The Artist as Prophet

by Cathy Locke

Alexander Ivanov, “The Appearance of Christ Before the People” (1837–1857), oil on canvas,  17’6” x 25’, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Alexander Ivanov, “The Appearance of Christ Before the People” (1837–1857), oil on canvas, 17’6” x 25’, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The concept of the artist or writer as a prophetic figure became widespread during the period after the Napoleonic wars leading up to the Decembrist revolt, an unsuccessful uprising against the Russian emperor, Nicholas I, in December 1825. It was believed that visual and/or verbal messages could be created to enact social and political change. The subsequent metamorphosis during the years of Nicholas I’s reign went from that of socio-political into a religious,theurgic force, which was largely facilitated by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and artist Alexander Ivanov. They first met in Rome in the winter of 1838-1839, and remained dedicated to their roles as prophets for the remainder of their lives. Throughout this period Ivanov was settled in Rome, working on his magnum opus The Appearance of Christ to the People (1833-1857), while Gogol traveled throughout Europe toiling away on Dead Souls (1835-1852), considered the first of the great Russian literary masterpieces.

Described as “an insane mystic,” Ivanov spent his entire adult life in Rome from 1830 to 1855. Of those years, he spent 20 working solely on his great masterpiece. In 1817 he entered the Imperial Academy at the age of 11, studying under his father, Andrey Ivanov. By 1824, Alexander was earning so many medals for his work that his father was suspected as having given a hand with his painting. In 1827, Alexander was honored with the Academy’s Big Gold Medal. The Imperial Society for the Encouragement of Artists gave young Ivanov a scholarship to study in Italy. In the summer of 1830 he arrived in Rome, where he stayed in the Russian colony “to perfect his skills in the art of history painting.” According to strict guidelines, in the first year of their stay the artists were to travel and see the sights, in the second they were to accomplish “a full-scale cartoon copy of Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel, depicting the Creation of Adam,” and were then to spend their third year “making a picture themselves.” Following the established tradition, the fellows had to send detailed reports every two months to the Society. In the history of Russian art, Ivanov’s reports were unmatched in their manic detail.1

Alexander Ivanov, “The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene” (1834-1835), oil on canvas,  7’11.25” x 10.5’, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Alexander Ivanov, “The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene” (1834-1835), oil on canvas, 7’ 11.25” x 10.5’, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Ivanov attempted several multi-figured compositions starting in 1831; the first was a melodramatic failure. It was after this that he came up with the concept of a monumental painting of Christ appearing to the people. The project was such an ambitious one that Ivanov felt impelled to prepare for it by first carrying out a work on a smaller scale, titled The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene (1834). This painting earned him the reputation of being the top artist in the Russian colony in Rome after the departure of Karl Bryullov. Ivanov then begged the director of the Society, Sergei Grigoryevich Stroganov, for help with raising funds which would enable him to begin his “large painting…for the creation of an image embodying the essence of the entire Gospel, in order to place it opposite the iconostasis in the Church of the Savior in Moscow.”2 He suggested the money should be collected from the public or temporarily loaned by the tsar. Ivanov saw his painting as a sacred work of religious and national significance, a modern counterpart to the traditional iconostasis. His father, anxious about the state of his son’s mental health, tried to get him to choose a topic that would be easier to execute, and counselled against attempting anything unusual, new, or large-scale.

Apollo, Hyacinthus and Cyparis singing and playing, 1831-1834
Alexander Ivanov, "Apollo, Hyacinthus and Cyparis singing and playing" (1831-1834), oil on canvas, 39.3" x 55", Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Many historians have written about Gogol and Ivanov being homosexual. During this period, Rome was the most promiscuous place in all of Europe. Ivanov’s own father had written to him about using too many nude male figures, especially young androgenous boys, in his paintings. In fact, Ivanov became known as the painter of the male nude. Though Gogol traveled extensively, Rome was his favorite refuge, and he returned to it again and again. Upon their meeting, Gogol and Ivanov became an inseparable couple, providing both encouragement and inspiration to each other’s work. Ivanov’s visual treatment of his theme interacted with and influenced Gogol’s literary development. Gogol understood the significance of Ivanov’s painting, The Appearance of Christ to the People, and was able to eloquently put into words the importance of the work. Working in Rome at the time, and influenced by the German Pre-Raphaelites (known as Nazarenes), Ivanov sought to emulate the work of the early Renaissance artists, rejecting the over-stylization and bold colors of neo-classical art. Ivanov even included himself and Gogol in his painting. Gogol is the old man with the staff coming out of the water on the left and Ivanov is the ‘wanderer’ next to the prophet, John the Baptist. By including both of them in the painting, Ivanov suggests that they were recipients of the prophetic message spread by John the Baptist and witnesses of its fulfilment in the arrival of Christ; as such, they become part of a chain of prophets, chosen to receive and transmit the divine message to contemporary Russia. After nearly a decade of creative collaboration, tension developed between the two friends as to who would take the role as principal prophet – the painter or the writer. Gogol was wrestling with inner demons and his struggle with the possibility of joining the clergy. This resulted in a crisis in their relationship that reached a peak in 1847 and was never fully resolved. In 1848, Gogol made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but was never able to find peace for his soul.

After Gogol’s death in 1852, Ivanov continued to work obsessively on his painting, rarely allowing visitors into his studio. In the Spring of 1857, he finally consented to show it to Alexandra Feodorovna, the widow of Nicholas I, and then to select artists. The influential patron of the arts, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, saw the painting in February 1858, and offered to pay for its transportation back to Russia. Some 28 years after his original departure for Rome, filled with trepidation at the prospect of returning home, Ivanov embarked on the lengthy journey, arriving in St. Petersburg on May 20, 1858. Public excitement was stirred by numerous press reports announcing the long-awaited return of the artist and his celebrated work, soon to be unveiled.

The painting was first put on display in the White Hall, a grand room forming part of the tsar’s own suite of rooms in theWinter Palace. On May 28, 1858, Ivanov was granted a personal audience to show his work to Alexander II. Next, thepainting was transferred to the Academy and exhibited to the public, where it received harsh reviews. Ivanov no longer had Gogol to eloquently express the meaning of his work, leaving him heartbroken. On June 30th, Ivanov set off for the country estate of Sergievka near Peterhof to clarify the terms for the acquisition of the painting with the current president of the Academy, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna. He waited for three hours, but was not received. He returned to the city upset and fell into a fever, dying three days later of chorea. The morning after Ivanov’s death, a messenger finally arrived with an official letter informing the artist that the tsar would purchase the painting for 15,000 rubles and hadawarded him the Order of St. Vladimir. It was too late. The Tretyakov Gallery became the keeper of Ivanov’s crowning achievement, as well as his preparatory work for the painting, which includes 330 paintings and more than 1,000 drawings. Ivanov was a pioneer in the discovery of pictorial roles, and created of one of the great religious canvases of the 19th century. 


  1. Markina, Lyudmila, The Enigma of Alexander Ivanov. Bicentenary of the Artist, Tretyakov Gallery Magazine, Issue 4, 2006
  2. Davidson, Pamela, Aleksandr Ivanov and Nikolai Gogol: The Image of the Word in the Rusian Tradition of Art as Prophecy, The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 91, No. 2 (April 2013), The Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, pp. 157-209 (53 pages)

About the Author
​Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, lecturer and published writer, who specializes in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is the editor of

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