"An artist with wonderful talent and comfortable means..."

Lyudmila Markina

Magazine issue: 
#4 2012 (37)

On the 200th anniversary of the birth of Fyodor Moller

Thus the engraver Fyodor Iordan described his friend Fyodor Moller (born Otto Friedrich Theodor von Moller, 1812-1874). Born into a family of Baltic German nobility and later in life a professor of St. Petersburg's Academy of Arts, Moller lived a happy family and artistic life, gaining recognition in his lifetime, most notably for his portraits of Nikolai Gogol. Moller's name, however, was soon almost forgotten, and today he remains little more than a link between Russian and Estonian culture. A conference devoted to the bicentenary of the artist's birth took place in Kuressaare castle on the Estonian Island of Saaremaa in September 2012: it was there, in this small resort town, that Moller spent his summers from 1856 onwards.

Moller lived a happy life with his young wife and children on his estate, by a lake not far from the unique Kaali field of meteorite craters, creating a number of well-known paintings and giving art lessons to enthusiasts. He is buried in the Lutheran cemetery nearby.

The exhibition displayed at the castle presented reproductions and hand-painted copies of works by Moller, the originals of which are now in the major Russian museums — the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, and the Tretyakov Gallery. The major part of his graphic heritage is at the KUMU Contemporary Art Museum in Tallinn. Economic reasons meant that other paintings by Moller which are scattered around different museums and countries were not exhibited.

The conference organisers (Olavi Pesti from the Kuressaare museum, and Nijele Kjarner and Yury Zabellevitch of the Russian Culture Society) invited the local historian Bruno Pao of Kuressaare, and art critics Ana Allikvee and Anna Untera from the Tallinn Art Museum. The author of this article (and of the first treatise about Moller1) took part in the conference and focused the attention of its participants on the painter's oeuvre in the context of Russian culture of the first half of the 19th century. The three stories below tell something about the individuals who played an important role in Moller's life, as both an artist and an individual.

Father and son

The history of the Baltic German noble family the Mollers, who lived on Ezel (Saaremaa) Island, dates back to the 15th century. The 16th-century stone plaque with the Moller family coat of arms2 is still in Kuressaare castle, and historian Bruno Pao identified the birthplace of the father of the future artist, Berndt Otto von Moller (1764-1848). Though his relatives came from Saaremaa3, the boy was born on the mainland, in the southern part of Estonia near Symerpala (Somerpalu) on the estate of Mustjya (Osula). As tradition demanded, boys from Baltic German families were sent to Navy educational institutions, first to Kronstadt, later to St. Petersburg. In 1779 the young Berndt Moller graduated from the Sea Cadet Corps in St. Petersburg. The cadets did their practical training on navy sailing vessels, and the naval school turned the coddled offspring of the nobility into brave warriors.

Service in the fleet saw him train widely in different locations (and even he learnt English). In the 1780s Berndt Moller sailed the Mediterranean, and from 1783 to 1792 served in the Caspian fleet. Upon graduation (1793-1795), the young officer served on the North Sea for four years.

In 1803 Captain Berndt Moller received an appointment to Revel (Tallinn) where he faced challenges to expand and improve the naval port. In 1806, the 42-year-old captain of the first rank Berndt Moller married Julia Nolken (1787-1873), who would later give birth to 11 children. In 1810 Berndt von Moller, then a rear admiral, was assigned to Kronstadt where he combined the position of the commander of the port with that of director of the local navigator school. It was in Kronstadt that his third child, Otto Friedrich, the future artist, was born on May 30 1812.

From 1814 to 1821 Berndt Moller worked as chief of the so-called "construction of the expedition of the Navy port" in Revel. The atmosphere of the ancient Hanseatic port city made a strong impact on the formation of Otto Moller's artistic impressions. Throughout his life the artist thought of his home town, his "minor homeland", with excitement. The boy received an outstanding high school education — besides the German spoken at home (his first pictures are signed in German), the young Moller could also speak French, while his surviving letters show that his written Russian was excellent in style. His talent for painting revealed itself from an early age, and watercolour views of Revel and Narva, painted by impressible young Moller from life, survive today in the City Museum of Tallinn. Besides topographical accuracy these works demonstrate the young man's lyrical perception of the urban landscape. Despite such artistic talent, Otto Friedrich was destined, like any boy in the family, for a military career.

Admiral Moller's career progressed, and in 1821 he became chief of staff in the Navy Ministry of Russia and the family moved to St. Petersburg; later he would be appointed a Senator and member of the State Council. In 1828 Anton Vasilievich (as he was called now) Moller was appointed to a challenging position at the Marine Ministry which had been established in 1815 on the basis of the Admiralty founded by Peter the Great. He supervised shipbuilding in Russia, as well as research and round-the-world journeys, and personnel recruitment and procurement for the navy. Unlike some of his predecessors, Moller was honest in his work in this position, and did everything to maintain the prestige of the Russian Empire on the ocean. Emperor Nicholas I observed Moller's diligence and devotion4 and awarded him many Russian decorations (including the highest of all, the Order of St. Andrew the First-Called). He was given two estates in Ingermanland, and remained well off until the end of his life.

Their father's example and authority influenced his sons in many ways. The Mollers were a very close-knit family, in which brothers and sisters helped one another — they were united not only by family bonds, but also by spiritual affinity. In "A Family Portrait" (1837, private collection, Germany) Fyodor Moller depicted an idyllic domestic scene: the mother is embroidering, one sister plays the piano, while the father and other children are listening to the music. The artist depicted himself at his easel, in his uniform with epaulettes (although by then he had already retired with the rank of guards second-captain). Moller's life as a naval officer and participant in armed hostilities in Poland in the 1830s could have logically brought him to seascapes or battle-painting. However, he turned to the portrait genre, and chose Karl Briullov — the outstanding master of the period — as his teacher in art.

Teacher and student

When exactly Fyodor Moller appeared in Briullov's historical-painting class remains unknown. We first read of the contacts between the master and the future artist in the diary of Apollon Mokritsky (the Russian portrait painter, 1810-1870). In the entry dated April 3 1837 Mokritsky writes, "In the morning, at about seven o'clock, Briullov sent for me. I found Moller and Gayvazovsky at his place"5.

Briullov selected his students very carefully. The Russian painter Moisey Melikov wrote, " Briullov often said that to become his student it was necessary to understand the teacher, to be talented, and to need his guidance" 6. Briullov's teaching method included obligatory copying of old masters' works as well as his own pictures. He taught his students in the Hermitage, analyzing and comparing works by Rubens, van Dyck and Poussin — Mokritsky remembered the master's bright and emotional lectures. His students would often enough copy Briullov's pictures while the painter was still working at them — the young painters would watch their teacher at work, and acquire the secrets of his technical skill and artistic style.

Moller's copy (now in Ivanovo Art Museum) of the picture "The Appearance of Three Angels to Abraham at the Oak of Mambre" painted by Briullov7 is a good example of that process. It was Briullov's graduation work (1821, now in St. Petersburg's Russian Museum), which brought the artist a gold medal and scholarship. In Moller's time the picture was kept at the Museum of the Academy of Arts. The Old Testament story is presented in the style of classicism and is a typically academic picture in form, its composition like a stage setting — Abraham and his servants are placed on the left, three angels with ideal faces and figures on the right. On the whole, Moller painted quite a good copy, even though falling short of the original in the colouring.

Besides his work on large, officially-commissioned pictures on historical motives, Briullov worked extensively in the portrait genre, where he achieved enormous and well-deserved success. Moller developed and perfected his style through copying portraits by Briullov, among them "Portrait of Countess Wittgenstein as a Child" (Art Museum, Tallinn)8, which is a fragment of Briullov's group portrait (1832, whereabouts unknown) of Count Wittgenstein's children with their Italian nurse. The painter successfully depicted the child's spontaneous movement, with reflections of transparent water, air, and the cool shadow of the woods observable on her white shirt.

The main advantage of Briullov's artistic method lay in his consistent recommendation to his students to address living reality: he demanded that they should study their model and the structure of the human body carefully, and awoke in them an alertness to the tiniest shades of the model's mood. Briullov would use the contemptuous word "gag" when speaking about pictures painted from the imagination. Moller was a diligent student in Briullov's class and managed to achieve clarity of composition, faultless accuracy of drawing, expressive modeling and truthful colour sense. All artists who went through his school emphasized Briullov's paternal attitude to his students. Briullov was not only Moller's teacher, but also his friend and instructor. He appreciated Moller's abilities and placed him among his best students; Mokritsky (also a student of the artist) wrote, "Briullov criticised me awfully, which was caused by Moller's wonderful picture taken from life"9.

Moller's albums with numerous sketches from nature and drawings copied from Briullov's paintings (in the Art Museum, Tallinn), clearly show how precisely Moller followed his teacher's technique while working on the composition of his own pictures. Technical and technological study of Moller's early pictures reveal a style typical of Briullov in the way the younger artist painted faces and clothes. No wonder that a contemporary wrote: "The instruction and guidance of the experienced maestro soon brought visible improvement. Moller has become an estimable representative of Russian art."10

Briullov advised Moller to go to Italy to perfect his artistic skill. A retired captain and son of the Minister of the Navy, Moller's circumstances were comfortable, and he made the journey in 1838, at a time when the Russian art colony in Rome was at its brightest. The great history of Italy, the cradle of European civilization, its ancient monuments, gentle climate, cheerful and talented people and their style of life — all of this has always attracted travellers, philosophers and poets, writers and artists.

The engraver Fyodor Iordan described Moller as "a handsome young nobleman and artist with wonderful talent and comfortable means who was always cheerful and extremely diligent" 11 , who stood out from other young Russian painters in Italy. In Italy, Moller followed Briullov's practice and started to paint genre pictures from everyday Italian life ("The Gardener at Rest", "Mother and Child", "The Roman Shepherd Boy").

However the artist achieved real success with the picture "Kiss" which showed a young Italian girl dressed in bright clothes — Moller painted her pretty face, fine profile, bright brown eyes, and shining hair with admiration. The young beauty appears scared, pushing away the Italian youth who is embracing and kissing her passionately on the cheek. The successful combination of academic traditions and romantic features yielded a great result, and the work brought Moller unprecedented success, first in Rome, then in St. Petersburg.

In 1840 a special meeting of the Council at the Academy of Arts unanimously acknowledged the fact that the picture "' Kiss' excelled in high artistic value", and that the artist Moller deserved "to be awarded a title of Academician".

As is clear from a letter of Admiral Moller, after "Kiss" was shown at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, it was kept in Briullov's studio12. This fact is an obvious recognition of Moller's artistic achievements — Briullov could have used the picture as a work for his students to copy. Moller had 15 pictures by Briullov in his studio in Rome13, and throughout the 1840s Moller would write to Briullov from wherever he was — Italy, Germany or Russia. The invariable respect and worship for the teacher is a distinctive feature of these letters, one of them reading, "I am a tireless and most diligent adorer of your great genius for ever, dear Karl Pavlovich ..."14.

Looking for a historical theme Moller turned to the story of "The Capture of Kazan" (1847, Tretyakov Gallery), a choice made not without Briullov's influence. According to the Russian painter Mikhail Zheleznov, Briullov put the accent on two important episodes in Russian history — the siege of Pskov by the Polish-Lithuanian army (August 1581-February 1582), and the capture of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible (October 2 1552). Moller, who painted a small-sized copy of "The Siege of Pskov" (Ivanovo Art Museum) was influenced by Briullov's artistic depiction of the events: in "The Capture of Kazan" Moller not only followed the composition of his teacher's painting, but also directly borrowed some characters.

Later Moller turned his hand to a large picture based on the Bible story "St. John the Divine Preaching on the Island of Patmos" (1856, Russian Museum). One of the first sketches, made in the mid-1840s, was full of romantic spirit, the direct opposition between the pagan-priest and the Christian preacher showing the obvious influence of Briullov's "The Last Day of Pompeii". Moller asked for Alexander Ivanov's opinion on the work and the latter gave the diplomatic answer, "I advised Moller to send the sketch to Briullov as to his father-in-art". Work on the picture was lengthy, and it was completed only after Briullov's death. In later years Moller was influenced by Ivanov, as well as the German Romanticist artists, the "Nazarenes". Nevertheless, Moller's best works ("Portrait of Fyodor Bruni", 1844; "The Sleeping Girl", 1840s; both at the Tretyakov Gallery), bear the mark of Briullov's artistic genius.

Writer and artist

Russia's Crown Prince Alexander, visiting Rome at the end of 1838, wrote in his diary, "December 15/27. Today I dined with the retired general Bazilevsky, Tchertkov who had been wounded in the Polish war, colonel Tol and Moller — the one, who paints. I intend to go and see his works one of these days ." 15 This fragment shows that the future Russian Tsar knew Moller's name. Two days later the crown prince wrote to his father, Nicholas I, "I dined practically with only very close people. In the evening Gogel [Nikolai Gogol], the author of 'The Government Inspector', read to us another comedy 'Marriage', which is a most hilarious play."16

Perhaps it was at this time that the artist and the writer made each other's acquaintance, and it is entirely possible that the engraver Iordan, who was living nearby on Felice street, introduced Moller to the writer. Gogol was very particular about meeting new people and accepted only very few of them, although many Russians dreamed of meeting the famous writer. "The people who knew Gogol's name and read his books were beyond themselves with delight and looked for a chance to see him somewhere at lunch or at dinner, but his unsociable nature and taciturnity cooled down their delight little by little," Iordan wrote. "There were just three of us — Ivanov, Moller, who joined much later, and I — who visited Gogol and stayed late at his place17. We were destined to look at him like an oracle, and wait till he opened his lips."18

The friends did not only philosophize over tea in Gogol's apartment, they also travelled in the vicinity of Rome. "Some of our artists, who were on friendly terms with Gogol in Rome," wrote Viktor Gajewski, "confirm his reserved character, adding that he was to the highest degree speechless. He would go with someone for a walk about the extensive Campania region burnt out by the sun, invite his companion to sit down together on the grass which had turned yellow from heat, listen to the birds' singing and, having sat or lain thus for some hours, they went back home, without saying a word to each other."19

The earliest "Portrait of Nikolai Gogol" (1840, Ivanovo Regional Art Museum) painted by Moller was made while they were travelling in the environs of Rome (Gogol's travel-cloak might be a hint). The direct perception of the model and its style of barely-planned background and heavy impasto brushstrokes, prove that it is a sketch painted alla prima. Gogol's face is brightly lit by the beams of the sunset, his lips touched with a smile, mysterious and a little sarcastic. The head of the writer is slightly lowered, as if he is looking at us with a frown, and the painter does not highlight the distinctive form of Gogol's nose which frequently became the object of jokes. Gogol wrote in a letter to M. Balabina, "Perhaps you just as well imagine my long bird-like nose".20

For many years this portrait of Gogol remained in the possession of the artist. In 1870 Moller sold it to Pavel Tretyakov who aimed at collecting in his gallery "the portraits of the people dear to the nation". Depository documents reveal the details of this acquisition: the department of manuscripts of the Tretyakov Gallery has two of Moller's chirographs addressed to Tretyakov. Written in neat calligraphic handwriting with specific expressions, they enhance Moller's reputation as a well brought-up and disciplined individual. "Dear Pavel Mikhailovich," the artist wrote on August 3 1870, "to your letter of June 10th from Moscow I have the honour to answer that I just came back the other day to St. Petersburg and brought Gogol's portrait which I painted from him as a model. As you wished, I left the costume unfinished and on the whole the portrait is left exactly in the form it was when I finished it painting from nature — without any change. You can come over to my apartment and see the portrait, whenever you like". 21 At that time the painter lived with his family in St. Petersburg at 8, Pochtamtskaya street. However Tretyakov did not get round to visiting him in St. Petersburg, and the portrait was delivered to Moscow by Moller's brother Alexander and acquired by Tretyakov22.

The second "Portrait of Nikolai Gogol" was painted at the beginning of the 1840s and is now at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg23. It was most likely painted in that short period of Gogol's life when the writer was in a peaceful and harmonious state of mind and spirit: Gogol's friend, the literary critic Pavel Annenkov arrived in Rome at the end of April 1841, and found Nikolai Vasilyevich "absolutely fine, friendly and joyful, as we knew him in St. Petersburg in 1836"24.

The bust-length portrait has an intimate atmosphere, with the writer depicted at home — he is wearing a striped dressing gown, a snow-white shirt with a turned-down collar, carelessly opened at the breast. However the hair is carefully combed with the distinctive "Gogol parting", and the short moustache coquettishly formed. The clear look of the 30-year-old writer, his youthful face with plump pink cheeks, and also the contrasts of light and shade, red dabs of the background, white dabs in the shirt and olive-green in the fabric of the dressing gown — all this gives a romantic character to the portrait. Both images of the writer (in a travel-cloak and in a dressing gown) vividly show the approach to the model, acquired by Moller at Briullov's studio.

Gogol's best-known portrait was painted by Moller in 1841 at the request of his mother Maria Ivanovna Gogol-Yanovskaya. The Russian writer N. V. Berg wrote: "I heard, that the portrait was ordered by Gogol to send it to Malorossiya [Ukraine], to his mother, after the insistent requests of the whole family. Gogol apparently thought over the most advantageous position to take: he had put on a frock coat which no one had ever seen before or after; stretched an improbable beaded chain across the waistcoat; sat down in an upright position, perhaps, to conceal from the descendants his long nose which actually was not that long."25 Unlike the two earlier portraits which have the features of nature and impartiality, this time the painter planned the composition thoroughly, as well as Gogol's pose, facial expression and, of course, his costume. The writer is dressed in a closely buttoned frock coat, wearing a silk scarf, smartly knotted at the neck, with an expensive gold chain — all these were the signs of the "formal" style appearance Gogol takes on when he goes out.

This portrait of Gogol became extremely popular because of the engraving plates that were made after it. The engraver Iordan wrote, "Gogol's portrait painted by Moller catches the utmost likeness with the model. I made two engraving plates from it."26 Iordan's first-hand account of the high degree of similarity between Gogol himself and this portrait painted by Moller is especially convincing coming from an artist and individual close to Gogol.

Gogol in his will of 1845 pointed out that "Moller's portrait was the only one to give a good likeness". Gogol's portrait with waistcoat with gold chain was owned by the writer's family until 1919, when it was transferred to the Yaroshenko Art Museum (Poltava, Ukraine).

During World War II the original disappeared, and its whereabouts remains unknown: the Tretyakov Gallery has the artist's signed copy, which was acquired in 1890 by Sergei Tretyakov27, the brother of the famous gallery founder. The portraits of Nikolai Gogol were created by Moller in his most fruitful Italian period. Painted with enthusiasm and lively energy they are most popular in Gogol's iconography, creating versatile images of the great writer.

  1. Markina L. "The Painter Fyodor Moller". Moscow. 2002
  2. Genealogisches Handbuch der Oeselschen Ritterschaft. Tartu, 1935. Pp. 175-176
  3. Bruno Pao suggested matching two family names - Moller and Muller ("miller" in German). The Mullers lived at Kingli es­tate on the Island of Saaremaa (Estonia) at all times. The local historian Oscar Myaeniita says, that at first it was the estate Rehemyae with a mill on the hill. This estate included a part of the seashore in the estuary of the Kuke brook. In 1572 the Mullers owned a piece of land on the seashore in the village of Turia, parish of Valjala. At the end of the 18th century this land was attached to the Vihksa estate. This united land was owned by the Pollis and the Guldenstubbes, Moller's wife's relatives. There were about 120 estates on the Island of Saaremaa at the end of the 19th century. Most of the land owners strived for seashore territory, as it gave additional benefits, although disputable, to acquire the property after shipwrecks. My gratitude to Yury Zabellevitch for the trans­lation of B.Pao's presentation.
  4. On October 9 1848 Emperor Nicholas I, as a special gesture, honoured the funeral of Anton Moller, who had been the Minister of the Navy, with his presence. From 'Notes of Baron Modest Korf. "Russkaya starina". V 101, January-March, 1900. P. 582
  5. "Diary of the artist A.N. Mokritsky". Moscow, 1975. P. 116
  6. Melikov M.Ye. 'Notes and memoirs of an artist-painter'. "Russian Old Time", 1896, July. P. 646
  7. Ivanovo Art Museum. Album-guidebook. Ivanovo, 2006. P. 32
  8. In her treatise L.A. Markina mistakenly attributed it as a portrait of Moller's daughter, painted in the 1870s ("The Painter Fyodor Moller". Moscow, 2002. P. 227)
  9. "Diary of the artist A. Mokrit-sky". Moscow, P. 140
  10. Tolbin V.V. Fyodor Antonovich Moller. "Photography". 1858, No. 3. P. 68
  11. Iordan F.I. "Notes". P. 184
  12. Russian State Historical Archive. Fund 789. Op. 20. D. 22. Sheet 6
  13. Inventory of Moller's property filed on March 28 1842. Archive of International Policy of the Russian Empire. Fund 190, Op. 525, Unit 565. Sheet 128
  14. Manuscript department, Russian Museum. Fund 31. Unit 194. Sheet 1
  15. "Correspondence of Crown Prince Alexander with the Em­peror Nicholas I. 1838-1839". Ed. Zakharova L.G., Mironenko S.V. Moscow, 2008. P. 240
  16. Ibid, p. 211
  17. The addresses in Rome the Russian artists stayed at say that it was in San Felice street, next to Gogol's residence. Moller rented a flat at 43, San Felice street., and the engraver Iordan stayed across the street at 104, San Felice street.
  18. "Notes of rector and professor of the Academy of Arts FyodorI. Iordan". Moscow. 1918, p. 184
  19. Gajewski V.P. 'Notes for Nikolai Gogol's biography'. "Sovre-mennik", 1852, p. 87
  20. Letter to M. Balabina from Rome dated 15 March 1838. Gogol N.V. "Collected works in 7 volumes". V. 7. Letters. Moscow, 1986, p. 162
  21. Manuscript department. Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 1. Unit 2402, Sheet 1-1 reverse
  22. The picture was kept at the Tretyakov Gallery until 1930 when under the decree of the Soviet government it was assigned in charge of the newly opened Ivanovo-Voznesensk Art Museum.
  23. The copy of the portrait (from the collection of V.P. Kochubei, Kiev) is now at the Hermitage (St. Petersburg), Department of Russian Culture History.
  24. Annenkov P.V. "Literary Memoirs". Leningrad. 1928. P. 115
  25. Berg N.V. 'Reminiscences about N.V. Gogol (1848-1852)'. "Russian Old Time". V. 5, 1872. P. 118
  26. Ibid, 144. In fact in 1857 the intaglio printing plate was made by the dotted line method for the edition "Works and letters by N. V Gogol". And in 1864 -another steel-faced engraving plate, a little reduced in size, was made for the new collection of Gogol's works.
  27. The Tretyakov Gallery archive has his letter in which Sergei Tretyakov wrote to his brother Pavel Tretyakov that the editorial office of the monthly magazine "Russian Old Time" offered to purchase for 600 rubles Gogol's original portrait painted by Moller. It was especially noted that this copy "was very good, particularly in colouration". Manuscript Department. Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 1. Unit 1112. Sheet 1.






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