Realism and the Peredvizhniki
(Barge Haulers on the Volga, Ilya Repin; 1844-1930)
Arguably Russian art flourished to the greatest extent during the late nineteenth century with the realist movement. The movement was influenced greatly by earlier artistic movements, but rather than creating idealistic paintings attempts were made to portray life as it was. For this reason, a number of these painters were dissatisfied with the regulations laid down by the Imperial Academy of Arts, and formed the Peredvizhniki, ‘The Wanderers’, an artists’ cooperative that would travel around the country organising exhibitions of their works.
Peredvizhniki artists tended to hold liberal political views, hoping that by portraying the way of life among the lower classes efforts would be made by the authorities to reform their institutions and encourage greater social equality. Peredvizhniki were keen to paint landscapes and the work of these artists brought greater appreciation for the Russian countryside. Isaac Levitan, one of the most celebrated Peredvizhniki artists, only painted landscapes throughout his life as an artist. Peredvizhniki were generously patronised by the nobleman Pavel Tretyakov, whose gallery - The Tretyakov Gallery - in Moscow houses the best collection of Russian art.
Perhaps the most distinguished of Peredvizhniki, and arguably the most celebrated Russian artist in history, is Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930). Repin was born in Ukraine in 1844 and after attending the Imperial Academy, joined the Peredvizhniki association in 1878. In light of his background, much of Repin’s work is focused on the common people, both Ukrainian and Russian. In 1873 Repin completed what is generally considered his most famous painting, Barge Haulers on the Volga. The painting depicts 11 men straining themselves as they haul a large boat upstream on the Volga. The work established Repin’s reputation as one of the greatest artists of the era, as well as bringing to light the plight and fortitude of these common Russian men.
Repin’s work was celebrated in the Soviet era and he was held in great regard as a model for Soviet artists to aspire. However, despite the progressive nature of Repin’s paintings, in his later career he found favour with the imperial government and was commissioned to paint portraits of members of the royal family, including Tsar Nicholas II. During his career Repin also painted a number of his noted contemporaries, including the novelist Lev Tolstoy, the composer Modest Mussorgsky, and the scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. In his later years Repin lived in Finland, which had declared independence from Russia in 1917, and did not return to Russia despite invitations from Soviet institutions. Repin continued painting based on the common man, but after 1917 did not paint anything overtly political.
Repin was a great influence on younger contemporaries of the Peredvizhniki movement. Among these was Vasily Surikov, who became the foremost Russian painter of historical scenes. Surikov’s subjects included the Russian General Alexander Suvorov leading his army through the Alps in the time of Catherine the Great, as well as a famous work of 1881 on the streltsy (Russian musketeers) awaiting execution after the suppression of the Streltsy Uprising in 1698. The streltsy were common peasant conscripts, and here Repin’s attempts to capture the lives of common people are reflected in Surikov’s historical images. Surikov’s works are among the most recognised within Russia and many of his works are housed in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery.
The most distinguished landscape painters of the Peredvizhniki movement were Ivan Shishkin and Isaac Levitan (1860-1900). Shishkin became well-known for his forest scenes and the way in which he depicts the seasons in such landscapes. His 1878 work Morning in a Pine Forest is among the most widely recognised images in Russian art. Levitan’s landscape paintings are famous for the intense moods that they convey, and it is not difficult to notice the influence of French impressionism in Levitan’s work. In his short life Levitan produced over a thousand paintings and left an influential artistic legacy.
It can be seen that Peredvizhniki artists were perhaps the most influential and celebrated artistic school in Russia. One of the great impacts of Russian realism was the celebration of the Russian landscape as a result of Levitan and Shishkin’s intense paintings. Undoubtedly, the Peredvizhniki also had a great political impact. Through the works of Repin and Surikov, the Russian upper classes became aware of the hardships that common peasants had to endure, both at the time and throughout history. A number of Peredvizhniki were later to influence artists during the Soviet era and the Soviet realism movement. This is not to say that the Peredvizhniki were socialists, though a small number were. The Peredvizhniki also heralded a freer environment for Russian artists to work in, although greater restrictions than ever were to be placed on art in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution.
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