Russia’s history of painting is a rich and longstanding one, dating back to the medieval ages and continuing all the way until today with monumental movements such as Russian modernism.
Whether it is the alluringly divinity of Christian icons, the virtuous sobriety of 18th and 19th century academic style paintings, or the innovative avant gardism of 20th century abstract expressionists, the range of works encompassed by the category of Russian paintings is one that spans wide and far. A culture characterized by opulence and luxury as well as great political unrest and disorder, the artwork of the region is highly reflective of these developments throughout history. It is easy to see why so many people across the world today are fascinated by Russian paintings and the variety of perspectives they portray in order to form one whole cultural identity.
Russia became a Christian nation in 988 after being introduced to the religion by Greek missionaries during the previous century. Artists of the region soon became well known for their depictions of important religious figures such as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints, otherwise known as icons. Stylistically, these rendering often featured flattened perspective and portrait style figures. They became a common trend within the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, and their influence also reached other spheres of Europe; today Russian icons are still recognizable within our visual culture and are highly revered as masterful works of art within the context of Europe’s history.
"Artists were encouraged to adhere to neoclassicism, the movement of art which was most popular in Western Europe."
After centuries of focus on religious art, with political leaders even going so far as to discourage secular work, change was adrift. At the turn of the 18th century, Tsar Peter the Great implemented a cultural shift in hopes of westernizing Russia. After traveling throughout Europe, he had become aware of Russia’s shortcomings in comparison to European powerhouses of the time such as Spain, France, Britain, the Dutch Republic, and so on; after witnessing the customs, economy, religion, and military of these parts, he wished to model Russian life and culture after them in order to become a more powerful nation.
Naturally, art was no exception. Artists were encouraged to adhere to neoclassicism, the movement of art which was most popular in Western Europe. Painters like Anton Losenko, Ivan Nikitin, and Dmitry Levitski followed after the academic style of Europe, which stressed naturalistic renderings and idealization of subjects relating to Biblical, classical, mythical, and historical events. By the mid 18th century, the country had founded its own school of art, The Russian Academy of Art, which consolidated academic painting in Russia and trained painters that produced work comparable to masters in other parts of Europe.
By the time that the 19th century came around, artists were beginning to feel confined by the strict rules and limitations of the academic and neoclassical styles. A group of artists known as the Peredvizhniki, or wanderers, sought to bring the subject matter of paintings back to their native Russia, celebrating the unique qualities and natural world of their country. One notable work from this school of art is Ilya Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, which depicts a violent moment in Russian history in which the 16th-century Tsar murdered his son.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequent fall of the Tsar and formation of the Soviet Union, the country underwent tumultuous changes in their social and political structure, economy, and over all culture. In order to cope with this turmoil, art grew increasingly more expressionistic and experimental, becoming a forerunner of the international movement of avant gardism. Kandinsky, Chagall, Goncharova, and Rodchenko are all artists born of the Russian modernist movement, and their work is still internationally renowned to this day. Artists like these responded to their surrounding adversity in such creative and intriguingly innovative ways thereby creating bodies of work that remain relevant to audiences even today.
Throughout centuries, Russia has produced a timeline of artwork that draws the line from old world piety and devotion to cultural prosperity and opulence to unprecedented and successful upheaval of tradition. The diversity and versatility of Russion paintings is intensified by its variety of cultural experiences as a nation, their art reflecting these shifts and developments in political and social structure. One can find inspiration in a history of artists that sought to adhere to, establish, and then challenge and distort their own status quo.