Russia, Art in

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RUSSIA, ART IN. Formal art in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Muscovite Russia (the principality of Moscow) was concentrated in the Russian Orthodox Church and consisted principally of icons, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations. Most artists were monks or closely associated with the church, typically trained in monastic painting workshops. To be an artist was considered a holy calling. Instructions for artists were essentially identical with those for scribes copying religious texts: "copy exactly from holy models, changing absolutely nothing." And yet, no two painted scenes or hand-copied manuscripts are alike: local preferences varied in subject matter, style, and coloration; the availability of natural pigments varied locally; training was not standardized; no cartoon books existed before the seventeenth century (the "holy model" at hand might vary drastically from place to place); and finally, each artist differed in taste and talent.


A famous example of Byzantine art that influenced Russian art is the icon of the Vladimir Mother of God, thought to have been painted in Constantinople in the early twelfth century (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), and often copied in Russia. From Byzantine and early Russian regional schools, notably that of Novgorod, Moscow synthesized artistic styles and subjects. As Moscow absorbed the other eastern Slavic principalities and city-states, it acquired the best of their art and architecture.

Two additional trends distinguished Muscovite art. First, the introduction of Moscow-specific themes, frequently imbued with political significance. Moscow was not the first to insert Russian themes into church art. The "schools" of the merchant city states of Novgorod and Pskov introduced local themes: a locally revered saint (for example, St. Paraskeva-Piatnitsa, patroness of Friday market day) or a local event (the miracle of the saving of embattled Novgorod by the palladium icon of Novgorod). The appearance of Russian saints (and the report of their miracles) in Russia provided artists with new material beyond the confines of Byzantine tradition, amplifying their role beyond that of mere copyists. One of the more notable examples of Moscow patriotic art is the 12-feet-long mid-sixteenth-century icon of The Church Militant, or Heavenly Forces (Tretyakov Gallery), thought to be an allegory of the conquest of Kazan' (1552). It depicts the Moscow grand prince (possibly Tsar Ivan IV, "the Terrible") and the Archangel Michael leading columns of current and historical Russian princes and troops toward the heavenly city, where the Christ child, sitting on his mother's lap, hands out crowns of glory.

A second major trend in Muscovite art was the literal rise of the iconostasis. From the Byzantine and early Russian tradition of placing icons singly or in a row before the sanctuary, the Muscovite church expanded the icons upward and outward, creating a wall of images that reached toward the ceiling vaults and spread across the nave and into the side aisles. Standing before it, even the illiterate churchgoer is instructed visually in the teachings of the church, because the meaning of each icon is explained in services on relevant days in the church calendar.

The "classical" period of Muscovite icon painting (late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) is exemplified in works attributed to the monk and artist Andrey Rublyov (c. 1360/70c. 1430), who was named by the 1551 Stoglav ("hundred chapters" church council) as a model for artists to emulate. The icon of the Old Testament Trinity (Tretyakov Gallery) attributed to him is especially harmonious, with its pastel colors and circular composition of the three angels who visit Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18).

The Muscovite synthesis of regional themes and styles achieved in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was shattered in the seventeenth century. The acquisition of left bank Ukraine in the mid-seventeenth century led to an influx into Moscow of Ukrainian clerics and scholars who had been exposed to western European Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation culture via Poland. Among changing trends in seventeenth-century Muscovite art were the following: western European post-Renaissance perspective and three-dimensional illusionism (for example, the use of chiaroscuro) began to supplant the traditional use of inverse perspective and two-dimensional treatment of figures and scenes; engravings in western European publications, such as the Dutch Piscator Bible, provided fresh subject matter and stylistic ideas to artists, notably teams of painters who created a remarkable series of frescoes in churches in Yaroslavl', Rostov Velikii, Kostroma, Vologda, and elsewhere; icons began to be produced in small sizes (rectangles whose vertical height was frequently no more than twelve to sixteen inches) for personal and home use by individuals (for example, in the Stroganov School, commissioned initially by that wealthy family); Moscow political themes became more overt; the artist began to sign work which had previously been left anonymous, and increasingly it was expected that he would imbue his work with his own individual, recognizable style.

Of some 2,800 names recently published in a dictionary of Russian icon painters of the eleventh through seventeenth centuries, approximately 95 percent worked in the seventeenth century. Exemplary among these was Simon Ushakov (16261686). In his icon of the Vladimir Mother of God and the Tree of the Muscovite State (Tretyakov Gallery), Ushakov "updates" the twelfth-century icon with profuse references to the glory of Moscow; in his Old Testament Trinity (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg), he alters the simplicity of Rublyov's icon with extraordinary detail and the use of chiaroscuro to suggest three-dimensional faces on the three angels. Both works by Ushakov are signed and dated.


Portrait painting arose in the seventeenth century, partly under Polish influence via Ukraine, but overtly western European post-Renaissance subjects and principles came to characterize Russian art only in the eighteenth century. Peter I the Great (ruled 16821725), who imported western European culture wholesale for his new city of St. Petersburg, had his portrait painted scores of times by foreign and domestic artistsand in oil paint, which lends itself better to chiaroscuro than does the egg tempera medium of traditional icons. European artists were imported to record the buildup of the city, decorate the interiors of buildings, and train Russian students. Some Russian art students were also sent abroad for training. During the eighteenth century, the Academy of Fine Arts, founded by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (ruled 17411762) and funded significantly beginning with Catherine II the Great (ruled 17621796), dominated art training. Leading eighteenth-century Russian artists include Dmitry Levitsky (17351822), whose portraits of aristocratic girls at Catherine the Great's Smolny Institute show great skill, Vladimir Borovikovsky (17571825), who broke new ground with his relatively informal study of Catherine walking her dog in a park (copies in Tretyakov Gallery and State Russian Museum), and Ivan Argunov (17291802), who was born a serf yet rose to become one of the founders of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1758. His career demonstrates that in post-Petrine Russia advancement could be based on merit and not on privileged birth alone.

In sculpture, the adoption of western European neoclassical traditions paralleled developments in painting. Fedot Shubin's (17401805) numerous plaster and marble busts of aristocratic patrons show the fruits of his six years of study in Paris. St. Petersburg's most famous statue, the equestrian Bronze Horseman of Peter the Great, was commissioned by Catherine and designed by the Frenchman Étienne-Maurice Falconet (17161791) and his pupil and mistress, Marie-Anne Collot (17481821).

Space does not permit discussion of folk art, which flourished largely apart from the formal trends identified here. Folk art influenced formal art before the eighteenth century to some extent, but less so beginning with the westernization of formal art.

See also Catherine II (Russia) ; France, Art in ; Peter I (Russia) ; Russia .


Bird, Alan. A History of Russian Painting. Boston, 1987.

Cracraft, James. The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery. Chicago and London, 1988.

Hamilton, George Heard. The Art and Architecture of Russia. 3rd ed. New York, 1983.

Milner, John. A Dictionary of Russian & Soviet Artists, 14201970. Woodbridge, U.K., 1993.

Jack Kollmann

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