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13th-17th Centuries
The Imperial Collections
The 18th Century
The 19th Century
Early 19th Century
Late 19th Century
The Collections of Shchukin and Morozov
Early 20th Century and Avant-Garde
Late 1920s-1930s
1980s to the Present
Alexei Venetsianov, Reaper
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Early 19th Century
In 1807, Alexander I (reign 1801–25) initiated reforms including lifting a ban on foreign travel and books and suppressing the secret police, and entered into an alliance with Napoleon. By 1812, relations with France had deteriorated, culminating in Napoleon's invasion of Russia. The French took the city of Moscow but within a matter of weeks had to retreat. The end of the War of 1812 allowed Russian artists to resume their studies abroad, and many of them lived in Italy for extended periods. They saw in Italy an arcadia as well as a historic link to the art of antiquity and the Renaissance. This was true for portraitists, landscape artists, and history painters alike.

The noted portraitist Karl Briullov painted and exhibited in Italy, and became the first Russian painter to gain international fame. The landscape artist Silvester Shchedrin brilliantly captured the confluence of modern-day Italians, historic Roman architecture, and a uniquely Italian light in his paintings. Beginning in 1837, Alexander Ivanov made use of Italian art, sites, and models for his magnum opus, The Appearance of Christ to the People, which shows simultaneously St. John the Baptist's prophetic sermon, his baptism of the people, and the appearance of Christ. Ivanov worked on this painting for twenty years, making over 100 painted studies for the final version, which is now in the State Tretyakov Gallery. Among these studies were remarkably forward-looking plein air landscapes of various Italian locales. Ivanov also executed studies of numerous figures, for which he drew on a combination of classical sculpture, Renaissance painting, and local models.

This period reflected the influence of Romanticism, a movement that emerged in Western Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and took hold in Russian art in the 1810s. Stressing the importance of the individual and emotion, Romanticism arose in part as a reaction against the Enlightenment's emphasis on rationalism and the aristocracy. In portraiture, the range of sitters was expanded beyond imperial and upper-class subjects to include intellectuals and members of an emerging urban bourgeoisie. Artists such as Orest Kiprensky moved away from universal types defined by fancy dress or other material symbols, and instead depicted self-aware, introspective men and women. This new focus also manifested itself in the prominence of the artist's self-portrait. The moodiness and drama associated with Romanticism is also present in landscape paintings such as Ivan Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave (1850), which captures the dramatic confrontation between man and the sea.

The first half of the nineteenth century also marked the emergence of genre painting in Russian art. Alexei Venetsianov's sentimental scenes of Russian peasants departed from the academic tradition in their emphasis on indigenous, lower-class subjects as well as their obvious debt to icon painting. Pavel Fedotov, like Venetsianov, found inspiration in the Dutch genre paintings that he saw at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. His satirical depictions of the emerging urban middle class, occasionally censored by the government of Nicholas I (reign 1825—55), had much in common with the works of Honoré Daumier, a contemporary in France, and William Hogarth in eighteenth-century England. Fedotov's critical realist works provided an important precedent for the generation of Russian artists that matured in the 1860s.

ABOVE: Alexei Venetsianov, Reaper, 1820s. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: © State Russian Museum