Romantic Russia

Lyudmila Markina

Magazine issue: 
#4 2010 (29)

In the very heart of Paris, in the neighbourhood of New Athens, not far from the noisy and notorious Moulin Rouge cabaret, there is a Museum of Romantic Life (Musee de la Vie Romantique). A quiet patio on Rue Chaptal shelters an elegant mansion with a small garden closely planted with sweet-smelling roses and blooming mallows. The house was home to the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer1, who settled here after the July Revolution of 1830.

His works, which enjoyed an enthusiastic reception at the Salon de Paris, were acquired by the Academy of Fine Arts and the royal family. Scheffer often chose Romantic literary works as themes for his paintings, including the famous drama by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “Faust” (“Margaret at Her Wheel” and “Faust Doubting”), the German poet Gottfried August Burger’s ballad (“Lenore”), and Walter Scott’s novel “The Heart of Midlothian” (“Effie and Jeanie in Edinburgh Prison”).

Every Friday the fashionable painter welcomed the city’s artistic and literary elite in his home. Among the celebrities who would visit were the writer George Sand2 and the composer Frederic Chopin, the painter Eugene Delacroix and the singer Pauline Viardot. Later this tradition was continued by the artist’s daughter Cornelia Scheffer: together with her husband, the surgeon Rene Marjolin, she played host in the home on Rue Chaptal to such personalities as the French artist Henri Martin, the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev and the French composer Charles Gounod. In 1856 the artist’s niece married the historian and man of letters Ernest Renan, the author of the famous “Life of Jesus”. In 1898 the couple’s daughters willed the Scheffer-Renan home as well as the famed philologist’s collection to the City Council of Paris.

In 1983 the Scheffer-Renan house became a municipal museum of the City of Paris, and recently, thanks to the efforts of the museum’s director Daniel Marchesseau, two twin studios in respective wings of the mansion have come to host international art exhibitions. As part of the Year of Russia in France the museum is showing the exhibition “Romantic Russia of Pushkin and Gogol. Masterpieces from the Tretyakov Gallery Collection” (from September 28 2010 through January 16 2011)3. About 70 paintings, sculptures and drawings by Russian masters of the first half of the 19th century are on show in Paris for the first time.

The term “Romanticism”, which made its initial appearance in Russia in the pages of periodical publications in the 1810s, was associated then with the word “patriotism”; the coupling of these words in the era of wars of liberation against Napoleon gives us a clue to the origin of Russian Romanticism. Meanwhile, in France Romanticism emerged on the crest of disillusionment in the wake of the Revolution, which produced the notion of the artist-creator as an individual in opposition to the state.

Russian Romanticism was a further step on the path towards the development of an artistic ideology; it met with fairly strong resistance in the circles connected to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Classicism with its harmonious and rational clarity was replaced by the emotional Romantic art focused on representation of grand emotions and powerful feelings. The divisions between the Romantics and adherents of the old ideology became especially sharp in the 1820s, a period that saw the publication of Orest Somov’s article “On Romantic Poetry” and Nikolai Nadezhdin’s doctoral thesis “The Experience of Romantic Poetry”. Talking about the victory of Romanticism over Classicism, the poet Alexander Marlinsky wittily noted: “Face powder was no rival to gunpowder!”

Indeed, the Russian Romantics — writers and artists alike — based their works on unusual stories suggested by real life, history and nature. The central room, in the former studio of Henri Scheffer (Ary’s brother), features battle scenes full of heroic spirit — Alexander Orlovsky’s “Don Cossacks” (the 1810s) and Grigory Gagarin’s “Hillmen Crossing a River” (the 1840s). The bronze bust of Emperor Alexander I (1807) by Louis-Marie Guichard epitomizes the Romantic idea of the warrior of that period. Along with Russia’s highest decoration, the Order of St. Andrew, his uniform features an Order of St. George: members of the imperial dynasty were entitled to the St. Andrew Star by right of their birth, while the Order of St. George was awarded for personal courage in battle. Of all the Russian emperors, only Alexander I and Nicholas II earned the latter distinction.

Emphasizing the importance of unconstrained individuality, the Romantics were greatly interested in the inner workings of the human soul. Feelings and thoughts, anxieties and passions were the essential theme of Alexander Pushkin’s poetry, as well as portraits painted by the Romantic artists. Romantic portraitists (Orest Kiprensky and Alexander Varnek) strove to break loose from the routine of the everyday and to represent the individual at extraordinary, “singular” moments when he reveals most fully the best qualities of his soul (hence the emphasis on Russians who had heroically defended their motherland during the Patriotic War of 1812). The graphic section of the Paris show is dominated by superb drawings by Orest Kiprensky, which include the 1823 portrait of Yevgraf Komarovsky, an adjutant general in the army of Alexander I. The centrepiece of the painting section is Karl Briullov’s masterfully crafted “Portrait of General Vasily Perovsky” (1837). Valiantly fighting in the ranks of the lifeguard of the Egersky Regiment, the general was wounded in his arm. Later, serving as governor in Orenburg, Perovsky helped Pushkin in gathering material about Emelian Pugachev’s revolt.

The genius of Alexander Pushkin, “the sun of Russian poetry” (as Vasily Zhukovsky termed him), illuminates all Russian art of the Romantic age. The show in Paris features a model of the poet’s statue, designed by Alexander Opekushin that was erected in 1880 in Moscow. An engraving of Orest Kiprensky’s portrait of the poet, made by Nikolai Utkin, gives a good impression of what Pushkin looked like.

Many images on view show the “pupils of the light-winged fashion” — Pushkin and his friends and acquaintances (poets, prose writers, and artists). This section includes Kiprensky’s Romantic masterpiece “Portrait of the Poet Vasily Zhukovsky”, Polish artist Jozef Oleszkiewicz’s image of Nikolai Arendt, the doctor who attended to Pushkin in his last moments, and Roman Volkov’s very unconventional representation of the Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov.

The “Portrait of Emperor Alexander I” by the little known artist K.Shevelkin was renovated especially for the exhibition. The image is fashioned after the canonical portrait created by the British master George Dawe, and the work recreates the Romantic myth of the age about the brilliant military commander and individual of great charm. Napoleon Bonaparte called him “a resourceful Byzantian” and the “Talma of the North”. The “Portrait of Empress Yelizaveta (Elizabeth) Alexeevna, Consort of Alexander I” was accomplished by the French artist Joseph Monier in 1802, the year he came to Russia. In politics as in life Tsarina Elizabeth preferred to play a supporting role. Few had such an intimate and accurate knowledge of the complicated character and impenetrable soul of the “sphinx” — to use Pushkin’s insightful description — Alexander I, as did his spouse: all of her actions were marked by a kind of humility, the only possible stance to adopt in order to avoid irritating her imperial husband.

Monier depicts the young Empress in front of a mirror, thus highlighting her delicate Greek profile; on the table there is a splendid bouquet, while Elizabeth holds in her hands a modest bunch of pansies. As a master from the French cultural tradition, Monier may have used its flower symbolism:   from the 16th century onwards, pansies in many European countries symbolized thoughtfulness, loyalty and wisdom. However, it is likely that, since he was in Russia, the artist used the sad Slavic legend about a village girl Anyuta with a kind heart and trustful beaming eyes (pansies in Russian are known as “Anyuta’s eyes”), who died because her heart was broken by a deceitful seducer. On her grave the flowers grew — Anyuta’s little eyes — whose three-colour petals symbolized hope, surprise and sadness: in the flower-crowns, white means hope, yellow — surprise, and violet — sadness.

Maxim Vorobiev’s painting “An Oak Broken into Pieces by Lightning” (1842) is also an allegory — it was created at a tragic moment in the artist’s life, after the death of his beloved wife. The painting in the style of late Romanticism contrasts the untrammelled forces of nature and the human being caught in their grip.

The age of Romanticism saw Russian graphic art reach its high point. The richness and suppleness of the visual language, and the fine gradations of watercolour opened up unbounded possibilities for creating emotionally expressive images and objects. The most fascinating and original part of Fyodor Tolstoy’s legacy are the elegant drawings featuring fruit and flowers. In the “catalogue” of Tolstoy’s works, compiled by the artist himself, he listed images of “drawn from nature objects such as flowers, flower compositions in glass jars, fruits, berries with dewdrops, Brazilian birdies with their multi-coloured plumelets with brassy shine, butterflies with wings grotesquely marked all over, dragonflies, beetles”4.

Indeed, working on the series of sketchbook drawings, Tolstoy acted as a true natural scientist. Meticulously and carefully he delineated the frame of the flower, its petals and stamen. Tolstoy’s works demonstrate his unique command of graphic techniques. The artist prepared the paints himself: “I draw my flowers,” recalled the artist in his “Memoirs”, “not with watercolour or gouache, which I don’t like. I use paints that, though more opaque, are carefully purified and very finely ground, and for this reason I prepare most of my paints myself”5.

In Tolstoy’s pieces watercolour loses its sense of airiness and transparency, and is often mixed with white: working with a fine brush, he laid one coat of paint over another, a technique that created a special “melted” surface. One example of this is the drawing “Daffodils” (1817), where the captivating freshness of the flowers is rendered without visible motion of the brush, and the white of the petals almost imperceptibly morphs into the grey and olive in their leaves. The still-life “A Bunch of Flowers. Butterfly and Little Bird” (1820) reflects the artist’s love for objects “live and dead”, and his ambition to create a complete life-like illusion. A modest bunch of flowers sits in a jar of clear glass, while next to it, on a wooden perch, is a goldfinch, whose mottled plumage matches well the “set” of colours in the flowers. The bird’s little red head and white breast match the poppy, and the yellow plumelets in the wings match the “veinlets” of the marigold petals. The choice of garden flowers appears to reflect the culture of Russian estate life.

It seems almost as if Fyodor Tolstoy competed with nature, eager to create in his works a complete emulation of reality. He sometimes even teased naive viewers, painting a droplet of water so real that you want to flick it away, or a butterfly that might flutter into the air at any moment. Fyodor Tolstoy’s works became part and parcel of the everyday life of Pushkin’s time — the poet mentioned Tolstoy’s sketchbooks in “Eugene Onegin”:

... rendered beauteous
By Tolstoy's pencil marvellous,
Though Baratynski verses penned,
The thunderbolt on you descend!

In the history of Russian art Tolstoy is also remembered as a prominent sculptor and medallist. The show displays a series of gypsum bas-reliefs on themes from the 1812 Patriotic War (“Battle Near the Berezina” (1820)) and the European military campaigns of the Russian army in 1813-1814 (“Liberation of Berlin”, 1821; “Crossing the Rhine”, 1825). The image of a Russian soldier in the medallion “Battle Near Arcis-sur-Aube (France), 1830” is especially riveting. Following the academic canon, the soldier is represented as the ancient Greek hero Heracles who, in the artist’s words, “having cast aside his sword and spear, takes a staff and strikes at the common foe with his powerful arms”. The series ends with “Peace to Europe” (1836), with a female figure symbolizing Russia stretching her hand over a genuflecting winged genius of war whose shield carries the image of Zeus as a bull snatching Europe. A scroll in the hand of the winged young man has an inscription — “1815”: the year of the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon’s second exile on the island of Saint Helena, and the creation of the Holy Alliance in Europe.

The intimate portrait became one of the noteworthy and compelling features of the Romantic age, as portraits in pencil or watercolour came to adorn noblemen’s mansions. They were gifted to family members and friends, and accompanied their owners on their travels or on military expeditions. Early in the 19th century it became fashionable to keep sketchbooks featuring amateur drawings side by side with works by famous masters. The first collections of graphic art began to be formed at that time, with pieces by Pyotr Sokolov, Orest Kiprensky and the brothers Karl and Alexander Briullov especially sought after. Especially eye-catching is the portrait of Yekaterina Bakunina, the first, youthful love of Alexander Pushkin, who devoted to her several poems. The interest in Oriental exoticism, typical for Russian Romantic art, is a noteworthy feature of the sepias “Noon at Caravansarai” and “A Turk Mounting a Horse”, executed by Karl Briullov during his travels in Turkey in 1835, and Karl Rabus’s watercolour “Moonlit Landscape (the Dardanelles)”.

To the left of the entrance to the museum, at the end of an alley, stands the building of the studio where Ary Scheffer would receive his guests. The details of its interior remain untouched: an antique writing cabinet, colossal bookcases, and a unique piano on which Chopin performed.

These rarities include several paintings devoted to Italy by Russian masters. Italy became for them not only the Academy where the young virtuosos honed their skills, but also a land of promise which granted them inspiration. The genre of historical composition, dominating academic Classicist art, was affected by Romanticism in a peculiar fashion, becoming a mirror of the age reflecting its public and artistic ideals. The French Romantic artists pivoted their historical compositions (Theodore Gericault in “The Raft of the Medusa”, Eugene Delacroix in “Massacres on the Island of Chios”, and Antoine-Jean Gros in “Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole”) around tragic events which produced a great emotional impact on the viewer. The Russian master Karl Briullov created a majestic composition “The Last Day of Pompeii” (1833, Russian Museum), depicting the dismay of people frightened by the impending catastrophe (the show at the museum features a study for this painting, which gives a good idea of the finished piece).

Sylvestr Shchedrin’s and Maxim Vorobiev’s landscapes show how the mission of the genre of landscape would change. The Romantic landscapists were specific not only about the locale they portrayed but also about the time of the day and states of nature. Study of nature introduced into their paintings light and air and associated them with the tradition of painting en plein air. Shchedrin was one of the first Russian masters to discover this manner of painting, best illustrated in his pieces such as “New Rome. Castel Sant’ Angelo” and “Naples on a Moonlit Night” (1828).

Cityscapes by Maxim Vorobiev “The Moscow Kremlin as Seen from Ustiinsky Bridge” and “An Autumn Night in St. Petersburg” pushed the limits of the genre of “views with a visual perspective” and presented the image of the two Russian capitals as seen by the Romantic artist. Next to Vorobiev’s pieces hangs Anton Ivanov’s “Nikolai Gogol Crossing the Dnieper”, depicting the nature and scenery of Ruthenia (Malorossia). Also on view is the most famous image of Gogol — the portrait of “Writer Nikolai Gogol” accomplished by Fyodor Moller.

An important feature of the show, for French viewers, is the work of Vladimir Borovikovsky, an exponent of Sentimentalism — a trend that anticipated Romanticism. A portrait believed to be of the French woman writer Germaine de Staёl by Borovikovsky provoked controversy and differing responses from experts.

In the typology of the Romantic portrait, a special place is assigned to the selfportrait. In Russia self-portraits became a form of struggle for establishing an artist’s right to have himself and his art respected. A small-size “Self-portrait” by the first Russian professional woman artist Sofia Sukhovo-Kobylina occupies a prominent place at the exhibition.

One of the goals of the show was to reveal parallels between and compare Russian and French Romantic art. It was no accident that the director of the Museum of Romantic Life Daniel Marchesseau included in the museum’s main show paintings from the Carnavalet Museum in Paris — Jean Zippel’s “The Allied Troops Enter Paris, March 31 1814” and “A Grand Prayer Service on Place de la Concorde, Performed at Alexander I’s request on April 10 1814” by an unknown French artist.

As a worldview and a stylistic trend, Romanticism in Russia existed until the mid-19th century. In the 1850s the style began to decline, and in the 1860s it completely succumbed to the developing Critical Realist trend.


  1. The first floor of the museum houses an exhibition of the diverse artwork of Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), including portraits, religious compositions, and historical paintings.
  2. On the ground floor, memorabilia relating to George Sand (1804-1876) are displayed, including her personal objects, and portraits that she once owned: these items serve to recreate the environment in which the writer and her family and friends lived. In 1923 the collection was donated to Paris by the writer's granddaughter Aurore Lauth-Sand.
  3. La Russie Romantique a l'Spoque de Pouchkine et Gogol. Chefs-d'oeuvre de la galerie nationale Tretiakov, Moscou. Paris, 2010
  4. Count Fyodor Tolstoy. Review of the Artistic Activity. Russkaya Starina. Vol. 7. 1873. Book 4. P. 531.
  5. Notes of Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy. Moscow, 2001. P. 309.



Vasily TROPININ. The Guitarist. 1832
Vasily TROPININ. The Guitarist. 1832
Authorʼs copy (1823, Tretyakov Gallery). Oil on canvas. 83.8 × 65.6 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Maxim VOROBIEV. View from the Kamenny Bridge on the Moscow Kremlin. 1819
Maxim VOROBIEV. View from the Kamenny Bridge on the Moscow Kremlin. 1819
Authorʼs copy (1818, Russian Museum). Oil on canvas. 42.6 × 65.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai GERENE (GERIN). Интерьер. 1830
Nikolai GERENE (GERIN). Интерьер. 1830
Watercolour, ceruse, varnish on paper. 23.5 × 33.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
K. SHEVELKIN. Portrait of Alexander I. 2nd half of the 19th century
K. SHEVELKIN. Portrait of Alexander I. 2nd half of the 19th century
Copy from the original painting by François Gérard (1810, Hermitage Museum). Oil on canvas. 94.2 × 71.4 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Pyotr SOKOLOV. Portrait of Grand Prince Alexander Nikolaevich. 1828
Pyotr SOKOLOV. Portrait of Grand Prince Alexander Nikolaevich. 1828
Watercolour on paper. 20.2 × 16.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai TIKHOBRAZOV. Interior. 1844
Nikolai TIKHOBRAZOV. Interior. 1844
Watercolour on paper. 19 × 25.1 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Karl BRIULLOV. Portrait of Maria Buteneva With Her Daughter Maria. 1835
Karl BRIULLOV. Portrait of Maria Buteneva With Her Daughter Maria. 1835
Watercolour, ceruse, pencil on paper mounted on cardboard. 41.8 × 31 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Ignaty SHCHEDROVSKY. Joinery. After 1839
Ignaty SHCHEDROVSKY. Joinery. After 1839
Oil on canvas. 30.6 × 24 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Alexander ZLATOV. Girl with a Cage. Late 1820s
Alexander ZLATOV. Girl with a Cage. Late 1820s
Oil on canvas. 53.3 × 44.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Battle Near the Berezina. 1820
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Battle Near the Berezina. 1820
Gypsum bas-relief. 21 × 21 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Peace to Europe. 1836
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Peace to Europe. 1836
Gypsum bas-relief. 21.5 × 21.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Louis-Marie GUICHARD. Portrait of Grand Prince Konstantin Pavlovich. 1804
Louis-Marie GUICHARD. Portrait of Grand Prince Konstantin Pavlovich. 1804
Bronze. Height 74 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Pyotr SOKOLOV. Portrait of Princess F.Golytsina. 1847
Pyotr SOKOLOV. Portrait of Princess F. Golytsina. 1847
Watercolour on cardboard. 38.7 × 31.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Fyodor TOLSTOY.  Grape. 1817
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Grape. 1817
Gouache on brown paper. 25.4 × 34.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Before Parting. A Knight Times Scene. 1844
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Before Parting. A Knight Times Scene. 1844
Gouache on paper. 40.5 × 36.3 cm. Tretyakov Gallery



Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play