Before the Imperial Academy of Arts was opened in St Petersburg in 1764, Russian masters received their professional schooling in various institutions, such as the Armoury and the Academy of Sciences. Several of them were accorded the honour of studying in Europe.

As is the custom in academies the world over, the young Petersburg school paid close attention to drawing, particularly from ancient and classical models. This tradition continued for a long time at the Imperial Academy of Arts. The Russian Museum possesses an extensive collection of Academy drawings, tracing both the history of drawing and the history of the Academy itself.

By the middle of the eighteenth century history painting had been officially established as the leading genre in art, in keeping with the hierarchy of genres common to all academies. Following the example set by European academies, where Russian masters also perfected their art, history canvases in Russia were based primarily on themes from the Bible, mythology and – rarer – pure history.

Besides history painters, the Academy of Arts produced landscape painters, masters of genre painting, portraitists, engravers, architects and sculptors.

Important changes occurred in Russian art life in the 1820s and 1830s. The conservatism of the Academy of Arts had long impeded many of the vital requirements of society. Pupils of the Academy spent up to ten and fifteen years within its walls, from their very earliest childhood, and so knew little of the real world. Whilst possessing a brilliant schooling, they generally could not overcome their classical education and so their representations of real life were like theatrical scenes. Another of the Academy’s shortcomings was the limitations it set on the admittance of pupils. Serfs, for example, were deprived of an art education in those years.

The answer was Russia’s first private school of art, founded by Alexei Venetsianov (1780–1847). Venetsianov himself never studied art systematically. Parallel to his job as a civil servant, he studied painting under Borovikovsky and attended classes at the Academy of Arts as an external student. In 1811, he was accorded the title of academician for a programme assignment for the Academy of Arts and was thus accepted into mainstream art life.

In 1821, Venetsianov saw François-Marius Granet’s Le Chœur de la Chapelle des Capucins à Rome (1808) in the Hermitage. Stunned by the natural colours and aerial environment of this work, Venetsianov resolved to attain a similar effect in his own canvases. He left for the countryside, where he painted nature and peasants directly from life. One of the first pictures shown by him at an exhibition in St Petersburg was Threshing Barn (1822–23).

Venetsianov achieved an effect similar to that of the French artist from the light and air filling the barn interior. In order to achieve this, he sawed away a section of the barn wall and, sitting on the outside, painted the scene directly from life.

This work was of paramount significance for Russian art. For the first time in a Russian painting, peasants were depicted in their natural environment. Threshing Barn opened the eyes of artists and the public to the new method proposed by Venetsianov.

Venetsianov’s choice of nature and peasant life did not necessarily imply naturalism in his art. For him, peasants and peasant life possessed their own type and ideal of beauty, confirmation of which became the essence of his art. Seeking harmony between a portrait likeness and typology, the artist drew not only from life, but also from ancient and Renaissance sources. His slightly idealised representations of peasant types, clearly not portraits, are often transformed – Reaper (1820s) and Reapers (1820s) – into images not unlike icons or the works of the Renaissance masters.

Regarding peasant life as the natural unity of man and nature, Venetsianov created a cycle of metaphorical pictures. Not all of them have survived down to our day. One of them is Sleeping Shepherd (between 1823 and 1826), personifying spring and the awakening of nature.

The confrontation between Venetsianov and the Imperial Academy of Arts was of an unaggressive nature. The artist left St Petersburg for the countryside, where he taught budding young artists, including serfs. From time to time, he returned to the city to show works by himself and his pupils at exhibitions in the Academy or the Society for the Encouragement of Artists.

Alexei Venetsianov followed his own path in art. The artist’s method and his works from the lives of simple peasants filled a gap existing at the Academy of Arts.

The lives and fates of Venetsianov’s pupils took different turns. After working with Venetsianov, some continued to study at the Academy and even went to Italy to perfect their art. But the brightest trace in Russian art was left by those of Venetsianov’s followers who developed the theme of the Russian way of life. The representation of winter by Nikifor Krylov (1802–1831) – Winter Landscape (1827) – with its simple scene of Russian peasants conversing and carrying water on yokes, is rare and inconceivable for the Academy of Arts of the 1820s.

Just as unique are the pictures of Grigory Soroka (1823–1864). The quiet life of the Russian provinces, with its squires and peasants, are the themes depicted in the canvases of this talented serf artist. Yet the main thing in them is more than just their subjects and motifs, landscapes and interiors. Melancholy states of sadness and joie de vivre constitute the emotional fabrics of Soroka’s works.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the Academy of Arts continued to orientate artists on mythological, biblical and allegorical subjects, regulating the degree of lifelikeness. The disparities between the realities of life and the attempts of the Academy to idealise it simmered for a number of decades before bursting into the open revolt of a group of students in 1863. They refused to paint examination pictures on mythological themes and demonstratively left the Academy, forming the Artel – Russia’s first ever anti-Academic commercial art association. Its programme envisaged the reflection of real life in art and it quickly won authority.

The academy had been located in Shuvalov's palace on Sadovaya Street until 1764, when Catherine the Great renamed it the Imperial Academy of Arts and commissioned its first rector, Alexander Kokorinov, to design a new building for the academy. It took 25 years to construct the Neoclassical edifice. Konstantin Thon was responsible for the sumptuous decoration of the interiors. He also designed a quayside in front of the edifice and adorned it with two 3000-year-old sphinxes, which had to be brought from Egypt.

Ivan Betskoy reorganized the academy into a de-facto government department which supervised matters concerning art throughout the country, distributing orders and awarding ranks to artists. The academy vigorously promoted the principles of Neoclassicism by sending the most notable Russian painters abroad, in order to learn the ancient and Renaissance styles of Italy and France. It also had its own sizable collection of choice artworks intended for study and copying.

In the mid-19th-century the Academism of training staff, much influenced by the doctrines of Dominique Ingres, was challenged by a younger generation of Russian artists who asserted their freedom to paint in a Realistic style. The adherents of this movement became known as peredvizhniki and, led by Ivan Kramskoi, publicly broke with the Academy and started its own exhibitions which traveled from town to town across Russia. Ilya Repin, Mikhail Vrubel and some other painters, however, still regarded the academy's training as indispensable for development of basic professional skills.

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