Beginning in the late seventeenth century, a new type of painting emerged in Russia. Influenced by the increasing naturalism in icon paintings in that period, artists working in the royal Armory Chamber in Moscow began to produce secular portraits of contemporaries, which were known as parsunas (from the Latin word for “persona”). From 1692 to 1700, Peter I (Peter the Great, reign 1682–1725) commissioned a series of portraits formally similar to the parsunas in their utilization of the dark, flat backgrounds and inscriptions seen in Russian icons and their personalization of subjects through the technique of modeling developed in Western European art. These portraits of Peter’s associates—who called themselves the “Most Drunken Synod of Jesters and Fools Presided over by the Prince-Pope [Peter the Great]” because of their masquerades and drunken debauchery—testify to his fundamental break with the strictures of the Russian Orthodox church.
In an effort to enhance the level of art in Russia, Peter invited numerous foreign artists to work in St. Petersburg and to train local artists in the Western European tradition. Beginning in 1716, he called for Russian artists to study abroad, and among the first to do so was Ivan Nikitin, his favorite court painter. Most of the earliest works shown in this section were made by artists who began their careers as icon painters. They studied under foreign or domestic artists, but did not receive formalized training within the context of an art school, and a number of them refined their skills working for the Imperial Chancellery of Construction, which oversaw the decoration of all of St. Petersburg’s new architecture.
In 1764, Catherine II (Catherine the Great, reign 1762–96) established the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. This institution—which was conceived by Catherine to produce independent, well-educated professionals free from serfdom and military service—took the French Academy of Fine Arts as its principal model, prioritizing history painting based on the Bible, classical mythology, and national historical events. But the Russian Academy of Arts gave precedence to portraiture, instead of genre painting (scenes from everyday life), as the second most important subject in its academic hierarchy. The neoclassical style was predominant in Russian art during the mid-to-late eighteenth century.
The importance of portraiture reflected the Western European influence of the late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment in emphasizing reason and individualism. Thus Russian artists celebrated the most eminent personalities of the imperial court and the upper classes in paintings and sculptures that included symbols and settings connoting the status of the sitters. Dmitry Levitsky became the preeminent portrait painter during Catherine’s reign, and his mastery of the most advanced Western European techniques was enhanced by his own inimitable style.
ABOVE: Dmitry Levitsky, Portrait of Alexander Lanskoi, 1782. Oil on canvas, 151 x 117 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: © State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.