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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
Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga
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Late 19th Century
Alexander II became tsar in 1851 and ushered in a period of liberalism. Perhaps his most important reform was the freeing of the Russian serfs on March 3, 1861. His initiatives allowed a new class of intellectuals and writers to emerge who challenged tsarist rule, and various opposition groups formed. (People’s Will, a group that advocated terrorism as a means of transforming the government, assassinated Alexander in 1881.) During Alexander’s reign, however, the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg continued to follow the restrictive model established under his more autocratic father Nicholas I (reign 1825–55), who had taken a personal interest in the regulation of the arts. In 1863 fourteen artists at the academy, led by Ivan Kramskoy, refused to paint the assigned, mythical subject for the prestigious Major Gold Medal; when they were not allowed to choose their own topic, they resigned from the school. In contrast to French artists, including Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, who asserted their right to formal innovation at the Salon des Refusés held in Paris in this same year, the Russians were simply fighting to paint contemporary and socially relevant subjects. The fourteen artists subsequently founded an artists’ cooperative, the St. Petersburg Artel, modeled on the communal ideals popularized in the Socialist philosopher Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1862 book What Is to Be Done? The Artel lasted eight years. 

By 1870, Kramskoy had joined forces with such artists as Nikolai Ge and Vasily Perov to form the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions. This group, also known as the Peredvizhniki or “Wanderers,” brought together artists from the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture to achieve the common goals of realism, populism, and national conscience in art. Beginning in November 1871, their exhibitions brought contemporary art to audiences in Russian cities beyond the two metropolitan art centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The Wanderers were hailed for breaking away from “serflike dependence on the academy,” something they achieved in part thanks to the personal and financial support of the Moscow businessman and art collector Pavel Tretyakov. The Wanderers sought to use their art—in a manner similar to that of contemporary writers such as Fedor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy—to express democratic ideals, criticize the inequities of Russian society, and pose key moral questions. They articulated their approach, sometimes referred to as ideological or critical realism, in portrait, landscape, history, and genre painting. These artists focused attention on the poor and downtrodden, and portrayed corruption among the clergy and government. Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–73)—depicting a job often undertaken by liberated serfs—stresses the dignity of the laborers, represented as both individuals and types; it is an iconic example of the Wanderers’ approach. A renewed emphasis on religion also emerged in the group’s work, and in many paintings Christ became a symbol of a dominant topic of fin de siècle Russia: humanity’s ongoing quest for moral truth.

ABOVE: Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870–73. Oil on canvas, 131.4 x 280.7 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: © State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.