Before Ivanov started to work on his «The Apparition of Christ to the people», he went to Europe to see what had been done on that topic before. And he saw that many European and Russian artists used biblical scenes to depict reality of today. Take for example Karl Btyullov and his Bathsheba (Hall 9). The subject for the painting was taken from the Old Testament and describes the unfortunate fate of the military commander Uriah who was sent to immediate death because King David coveted his wife Bathsheba, who he noticed naked taking a bath. Not the subject itself was of a great interest to the artist, but the ancient oriental culture.
The naked beautiful body of Batsheba looks marble white in contrast to the black servant woman next to her. The scene is as natural as erotic, and it explains King David’s lust, which spurred him to commit a crime. A very trivial story, which is characteristic of not only ancient oriental times but of present day too. There seem to be human vices and weaknesses, which will never be abolished.
But the artist does not moralize in his work of art. The painting does not rise fear in our souls, or anger in our hearts. And it does not drop seeds of lust in the minds of onlookers. The scene is mysteriously magnetic and the beauty of Bathsheba’s body hypnotizes and embarrasses at the same time, as if we became witnesses to an intimate ritual.
With Bryullov’s «A Rider» (Hall 9) we dive into Romanticism. Among the trends of Romanticism were the motifs of wild nature, storms, mysticism, apocalyptic history paintings, Devine wrath, human disaster like in «The Last Day of Pompeii», a small replica of which we can see here, and fragile ideal beauty — Bryullov’s «Rider».
Bryullov’s heroines are sisters Giovannina and Amazilia Pacini, daughters of his close friend. The rider is a fragile young woman sitting in a side saddle. She is amazingly firm and self-confident, ruling the nature’s strength, the the symbol of which is a horse. Her younger sister is looking at the overheated horse with her eyes wide and mouth open. The wind is playing with the veil of the rider and her face is emotionless and arrogantly beautiful. She is a statement of beauty.
The painting is very dynamic. We usually do not spend much time in front of this painting, but every time when I am looking at her, I have a feeling as if it is I who has just returned from a ride and catching my breath I enter the next hall.
Ivanov conceived a scene no one had dared touch before. He did not realize that this work would become his magnum opus. Ivanov’s «Apparition of Christ to the people» was commissioned by Alexander II. Ivanov works on his painting for nearly 20 years since 1937 until 1957 in Italy, and finally gets tired of his painting and takes it to St. Petersburg.
His difficult and dangerous voyage back to Russia was prophetical. The wooden case for transportation of the 40-m2 painting did not fit into the hold, and it was left on the ship’s deck instead.
When arrived in St. Petersburg, Ivanov evaluated his work as 25 000 rubles, whereas the Emperor was ready to pay only 10 000 rubles. The Academy of art did not recognize Ivanov’s work and many critics thought it was a waste of time.
Ivanov got sick and burnt himself out in three days. On the third day the artist died. The following morning a parcel arrived, but no one dared opening it. It was sent back to the palace with the message saying «The artist died». Only later we learnt that the Emperor had sent 15 000 rubles and a Cross of St Vladimir to the artist.
Today Ivanov’s «Apparition of Christ to the People» leaves no one indifferent. We usually stand for a long time in front of the work. It evokes lots of thinking and suggests lots of explanation. This painting is very Russian, and it does not require much understanding, as its image is inherent of all Russian people.
Yaroshenko with his «Life Goes On Everywhere» (Hall 24) brings us to the epoch of realism. Skillfully, not overloading the work with multiple details, Yaroshenko depicts representatives from almost all layers of the Russian society of the 19th century: a widow with a child, a peasant, a member of intelligentsia and a worker. The convicts do not look like criminals at all, but the regime accused them.
Here we see three worlds meet. The sentenced who are transported to prison caged in a shabby wagon and free birds that came in search of food. The third world are the onlookers who see the scene through the window of the passing by train. This window is the picture’s frame and these onlookers are the visitors to the gallery. Yaroshenko got inspired for his «Life Goes On Everywhere» by Lev Tolstoy’s «What do people cherish in life».
In 1873 Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy was commissioned by Pavel Tretyakov to do a portrait of Lev Tolstoy. Pavel Tretyakov’s long-time desire was to form a gallery of the portraits of the leading personalities in Russian culture. Lev Tolstoy was working on his new novel at that time. The novel was «Anna Karenina».
«With the insight of a man of the world, from one glance at this lady’s appearance Vronsky classified her as belonging to the best society. … but felt he must glance at her once more; not that she was very beautiful, not on account of the elegance and modest grace which were apparent in her whole figure, but because in the expression of her charming face, as she passed close by him, there was something peculiarly caressing and soft. As he looked round, she too turned her head. Her shining gray eyes, that looked dark from the thick lashes, rested with friendly attention; this face, as though she were recognizing him, and then promptly turned away to the passing crowd, as though seeking someone.» (Lev Tolstoy «Anna Karenina»).
We shall probably never know who is looking at us with this arrogant and at the same time soft gaze, and we shall always look for the image of Anna Karenina in An Unknown Lady (Hall 20).
Among other leading people who nurtured Russian culture and whose portraits formed Pavel Tretyakov’s gallery was Nikolay Nekrasov. Kramskoy had earned his «Nikolay Nekrasov in the Period of His «Last Songs» (Hall 20) through painful work. It was equally hard for the artist and for the sitter who was suffering from colorectal (bowel) cancer.
Kramskoy managed to finish two portraits of Nekrasov before the latter passed away. Tretyakov commissioned the official portrait of Portrait of Nikolay Nekrasov, but people’s love and recognition got the other variant which is closer to the reality in which the artist met his work’s hero.
Christ in the Wilderness (Hall 20), after 40 days and nights of fasting. A man, alone, in the middle of the desert, surrounded by cold stones. The man is tired.
Text: Matt.4: 1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, «If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.» But He answered and said, «It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’» Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, «If You are the Son of God throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give His angels charge concerning You’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, Let You strike Your foot against a stone.’» Jesus said to him, «On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’» Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; and he said to Him, «All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me.» Then Jesus said to him, «Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’» Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.
Walking in the gallery you never know what emotions will find you in the next room. And of course you do not expect to find yourself in the middle of a sunlit birch grove. Hot, the eyes are blind with the sunlight, the shade is so inviting. This is Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi and his Birch Grove (Hall 21). The brilliant chiaroscuro, the geometric division of the landscape does not confuse. The landscape is so real, that you say: «It can be so, it can be…» Kuindzhi worked from memory and did not use etudes done in the open air.
As the light in the work of Kuindzhi, the sea power in the works by Aivazovsky becomes the protagonist. One of the best examples is The Rainbow (Hall 19)
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».