The disparities between the realities of life and the attempts of the Academy of Arts 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 Artel’s influence was further increased by a new form of contact with the public – the organisation of travelling exhibitions around Russia. The Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions was created in 1870, existing in Russia for more than four decades.

The Peredvizhniki was the name given in Russia to the Realist artists who joined the society. Their works were firmly in keeping with the democratic mood of society in those years and the wave of criticism swamping every aspect of life. Among the artists of those years were Vasily Perov and Leonid Solomatkin. The questions What Is To Be Done?, put by Nikolai Chernyshevsky in his novel of the same name, and Who Is To Blame?, muted earlier by Alexander Herzen, were hotly discussed in intellectual circles. Russian artists were also members of these circles and these issues found their way into many of the socio-critical pictures now on display in the Russian Museum.

Nikolai Ge reinterpreted the Last Supper in the light of the problems of the 1860s. His picture caused a sensation when it was revealed at the 1863 exhibition of the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. Visitors recognised Alexander Herzen, publisher of the émigré almanac The Bell, in the figure of the apostle Paul. The motif of the Last Supper had been invoked by various artists before, only now it took on a whole new and topical significance for contemporaries. They associated it with the split that had developed in the revolutionary movement. Others interpreted the Gospel subject as the tragedy of a man who foresees his betrayal by a fellow comrade, yet prepares to sacrifice himself. Ge’s picture thus transforms the biblical legend into a psychological and moral drama.

The majority of Peredvizhniki were drawn to psychologism in the history genre. They read situations through experiences, reactions and the states of mind of their subjects. It is thus perhaps not surprising that the artists of the second half of the nineteenth century who painted historical themes were also fine portraitists, such as Ivan Kramskoi and Nikolai Jaroshenko. The most famous of the Realist artists was Ilya Repin.

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