Have you ever felt lost at the gallery? Have you had a Groundhog Day feeling or a deja vu when you ran into one and the same painting several times? Have you ever given up and left the gallery without seeing all the rooms in it? If the answers to these questions were «yes», you definitely need to learn the classic tourist route at the State Tretyakov Gallery.
It is far more interactive and easier to learn the tourist route not by the scheme, which you can find for free at the gallery, but to draw a visual row of paintings. I have just returned from the tour, which I had with the «Becoming an English Language Guide» group and I am eager to share the route with you. It might be useful for the future guides and for tourists alike. Knowing the route, you will save your time and energy, follow the art chronologically and enjoy your visit way more.
The tour starts at the magnificent staircase leading to the first floor of the State Tretyakov Gallery. Here we speak about Pavel Tretyakov and his brother Sergey Tretyakov — the founders of the gallery. We usually outline the landmarks in the history of Russian art starting with medieval times when iconography predominated in the Russian art and how hard and slow was the transition into the rococo style, which changed the epoch of iconography and sentimentalism in the beginning of the 19th century.
It becomes obvious when we look at the portrait of Naryshkina with her children Alexandra and Tatyana by the Unknown artist (Hall 1.). The painting is still perceived within the framework of the methods used in icon painting. Static composition, absence of the two-dimensional approach, ridiculousness of the children’s faces, whose age can be guessed only judging by the scale of their figures.
Individuality and personality gives way to the status of the character in the portrait. Multiple details, which reveal the pedigree of the person are depicted with exquisitness while the personality and the inner world of the character remain featureless and very often even beautified to leave a positive and impressive image upon the present and future generations. This approach is clearly perceived in the Official Portrait of Epress Anna Ioannovna by Caravaque, Louis (Hall 1.).
Though still very formal and retaining the techniques of a static and featureless image of the character, the Portrait of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna (Hall 3) by Vishnyakov Ivan Yakovlevich is a breakthrough into the world of motion in the portrait. These first attempts are almost awkward, but they can be justified by the artist’s search for the new methods in the formal portrait. A toe in an elegant silk shoe courteously peeps out from under the hem of Empress Elizaveta’s dress. Just imagine how wide her step should be to see her toes, as the dress could be two meters in diameter.
Not only the beauty of Russian Empresses, their magnificent wardrobes, presious regalia, but their morals impress the visitors of the State Tretyajov gallery. Take, for example, Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg who entered the history of Russia as Katherine the Great or Katherine II by marrying Peter III, direct grandson of Peter the Great. She was not only the most renowned and the longest-rulling Empress of Russia, but also the one who dethroned her own husband.
Official mood in the Russian art of the 18th century changes to the non-official character at the end of the century, which is perceived through the portrait of Procope Demidov by Levitsky Dmitry Grigorievich (Hall 5). The painting is again full of details and symbolism but it does not speak of the status of the main character directly. Looking at the figure dressed in his home garment consisting of a dressing gown and something like a nightcap, who is keen on botanics what we can say by the open book and the watering can, you would not guess that Demidov is a very rich person, patron of the arts and benefactor, guardian of the Moscow Founding School, and the owner of the rank of a high courtier. The watering can and the tubers are the symbols of knowledge and upbringing, the book is the symbol of the scientific approach to the upbringing process, the background shows part of the Commercial School founded by Demidov, while his garment accentuates his non-official character.
Noble families very often hired artists to paint portraits of their family members. In most cases this was the only guaranteed source of income for the artist. Which is why portraits of noble people are in abundance of that period (the 18th century). One of them is the portrait of Countess Ursula Mniszek by Levitsky (Hall 5). She was not only a very brilliant aristocrat, astonishingly beautiful woman, but also a female knight of the Order of St Catherine. It is impossible not to notice how exquisitely and with which care and admiration the artist depicts his heroin. The image is perfectly fitted in the oval frame, the rounded corners add more softness and make the female character even more alluring.
Being the only legitimate son of Catherine the Great, Pavel I (Hall 6) inherited the throne only after his mother’s death. Deprived from the throne until he was 43 years old, he tried to establish primogeniture in the Romanov’s dynasty. His reign was most misfortunate, as he was engaged in multiple intrigues, which ended in his mysterious death at the age of 47 from either being strangled or from a stroke. Pavel I’s reign lasted for 4 years, 4 months and 6 days.
No, she was not a brilliant aristocrat, and she did not inspire Pushkin to praise her beauty in his poems. But today they call her Russian Gioconda and her portrait is the gem in the Tretyakov Gallery’s collection. Maria Lopukhina (Hall 7) is the ideal of the female beauty in the epoch of sentimentalism. Her gaze is sad and enigmatic, her pose is calm and dreamlike. Her husband commissioned the portrait of his young wife to Borovikovsky Vladimir Lukich as a wedding present. She got married at the age of 18, and she was not happy in her marital life. Maria Lopukhina dies childless at the age of 23 from consumption.
The intimate portrait is a half-length portrait or a breast-length portrait with the conventional background. The artist and the model usually met two-three times, and the rest of the painting was completed in the artist’s studio. The dress was put on a dummy and the background was created by the artist in the process. The women in Borovikovsky’s portraits are not sad for a particular reason, they are in a reflective mood, which was typical of the epoch of sentimentalism. Among other famous Borovikovsky’s models were the illegitimate daughter of Catherine the Great and Count Potemkin, Elizaveta Temkina. There was a tradition to omit the first syllable in the Last name of the illegitimate child. The other one is the portrait of the the wife of the son of Kutuzov, Elena Aleksandrovna Naryshkina, who became a widow at the age of 26 with 4 little children and became a famous aristocrat in Europe.
We can call the portrait of Prince Kurakin (Hall 7) by Borovikovsky the climax of the 18th century achievements in the Russian art. Though a full-length official portrait, still rich in details which reveal the character and the background of the sitter rather than his face, the portrait conveys the mood of Prince Kurakin. Sadness and melancholy is perceived through all the grandeur of the interior and the costume. The symbols in the background are the bast of Paul I who was a friend and patron of the Prince, Mikhailovsky Castle, the residence of Paul I, the black cloak with the white cross of the Knight of the Maltese Order whose Grand Master was Paul I.
The role of the details in the portraits becomes secondary in significance in the 19th century what we can see in the portrait of Pushkin (Hall 8) by Kiprensky. The sculpture of the muse and the dress of the sitter tell us that this is a poet. His pose is very energetic, the spirit is vibrant. This is a pedant, you will say, looking at his elegant fingers and costume. Yes, and this is also the father of the Russian language.
If you take the right route at the gallery, you will gradually unfold the art history and perceive the culture of each period, you will live the heroic, tragic and everyday lives of the characters in the paintings by Russian artists. The experience, which you get from visiting the gallery will stay with you until you come here again and learn more from the works of art. I invite you to turn over the next page in the history of Russian art with the works by Ivanov, Kramskoy, Argunov, Repin, Kuindzhi, Shishkin, Vasnetsov, Aivazovsky, Ge, Vrubel and Levitan in the follow up parts of «The Labyrinths of the State Tretyakov Gallery».