Art of the Romanov Dynasty
Part 2: 1696-1796
This is a four-part lecture on the art of the Romanov Dynasty. 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.
In Part 1 we learned of the rise of the Romanov family and the crowning of the first Romanov tsar, Michael I. The first 100 years of the Romanov Dynasty was a period of barbarianism as Russia struggled through the Middle Ages for hundreds of years longer than Europe. The next hundred years, the period covered during Part 2, is a time of westernization for Russia, as two of their most famous tsars, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great steer their country into the future.
Peter the Great
Part 2 of our story begins in 1696 when, at the age of twenty-four, Peter the Great (1672-1725) became the sole tsar of Russia. This stunning portrait by the French master Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), painted well over one hundred years after Peter’s death, brilliantly tells his life story. Peter the Commander, who spent the majority of his life fighting enemy forces to the north and south, stands centered between a canon and a map with a sword in his hand. St. Petersburg, his crowning achievement, lays behind him as Peter looks toward the future. He wears the green garb of the Russian military and the blue slash of the House of Romanov. Peter carried out a policy of modernization that transformed Russia from a medieval country to a major European power. His motto was “even the impossible is possible.”
In the late 1800s Russian artist Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) became famous for a series of historical paintings of Russia. His first major success was Morning of the Streltsy’s Execution (1881). Here Surikov paints a not-so-flattering picture of Peter the Great. Surikov, who came from a long-established Cossack family, strove to create paintings that represented the spirit of the old beauty and history of Russia. This included the struggle and the suffering of an individual whose fate was tied up with a tragic event. This painting picks up after the 1689 failed attempt by the Streltsy to kill Peter and establish his half-sister, Sophia Alekseyevna (1657-1704), as tsar. Here we see friends who fought on opposite sides: Peter’s army wearing the green uniforms and the Streltsy dressed in white shirts because it is a Russian tradition to wear white before death. Peter sits on his horse on the right side of the painting, watching as the first Streltsy is being led to the gallows. Each of the condemned men hold a candle symbolizing that the light of their lives is about to go out. They are surrounded by their family, including children, who have all come to say their goodbyes. Note that even the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background is beheaded. Surikov was the first painter to depict the complexity of Peter’s personality and expose his cruel methods to the world. The artist painted his portrait in the center of the painting underneath the man who is standing with his head bent downward.
This beautiful portrait of Peter titled Tsar Peter I The Great (1698) by the English artist Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), was painted the same year as the Streltsy execution. It was Peter's gift to William III, the King of England. Peter commissioned Kneller to paint a picture of how he wanted the world to see him; it is a far cry from the depiction in Surikov’s Morning of the Streltsy’s Execution. Kneller’s portrait was painted in 1698 between January 11th and April 21st, when Peter was in London visiting William III. This was part of his famous Grand Embassy of 1697-98, a diplomatic mission which turned into a fact-finding tour of the more advanced countries of Western Europe. The tsar was especially interested in the shipbuilding of the Dutch and English, having just begun the construction of a Russian navy in 1695. The tsar is shown here wearing armor with an embroidered gold ermine-lined cloak; we see his crown on a cushion in a niche to the left; and ships can be seen doing maneuvers through a window on the right.
Peter spent more than twenty years of his rule fighting Sweden in what was known as the Great Northern War, in order to create a seaport on the Baltic. In 1703, Peter ordered the construction of a new fortress on an island at the mouth of the Neva River, which became St. Petersburg. After defeating Poland in 1706, Swedish King Charles XII turned his attention to Russia, invading it in 1708. After crossing into Russia, Charles and Peter fought a number of battles in the area known as Lithuania today. Charles XII refused to retreat back to Sweden; he instead moved to the south and invaded the Ukraine. Peter directed his army to scorch the earth destroying anything that would assist the Swedes. Deprived of local supplies, the Swedish army was forced to halt its advance in the winter of 1708-1709. In the summer of 1709, they resumed their efforts to capture Russian-ruled Ukraine, culminating in the Battle of Poltava on June 27. The battle resulted in defeat for the Swedish forces, ending their rule over Russia. The Battle of Poltava was the decisive victory for Peter over the Swedish and it is widely believed by historians to have been the beginning of the Swedish Empire’s decline as a great European power. The battle also bears major importance in Ukrainian national history as the Cossack governmental branch, known as the Hetman of Zaporizhian Host, had its headquarters in the Ukraine. In a stunning turn of events the Cossacks sided with the Swedes, seeking to create an uprising against the tsar. Peter was able to maneuver both forces and come out the victor. Russia had defeated what was considered to be one of the world's best militaries, and the victory overturned the view that Russia was militarily incompetent.
A well-known womanizer, Peter had numerous mistresses and two wives. His first wife, Eudoxia Feodorovna Lopukhina(1669-1731), was chosen by Peter’s mother for her family’s connections. They married in 1689 and divorced in 1698, when Peter banished her to a monastery. Though it was a loveless match, Eudoxia gave birth to three sons, of which only Alexei (1690-1718) survived infancy. While on a campaign in Livonia in 1703, Peter met his second wife, the fun-loving Marta Helena Skowrońska (1684-1727) who was an illiterate peasant. By 1704, she was well-established as his mistress and the following year she converted to Orthodoxy, taking the name of Catherine I. They were secretly married in 1707. Catherine gave birth to twelve children; all but two daughters died in infancy. In 1715, while the couple was inAmsterdam, Peter commissioned the French artist Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766) to paint portraits of himself and Catherine I. Nattier’s charming portraits of court ladies were very fashionable and the two richly painted portraits made an important statement. These portraits become a valuable propaganda for Peter. Catherine has been elevated from the lowly station of illiterate peasant to that of European royalty and Peter reinforces his image as military commander. Also of note is that these two portraits depict two individual characters who seemly have nothing in common. One year before Peter’s death in 1724, he crowned Catherine as his empress. When Peter died in 1725 without a successor, the Supreme Privy Council had to decide who would be tsar. Catherine represented the interests of the “new men,” commoners who had been brought to positions of great power by Peter based on their skills. Since any change in government was likely to favor the entrenched aristocrats, these “new men” staged a coup. Catherine was proclaimed the ruler of Russia, however the real power laid with these “new men” who were members of the Supreme Privy Council.
In 1718, Peter was betrayed by his only son Alexei. Peter had not been satisfied with his son's performance for some time. In 1716, Peter wrote to Alexei urging him to join Peter and the army without delay if he wanted to remain heir to the throne. Alexei fled to Vienna and placed himself under the protection of his brother-in-law through marriage, emperorCharles VI (1685-1740). The flight of the tsarevich to a foreign potentate was a reproach and a scandal. Alexei was brought back to Russia where a brutal reign of terror ensued. The ex-tsaritsa Eudoxia was dragged from her monastery and publicly tried for alleged adultery, while all who had in any way befriended Alexei were impaled or broken on the wheel while having their flesh torn with red-hot pincers on their bare backs or bare feet slowly roasted over burning coals. Alexei’s servants were beheaded or had their tongues cut out. All this was done to terrorize the reactionaries and isolate the tsarevich. Russian artist Nikolai Ge (1831-94) artfully captures the tension between father and son in his painting Peter I Interrogates Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich at Peterhof. Alexei’s correspondence with the heads of Europe has been exposed and the pages lay on the table and floor. Peter is disgusted as Alexei looks away. On June 24, 1718 the Russian senate declared Alexei guilty and sentenced him to death. But the examination by torture continued, as Peter was desperate to uncover any possible collusion. The tsarevich received twenty-five strokes with the knout, then later he was given fifteen more. On June 26th Alexei died in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
There was little development in Russian art during Peter’s lifetime. His interest laid in science and industry, not in art and culture. Peter did invite Jean-Marc Nattier to Russia, but he declined. One artist who worked in Russia for Peter wasJohann Wedekind (1674-1736), a Baltic-German painter. In his portrait of Michael I (1728) we see methods of icon painting combined with realism to create a new form of art in Russia. In 1716, Peter sent Russian artist Andrew Matveev (1701-1739) to Holland to learn painting techniques. He returned to Russia two years after the tsar's death in 1727. Marveev's battle pictures and other works of history painting, as well as his mural painting, bears the imprint of Peter’s taste. John Nikitin (1690-1741) was the most accomplished of the three artists that Peter supported. Nikitin studied in Italy from 1716 to 1720. He painted a number of outstanding portraits of Peter, including one on his death bed.
Peter II and Anna Ivanovna
In 1726, twelve-year-old Peter II (1715-30), the only son of tsarevich Alexei, was crowned tsar. The Russian people said of him that he was born without love because his mother, Charlotte Christine of Brunswick-Lüneburg(1694-1715) died in childbirth and his father died three years later. Peter II ruled for three years and died of smallpox on the eve of his wedding. Anna Ivanovna (1693-1740), the daughter of Tsar Ivan V (1666-96), ruled as empress from 1730 to 1740. Many Russians resented her because her court was almost entirely made up of foreigners, the majority of whom were German. The portrait above by the French artist Louis Caravaque (1685-1752) depicts Anna at the beginning of her reign. Caravaque was one of the most successful foreign artists to work in Russia. In 1715, Caravaque signed a contract in Paris with Peter's representative, Pyotr Lefort (1656-1699) to come to Russia for three years to paint portraits, battle paintings, historical scenes and landscapes. By 1716, Caravaque was living in St. Petersburg, painting and teaching students. Caravaque continued to be a dominant force in the world of portrait painting in the Russian court through the reigns of Catherine I, Anna Ioannovna and Elizabeth, all of whom he painted. His work covers a variety of members of the imperial family and the nobility. As well as portraits, Caravaque designed several interiors and painted a variety of battle scenes related to Peter's military victories in the Great Northern War. He was also commissioned to paint several icons, becoming one of the first foreign artists to do so. Caravaque died in 1752 in St. Petersburg and was buried in the cemetery at St. Sampson Cathedral.
In December 1741, the oldest surviving daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth Petrovna (1741-1762), saw her chance to take the throne from her cousin Anna. At the age of thirty-three, with little knowledge and no experience of affairs, Elizabeth found herself at the head of a great empire at one of the most critical periods of its existence. Empress Elizabeth Petrovna in Tsarskoe Selo (1905) by Russian artist Eugene Lansere (1875-1946) perfectly depicts Elizabeth’s reign. Lansere paints the picture of an empress of luxury, pampered by all around her. Considered an extraordinary beauty, she was raised with a French governess and was fluent in Italian, German and French. At the time of Peter’s death, no marriage plan had succeeded, including one with the young French King Louis XV. Under the reign of Elizabeth, the Russian court was one of the most splendid in all Europe. Foreigners were amazed at the sheer luxury of the sumptuous balls and masquerades. She issued decrees governing the styles of dresses and decorations worn by courtiers; nobody was allowed to have the same hairstyle as her. Empress Elizabeth owned fifteen thousand ball gowns and several thousand pairs of shoes. At the time of her death there was only enough money in the Russian treasury to buy a single ox.
One of Russia’s most accomplished artists during Elizabeth’s reign was Yefim Vinogradov (1728-1760), who created a number of beautiful etchings and oil paintings of the numerous buildings she had constructed during her reign. One of her favorite architects was the Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-1771). Their most famous creations are the renovation of the Winter Palace and Smolny Convent both in St. Petersburg, and Catherine’s Summer Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. Smolny Convent, built when Elizabeth considered becoming a nun, was one of the many religious buildings erected at her behest, using the nation’s funds rather than those of the church. According to Robert Nisbet Bain, “No other Russian sovereign ever erected so many churches.”1 The style of architecture popular during Elizabeth’s reign has since become known as Elizabethan baroque, which is a combination of rococo and baroque styles.
Paintings of the eighteenth century were dominated by portraiture and in Russia large commissions were mainly given to French and German artists. French artist Louis Tocqué (1696-1772), an apprentice of Jean-Marc Nattier, went to Russia in 1757, where he stayed for two years at the invitation of Elizabeth in order to paint her ceremonial portrait. While in Russia he painted portraits of numerous members of nobility. In 1768, Catherine II (1729-96) commissioned a portrait of Elizabeth by German artist Heinrich Buchholz (1735-1781), to hang in the Portrait Hall within the flamboyant summer palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Buchholz also came to St. Petersburg to paint, but never saw Elizabeth; instead, he copied Tocqué’s portrait. Both pompous portraits follow the canons of the genre with all the necessary imperial regalia. In fact, Tocqué’s portraits of other royalty, such as the Portrait of Marie Leszczyńska Queen of France, are all mere copies of one another with minor adjustments in color and symbols. This period of portraiture represents a total lack of artistic creativity, due to the fact that their patrons allowed virtually no artistic freedom.
One of the few noteworthy Russian painters during Elizabeth’s reign was Ivan Vishnyakov (1699-1761). He studied under Louis Caravaque and Andrey Matveyev. By 1739 he was a qualified master painter. In 1740, he attained the rank of Court Counselor (a civil ranking equal to lieutenant-colonel) and in 1752, became a collegiate assessor, which entitled him to be addressed as “Your Excellency.” He painted murals in many of the palaces and churches in St. Petersburg, including Catherine’s Summer Palace and the Winter Palace. He also painted portraits and icons, restored paintings and appraised the works of foreign artists. His portraits were among the first to embrace realism, departing from the flat, static style of icon painting. In summary advancements in the arts during Elizabeth’s reign were mainly in the field of architecture. There were few opportunities for Russian artists to learn the skills of their European counterparts.
Catherine the Great
In 1742, Elizabeth brought her nephew Duke Charles Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp (1728-62) to Russia to become her successor. Anna Petrovna (1708-28), Elizabeth’s sister, was his mother. Elizabeth arranged the marriage of her nephew to Princess Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst (1729-96). They both converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the names Peter III and Catherine II. Elizabeth died on January 5, 1762, at which time Peter III became tsar. Known for his erratic and childish behavior, he was described as a Russophobe, an idiot and a drunk. On July 8 Catherine’s supporters, led by Aleksey Orlov (1737-1808), staged a coup and overthrew Peter making Catherine empress. Peter died mysteriously on July 17. In celebration of becoming empress, Catherine wore Russian military garb through the streets of St. Petersburg on a white horse. Under her rule the Russian Empire expanded and continued to modernize along Western European lines. Catherine’s patronage furthered the evolution of the arts in Russia more than that of any Russian sovereign before or after her.
In regard to the arts Catherine II, or Catherine the Great as she became known, laid the foundation for Russian artists. In 1757, Ivan Shuvalov (1727-97) who had been Elizabeth’s lover, started a school for the arts for gifted boys in his own palace in St. Petersburg. In 1764, Catherine agreed to give the school imperial patronage, renaming it the Imperial Academy of the Arts. She commissioned Alexander Kokorinov (1726-72) to design a new building, which took twenty-five years to complete and opened in 1789. The academy became a government department, ranking artists based on governmental specifications. This allowed low-ranking artists, such as peasants and military settlers, to become first-class citizens with full rights to practice their trade as artists. With imperial patronage the school could afford to hire skilled European artists to teach, which completely transformed Russian art.
One of the earliest rising stars from the Imperial Academy during Catherine’s reign was Vladimir Borovikovsky (1757–1825). Born into a family of icon painters, Catherine permitted him to move to St. Petersburg to attend the Imperial Academy, based on the quality of his work. Borovikovsky perfected the style of sentimentalism, which incorporates nature, and often music, as a device for the artist to portray the inner soul of the person they are painting. In his painting Portrait of Elena Alexandrovna Naryshkina (1799) we see the aesthetic ideal of sentimentalism, where nature is blended with human beauty. The artist is depicting the nuances of the soul by creating a feeling of dreaminess with low value contrast, blurry contours and cool colors.
French artist Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) arrived in St. Petersburg the year before Catherine died, and she stayed in Russia until 1801. Catherine commissioned a portrait from the artist of her granddaughters, Elena and Alexandra Pavlovna. Catherine was initially unhappy with Vigée Le Brun's portrait of her granddaughters due to the amount of bare skin their short-sleeved gowns revealed. In order to please the empress, the artist added sleeves. This tactic seemed effective in pleasing Catherine, as she agreed to sit herself for Vigée Le Brun, although Catherine died of a stroke before the work began. While in Russia, Vigée Le-Brun was made a member of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Much to her dismay, her daughter Julie (1780-1819) married Gaétan Bernard Nigris (c.1766-1831), secretary to the Director of the Imperial Theaters of St. Petersburg in 1799.
The second most important thing Catherine did for the arts was to acquire a sizeable collection of classical and contemporary artwork by Western artists. Catherine defined the trends in collecting, which set high standards that have been impossible to ignore ever since. Catherine began building her collection just one year after she reached the throne. She saw herself foremost as an intellectual, so she judged the paintings she purchased not for their visual beauty or artistic technique, but for their intellectual and narrative content or their financial worth. Her first sizable purchase was in 1773, when she purchased a collection of 225 paintings from an art dealer in Berlin. The collection was originally destined for King Frederick II of Prussia. Only five masterpieces were among these paintings: three Rembrandts, a Franz Hals and a Rubens. In 1769, Catherine scooped up the famous Dresden collection belonging to the late Count Heinrich von Brühl (1700-63). The collection included four Rembrandts, a Caravaggio and five works by Rubens. In 1771, Catherine purchased the famous collection of Pierre Crozat, which included eight Rembrandts, four by Veronese, twelve by Rubens, seven by Van Dyck and several by Raphael, Titian and Tintoretto.
Perhaps Catherine’s greatest conquest was England’s famed Walpole Collection. In 1778, the empress received news that the spendthrift grandson and heir of Sir Robert Walpole – George Walpole 3rd Earl of Orford (1730-91) – wanted to sell the family’s entire collection. The collection represented the finest and most famous private art collection in England, among the finest in the world. Sir Robert Walpole had dedicated nearly forty years of his life to building a collection of almost two hundred paintings, which included Rembrandt’s Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac, fifteen works by Van Dyck and thirteen by Rubens. Catherine purchased the Walpole Collection in 1779 for £40,5502; it confirmed her reputation as Europe’s foremost collector of art. During Catherine’s reign her collection grew to almost four thousand paintings, making her the greatest collector and patron of art in the history of Europe.
- Bain, Robert Nisbet (1899). The Daughter of Peter the Great: A History of Russian Diplomacy and of the Russian Court Under the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, 1741–1762. Westminster, page 138.
- Anthony Hamond of Westacre - Correspondence. HMN 4/46/1-9 1792-1806, 1813. The National Archives (held at Norfolk Record Office). Retrieved June 22, 2013. Letters concerning the affairs of Georgina Walpole, natural daughter of Lord Orford.
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