The Golden age of Landscapes, Seascapes and Romanticism
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
The second half of the 19th c. witnesses a new stage in the development not just of genre and portrait painting, but also of landscape, which glorified Russia’s scenic beauties.
Ivan Aivazovsky ‘The Black Sea”
Ivan Aivazovsky (1917-1900), whose long life was devoted to painting the sea in thousands of pictures, was a passionate romantic who found a consonance between the freedom of unfettered human emotions and the freedom of the elements. The new influences in Russian art in the second half of the 19th c. affected Aivazovsky’s already mature art. There are none of the starting contrasts of color and light common to his earlier works in ‘The Black Sea’ (1881) where he achieves the impression of grandeur by painting infinite expanse of moving water and the lowering clouds in a harmony of restrained, cool colors. As usual with Aivazovsky, the picture was painted from memory with free and confident improvisation.
New trails were blazed in the Russian landscape by Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897), a painter of delicate skill. As a young man he, too, had been exposed to the influence of romanticism, and it left him with a lasting awareness of the sublime poetry of Nature. His painting ‘The Rocks Have Come’ (1871) with its soft, quiet colors, made an event in Russian art. To the Russian people it seemed to reveal anew the touching charm of this familiar, homely scenery, with the joyous awakening of spring on the outskirts of a typical small town and the sense of space in the country beyond the river. In the future development of the lyrical national landscape this painting always remained a sort of tuning fork of Russian artists setting the tone of sincerity and warmth of feeling.
Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) saw Russian scenery in epic images. His paintings, many of them sylvan landscapes, were based on a close study of Nature, and drawn with great accuracy. Shishkin was one of the best graphic artists of his time and a prominent engraver. In ‘Woodland’ (1884), by unfolding the view in breadth and depth, Shishkin presents an impressive panorama of his native land.
The landscapes of Foydor Vassilyev (1850-1873), one of the most poetic Russian artists of the period, emotionally render the ‘mood of Nature’, and his brushwork is appealingly dynamic, free and bold. Vassilyev died at the age of 23, but nevertheless he had greatly furthered the development of the Russian school. In ‘Clouds’ (1872), with a delicate graduation of grey shades, he creates the impression of dense clouds sailing over a darkly shadowed green.
Arkhip Kuindji (1842-1910), another landscape painter with a romantic cast of mind, transformed his personal impressions into vivid images that were free from any inhibitive details of secondary importance. His landscapes, which he usually painted from memory, are remarkable for their light effects, lustiness of color, and decorativeness. In ‘Birch Grove’ (1879), the strong light and color contrasts and the large blots of color heighten the awareness of the festive beauty of Nature. And ‘Night on the Dnieper’ (1882) is profoundly stirring with its strangely illusory light of the Moon, the fathomless sky, and the majestic flow of the river.
The happiness of a placid existence and man living in daily harmony with Nature is poetically rendered in ‘A Moscow Frontyard’ (1878) by Vassili Polenov (1844-1927). What attracted contemporaries in this picture was the affection with which this cosy little corner of Moscow was painted, and the technique – as yet unusual for the Russian style – of conveying a sense of air and space by a subtle gradation of hues.
Arkhip Kuindji ‘Birchwood’
The exhibitions of paintings by Vassili Vereshagin (1842- 1904) enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1870’s and 1880’s. This artist was interested in every conceivable aspect of life in Russia and also in the East where he traveled a lot. But he was famous mainly as a battle painter, the first ever to give a ruthlessly truthful picture of the cruel everydays of war and the grief and the tragedy it spelt for millions of ordinary people. In 1971- 1873, Vereshagin completed a large cycle entitled ‘Turkmenistan Series’, in which he embodied his impressions of Central Asia. In ‘Gates of Tamerlan’ we see two sentries standing guard in the broiling sun. Vereshagin admires the beauty of the sentries’ dress, ancient weapons and the ornamentation of the doors, painted from nature, and at the same time he conjures up an atmosphere of the sleepy stagnancy of life at this ancient court that had become settled in the course of centuries, and the pomp and ceremony of the local feudal rulers’ living.