THE RUSSIAN MUSEUM
The Russian Museum is a world-famous repository of Russian art. The origins of the museum lie with Emperor Alexander III, who began to buy Russian art at the end of the 19th century, with a view to opening a national museum. His plans were realized by Nicholas II, who purchased the Mikhaylovskiy Palace, which became the country’s first public museum of Russian art when it opened to the public in 1898. During the 1930’s, the museum expanded into the palace’s Rossi Wing and later, into the Benois Wing beside the Griboedov Canal.
Today the Russian Museum houses some 400,000 works, including numerous samples of Old Russian icons, painting and sculpture, drawings, watercolors and engravings, works of decorative and applied art. Its collection of paintings boasts magnificent canvases by the most prominent artists, reflecting the history of Russian art from the 12th century to the present day.
The exposition of the museum opens with the Old Russian icons department, where the visitors can see the icons by Andrey Rublev, Dionisiy, Simon Ushakov, as well as by unknown masters of Novgorodian and other schools of Russian icon painting. One of the oldest works exhibited in room one is the small, early 12th-century icon The Angel with the Golden Hair, originally part of a deesis portraying Christ flanked by angels. Historical events inspired the early 14th-century icon Boris and Gleb, depicting the young princes of Kiev, murdered by their elder brother Svyatopolk; and the 15th-century Battle Between the Men of Suzdal and Novgorod in room two. Room three contains several works attributed to Russia’s greatest icon painter, the monk Andrey Rublev, including the two-meter high Apostle Peter and Apostle Paul, both of which originally formed part of the iconostasis of the Assumption cathedral in Vladimir. The icons in room four represent Novgorod and Moscow schools of icon painting, including the 17th century icon The Trinity by Simon Ushakov.
In the 18th century the effects of Peter the Great’s reforms became evident in the arts and, freed from the constraints of the Church, portraiture in particular developed into a major art form. Among the most important representatives of the period are Ivan Nikitin who did several portraits of Peter the Great, Andrey Matveev, one of whose best works is Self Portrait of the Artist with his Wife, and Aleksey Antropov, who was not afraid to paint his subjects as he saw them. While portrait painting was flourishing, historical painting also became important following the foundation of the Academy of Arts in 1757. While borrowing heavily from Western European art, Russian painters soon developed their own “Academy Style”, the work of Anton Losenko being typical of the new movement.
During the first half of the 19th century Russian painting continued to be dominated by the Academy Style, although not completely unchallenged. In one of his masterpieces The Appearance of Christ to the People, for example, Alexander Ivanov made a tentative effort to break free of the principles of the Academy and replace them with the “ideals of free art”. Also reflected in the art of the period was the developing ideological struggle between the different social groups on the one hand, and the surge of nationalism created by Russia’s success in the Napoleonic War on the other. Large paintings devoted to patriotic themes became extremely popular. When the Academy financed a visit to Italy by some of its members an Italian influence was also introduced, evident in paintings like Italian Day and The Last Day of Pompei by Karl Bryullov, products of the artist’s stay in Rome, and also in the works of Fyodor Bruni. Landscape painting was another important art form during this period. Silvestr Schedrin and Ivan Aivazovsky produced paintings in which the time of day, weather conditions and light effects are important elements.
Of major importance in the second half of 19th century are the artists who broke away in protest from the Academy in 1863, forming a group called the Peredvizhniki. Although not constituting a unified movement in painting the group had in common their primary concern of drawing attention to social evils. Their aim, “to transform life through art”, is reflected in the works by Nikolay Ge, Ivan Shishkin, Vasiliy Perov, Konstantin Makovsky and of course Ilya Repin, one of Russia’s most distinguished painters, whose works are well represented in the Russian museum.
In late 19th - early 20th century many Russian painters were influenced by Impressionism, Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin among them. Some, Pavel Kuznetsov for example, turned completely to symbolism, while others such as Mikhail Nesterov and Boris Kustodiev produced relatively traditional work. The paintings of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, on the other hand represent a transition to Soviet art.
The exposition dedicated to the first half of the 20th century presents canvases of the artists of the so called “Soviet school” of painting. Paintings, sculptures and plates present life of Russia in the 20th century.