in the Age of Tolstoy
June 23 to September
Isaak Ilich Levitan
The Vladimirka Road 1892
oil on canvas, 31 x 48 inches
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
painters had their work cut out to find acceptable subjects in the Russian
countryside. Since the time of Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682
until 1725, aristocratic Russians had praised the scenic attractions
of Italy and France, while decrying their own monotonous terrain. Much
of Russia, after all, comprised vast, unvaried forests and featureless
steppeland, while her villages were meagre and unkempt.
exhibition, which originated at the Groninger Museum at Groningen, Netherlands,
illustrates how successful and accomplished such landscape artists became.
This survey, which is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, brings
to the west for the first time some 70 paintings from the State Tretyakov
Gallery, Moscow; the Russian Museum, St Petersburg; and several provincial
Russian artists complied with the European fashion for Italianate views,
subject to a clear, southern light, and far away, both physically and
ideologically, from the steppes of the Motherland. The first to instil
a uniquely Russian character into his work, and to portray rural workers
with dignity, was Alexei Venetsianov (1780-1847). Without significant
formal training, Venetsianov made only steady progress at his trade
in St Petersburg, but when in 1815 he purchased a small estate in the
Tver province and looked for new subjects to paint in those rural surroundings,
his endeavours were transformed. Choosing as his subject the serfs who
worked his land, he also taught them to paint. Two works by Venetsianov
are exhibited: "Harvesting in summer," (1820) and "Sleeping
shepherd boy," (c1825) and in both these, but especially in the
former, where women are gathering corn and one has stopped work to suckle
her baby, the figures are portrayed with a near-classical grace. Perhaps
taking his cue from the earlier master, Mikhail Klodt (1832-1902) also
portrayed rural workers in semi-idyllic vein, "In the Field,"
(1872) showing peasant women ploughing with horses beneath a benevolent
The Russian land
itself was first ennobled by the short-lived but greatly talented Fedor
Vasiliev (1850-73). Following his own penchant for flat, wide expanses
and large skies, Vasiliev was able to instil a sense of magnificence
into his work by a cleverly orchestrated use of colour and by painting
the land at moments of change in nature. Thus in "The Thaw,"
(1871) a small and unprepossessing village is shown emerging from winter,
its shabby houses and the snowy ground lit by sunshine, while in "Morning,"
(1872/3), desolate marshland is rendered attractive by the early morning
light and birds wheeling overhead.
The passionate interest
of Ivan Shishkin (1832-98) lay in commemorating Russia's extensive fields
and the monumental pine, spruce and larch trees that inhabited her huge
forests. At a time when many landowners, struck for cash, were felling
their estates' woodland to sell the timber, Shishkin worked to record
these splendid arboricultural specimens. The exhibition includes several
of his meticulously rendered forest interiors including "Forest
reserve. Pine Grove," (1881) and the magnificent "Mast-tree
Kuindzhi Evening in the Ukraine 1878
oil on canvas, 31-1/2 x 63-1/2 inches
State Russian Museum, St Petersburg
The Ukrainian Arkhip
Kuindzhi (1842-1910) made his landscapes immediately noticeable through
skilful use of lighting and extreme economy of composition. In his beautiful
and evocative "Evening in the Ukraine," (1878), the last pink-gold
rays of the sun slant across a hillside dotted with oak trees and small
white houses; in "Birch Grove," (1879), harsh sunlight illuminates
the white trunks of a group of silver birches.
With the landscapes
of Alexei Savrasov (1830-97), who taught at the Moscow School of Painting,
a new note of lyricism was introduced. Savrasov's "The Rooks have
Returned," originally painted in 1871 although a later version
exhibited here, became instantly famous. It shows the moment when the
rooks, harbingers of spring in Russia, arrive and settle on a group
of trees outside a remote Siberian village and its church.
Perhaps the greatest
and the most innovative nineteenth-century Russian landscapist was Isaak
Levitan, born in a poor Jewish community in Lithuania in 1860. Levitan's
early work showed the influence of both Savrasov and Polenov, but between
1887 and 1890 he spent several summers painting in the region of the
middle Volga where, inspired by the magnificence of the great river,
he produced a series of "mood landscapes" which in effect
made his name. We are able to see two of these, the sombre "Evening
on the Volga," (1888) and "After the Rain: Plios Village,"
(1889), and also several of Levitan's evocative later works, painted
after his journeys to Europe, including his depiction of the notorious
"Vladimirka Road," (1892), the dismal route trodden by innumerable
prisoners on their way to exile, the lyrical "Spring Flood,"
(1897), where birch tree trunks arch above shining floodwater, and a
preparatory version of his last great celebration of rural Russia, "Lake
A European influence
is discernible, too, in the work of Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1944). In
his "St Sergius of Radonezh," (1899) and "Dual Harmony,"
(1905) there are statuesque figures reminiscent of those in the work
of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes, whose output was much admired
in Russia at this time.