Portrait with a Mystery. Notes on Vladimir Borovikovsky’s iconography

Lyudmila Markina

Magazine issue: 
#4 2009 (25)

In late 2008-early 2009 the Tretyakov Gallery hosted, in its Krymsky Val building, an exhibition “...Her beauty was rescued by Borovikovsky”, to great acclaim. For the first time in history the show featured religious works of the artist who, in Soviet times, was known only as a portraitist. Understandably, Borovikovsky’s icons drew the attention of viewers, clergy, and museum specialists.

It was not long before a new “series” of paintings allegedly by Borovikovsky came up on the Russian antiquities market. A string of individuals confident that they possessed the precious originals “assailed” the Gallery. Previously unknown works by Borovikovsky started to turn up with amazing regularity. So, when one Moscow collector brought an icon titled “Transfiguration”, I was wary. I seemed to have seen the piece but some painterly details caused doubt. However, literally on the next day, preparing for a seminar dedicated to the show, I discovered a fragment of this icon featured in the background of “Portrait of Vladimir Borovikovsky” by Ivan Bugaevsky-Blagodarny. The present whereabouts of this portrait is unknown. The only print image of the painting currently available is in “Russian Portraiture”[1], Great Prince Nikolai Mikhailovich’s publication. In the background of the portrait, to the left, behind Borovikovsky’s back, a woman’s portrait and three icons can be glimpsed[2]. So far, no one among Borovikovsky scholars has attempted to identify the icons. And now, when an image of Christ and the prophets “transpired” on one of the religious paintings, it became clear that this was the “Transfiguration” icon.

The “Transfiguration” features one of the most important and crucial episodes in the New Testament. The artist faithfully rendered the scene from the Gospel: “And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother... And was transfigured before them... and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.” (Matthew 17:1-3, 5-6) The composition of the “Transfiguration” is neatly divided into two sections. The upper one features the Saviour, in a white raiment, cloaked in a radiant light, and the prophets Elias and Moses (with tablets) to his right. The lower section features Christ’s disciples: on the left — the young John, in the centre — Jacob, to the right — the elder Peter. John the Evangelist “casts his glance heavenward, whence he seems to receive a word of wisdom along with a stream of shining light”[3]. Iconographically, the image of John has much in common with a figure featured on the holy doors of the main iconostasis in the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg (presently at the Russian Museum). As Elena Stolbova correctly noted, Borovikovsky, eschewing the old Russian tradition of depicting St. John as a “very old man”, follows the canons of Western European painting[4]. The young St. John in the picture is more in the spirit of Rafael or Domenichino. Overall, the “Transfiguration” is distinguished by the “exalted, ideal beauty” of religious art, written up by Borovikovsky’s first biographer Vasily Gorlenko[5]. So when was the piece created?

Alexei Korostin[6] dated the “Transfiguration” to the early 1790s, a period when Borovikovsky was friends with the poet Vasily Kapnist. The historian of engraving argues that the “Transfiguration”, along with one religious picture and four small oval portraits (imaging the Dyakov sisters and an unidentified man) were inherited by Alexandra Alexeevna Kapnist, Boris Chicherin’s wife. The pieces were at the Karaul estate near Tambov[7]. However, a comparison of the “Transfiguration” and Borovikovsky’s incontestably religious pictures revealed a stylistic and typological resemblance with works created by the artist late in life. Thus, the brushwork and the modeling of forms (the visages and the hand gestures, details of the dresses) strongly evoke such icons as “Christ with an Orb”, “The Saviour”, “Mother of God with Child” and “God the Father Looking at His Dead Son” (all at the Tretyakov Gallery), as well as the “Crucifixion” (1825, in the Russian Museum)8. The visual aspect of the “Transfiguration” is crafted with uneven perfection. Probably this is because the icon was not finished — remember that Borovikovsky died suddenly in his studio past midnight on April 6 (by the Julian Calendar) 1825.

When he died, he left behind quite a few unfinished pieces in his studio on Millionnaya Street. For instance, the painter Grigory Chernetsov wrote in his diary in 1825: “7th April. Today I heard in the classroom about the death of a counselor of portraiture Vladimir Borovikovsky, who was a venerable old man and excellent painter... he had a noble mind, but death mows everyone with its scythe. 8th [April]. Today we visited the late Borovikovsky’s studio and saw there his pictures, which are divine. He has a whole iconostasis in his studio, but it’s unfinished. This artist knew the Holy Writ very well, his works seem inscrutable. The artist was industrious and worked until his very demise; he was quite wealthy through his work.”[9]

Indeed, death did not let Borovikovsky finish an iconostasis for the Church of Michael the Archangel at the Smolensky cemetery (in the Russian Museum) and two local icons for a Kharkov University church (they were finished the following year by Alexei Venetsianov). In his will Borovik
ovsky appointed as executors “court counselor Peletsky-Urbanovich and titular counselor of the Academy Ivan Vasiliev Bugaevsky-Blagodarny”. After Borovikovsky’s death Bugaevsky-Blagodarny inherited quite a few Borovikovsky’s portraits and religious paintings[10].

Ivan Vasilievich Bugaevsky-Blagodarny (1780-1860) was one of Borovikovsky’s favourite students. He was born into a Ukranian noble family, and started his career in 1807 as a low-ranking clerk in Chernigov. In 1813 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he was hired by the business department of the Ministry of the Interior. However, the government official developed a passion for painting. At first he painted alone, and then, it appears, he used his connections among fellow Ukrainians to become introduced to Borovikovsky. His growth as an artist was largely guided by the experienced master’s advice. He had every reason to say what Alexei Venetsianov, Bugaevsky’s fellow student at Borovikovsky’s workshop, said: “It was here that I understood the rules of painting.”[11] In the mid-1810s Borovikovsky was expending much energy on tutoring young artists. Thus, in a letter to his nephew on October 25 1817 the artist wrote: “My family consists of five students, one old woman who cooks, and I’m the seventh.”[12]

However, it is questionable whether Bugaevsky-Blagodarny lived in Borovikovsky’s home together with other students. As a government official, he could afford to rent an apartment for himself[13]. Borovikovsky’s students copied not only their mentor’s works[14], but also the old Western European masters at the Hermitage. Interestingly, one of the first art projects that Bugaevsky accomplished independently was satirical drawings (as was the case with Venetsianov too[15]). Thanks to his natural gift and Borovikovsky’s mentorship, Bugaevsky-Blagodarny received official recognition at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. He started his social ascent in 1822, when he was granted the status of a “candidate” for academician’s position, for a portrait from nature of a hussar officer. Two years later (in 1824) he was promoted to the academician’s rank for the programme “Portrait of Professor of Painting A.I. Ivanov”. From then on he regularly participated in academic shows and created “pictures on assignments from private clients and on speculation, for himself: water-colour, oil and pastel paintings”. Collecting was one of the artist’s hobbies.

Even when he left Borovikovsky’s workshop and started an independent career in art, Bugaevsky-Blagodarny never cut ties with his tutor. All his life he felt a profound reverence for Borovikovsky. One of Borovikovsky’s closest associates, Bugaevsky stayed with him until his last days, helping him to grapple with “different worriments”. Thus, in February 1824 Borovikovsky received from Rodion Koshelev a portrait for renovation: he was to set the canvas on a frame and lacquer the picture. The master assigned this task to one of his students who had a rare name — Apollos. When Bugaevsky-Blagodarny came, he heard loud moans of sorrow: Apollos was “standing behind screens and weeping, and [I] saw the portrait, with tongs-made holes on the face”.[16] Bugaevsky-Blagodarny had to apply a lot of effort to help the old master to set the picture right: the canvas was stitched up twice to remove the “warble”[17].

But it was not only everyday troubles that pulled the old master and his faithful student together. They were also united by the inner sense of cognate goals and creative aspirations in art.

When his tutor was still alive, Bugaevsky-Blagodarny wanted to portray him. However, he did not go further than making a small sketch from nature (1824, Tretyakov Gallery)[18]. This image was used as the base for a finished portrait, accomplished (as a note in Bugaevsky-Blagodarny’s handwriting informs) “from memory after the demise... as a token of genuine respect for the deceased’s extraordinary talents and grandeur of soul” (1825, Kaluga Regional Art Museum)19. The portrait from Kaluga features Borovikovsky against a smooth light background. The left part of the sketch features a canvas stretched on a frame. In the third and perhaps final version, Bugaevsky-Blagodarny placed, alongside the canvas on the frame, a woman’s portrait and three icons, which, it would be not illogical to assume, remained in his possession after his teacher’s death. It is our conviction that the “assortment” of works behind Borovikovsky’s back, far from being accidental, was carefully chosen. On the one hand it reflects Borovikovsky’s versatile talent as an icon painter and portraitist, on the other, traces the Creator’s earthly life from “Nativity” to “Transfiguration”.

Borovikovsky’s artistic legacy includes several small-size “Nativity” icons which could have been intended for domestic use. The composition of the icon on the Borovikovsky portrait resembles a piece at the Tver Picture Gallery[20]. The Mother of God with prayerful affection inclines her head toward the infant Christ surrounded with little angels. In this piece, acquired by the museum in 1947 from a private individual, Maria’s visage is rendered in the style of Western European painting, and the young virgin is depicted with a bare head. There is also another picture at the New Jerusalem museum[21], ascribed to Borovikovsky. Here the Mother of God, in accordance with the old Russian canon, is imaged wearing an omophorion. And the portrait made by Bugaevsky-Blagodarny features an image combining both icons’ elements.

The vague contours of yet another religious painting, to the left, lead one to believe that this is “Infants at the Communion Table Guarded by Mikhail the Archangel”. The piece was displayed at the show “Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky. Religious Paintings” (March-July 2009) in the Benois wing of the Russian Museum and reproduced in the catalogue[22]. This work too was created by the artist late in his life. Tatyana Alexeeva compared this picture with Borovikovsky’s icon “The Archistratigus at the Throne”, made for Yekaterina Tatarinova and passed on to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (Laura) in 1837[23]. As we can see, most images on Bugaevsky-Blagodarny’s portrait of Borovikovsky are on religious themes, which reflects the attitudes of his contemporaries to Borovikovsky’s art. Called the “Russian Murillo”, he was valued, first of all, as a genuinely religious Christian Orthodox artist who had a very fine understanding of the new icon tradition.

Bugaevsky-Blagodarny’s image of Borovikovsky features in its upper section, over the religious pictures, the portrait of a young lady wearing a light-coloured dress and a decoration on her head. Who is she? Although Borovikovsky produced a great many images of young society ladies of the age of Sentimentalism, there is only one that fits the description — Great Princess Maria Pavlovna. “Portrait of Great Princess Maria Pavlovna” (1804, Gatchina Open- Air Museum) is one of Borovikovsky’s best creations. The third daughter of Pavel Petrovich and Maria Fedorovna, called a “sensible maiden” by Catherine the Great, she was married to Karl Friedrich von Sachsen-Weimar (the official engagement took place in February 1804, and the wedding on July 22).

Probably it was on this momentous occasion that the Romanov family commissioned to Borovikovsky the bride’s portrait. The royal bride is decked out in a light-coloured dress embroidered from top to bottom with precious pearls. A pearl necklace and a pearl headpiece complement the ornate attire. But the fantastic opulence of the raiment does not eclipse the model’s genuine nobleness and highmindedness. Borovikovsky craftfully conveyed the majestic posture, the proudly reclined head, and the crossed arms. Maria Pavlovna is depicted against a landscape so much favored by this Sentimentalist artist. However, a certain statuary quality and fluidity of the round forms reveal new features of Classicism. There is a smaller-size version of the “Portrait of Great Princess Maria Pavlovna”, which may have been held by Borovikovsky — in the 1900s it became a part of Alexei Khitrovo’s private collection. In 1928 this piece was assigned by the State Museum Fund to the Russian Museum, and from there, in 1930, it was transferred to the Cherepovets Art Museum (now Cherepovets Museum Association). This picture features Maria Pavlovna in a more modest dress with short sleeves and without a pearl necklace, which is more in keeping with the image on the Bugaevsky- Blagodarny’s portrait.

Thus, it can be quite confidently assumed that we have “deciphered” nearly all pictures imaged on the portrait of Borovikovsky. Now there is just one “small” thing remaining to be done - to find the portrait itself, whose peregrinations, quite tragic, are not very well known. As it seems, this portrait, along with others, was held in Bugaevsky-Blagodarny’s collection. After his death, it came into the possession of a “Mr. Gafet in St.Petersburg” and was published by Great Prince Nikolai Mikhailovich[24]. In 1905 the piece was acquired by the Russian Museum. In Soviet times, Moscow museums, upon the instructions of the People’s Commissariat of Education [Narkomprosl, sent a lot of their holdings to provincial museums in order to “strengthen” their collections. Thus, in 1932 Bugaevsky-Blagodarny’s “Portrait of Borovikovsky” was sent from the Russian Museum to the Kharkov Art Museum. During World Wtr II it was lost along with many other gems of Russian art. Maybe this small-size piece is now labeled as a work of an unknown artist and held by a private collector abroad. One wants to hope that its whereabouts will become known one day and we will witness the beginning of its new life.


  1. Russian portraiture of the I8lh-I9th centuries. Published by Great Prince Nikolai Mikhailovich Pomanov in 5 volumes. Vol. 3. St.Petersburg. 1909, no. 160.
  2. Dmitry Albrecht mistakenly wrote that “a shelf with books and a young woman’s portrait are featured under Borovikovsky’s hand’’. In: Albrecht, D.P. “Vladimir Borovikovsky’s iconography”, Khudozhestvenny Vestnik [Artistic Messenger], St. Petersburg, 2007, no. 3. P. 72.
  3. Icons adorning the Royal Dorrs of the main altar in the Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Crafted by the Counselor of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts Vladimir Borovikovsky. Painted over stone and published by Vl. Pogonkm. St. Petersburg, 1819.
  4. Stolbova, E.l. "Paintings made by Vladimir Borovikovsky for the Kazan Cathedral". Khudozhestvcnny Vcstnik (Artistic Messenger], St. Petersburg, 2007, no. 3. P. 43.
  5. Gorlenko, V.P. "Painter Vladimir Borovikovsky. Biographical essay. Appendix", Russian Archive. 1891. no. 6. P. 233.
  6. Korostin. Alexei Fedorovich (1903-1957), art scholar, expert on history of Russian graphic art. collector. Author of the books “Early period of lithography in Russia - 1810-1818" (Moscow, 1943) and “Russian lithography in the 19th century” (Moscow, 1953).
  7. Expert testimony typed and signed by Alexei Korostin, dated March I 1948.
  8. Iolanta Lomize conducted at the Tretyakov Gallery' a technical examination of the icon. Unfortunately. X-rays did not bring out a clear-cut image, for the artist used two-sided priming and applied paints thinly. Meanwhile, an examination of the paints through macro-photography and binocular microscope revealed that all layers of paint in the picture, from the priming to the finishing touches, were similarly structured. It is important to note that Borovikovsky applied such a rarely used pigment as lead yellow.
  9. Manuscript Department of the Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 28, Item 3, Sheets 44 and 44 reverse. Information kindly submitted by Grigory Goldovsky.
  10. According to Alexei Venetsianov. Bugaevsky-Blagodarny even “made several copies from memory” of some of the icons. In: Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti [St. Petersburg Gazette), 1825, first addition to no. 46. P. 589.
  11. Alexei Gavrilovich Venetsianov. Articles, letters, memoirs of contemporaries. Ed. and compiled by A.V. Kornilova, Leningrad,
  12. 1980. P. 7. (Hereinafter referred to as Venetsianov.)
  13. Letter of October 25, 1817 to Anton Gorkovsky. In: ...Her beauty was rescued by Borovikovsky. Moscow, 2008. P. 225.
  14. In 1823 Alexei Venetsianov wrote in a letter to Nikolai Milyukov that, during a transit visit to St. Petersburg, he stayed in Bugaevsky’s apartment “near the Kokushkin bridge, in the business department of the Ministry of the Interior”. In: Venetsianov. Oprit., p. 295.
  15. The State Russian Museum has a copy of Borovikovsky’s 1797 piece “Portrait of Great Prince Nikolai Pavlovich and Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna in Childhood”, made by Bugaevsky- Blagodarny.
  16. Bugaevsky-Blagodarny and Venetsianov remained bound together by bonds of friendship throughout their lives. In 1816 Bugaevsky posed for his friend (“Portrait of Bugaevsky-Blagodarny in Fancy Dress”) and copied his works (“Kapitolina from Tronikha”, 1817- 1818, Tretyakov Gallery).
  17. Alexeeva, T.V. Vladimir Borovikovsky and Russian culture on the turn of the 18th -19th centuries. Moscow, 1975, p. 323.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Btigacvsky-Blagodamy. Ivan. Portrait of Vladimir Borovikovsky. The reverse carries an inscription, revealed during renovation (doubling of the image): “Borovikovsky 1824 from Bogaevsky’s collection". In: State Tretyakov Gallery'. Catalogue of the collection. Paintings of the first half of the 19th century. Vol. 3. M., 2005. P. 65.
  20. Bugaevsky-Blagodarny. Ivan. Portrait of the artist Vladimir Borovikovsky. The reverse carries a note in Bugaevsky’s handwriting: “Visited the show at the Academy of Fine Arts. The Counselor of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky was painted from memory, after his demise, by the Academician Ivan Bugaevsky-Blagodarny. On March 30 1825. as a token of genuine respect for the deceased's extraordinary talents and grandeur of soul". In: Kaluga Regional Art Museum. Ed. and compiled by V. Obukhov. Moscow. 2005. P. 13.
  21. In: ...Her Beauty was rescued by Borovikovsky. P. 172.
  22. Purchased in 1977 in a consignment store in Moscow.
  23. State Museum of History of Religion, previously Alexander Nevsky Monastery (Lavra), St. Petersburg. In: Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky. 1757-1825. Religious paintings. St. Petersburg. 2009. Pp. 68-69. 100.
  24. Alexeeva, T.V. Op. cit. P. 373.
  25. Russian portraiture of the 18th-19th centuries. Published by Great Prince Nikolai Mikhailovich Pomanov in 5 volumes. Vol. 3. St. Petersburg. 1909, p. 535.In the Russian text the initials are missing, and the French translation contains “M. Gafett". There was an artist called Gofet (Gafet), who, in 1863, copied in the Hermitage Fedor Moller's picture “A Kiss". In: Markina, L-A. Artist Fedor Moller. Moscow, 2002. P. 47.
Ivan BUGAEVSKY-BLAGODARNY. Portrait of the Artist Vladimir Borovikovsky. 1825
Ivan BUGAEVSKY-BLAGODARNY. Portrait of the Artist Vladimir Borovikovsky. 1825
Oil on panel. 22.5x17.5 cm
Kaluga Regional An Museum
Ivan BUGAEVSKY-BLAGODARNY. Portrait of the Artist Vladimir Borovikovsky. 1825
Ivan BUGAEVSKY-BLAGODARNY. Portrait of the Artist Vladimir Borovikovsky. 1825
(from Gafet’s collection)
Ivan BUGAEVSKY-BLAGODARNY. Portrait of Vladimir Borovikovsky. 1824
Ivan BUGAEVSKY-BLAGODARNY. Portrait of Vladimir Borovikovsky. 1824
Study. Oil on canvas. 18.1 x 14.8
Tretyakov Gallery
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Transfiguration
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Transfiguration
Oil on cardboard. 33.2 x 44 cm
Private collection. Moscow
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Infants at the Communion Table Guarded by Mikhail the Archangel. 2nd half of the 1810s-1820s
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Infants at the Communion Table Guarded by Mikhail the Archangel. 2nd half of the 1810s-1820s
Oil on cardboard mounted on wood. 42.5 x 31 cm
State Museum of History of Religion. St. Petersburg
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Nativity
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Nativity
Oil on cardboard. 33.2 x 44 cm
New Jerusalem Open-Air Museum of History and Architecture
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Nativity
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Nativity
Oil on cardboard. 25 x 20 cm
Tver Regional Picture Gallery
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Portrait of Great Princess Maria Pavlovna. 1804
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Portrait of Great Princess Maria Pavlovna. 1804
Oil on canvas. 71 x 59 cm
State Museum-Reserve “Gatchina”
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Portrait of Great Princess Maria Pavlovna
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Portrait of Great Princess Maria Pavlovna
Oil on canvas
Cherepovets Museum Association
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. 1790s
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. 1790s
Oil on cardboard. 43.5 x 47 cm
Tver Regional Picture Gallery
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Christ Blessing the Kneeling Alan (Borovikovsky’s Dream). (Self-portrait?). 1824
Vladimir BOROVIKOVSKY. Christ Blessing the Kneeling Alan (Borovikovsky’s Dream). (Self-portrait?). 1824
Oil on cardboard mounted on wood. 51.0 x 43.5 cm
Sergiev Posad Museum-Reserve





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