This is a four-part lecture on the art of the Romanov Dynasty that includes a video and the lecture text below. To tell this story I am using artwork created during the time of each Romanov tsar and artwork painted years after their deaths. Starting in 1862 Russian artists began drawing on the rich folklore and historical events of their country’s past. By placing these historical paintings into this story their artwork now has context and brings to life the Romanov Dynasty.

To understand Russian art, one must first understand Russian history. The art of the Romanov Dynasty begins with a period of time in Russia known as the Time of Troubles. As the name depicts, Russia was experiencing challenges on every front. The stage was first set with a major famine in the early 1600s. The government distributed money and food to the poor in Moscow, refugees came flocking to the capital and compounding economic disorganization. Rural districts were desolated by famine and plague. This was a time of immense barbarianism as noble families committed atrocities in order to quell uprisings. Large bands of armed brigands roamed the countryside, while the Don Cossacks were restless on the frontier. Together these elements made it difficult for the central government to keep order. Long story short there was a state of utter confusion and disorder throughout Russia. 

“Appeal of Minin” (1896) by Konstantin Makovsky
“Appeal of Minin” (1896) by Konstantin Makovsky

In this painting Appeal of Minin (1896) by Konstantin Makovsky (1839-1915) we see the Russian merchant, Kuzma Minin (d.1616), appealing to the people of Nizhny Novgorod to raise a volunteer army against the occupying forces from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth under King Sigismund III Vasa of Poland. Makovsky brilliantly renders the feeling of utter chaos created during the Time of Troubles. He sets the stage for this uphill battle the Russian people are facing. Russian folklore tells us that Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky (1577-1642) were responsible for clearing the Kremlin in Moscow of Polish forces on November 1, 1612, ending the Polish–Muscovite War and setting the stage for the election of the first Romanov tsar. 

Boris Godunov by Leonard Boden
"Boris Godunov" (1995) by Leonard Boden

The Time of Troubles gave rise to the reign of Boris Godunov (1551-1605) from 1598 to 1605. Legend tells us that Godunov descended from the Tatar Prince Chet (c.1200s), who came from the Golden Horde to Russia and founded the Ipatievsky Monastery in Kostroma. One of Godunov’s first acts as tsar was to exile key representatives of the noble families to monasteries in Poland and northern Russia; this of course included the Romanovs who were sent to Ipatievsky Monastery. Needless to say, discontent grew among these noble families. The oligarchical faction of the Russian nobility, which was headed by the Romanov family, considered it a disgrace to obey Godunov because of his lower ranking within their society. His reign ultimately proved unsuccessful and Godunov died of a stroke in April 1605. His son ruled for a short time thereafter. 

Depiction of Mikhail Romanov being offered the throne outside the Ipatievsky Monastery (1673) in Poland
"Depiction of Mikhail Romanov being offered the throne outside the Ipatievsky Monastery" (1673) 

In March 1613 the Russian parliament, called Zemsky Sobor, met in order to elect a new tsar whose task it would be to rebuild the country. On February 21, 1613 Michael Romanov (1596-1645) was unanimously elected tsar of Russia. In the painting above, painted thirty years after Michael’s death, we see the delegates from the Zemsky Sobor arriving atIpatievsky Monastery on March 24, 1613. At this time Mikhail Romanov was sixteen years old. He became known as The Peace Maker amongst his people for making peace with the warring factions throughout the country, including Sweden and Poland. 

Inside the Assumption Cathedral in th Kremlin, Moscow

Mikhail Romanov’s life as tsar was lived inside the Kremlin Territories in Moscow. This site has been continuously inhabited since the second century BC. Inside of the Kremlin walls are three landmark cathedrals filled with objects of historical Russian art. Completed in 1479, the Assumption Cathedral is the oldest of the cathedrals, and the place where all of the tsars were coronated since the time of Ivan the Terrible in 1547. Completed in 1489, the Cathedral of the Annunciation was the tsars' private place of worship. Tsars from Ivan the Terrible through Mikhail’s time period would have spent up to six hours a day praying inside this cathedral. The Ivan the Great Bell Tower completed in 1508, would have been over one-hundred years old during Mikhail’s reign and was the highest building in the city of Moscow during his lifetime. Inside of these cathedrals, murals of ancient poets and philosophers, as well as biblical themes cover all of the walls and columns. Doors are made of bronze and decorated with gold foil or silver. All of these cathedrals have a floor-to-ceiling wall of religious icons encased in gold frames, known as iconostasis. These icons were painted during the 14th to 17th centuries by the most famous painters of the day. The cathedrals make up a place in Russia that is considered very holy. The Assumption Cathedral is regarded as the mother church of Muscovite Russia. These religious icons and murals would have comprised the main artwork of Mikhail’s time. 

The Descent into Hell  (1460-1490) by Dionisius and Lady with an Ermine (1495) by Leonardo da Vinci
[left] "The Descent into Hell"  (1460-1490) by Dionisius and [right] "Lady with an Ermine' (1495) by Leonardo da Vinci

Russia remained in the Middle Ages much longer than the rest of Europe. In fact, by the early 1800s Russia was three hundred years behind Europe in the creation of fine art. During the first one-hundred years of the Romanov Dynasty the only art production in Russia would have been icons and murals. The style of artwork active during this period would have fallen into post-Byzantine, a style that ended in the Middle East with the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but continued in Russia through the 1600s. A prominent member of the Moscow icon school, Dionisius (c.1440-1502), was known for a style of icon painting called Muscovite Mannerism. The two paintings above, painted within years of each other, show a contrast not only in style but also in skill set between Dionisius and the famous Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Leonardo’s painting, Lady with an Ermine (1495), is a mastery of the latest mediums of oil paint on walnut board and the technical complexity of chiaroscuro shadow types; used together the artist has rendered form to an exquisite level of pure three-dimensionality. While Dionisius’ icon, The Descent into Hell (1460-1490), was painted on wood with egg tempera;  in comparison to oil paint egg tempera is the equivalent of painting with toothpaste. Dionisius’ human forms are flat and the environment depicts little depth. The artist relies on graphic symbols to relay his message. 

"The Holy Trinity" (1380-1430) by Andrei Rublev; "Our Lady of the Don" (1360-1410) by Theophanes the Greek; and "Savior Made Without Hands" (c1680s) by Simon Ushakov
[left] "The Holy Trinity" (1380-1430) by Andrei Rublev; [center] "Our Lady of the Don" (1360-1410) by Theophanes the Greek; and [right] "Savior Made Without Hands" (c1680s) by Simon Ushakov 

Most of these antique Russian icons were painted by anonymous masters who did not sign their works. However, there are several artists who were known. One of the greatest of these icon painters, Andrei Rublev (1360-1430), became a saint in 1998. A contemporary to Rublev, Theophanes the Greek (1340-1410), was a Byzantine Greek artist and one of the most famous icon painters of Muscovite Russia. These two icon artists worked together and many of their works can be found in the Kremlin cathedrals. A leading Russian icon painter of the late 17th-century, Simon Ushakov (1626–1686), was known for his works depicting “fleshly saints” with human traits. At twenty-two he was introduced to the tsar Alexis I and quickly became a favorite with the royal family. In 1664 he was assigned to the Kremlin Armory. Some of the more conservative Russian priests regarded his icons as “lascivious works of devil,” because they were too Western for their tastes. 

Three versions of the icon Our Lady of Kazan
Three versions of the icon Our Lady of Kazan

It is believed that religious icons are directly inspired by God and many icon painters were members of religious orders. Icon artists used symbols to tell stories with their paintings. Circular halos around a figure’s head indicates that he/she is a heavenly figure. Many of the icons are square to represent the Earth. Ancient wood panels often featured a deep square or rectangular area around the icon, which represented the separation between heaven and Earth. The traditional Russian icon is painted on a carefully prepared wooden panel. First, a cloth is attached to the panel's face. Then many layers of a primer made of glue and powdered chalk or alabaster are applied over the cloth. When the primer is thoroughly dry, an outline of the design is scratched or carved into the surface. Painting began using the outline as a guide. Images were composed of tempera paints which were made from powdered colors mixed with egg yolk and a small amount of rye beer. Tempera paints were applied in graduated shades with dark colors applied first and lighter colors added on top. Features were painted next in a reddish ochre and light brown color; the lighter areas and highlights were completed with an ochre mixed with white lead. Eyes were given emphasis by painting a darker value around the orbit, then highlights placed around the eyes created even more contrast invoking divine energy. Eyebrows, lashes and eyelids were applied with thick lines. Gold was commonly used to represent the kingdom of heaven. In later works, metallic and yellow paint was replaced by highly worked silver and gold coverings with openings for the head(s) of the heavenly figures to show through. Gray was not commonly used as it falls between the binary of black and white, or good and evil. Gray was considered a color of uncertainty and emptiness. One of the most famous icons in Russia is Our Lady of Kazan; known as the Holy Protectress of Russia, it is a holy icon of the highest stature within the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Boyarina Morozova” (1887) by Vasily Surikov
“Boyarina Morozova” (1887) by Vasily Surikov

Alexis I (1629-1676) ascended to the throne at the age of sixteen after his father, Michael I, died in 1645. Known as “The Most Quiet” Alexis wrote a new legal code in 1649 that made serfs the full property of the land-owning nobility. In 1653, his reign introduced major reforms to the Russian Orthodox Church, which aimed at establishing uniformity between Greek and Russian church but instead created a schism. In the painting above, Boyarina Morozova (1887), Russian artist Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) tells the story of the people who refused to give up their century-old traditions and became known as the Old Believers. Here we see the wife of a wealthy boyar, Boyarina Morozova, being hauled away to Siberia in a horse-drawn sleigh. The young boys are shaming her, friends are beside themselves and the penniless beggar, sitting in the snow, is the only one brave enough to support her by holding up two fingers, the symbol of the Old Believers.

 

[left] “Stepan Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea” and [right] “The Execution of Stepan” both painted by Vasily Surikov in 1906
[left] “Stepan Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea” and [right] “The Execution of Stepan” both painted by Vasily Surikov in 1906

Throughout his reign, Alexis faced rebellions across Russia. By the 1660s, Alexis's wars with Poland and Sweden had put an increasing strain on the Russian economy. In response, Alexis’s government began minting large numbers of copper coins in 1654 which led to a devaluation of the ruble and a severe financial crisis. In 1906, Russian artist Vasily Surikov drew from one of the most famous rebellions during Alexis reign, the story of Stepan Razin (1630-1671), also known as Stenka Razin. In 1669, the Cossacks along the Don River in southern Russia erupted in a rebellion led by Razin. This rebellion gained control over the Russian waterways along the Volga River at the port city of Astrakhan at the base of the Caspian Sea. In Stepan Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea, Surikov depicts Razin as he sailed along the Volga River and Caspian Sea in 1670, ransacking multiple towns. The turning point in Razin’s campaign was his failed siege in October 1670 of Simbirsk, a port town on the Volga north of Astrakhan. Razin was finally captured along the Don River in April 1671 and was drawn and quartered in Moscow. In his masterful painting, The Execution of Stepan, Surikov shows Razin looking over his shoulder as he walks to his death. 

“Tsar Alexis Choosing a Bride” (1860-86) by Grigory Sedov (1836–1886)
“Tsar Alexis Choosing a Bride” (1860-86) by Grigory Sedov (1836–1886)

Perhaps one of the most important things to know about Alexis I is that he had two wives – Maria Miloslavskaya (1624-1669) and Natalia Naryshkin (1651-1694). Alexis’s first marriage to Maria was a success. She bore him thirteen children in twenty-one years of marriage and died weeks after the birth of her thirteenth child. Tsar Alexis choose his second bride by the result of a Tsardom–wide contest. Much like the story of Cinderella, qualified young women were sent invitations to the tsar’s palace where they were lined up and inspected. Early in 1670 Alexis arranged to inspect Natalia Naryshkin in her home. He was so impressed by her beauty that he selected her to be his bride. The Miloslavsky family made an attempt to halt the marriage by alleging that that magic herbs had been used on Alexis to deceive him regarding Natalya’s beauty. These claims were dismissed, and the couple married on February 1, 1671. From his first marriage he had six surviving daughters and two sons – Fyodor (1661-1682) and Ivan (1666-1696). From Alexis’s second marriage he had a son, Peter (1672-1725) and a daughter. 

“Natalia Naryshkina shows Ivan V to the Streltsy” (1862) by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
“Natalia Naryshkina shows Ivan V to the Streltsy” (1862) by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky

Alexis’s oldest surviving son, Fyodor, succeeded his father as Feodor III in 1676. He was said to be highly intelligent but had been paralyzed at an early age when a sleigh ran over him, crushing his chest and back. His ill health lead to an early death at the age of twenty in 1682 after reigning just over six years. Upon his death a struggle broke out between the Miloslavsky family who wanted Ivan to be crowned tsar and the Naryshkin family who wanted Peter to be tsar. After having just lost a tsar to ill health the Naryshkin family reasoned that Peter was a healthy ten-year-old boy, while sixteen-year old-Ivan was half blind, sickly and feeble-minded. To counter this Ivan’s older sister, Sophia Alekseyevna (1657-1704), spread rumors that the Naryshkins had Ivan murdered. Knowing that the Streltsy, the Russian infantry, had not been paid in some time Sophia promised them that they could keep anything from the houses that they ransacked. Uprisings broke out, the Streltsy stormed the Kremlin despite the fact that the Naryshkins showed Ivan to the crowd proving he was still alive. Russian artist Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky (1838-1898) depicts this scene in his painting Natalia Naryshkina shows Ivan V to the Streltsy (1862). With the two young boys on the porch of the Naryshkins’ home, the beautiful Natalia shows Ivan to the angry Streltsy. The killing and looting lasted for three days, over one hundred people were killed from the Naryshkin’s household. The event had a lasting impression on Peter, who would breakdown in uncontrollable convulsions for the rest of his life.

“Old Believer Priest Nikita Pustosviat Disputing with Patriarch Joachim on Matters of Faith” (1880-81)  by Vasiliy Perov
“Old Believer Priest Nikita Pustosviat Disputing with Patriarch Joachim on Matters of Faith” (1880-81) by Vasiliy Perov 

Sophia Alekseyevna acted as regent for the two boys and ruled as tsarina from 1682 to1689. One of her first challenges as ruler was an uprising in Moscow. The supporters of the old faith played an important role in the Moscow uprising of 1682, and the Old Believers gained support among the Streltsy. In the painting Old Believer Priest Nikita Pustosviat Disputing with Patriarch Joachim on Matters of Faith by Vasily Perov (1834-1882) we see a great debate within the in the presence of Sophia. One of the main characters in this painting, Nikita Pustosvyat (d. 1683), was one of the leaders of the Old Believers. In Perov’s painting we see Sophia at center stage, her head the highest in the painting. In front of her is the old priest Nikita Pustosvyat pleading his case. Behind Sophia are her advisors; surrounding Nikita are his supporters. Unfortunately, the debate ended in vain for Nikita, who was betrayed by the Streltsy and subsequently beheaded on June 11, 1683.

Grand Duchess Sophia at the Novodevichy Convent in 1698, (1879) by Ilya Repin
Grand Duchess Sophia at the Novodevichy Convent in 1698, (1879) by Ilya Repin

As her reign was coming to an end, Sophia was desperate to maintain power. In 1689, Sophia once again decided to use her connections with the leaders of the Streltsy to her advantage. After the bloodbath in 1682 when Sophia unleashed the Streltsy on his family, Peter had gone to live in the countryside where he assembled an army made of boys his age to practice war games. Seven years passed as these boys grew into a well-trained army. In 1689, when the Streltsy made one last attempt to kill Peter, they were met by his skilled troops. Sophia’s moment was over as more and more supporters shifted to Peter’s side. When Peter returned to Moscow, he had Sophia arrested and imprisoned in the Novodevichy Convent. He tortured, then hung, the Streltsy. In the painting, Grand Duchess Sophia at the Novodevichy Convent in 1698 (1879) by Ilya Repin (1844-1930), we see an angry Sophia inside the room where she was held prisoner for the rest of her life; outside her windows are three bodies of the rotting Streltsy. Ivan V and Peter co-reigned until 1696 when Ivan V died leaving no male heirs, at which point Peter became the sole tsar.

 

About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, published writer and lecturer. She is the editor-in-chief of Musings-on-art.org and specializes in Russian and European art.

Cathy Locke’s artwork – www.cathylocke.com