskovo and the Fountain House in St. Petersburg; the cousins and painters Fedor and Ivan Argunov, and the latter's three sons, Pavel, an architect who took part in the construction of the Ostankino palace theatre, and the portrait painters Nikolai and Yakov. Often the painters and architects in the family worked together.

The only solo exhibition of Ivan Argunov's works took place at the Kusko- vo Estate and Museum in 1 952, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the artist's death. Two exhibitions at the Ostankino Estate and Museum were dedicated to Nikolai Argunov in 1950-51 and 1971. In addition, in 1975 Kuskovo held an exhibition called "The Art of the Argunovs" which displayed the works of all three masters (Ivan, Nikolai and Yakov). With the exception of the exhibition at Ostankino in the 1950s, the shows had no catalogues and thus can only be documented from the memories of experts and art lovers.

Although there are various literary sources relating to the Argunovs many issues remain unclear. Primarily, they concern authentication and the related problem of the establishment of their exact legacy. Many portraits by the artists are in reserve collections at museums, and in archives and private collections not only in different cities, but even in different countries. During the preparations for the exhibition experts from leading Russian museums such as Iolanta Lomize from the Tretyakov Gallery, Svetlana Rimskaya-Korsakova and Valentina Petrova from the Russian Museum, and Lilia Vyaz'menskaya from the Hermitage examined a series of portraits which helped correct the attribution and dating of some paintings. For the first time in history the exhibition's catalogue has a detailed description of all the Argunovs' works - those whose provenance is unquestionable, those which are attributed, those which were denied provenance, and those mentioned in archival sources that have yet to be located. The comparison of iconographically similar portraits helps solve the problem of "original-copy-author's duplicate". An analysis of archival and literary material helped reveal where the paintings might be found.

Only by putting all the material received from colleagues from all participating museums together can any conclusion be reached as to how widely the Argunovs are displayed in Russia. Some paintings were done for churches and were kept there for a long time: Ivan Argunov's "John of Damascus" (1749, from the Court Church of the Tsarskosel- sky Palace), "Mother of God" and "The Saviour" (1753 (?), from the Church of the Resurrection of Christ of the Resurrection monastery in New Jerusalem near Moscow); the portrait of Count N.P Sher- emetyev from the early 1 800s from the Dmitrovsky Cathedral of Rostov's Spaso- Yakovlevsky Monastery by Nikolai Argunov. Several portraits originate from estates of the nobility situated near Moscow and date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of them are from the Sheremetyevs' Kuskovo, Ostankino and Markovo estates, the Yusupovs' Arkhangelsky estate, the Glebov-Stresh- nevs' Pokrovskoe-Streshnevo estate, that of the Chernyshevs' at Yaropolets and the Shakhovskys' Belaya Kolp'. The Argunovs' portraits could also be found in more distant estates of Russia and Ukraine: the Lazarevs' Zheleznyaki in the Kaluga region, and the Repnins' Yagotino in the Poltava region. Many paintings graced the estates of the nobility in the capital, like the Fountain Palace of the counts Sheremetyev in St. Peters-burg, and the private collections of noble families, like those of Lobanov-Rostovsky, Argutinsky- Dolgoruky, and Natalia Sheremetyeva, a relative of the counts Sheremetyev and a member of the non-aristocratic branch of their family. In addition to private collections portraits by the Argunovs were kept in various official and state institutions: the Lazarev Institute of Eastern Languages (Ivan Argunov's portraits of the Lazarevs), the hall of the Council of the Academy of Arts (Ivan Argunov's portrait of Count Petr Sheremetev and Nikolai Argunov's portrait of senator Pavel Runich of 1817), and even in the Senate (the portrait of Catherine the Great by Ivan Argunov of 1762). Their works were even in the imperial collection (the portrait of Paul the First by Yakov Argunov from 1807, at Pavlovsk).

Ivan Argunov, the most eminent member of this talented family, grew up and was educated in St. Petersburg where he lived with his uncle Semen Argunov (it is believed that his parents died when the artist was young). Semen Argunov was a butler to the Cherkassky princes and then major-domo to the counts Sheremetyev. For many years he managed the Million House where his nephew Ivan spent most of his life. It remains unclear where Ivan Argunov studied and who tutored him; his artistic education took place in the 1740s, at a time when Russian artists were not taught in any special educational institution. The Academy of Arts was opened much later, in 1758. There is no assurance that Ivan Argunov's first teachers were his cousins Fedor S. Argunov (architect) and Fedor L. Argunov (artist), students of Andrei Matveev in the Construction Chancellery. But they certainly had a great influence on the formation of the artistic vision of their younger relative by developing the artistic traditions of the era of Peter the Great in their creative work.

Literary tradition links the fate of the young artist with Georg Groot, a German painter, who worked at the court of Empress Elizabeth and taught Argunov. Ivan Argunov created his first works, icons for the court church of the Grand Tsarskoselsky Palace near St. Petersburg and the Resurrection Monastery in New Jerusalem near Moscow, on the invitation of Groot. Three of those compositions
remain today - "John of Damascus " (1749), the "Saviour" and the "Mother of God" (both from 1753 (?)) - with their numerous ornaments and the playful lightness of rococo which is manifested in the elongation of proportions, mannerism of gestures, and gracefulness of figures. The face of John of Damascus, however, was interpreted rather unusually, since it carries features of realism. Ivan Argunov's only historical painting was done in the rocaille style ("Cleopatra Dying", 1750, in the Tretyakov Gallery), with the painter turning a tragic theme into a light and graceful work of art.

The twin portraits of Prince Ivan Ivanovich (1 752) and Princess Yekaterina Alexandrovna Lobanov-Rostovsky (1 754, both in the Russian Museum) are among Ivan Argunov's earliest portraits. They both continue the traditions of older Russian portraiture which are manifested in the stiffness and frozen nature of the characters and a rigid study of details, and also reflect the art of new times as manifested in the artist's aim to idealize the images. These portraits are characterized by a decorative colourfulness which originates in folk art. Even in such early works from the 1750s (like the portrait of Count PB. Sheremetyev with his dog, from 1753, in the Hermitage) a trained grasp of the rather vast resources of the new European art can be detected.

The works of the end of the 1750s and the beginning of the 1760s open a new stage in Argunov's art, one which brought his best works. In the "Portrait of an Anonymous Artist" (perhaps a self-portrait) and the "Portrait of an Unknown Woman" (perhaps the artist's wife, both in the Russian Museum) and especially the portraits of the Khripunovs (both in 1 757, at Ostankino) Argunov essentially plays the role of creator of a new type of painting in Russian art, the intimate portrait. By showing people in organic connection with objects that characterize their interests and hobbies the artist immerses the viewer in the intimate world of his characters. The depth of characteristics, the warmth and heartiness of the artist's attitude towards his models attest to the fact that these portraits indeed represented a revolution in the development of Russian art. It was perhaps the first personification of that new idea of human identity, its class-independent value which formed in the 1750s and 1760s among the democratic intelligentsia, and was expressed in the art of the serf master. These portraits include new special stylistic features - their small size, half-length depiction of the sitters, and a modest range of colours.

Such principally new image structure in official portraits and the realistic nature of their artistic language would be expressed in children's portraits done by Ivan Argunov. Two portraits of Count N.P Sheremetyev as a child (from the end of the 1750s and the beginning of the 1760s) and the portrait of a Kalmyk girl called Annushka, the Sheremetyevs' foster daughter (1767, all these portraits are at Kuskovo) were done with special sincerity and warmth. The Kalmyk girl's portrait stands out as it is marked with a lively spontaneity and a winning truthfulness of the image. The child's charm is conveyed through the features and expression of her gentle dark-skinned face, and in the look of her lively slanting eyes. The portrait of V.P. Sheremetyeva (1766, Kuskovo), the younger daughter of Count PB. Sheremetyev, has a similar charm.

In the 1760s Ivan Argunov made a number of ceremonial commission portraits. The most important commissions were certainly those of the artist's owners: the portraits of Count FIB. Sheremetyev (1760) and Countess V.A. Sheremetyeva (from the 1760s, both at Ostankino) demonstrate a rather different approach from the portraits of the Khripunovs as they are marked by a certain representative nature. The artist aims to create an atmosphere of refined and, at the same time informal, worldliness, so he portrays the count in an effective pose against a landscape, and shows the countess in a splendid brocade dress decorated with roses.

There is a special group of so-called historical or retrospective portraits among Ivan Argunov's ceremonial portraits which were created after the death of their subjects; the most important among them are those of the parents of PB. Sheremetyev and V.A. Sheremetyeva, who was born Princess Cherkassky. The artist first tried his hand at retrospective portraits with the portrait of PB. Sheremetyev on his horse (1753, Kuskovo). Later, in the 1760s, Ivan Argunov made a series of four portraits showing Field-marshal B.P Sheremetyev and Countess A.P Sheremetyeva (1768), and Prince Alexei Cherkassky and Princess Maria Cherkasskaya (both in the 1760s). Memorial in nature, they also served as one of the most important elements of the palace interior of the second half of the 18th century. The portraits show people from the times of Peter the Great; when creating them Argunov used "inter vivos" images to convey portrait similarity and based his composition on the traditions of the early 18th century, thus creating completely new works of art. By reproducing particular people from the first quarter of the 18th century the artist addressed the style of the epoch itself, which was the baroque. This best expressed the heroic pathos of images of the era of Peter the Great. Thus, the stressed ornamentality of the paintings manifested itself in a flatness of background and a richness of colour.

The "Portrait of Field-marshal B.P Sheremetyev in Armour", considered to be a work of Ivan Argunov from the 1760s was attributed to PG. Krasovsky several years ago and dated to 1748, dispelling the myth of Argunov as the founder of the posthumous portrait genre. The practice began long before him, and also among serf masters (Krasovsky was a serf painter of the Cherkassky princes and later must have belonged to the counts Sheremetyev). This deduction is very important for a correct understanding of the evolution of Russian portrait painting of the mid-18th century.

As a kind of court portrait painter for the Sheremetyevs Ivan Argunov painted another series of family portraits of the Lazarevs, aristocratic Armenians who moved to Russia and contributed much to the spreading of enlightenment among Armenians and to their familiarization with Russian culture. Until today Argunov was considered the author of the portraits of Lazar Lazarev and his wife Anna Lazareva (both at Ostankino). The portraits of Mina Lazarev, Anna Sumbatova (A.V Lazareva?) and Ivan Sumbatov (all are in the National Picture Gallery of Armenia, in Yerevan) were considered to be author's duplications. However, examination showed that the portraits of A.A. Lazareva and I.G. Sumbatov in Yerevan were not done by Ivan Argunov.

The artist did not receive as many official commissions to portray members of the imperial family, and when he did so he used familiar iconographic models, sometimes changing them a little. Thus both of his portraits of Empress Elizabeth (from the end of the 1750s and the beginning of the 1760s, at Kuskovo and Ostankino) are fragmentary copies of the original by Louis Tocque from 1758, and the portraits of the Grand Duchess Yekaterina Alexeevna (1762, at Kuskovo) and Empress Catherine the Great (1762, in the Russian Museum) can be traced back to originals by Pietro dei Rotari.

On the one hand, his easy mastery of a foreign artistic language and flexibility of manner allowed the artist to achieve different goals at the same time. On the other, it's a reason for the unevenness of his works, and an insufficient self-expression of his personality which was also dictated by the life of the artist who lived in serfdom all his life, a factor that limited his artistic vision. Also, constant attendance to the count's business prevented him from dedicating himself fully to art. Perhaps it is the unevenness of Ivan Argunov's legacy that accounts for the desire of many critics to attribute various paintings to him, all completely different in manner - from good works, of Western European quality, to poor ones which border on Russian primitive art. Several such paintings are displayed for the first time: the portraits of Peter the Great and Catherine the First (from the National Picture Gallery of Armenia), the portrait of Empress Catherine the Great (from the National Museum in Warsaw), the portrait of M.S. Sheremetyev (from the Hermitage), and the "Portrait of an Unknown Woman’’ (from the Picture Gallery of Lvov).

In the 1770s Argunov worked less productively, a factor that can be explained by his duties as the manager of Sheremetyev's Million House in St. Petersburg. The group of paintings created by him during this decade can be extended by two works now introduced as his academically accepted oeuvre in the course of investigations prior to this exhibition. The portrait of Count N.P Sheremetyev (painted after 1 775 and no later than the beginning of the 1780s, in the Hermitage) has been attributed by the Hermitage's experts to Argunov on the basis of similar stylistic features found in the artist's manner. The dating results from the details of the costume and the shape of hairstyle of the sitter. The portrait is characterized by carefully drawn details of the embroidered sides of the count's camisole and caftan. Such decorative features are typical of many of the artist's works. The "Portrait of an Unknown Man in a Red Caftan" (in the Museum Reserve of Novgorod) that was first considered to be a work of Argunov from the 1760s underwent examination at the Tretyakov Gallery, receiving not only confirmation of authorship but a new date of 1779 discovered in the artist's signature which hadn't been read before. In addition, the modeling of the character's face indicates that the work is a copy of an original by Rotari.

Argunov's late period generated one of his most poetic and perfect works, the "Portrait of an Unknown Woman in Russian National Costume" (1784, in the Tretyakov Gallery), in which the artist embodied the tranquility, grand nature and inner dignity of an ordinary woman. No other of his works has such a generality of image, depth and meaning as this one. The image was created under the impact of classicism. This can be seen in the steady balance of its composition, the fluent completeness of the silhouette, and an almost sculptural integrity of shapes. Previous suggestions as the identity of the model proposed by researchers (either a wet-nurse, or a woman from high society dressed in national costume) have been replaced by a new one: the portrait shows the serf singer and actress of the Sheremetyev theatre Anna Izumrudova-Buyanova.

From the end of the 1780s Argunov practically stopped painting. In 1788 he was appointed manager of the Sheremetyev Moscow estate and a member of the serf board that was responsible for all of the count's domestic duties, developments which prevented him from pursuing art. Argunov was not only a portrait painter, but also a teacher who played an important role in the development of national artistic education in Russia before the opening of the Academy of Arts. Three singers from the court chapel who had "lost their voice" were taught in his workshop as early as 1753-58: Anton Losenko, Kirill Golovachevsky and Ivan Sablukov, all of whom later became teachers at the Academy. Argunov's sons were also his students: Pavel became an architect and participated in the construction of the Ostankino Palace and Theatre, and the painters Nikolai and Yakov who inherited their father's gift for portrait painting.

During preparations for the exhibition museum employees made several discoveries relating to the works of Nikolai Argunov. Having examined and subjected to comparative analysis with works undis- putably accepted as by the painter, researchers introduced four new portraits as part of his academiccally accepted oeuvre: the portraits of Nikolai Bantysh- Kamensky (1809-14, in the Hermitage), of Elizaveta Bantysh-Kamenskaya (1815, from the Art Museum of Yaroslavl) which were previously considered the work of Yakov Argunov and dated to 1826, and the portraits of P.M. Kartseva (from the mid- 1810s, in the Tyumen Museum of Fine Arts) and of "The Wife of the Governor of Tver" (1820s, in a Moscow private collection). The "Portrait of a Priest" (1809, in the Hermitage) received the name of its sitter, Palmov, for the first time on the basis of archival documents. Several works previously thought to be by Nikolai Argunov lost such attributions: "Self-Portrait" (?) (from the 1810s, in the Tretyakov Gallery), the "Portrait of an Unknown (Merchant?)" (1818, in the Russian Museum), the "Portrait of an Unknown Man" (from the 1810s, in Warsaw's National Museum). The last work has the signature "N. Arguno" but doesn't show stylistic similarity with the major paintings of the artist, and thus was excluded from his legacy. It arouses interest as it resembles the work of Pavel Vedenetsky (and is published with this new attribution for the first time).

The catalogue of the memorial exhibition provides as full as possible a list of paintings of Ivan Argunov's younger son Yakov for the first time; he is better known for his graphics and illustrations to books published by Dmitri Bantysh-Kamensky and Platon Beketov.

The works of Ivan, Nikolai and Yakov Argunov demonstrate the continuity of artistic traditions among Russian masters of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century, in somewhat the same way as do works of such painters as the Nikitins and architects like the Neelovs.

Ivan Argunov belongs to the glorious "pleiad" of Russian portrait painters of the mid-18th century who developed and carried on the realistic traditions of the times of Peter the Great and whose works paved the way for the blossoming of portraiture in the second half of the 18th century which brought with it such names as Fedor Rokotov, Dmitry Levitsky and Vladimir Borovikovsky. The Argunovs' legacy undoubtedly deserves to be valued for the diversity of the artists' creative aspirations and visual charm.

Illustrations

Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of an Unknown Woman in Russian National Costume (Anna Izymrudova-Buyanova?). 1784
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of an Unknown Woman in Russian National Costume (Anna Izymrudova-Buyanova?). 1784
Oil on canvas. 67 by 53,6 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
“Letters of Peter the Great to Field Marshal Boris P. Sheremetyev”. Published by Moscow University, 1774)
“Letters of Peter the Great to Field Marshal Boris P. Sheremetyev”. Published by Moscow University, 1774
A copy was presented to Ivan Argunov by Count Petr B. Sheremetyev as a token of gratitude for his loyal service. Museum of Ceramics and Kuskovo Estate
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of Countess V.P. Sheremetyeva. 1766
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of Countess V.P. Sheremetyeva. 1766
Oil on canvas. 81 by 64 cm. Museum of Ceramics and Kuskovo Estate
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of K.A. Khripunov. 1757
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of K.A. Khripunov. 1757
Oil on canvas. 73 by 57,5 cm. Ostankino Estate Museum
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of Khripunova. 1757
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of Khripunova. 1757
Oil on canvas. 73 by 57,5 cm. Ostankino Estate Museum
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of a Kalmyk girl Annushka. 1767
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of a Kalmyk girl Annushka. 1767
Oil on canvas. 62 by 50 cm. Museum of Ceramics and Kuskovo Estate
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of Count N.P. Sheremetyev. 1775-early 1780s
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of Count N.P. Sheremetyev. 1775-early 1780s
Oil on canvas. 86 by 64 cm. Hermitage Museum
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of an Unknown Man in a Red Caftan. 1779
Ivan ARGUNOV. Portrait of an Unknown Man in a Red Caftan. 1779
Oil on canvas. 60 by 47 cm. Novgorod Museum Reserve
Nikolai ARGUNOV. Portrait of Elizaveta Bantysh-Kamenskaya. 1815
Nikolai ARGUNOV. Portrait of Elizaveta Bantysh-Kamenskaya. 1815
Oil on canvas. 65 by 52.5 cm. Yaroslavl Art Museum
Nikolai ARGUNOV. Portrait of Nikolai Bantysh-Kamensky. 1809–1814
Nikolai ARGUNOV. Portrait of Nikolai Bantysh-Kamensky. 1809-14
Oil on canvas. 83 by 65 cm. Hermitage Museum
Yakov ARGUNOV. Portrait of an Unknown Woman. 1830
Yakov ARGUNOV. Portrait of an Unknown Woman. 1830
Oil on canvas. 67 by 53 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Unknown Artist of the 17th century belonging to the German-Austrian School (earlier attributed to Ivan Argunov). Portrait of an Unknown Woman. 1759
Unknown Artist of the 17th century belonging to the German-Austrian School (earlier attributed to Ivan Argunov). Portrait of an Unknown Woman. 1759
Oil on canvas. 69.5 by 60 cm (oval). Yaroslavl Art Museum

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