Alexei Venetsianov School

Important changes occurred in Russian art life in the 1820s and 1830s. The conservatism of the Imperial 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. 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 KrylovWinter 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. 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.

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