Petrine Art (c.1686-1725)
Russia's greatest Tsar, Peter the Great (ruled 1686-1725) succeeded in giving a huge boost to Russian art despite enormous military concerns. He placed great significance on fine art, including - most obviously - architecture, as well as painting (including book painting), sculpture and various forms of printmaking. He also paid a stipend to numerous Russian artists to acquire the necessary skills in arts academies outside Russia. He intended to establish a specialist art department in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but death intervened. The basic aesthetics of Petrine art under Peter the Great was the creation of a more modern culture, combining Western ideas and Russian traditionalism. Overall, it encompassed a wide range of secular as well as religious art - a significant change from the official principles and canons of Russian medieval painting exemplified by the Novgorod school of icon painting (c.1100-1500) and the Moscow school of painting (1500-1700), in which Christian art was the dominant genre.
Peter's love of architecture, inherited from both the Narishkins and the Romanovs, is commemorated in his immense legacy - the city of St Petersburg - "the Venice of the North", a project which embodied his entire cultural and political philosophy. No building in the city was erected without his approval of its architectural design and, to lessen the risk of fire, most structures were to be in stone or brick. All his palaces were constructed within sight of the sea, while detailed attention was paid to their gardens which were filled with classical stone sculpture. Sadly, much of the architecture built or conceived by Peter and his immediate successors was destroyed during the 20th century.
All the foremost architects of Peter's reign, except for Michael Zemtsov (1688-1743) who became Overseer of Imperial Palaces, were foreigners - mostly French, Italian and German. They included:
Domenico Trezzini (1670-1734)
Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli
the Younger (1700-1771)
Rastrelli's followers were so numerous and his style remained dominant over so long a period that he established in Russia a distinct school of architecture. Some of the most eminent Russian architects who worked in his manner included: S.I.Chevakinski (1713-83), A.V.Kvassov (dates unknown), A.F.Kokorinov (1726-72), and Prince D.V.Ukhtomski (1718-80). It was Ukhtomski who, in 1749, established in Moscow one of the earliest of Russia's architectural colleges which numbered among its pupils: V.I.Bazhenov (1737-99), M.F.Kazakov (1737-1813), and I.E.Starov (1743-1808).
Peter was one of the great 18th century art collectors. He acquired objects of every type from furniture to 17th Century Dutch painting, from precious jewels to such curiosities as the amber slabs which he bought from the King of Prussia, and which Rastrelli used at a later date as panelling at Tsarskoe Selo. He also collected Russian sculpture. Himself no mean carpenter, Peter was especially fond of wood carving, and sponsored the collection of statues, both ancient and modern, for his parks and gardens. It is, however, surprising to find that he never appears to have made any serious efforts to develop the art of sculpture in Russia, and that he owed the services of the only great sculptor of his reign to a deception of which he was the victim.
This sculptor is generally referred to
as Rastrelli the elder, in contrast to his son, Bartolomeo
Rastrelli (1700-71), who became one of Russia's greatest architects.
A Venetian by birth, Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli arrived in St.
Petersburg from Paris in 1716 to work as an architect. He reverted to
his original occupation of sculptor only after Leblond had convinced Peter,
none can now say whether with justice, that Rastrelli's plans for Peterhof
and Strelna were impracticable and that he was insufficiently qualified
to be in charge of any building enterprise.
On Rastrelli's arrival Peter was still so absorbed in his gardens and parks that their embellishment became Rastrelli's main task. A good deal of his time was, as a result, devoted to producing garden ornaments and bronze fountain-heads. All are characterized by their great size, their fineness of proportion and by their delicate yet very deep modelling, which - produced so marked an interplay of light and shade that it has rarely been paralleled in garden sculpture.
In spite of the decorative quality of most
of his work, Rastrelli excelled in portraiture, and his portrait
busts are remarkable for their concern with and their understanding
of psychology. In addition, they show the greatest technical mastery and
the closest faithfulness to the living model. The importance which Rastrelli
attached to exactitude in portraiture is borne out by the fact that he
succeeded in taking a mask of the Tsar during his lifetime, instead of
waiting, as was customary, until after death.
Rastrelli's fourth major work is a figure of the Empress Anne with her blackamoor in attendance. Here again the luxury of Petersburgian Court life is admirably indicated by the grouping of the figures and the magnificence of the Tsarina's clothes. Her coarse features and insensitive mind are presented in startling contrast with this material sophistication, and the figure affords a striking example of the way in which art may amplify or illuminate written history.
Although sculptures were rare in Peter's day, portrait paintings had already become completely established. Many remained primitive, but as a whole the art of painting had shaken itself free from the traditions of icon-painting, and had become frankly naturalistic. The portraits produced at Court were mostly by eminent foreigners. Two Russian names, however, stand out even at this early date, Matveev and Nikitin, and their work does not compare too badly with that of some of the foreigners employed by Peter. Both these men benefited from a Western schooling in art, which was not enjoyed by the numerous artists who worked outside St. Petersburg. The work of practically all of these remained unsigned.
Andrew Matveev (1701-1739) was sent by Peter to Holland in 1716. As he returned to Russia only two years after the Tsar's death - that is to say, in 1727 - he is often classed as an artist of Peter II's reign, but, since the latter Tsar had little influence on art; and since Marveev's battle pictures and other works of history painting, as well as his mural painting, bears the imprint of Peter the Great's taste, he really belongs to the great reformer's age. His portrait art is quite accomplished, though it is his sincerity which gives him his greatest appeal. This quality is especially to the fore in his portrait of himself and his wife, which has something of the charm of an early Gainsborough about it. In addition to his portraits, he was, unlike most later westernized Russian painters, also responsible for a number of icons. His comparatively early death robbed Russia of a very promising painter.
John Nikitin (1690-1741), the second outstanding Russian painter of the period, was a more complex character. He studied in Italy from 1716 to 1720, and his skill and talent were so evident even during his studentship that Peter wished him to paint the King of Saxony's portrait in order to prove that Russian Old Masters were not always inferior to every Western artist. This proposal does not, unfortunately, appear to have been realized. Under his fashionable veneer, and notwithstanding his great success, Nikitin remained a sincere and truth-seeking artist, and the portraits of even his most fashionable sitters have an intimate quality which goes far to enhance the value of his pictures. Yet in the 1730s, disregarding his popularity, he permitted himself to doubt whether naturalism could be justified on ethical grounds. By no means sure of himself in the unaccustomed surroundings Peter had created, Nikitin pathetically joined a group of people opposed to Russia's westernization, and insisted on painting only in the style of seventeenth-century icons. This incurred the Empress Ann's displeasure, but Nikitin remained adamant, and was as a result exiled to Siberia. Elizabeth proved more understanding; on ascending the throne she pardoned the poor truth-seeker, and Nikitin set out for St. Petersburg only to die before reaching the capital. For more, see: Russian Painting: 18th Century.
A large number of artists employed by Peter were involved in engraving, mostly engaged on drawing maps and illustrating books. In addition to the illustration required by the text, these artists lavishly embellished the volumes on which they worked with decorative devices such as cartouches, ribbons, garlands of flowers, allegorical figures, emblems and fine lettering. These are invariably delightful, and for sheer design they can rank with the finest printmaking and graphic products of contemporary Europe.
Chemesov, Skorodumov and Utkin were the three leading engravers of the period. The impact of their work upon the peasants led to the production of the lubki, the Russian equivalent of England's chap-books. These illustrations are likewise delightfully virile and decorative. They were block printed on single leaflets and, together with the icon, formed the only pictorial decoration in a Russian cottage. More important, however, than the appearance of the lubki is the fact that these engravers laid the foundations for Russia's superb graphic art, which reached its finest level only at the turn of the last century. From then on Russian books, whether of pre- or post-revolutionary date, take an outstanding place, and their vignettes, chapter-heads, tail-pieces and end-papers set a standard which is unsurpassed in Europe in so far as the quality of the design is concerned. See also: Russian Painting (19th Century).
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY