National Romanticism

One of the features of the works of Russian artists in the late nineteenth century was attention to national manifestations in history, life and nature. Artists closely studied local landscapes, revealing previously unnoticed poetry. Alexei Savrasovparticularly adored painting marshlands and narrow roads leading to small rural churches. The artist captured the poetry of the annual spring renewal in the metaphor of the arrival of the rooks.

The art of Ivan Shishkin extols the Russian forest. After graduating from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, he studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Shishkin went abroad in 1862 and lived and worked in Düsseldorf. Returning home, he wrote in his diary: “My motto? To be Russian. Long live Russia!”

Shishkin studied nature at great length, aspiring to create an exact lifelike image. Many of his pictures encompass every single detail of nature, though this by no means implies primitive naturalism. Shishkin’s studies include no small number of genuine masterpieces of the poetic representation of nature. These are lyrical and monumental images of the different states of the Russian landscape.

The landscape genre in the painting of the latter half of the nineteenth century was similar to the descriptions of nature in the Russian literature of those years. Artists and writers, however, did not confine themselves to visible reality. They used the state of nature to convey frames of mind and the emotional atmosphere of the surrounding world. Even such pictures as Moscow Courtyard (1902) by Vasily Polenov – the pictorial tale of a little corner of Moscow – are tinged with fresh perception of an everyday subject.

Polenov was not only a landscapist. Like many at this time, he painted pictures on historical and biblical themes, as well as genre scenes and landscapes. This syncretism reflected the logical development of the art of the second half of the nineteenth century, with biblical and historical motifs coming to life in a plausible environment.

The landscape was on the whole a relatively diverse and rich phenomenon in Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It ceased to be simply a view, inspired by the artist’s emotional and philosophical perception of nature. It often crossed beyond the borders of its genre, transformed into a pictorial metaphor for Russia.

Romantic traditions (Hovhannes Aivazovsky, Alexei Savrasov, Fyodor Vasilyev) were quite strong in Russian landscape painting, which was a rich and diverse phenomenon in the second half of the nineteenth century. One of the more unusual forms of this genre was the works of Arkhip Kuinji. Kuinji was of Greek origin and introduced that measure of artistic relativity and laconic brevity found in the art of the turn of the century into his landscapes of the 1870s and 1880s. He was not so much interested in landscapes, views or objects as in light and colour at various times of the day and night, in summer and in winter.

Isaac Levitan also occupies a special place among landscapists working in the second half of the nineteenth century. His works are often compared to the prose of Anton Chekhov, a personal friend of the artist and a writer who had a similar outlook on life. Levitan searched for the “soul of Russian nature” in his art. His works are not views. The artist painted “mood landscapes,” expressing a whole range of emotions, from pessimism to notes of optimism. Meditations on life and man through nature and the elements are typical of Levitan’s best works.

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