Russian Painting (c.1825-1917)
Century Russian Painting
Early 19th-century Russian art was deeply tinged by Romanticism. In Russia this spirit stood for something very different from the Western conception, which embraced such manifestations as the gloomy landscape and the Gothic setting in literature, and so forth. In the West, in fact, Romanticism was in essence a revolutionary movement directed against the domination of the classical tradition. In Russia on the other hand, owing to the influence of Byron, Pushkin and Lermontov, the term was interpreted in its original seventeenth-century sense to imply a work possessing those exalted and fantastic elements which were characteristic of the old romances. This blending of courtliness and fantasy seemed especially suited to a society which revolved round so picturesque a personality as Tsar Alexander I. Even in his own day the Tsar had become almost a legendary figure, and his charm, his delicate good looks, the events of his reign and his Apollo-like bearing, combined with the sweet melancholy of his mood, left a deep imprint on Russian artists of the age.
Orest I. Kiprenski was the earliest, and one of the most gifted of these. The son of a serf, yet a man of extreme sensibility, he had inherited the fine traditions of portrait art from Russian painting of the 18th century - a genre in which he excelled. He was especially interested in the inter-relationship of colours, and the tonality of his portraits is outstanding, especially so in his self-portraits, where the colour schemes are much ahead of his day. Two of them are thus painted almost entirely in greens, with the startling result that they are emotionally in the same key as Alexander Blok's poetry of the 1920s. Unfortunately, Kiprenski, like Losenko before him, was diverted from his true course by two visits to Rome. At that time academic art reigned supreme there, and Kiprenski's, emotional temperament was so impressed by the grandeur of its subjects that he forsook portraiture for more pretentious themes, and his experiments in colour yielded before his interest in heroic compositions. As a result his later works fail to do justice to the promise of his earlier years.
Vasily Tropinin is usually coupled with Kiprenski, both because of his humble origin - he was by birth a serf and was enfranchised only late in life - and also because he too, excelled in portraiture. His preference for rather sentimental girls' heads has been ascribed to the Romantic spirit, but it would be nearer the truth to admit that they represent Tropinin's conception of perfect feminine beauty. In painting them he found forgetfulness of the misery of his own life. His genre-scenes show greater vigour, and their intimacy and kindliness give them the force and conviction which are lacking in the portraits.
Boris Orlovski is a more vital figure, but he again was side-tracked by a demand for paintings in the style of the Dutch painter Philips Wouwerman (1619-68). Instead of developing his own individuality, he concentrated on turning out the type of picture for which there was a market, and as a result it is because of his drawing that he can be assigned a place among the great figures of Russian art. These drawings, done to please himself, are not only delicate and amusing, but also technically very brilliant. His skill compares with Bryulov's, but whereas Bryulov was an accomplished craftsman with a sterile mind, Orlovski was an erratic painter with the temperament of an artist.
C. P. Bryulov
In his picture entitled The Brazen Serpent, Fedor Bruni produced what is often regarded as the companion piece to Bryulov's Last Days of Pompeii. This canvas illustrates Bruni's talents as a colourist and his skill in grouping, but it fails even as a period piece, for it strikes one as pretentious and insincere. Bruni painted a number of religious pictures, but they, too, fail, and for the same reason.
Alexander Venetsianov achieved work of far greater importance, for, like many of his Western contemporaries, his interests were primarily absorbed in the technical side of oil painting. He had been a pupil of Borovikovski, and in his early maturity he, too, had a large number of pupils and an important following, but Brylov's spectacular success with his Last Days of Pompeii attracted most of the more ambitious Russian painters, and Venetsianov, like one or two other notable teachers, lost most of his students. Nevertheless, Venetsianov's followers included one or two minor artists of considerable importance, such as Zarianko (1818-1870), but more especially Count Fedor Tolstoy (1783-1873), who applied the realistic principles which had guided Venetsianov to his own pictures of the Russian middle classes in their home surroundings, These charming paintings are as valuable to Russia aesthetically and historically as is many a conversation picture of a rather earlier date to Britain, and they constitute the first examples of a chain of development which culminates in our day in the retrospective work of Alexander Benois and Dobuzhinski.
Paul A. Fedotov, the William Mulready of Russian painting, coupled genre-scenes with Tolstoyan interiors. An unpretentious, sincere and observant man, living on the meagre pension of a retired army officer, he took up painting only in his late 30s. Lack of training and a premature death hindered him from growing into a Russian Rowlandson, but his records of contemporary foibles are spiritually and temperamentally closely related to Gogol's and Chekhov's writings. His scenes are set in carefully reproduced interiors, and they are very well painted. His pictures, The Fop and The Window stand in the forefront of Russian "Purpose" painting.
Vasily Perov (1833-1882)
A completely different trend appears in the work of Alexander Ivanov, many of whose paintings are religious in theme and essentially religious in approach, for they show a deeply sincere spiritual conception as well as a keen sense of form and composition. He was the first Russian to express his religious emotions effortlessly and tellingly in the Western medium, and to create religious art in the Western style no less moving than the icon painting of medieval times. His studies of female nudes remain surprisingly modern and deserve to rank with the most advanced contemporary Western work of that type.
Nicholas Gay, a poor draughtsman, but likewise a genuinely religious artist, followed in Alexander Ivanov's steps, unconsciously, it might even be said automatically, combining in his religious pictures Western naturalism with the Orthodox disregard for physical as opposed to spiritual beauty. This endowed his distorted, emaciated, unlovely figures with an absorbing intensity, to be seen particularly in a painting of the Crucifixion in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. His portraits are less vivid, yet more spontaneous. They are excellent likenesses and, for all their kindliness, they are neither mannered nor sentimental, as was much nineteenth-century portraiture. His portrait of Count Leo Tolstoy is one of the most interesting ever painted of the writer, for it clearly reflects the contradictory elements that went to form his turbulent character.
After 1863 the course of the development of Russian painting was profoundly affected by what seemed initially a trivial incident. Thirteen students of the Academy of Fine Arts objected to the choice of Odin in Valhalla as the subject for the Gold Medal award. They demanded a Slav theme in its place, and did so with such persistency that they were expelled from the Academy. This was a hard blow to them, for they were for the most part poor, and depended on their diplomas for their livelihood. They met the blow by forming a guild and sharing among themselves such commissions as they could get. In 1870 they went still further, and formed a society which they called "The Wanderers" (Peredvizhniki) (Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions). Its members were to move from place to place exhibiting their works, in the hope that they might thus make Moscow and the provinces join St. Petersburg in taking an active interest in art. By choosing social or political subjects for their pictures they hoped at the same time to make their public politically minded.
The Wanderers, those who were in sympathy with them without being active members of the society and those who, though only indirectly affected, nevertheless inclined to becoming "Purpose" artists, can be divided into four groups. There were those like Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1882), their first leader, or Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) and Michael Nesterov (died 1862), who concentrated on Slavophile subjects; there were the followers of Vereshchagin, Repin and Surikov, who chose historical themes; others, like Vasily Perov and Alexander Makovski (1869-1915), became genre-painters; finally, such painters as Isaac Levitan (I861-1900), Arhip Kuinzhi and the seascape-painter, Ivan Ayvazovski (18I7-1900), focused on naturalistic subjects and landscapes.
The work of The Wanderers was marred by their desire to proselytize. Thus their virtual leader, Kramskoy, (it is said) grew to be too cerebral and too unemotional to achieve great things; his mind was too affected by Dostoyevsky, his feelings insufficiently so. His work lacked forcefulness, and notwithstanding his concern with the evils of the age, it fails to rouse deep feeling in the spectator. Nevertheless, Ivan Kramskoy will always retain his place in the history of Russian painting - not least as one of its best portrait artists - whose outlook characterized the third quarter of the nineteenth century. He also produced some outstanding Christian art, including: Christ in the Wilderness (1872, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) and Laughter ("Hail, King of the Jews!") (1882, Russian Museum, St Petersburg).
Nesterov had the makings of an outstanding landscape painter, but his determination to point a moral spoilt his pictures. Moreover, his figures are sentimental and unconvincing, and only obscure the lovely landscapes in which they are set.
Vasnetzov was a more gifted artist than either, but his work was again marred by the absence of spontaneity and passion, as well as by his poor eye for colour.
Working in sympathy with The Wanderers, but allied also to the followers of Venetsianov, was the more renowned Vasily Vereshchagin. Of gentle birth and Westernized education, his sympathies were with the Slavophiles, yet he had a studio in Paris, and spent much of his time there. Although a visit to India led him to experiment with colour, he remained completely unaffected, possibly even unaware, of Degas, Monet and Manet's researches in the same field; yet, even so, his own achievements resulted in bringing home the importance of this subject to many of his Russian colleagues. As a war artist Vereshchagin took part in the siege of Samarkand and the Balkan campaign. The grimness of war strengthened his realistic tendencies and turned him into a restrained and sensitive, though definitely a "moralizing" artist. At times his drawings and the build-up of his pictures are uninteresting, but so great was his sincerity and so deep his feelings that many of his war pictures remain profoundly moving even now - surely a proof of their intrinsic merit. In their day these pictures drew vast crowds, including peasants, and they did more than the works of any other individual artist to develop the Russian people's interest in fine art.
Though less popular in his appeal, Ilya Repin (1844-1930) was in reality an artist of greater originality. He had, indeed, both the talent and the temperament necessary to become an outstanding figure in the art of Europe, but it was his misfortune to have been born during the dullest period in Russian painting, at a time when a moribund academic tradition was still in rigid control. Further, he lacked the vigour which enabled Russian writers and musicians to break free from this stagnating spirit, and, however accomplished his work, it was never exciting. Two of his paintings nevertheless deserve special mention-his study of Ivan IV at the Moment of Killing his Son, and his painting Cossacks Carousing after Sending the Sultan a Jeering Note. In the first of them Ivan's horror at his son's suffering is a penetrating study of human grief in the face of violence, whilst in the second the portrayal of the Cossacks is full of psychological insight.
These works were greatly admired in their day, but they did not influence contemporary painters to anything like the same extent as did the history painting of Vasily Surikov. Surikov did not select any major events in Russian history as his subject, but he chose themes which stressed the courage of individuals confronted by great odds. This choice was in itself a novelty, and profoundly interested Surikov's contemporaries. A gentle melancholy permeates his work; but, as he is also vigorous and direct, there is nothing sentimental about it. His colour range is varied and vivid, and influenced considerably the palettes of the World of Art group of painters. Surikov was too staid and self-sufficing a person to join a group, but he did all he could to encourage younger painters to break free from The Wanderers' narrow interpretation of painting, and even mature artists who were nearer to him in age - men such as Repin and Vasnetsov, even Levitan and Serov - were markedly affected by his achievements. Along with Repin, Surikov remains one of the best history painters of the Russian School.
Among the best landscape artists in 19th century Russia were Isaac Levitan - upon whom the influence of the great naturalist Ivan Shishkin (1831-1898) ("Tsar of the forest") is clearly to be seen. Levitan inherited from Shishkin a deep love of the Russian' countryside, and from Arkhip Kuindzhi (18421910) a nervous, almost impressionistic technique admirably suited to express the delicate colour of Russia's vegetation. In addition, Levitan was affected by the French Barbizon school of landscape painting, of which he was a warm admirer. His work showed great imaginative quality, and expresses something of the irresistible fascination of Russia's unspectacular, yet subtly lovely landscape.
Levitan constantly strove to improve his work, its texture, line and colour; he ended by attaining real mastery. In the words of Alexander Benois, Levitan "rendered the inexplicable charm of our humble poverty, the shoreless breadth of our virginal expanses, the festal sadness of the Russian autumn and the enigmatic call of the Russian spring. There are no human beings in his pictures, but they are permeated with the deep emotion that floods the human heart face to face with the sanctity of the whole".
Another outstanding exponent of landscape painting was Valentin Serov, a pupil of Repin. His genius was of the first order, and his conception of beauty peculiarly keen. Above all, he sensed deeply and expressed with amazing clarity the very individual spirit and culture of Russia. His landscapes are as realistic, as poetic and as revealing as those of Eugene Boudin (1824-98); (see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting) his greatest portrait paintings are as lovely and as vivid as those of Renoir (1841-1919). Their historical value is especially great, for, regardless of his personal aloofness and his liberal views, everyone of any importance in Tsarist Russia sat for Serov, yet not one of the resulting paintings has anything of the official portrait about it; each is a sincere and illuminating document.
The third great individualist of the period, Mikhail Vrubel, was a curious, tragic, but profoundly inspired genius. He experienced something more intense than, yet nevertheless akin to, William Blake's strange imaginings, though he was a far greater artist. His passionate religious paintings, with their astounding technical skill and their turbulent tenseness, are among the world's masterpieces; they are as convincing, as exciting as El Greco's. His imaginative works - for example, his picture of "Pan" - ring as true and are as soul-stirring as his superb portraits, as ardent as his extremely accomplished sculptures, as ecstatic as his theatrical work. All his output is impregnated with his genius, his idealism, his passionate gropings after perfection. His personality was too complex and his art too individual to result in a following, but for this very reason his: place is with the giants of 19th century European painting. His genius was no less than theirs, even though, like Van Gogh's, his spirit was a more deeply tormented one. Unlike Van Gogh, however, even the most agonizing of his hallucinations were transformed into visions by his innate spirituality. Vrubel was deeply appreciated by his contemporaries, who, although unwilling and unable to emulate it, were fully aware of the astonishing beauty of his work.
Meanwhile a number of younger artists were grouping themselves round three outstanding young men. Two of them - Leon Bakst (1866-1924) and Alexander Benois (1870-1960) - were painters, the third, Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), a young lover of the arts, was soon to present Europe with the best in Russian painting, music and dancing: namely his Ballets Russes ballet company. These young men were opposed to the naturalistic tendencies of nineteenth-century Russian painting; but, although they were profoundly impressed by French Impressionism, they were in no way subservient to it, for they considered it essential that every painter should tread his own individual path, provided he observed the essential law, "Art for art's sake".
Their views and their works attracted the attention of a remarkably discerning Muscovite called Savva Mamontov (1841-1918). By profession a merchant, he was by temperament an art patron on the Renaissance scale, and was to become one of the most outstanding sponsors of art in a country which owed a surprising debt to the generosity of individual art collectors. At this date, however, Mamontov was especially attracted by the stage, for the Russian theatre was just then entering upon its finest period. Mamontov built himself a private theatre in Moscow and commissioned the scenery and costumes for his productions from the foremost progressive painters of his day. In 1882 he asked Viktor Vasnetsov (18481926) to execute the scenery for his production "Little Snow White"; in 1885 he gave him the commission for the ballet "The Nymph", and a little later for "The Snow Queen".
Vasnetsov's bright colours, sinuous lines and his avoidance of the trompe l'oeil at first puzzled the public, though his work made an immediate impression on his colleagues. In particular his scenery for "The Snow Queen" did more than anything else to popularize the Russian fairy-tale, and its effect both on decorative art and on easel-painting was considerable. It thus awakened an interest in Russian subjects in the minds of two of the foremost painters at the turn of the century, Konstantin Korovin (1861-1929) and Alexander Golovin (1863-1930); whilst two others, D. Steletski and Ivan Bilibin (1876-1941), devoted themselves almost entirely to such work, to be followed in the 1920s by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) and Michael Larionov (1881-1964) - the inventors of Rayonism - who were led back by way of Russian folk art to the Byzantine style. The fairy-tales also served Helen Polenova, Russia's Berthe Morisot, and Mary Yakunchikova (1870-1903), as a starting point from which to set out on their exploration of the verdant fields, the woods and the pathetic little cemeteries and village churches in which so many of the fairy-tales unfold. And this led on to the taste for those romantic, decaying manor houses, with their overgrown orchards and their desolate rooms, with the furniture swathed in dust-sheets, which form the setting for so much of Turgenev's work. Mary Yakunchikova's influence on Dobuzhinski and on Alexander Benois, who has ever been quick to react to the 'nostalgic poetry of such scenes, cannot be altogether discounted, in any case in so far as the choice of subject is concerned.
But to revert to Mamontov's theatrical ventures. After Vasnetsov, Mamontov turned to Korovin and Golovin for scenery, the former producing that for "Aida". Their miraculous colour schemes unfolded unimagined enchantments. Korovin's colours were subtle, yet so harmonious and combined with so superb a sense of style that no offence was caused if he tended to subordinate his scenic effect to the pictorial. By 1917 Korovin had produced the scenery and costumes for eighty operas, thirty-seven ballets and seventeen plays. All of it was excellent, yet Korovin's numerous easel-paintings are scarcely inferior to his stage work. Golovin's predilections for silver and blues gave his settings the fluidity of music, and it passed unnoticed if his stage was inclined to be over-crowded. His scenery for "The Women of Pskov" and for "Ruslan and Lyudmila" established him as one of the foremost decorators of his day.
Other artists were also drawn irresistibly to the stage, which seemed to be providing Russian art with a much-needed anchor. Vrubel was among the earliest to succumb to its fascination, in his opalescent settings for "The Swan Princess" and "The Queen of the Sea"; notwithstanding their ephemeral character, they deserve to rank as Russian equivalents of Monet's Water Lilies.
Mamontov's ventures almost ruined him, and he was obliged to close his theatre, but in 1898 he nevertheless joined Prince Tenishev in financing the production of a periodical entitled The World of Art (Mir Iskusstva), published by an informal association of Russian artists of the same name. It was edited by Sergei Diaghilev, assisted by Bakst and encouraged by Alexander Benois. The periodical ranged over the whole field of art, though it was not until its third year that theatrical matters came to be dealt with in its columns.
The erudition of The World of Art artists combined with the glamour of their paintings and the aesthetic success of Mamontov's theatrical productions, and - above all - the remarkable promotional talents of Diaghilev, served to gain the support of Telyakovski, the Director of the Imperial Theatres at Moscow. Simultaneously in St. Petersburg a new enthusiasm was arising, first under the Director of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, Vsevolozhski, and then under his successor, Prince Volkonski. Vsevolozhski was a man of exceptional sensitivity and ability, and while he was in control of the Imperial theatres (this was in the 1880s) the Russian ballet reached its highest level. In his "Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet" (Putnam, 1941) Alexander Benois writes: "I consider myself particularly fortunate that at a time when the soul thirsts for life-giving impressions in art I should have found our St. Petersburg ballet at its zenith. Its efflorescence was made possible by an astonishing combination of elements: Vsevolozhski's delicate sense of art, Virginia Zucchi's fiery genius, Petipa's creative imagination, the flourishing state of the Imperial Theatre School and lastly the readiness of a composer like Tchaikovsky (1840-93) to put his genius at the disposal of the theatre.
Prince Volkonski was scarcely less discerning, and it was he who at the turn of the century tried out Bakst in "Le Coeur de la Marquise" and Benois for the scenery of a one-act opera, both of which were performed for the Imperial family in the Hermitage Theatre.
Early in the twentieth century Telyakovski replaced Prince Volkonski in St. Petersburg, and although not by temperament an innovator, he extended the Board's official recognition of Benois and Bakst by commissioning the scenery for "Le Pavilion d' Armide" from Benois in 1907 and for "Hippolytus" and "Oedipus" from Bakst, but, even so, the Board's patronage of younger artists was not extensive. Nevertheless, although theatrical art lacks the aesthetics of easel-painting, Telyakovski's commissions brought such widespread notoriety to these artists that it embraced their easel-paintings as well as their stage work. Even so, their renown would probably have been confined to Russia had not Sergei Diaghilev decided in 1909 to make Russian art familiar to Western Europe by organizing a season of Russian Ballet and Opera in Paris.
The scenery he brought with him; all of it the work of World of Art painters, revolutionized the French stage, dispelling with striking violence the range of pale nebulous colours which Baudelaire, Verlaine, Oscar Wilde and his friends had made fashionable.
The Russian settings were marked by their brilliant tones and full, clear lighting, where colours in reality balanced, restrained and mastered seemed at first sight to run in almost uncontrolled riot. The vitality of Diaghilev's productions rapidly swept Paris clear of Edwardianism. Midinettes and concierges were carried away, as well as society. The Slav became the fashion, anything in the style of the Russian ballet was the vogue, and soon every shop - from the "grand couturier" to the local draper - was selling bright garments, whose colours became increasingly garish, in their attempt to emulate the Russians, as they spread among the great public of the town.
It is still frequently assumed today that this achievement of the Russians was the result of an innate sense of colour which enabled them to produce fine effects without giving the matter much thought. Russians undoubtedly have an eye for subtle colour schemes, but there was nothing unconsidered in the work of The World of Art painters. They thought out their colour schemes with meticulous care, and they attached as much importance to form and line in their conception of stage designing as to colour. Vrubel, it is true, had stressed the significance of colour in and for itself; but, possibly because of his remarkable gifts as a sculptor, a deep feeling for basic form underlies his work. The others were all line draughtsmen of outstanding ability. Bakst, for instance, a first-class draughtsman, insisted that scenery should not create a fictitious impression, but should be based on realism, thus implying the fundamental importance of form. His power, indeed, lies in his sense of line and form just as much as in his sense of colour, and had he not devoted his attention to the stage he must assuredly have turned to graphic art. It was love of the theatre that led him to make use of his fine eye for colour; basically he relied implicitly on line, and in all his sketches and finished drawings the superb colours were applied more in the manner of a decorator than that of a painter- that is to say, he laid the colours on flat and made no effort to obscure his draughtsmanship by variations in tone. The verdict of posterity shows Bakst to have been perhaps the greatest decorative artist of all time. It is therefore, of interest to examine his method. For him the stage had to present so convincing and fascinating a picture as instantly to transport the spectator from the everyday world to that of the imagination. This made it necessary for every detail in the scenery to be carefully studied and kept in complete accord with the spirit of the production. The period spirit had, in fact, to be so highly concentrated that the reconstruction seemed natural, but at the same time the stage had so completely to differ from ordinary life that it appeared as its quintessence; it had to be real yet unusual, habitable yet unattainable.
The achievement of this called for unusual powers in the artists, for it was essential that they should be cultured, even learned, that they should have a developed sense of period, and yet these qualities had to have at their basis talent, imagination and sensitivity. Something akin to the universal attributes of the great Renaissance figures was called for, and the members of The World of Art group possessed these attributes to a remarkable degree; many of them were as at home with the pen as with the brush, and they published articles and books of the first importance, thus simultaneously enriching both Russian art and culture.
Foremost among these 'talented personalities was Alexander Benois, whose easel-paintings (and set designs) have already been mentioned. The majority of these are landscapes, generally water-colours of exceptionally large size for paintings in this medium; they are among the finest pictures of our age. Superbly constructed, surely drawn and very sensitive, their colours recreate the very air in which they are bathed. Each is fragrant with the temper of the day on which it was painted and with the landscape's particular character. Benois's development was not arrested by the revolution; settling in France, he continued to advance towards perfection with ever-lengthening strides. His landscapes of Versailles and Rambouillet are as poetic, as deeply evocative, as recreative of their subjects as his lovely pictures of St. Petersburg and its belt of palaces. This surely is proof of true genius - to be able to continue evolving thus undeflected, though transplanted from the native surroundings which first wakened and nurtured the artist's creative spirit.
Benois scarcely cedes to Bakst in his understanding of the theatre. In contrast to Bakst, however, he resorts less to contrasting colours or startling effects. His finest stage works, "Pavillon d' Armide" or "Petrushka" - to name but two - are for the most part set in the eighteenth century, and such is his sense of period that these recreations are not only delightful in themselves, but also add to our knowledge of that age. They have none of the somewhat reconstructive spirit apparent at times in the pictures of the 18th century by that excellent portraitist, but less sensitive painter of imaginative compositions, C. Somov, or in Sert's alluring scenery.
Mstislav Dobuzhinski alone shares Benois's almost uncanny knack of evoking rather than of picturing the past, and his exquisite scenery for the Moscow Art Theatre's production of "A Month in the Country" is not only completely satisfying artistically, but also the very epitome of the age it depicts. His views of St. Petersburg are almost as evocative as Benois's.
George Lukomski, an architect by training; was also an outstanding architectural painter. His pictures of Kiev and his drawings of Pavlovsk and of Tsarskoe Selo are architecturally exact and at the same time essentially pictorial.
Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was another member of this remarkable group. Though essentially an easel-painter, and one of first-rate standing, he was also to create excellent scenery and to introduce a new range of colours to the theatre. Like Benois and Dobuzhinski a lover of the past, his preference was for a remoter past, and it was to the more distant nomadic age that he turned, drawing on his knowledge of Hither Asia for the colours which he used with such superb effect, especially in his stage settings for the Polovtsian Dances from "Prince Igor".
Goncharova's interesting art, of which equally good examples are provided by her decorative panels, her pictures and her settings for ballets as different as the vivid "Coq d'Or" or the austere "Les Noces", found her inspiration in Russian medieval painting. In fact, her essentially modern and vital art is almost a return to Byzantine art, and certainly serves as a link with that traditional Russian art which still finds expression in one form or another in the works of Sudeikin and B. Kustodiev, Basil Shukhaev.
The foremost portraitist of this group, Saveli Sorin might perhaps be compared to Sargent, though his pencil is more delicate, his colour sense far more subtle and his penetration infinitely greater. His portraits are exquisite pictures, redolent of the refinement of the highly cultured, at times almost effete, society of Tsarist Russia.
All these artists, with the exception of Sorin, who concentrated on portraiture, have devoted a good deal of their time to graphic art. Bakst, Somov and in particular excelled at vignettes, scrolls and chapter-heads, whilst Bilibin and Stelletsky produced superb illustration for Russian fairy tales and legends. They have all helped to transmit the fine traditions of graphic art, which they inherited from Peter the Great's age, to Soviet artists, who are today adding to its glories by producing lithographs, etchings, woodcuts and engravings of the highest order.
A number of highly talented painters (and sculptors) grew up and trained in Russia towards the end of the 19th century, before leaving the country to settle in France, Germany or America. Such figures include the famous expressionists Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), as well as the younger Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and the Ecole de Paris artist Chaim Soutine (1893-1943).
For more articles on Russian art, see the following:
School of Icon Painting (c.1100-1500)
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY