Russian Genre Painting in the Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

Rosalind P. Gray. Russian Genre Painting in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xx, 216 pp. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Cloth.

The visual arts of nineteenth-century Russia have attracted, and it must be admitted have deserved, far less international recognition than its literature or music, and this is particularly true of the painting that preceded the dramatic emergence of the Peredvizhniki in the 1860s and 1870s. Since this study, despite its title, covers only the first three quarters of the century, and excludes the Peredvizhniki, the author is necessarily dealing with a mass of unfamiliar facts and relatively obscure personalities. It is something of a triumph therefore that she succeeds in making her material both accessible and engaging.

One of the keys to this success, certainly, is the clear and effective organization that characterizes both individual chapters-most of which begin with a preview and end with a summary of the often rather dense content-and also the work as a whole. The book opens with an introduction that sets painting, and specifically genre painting, in the context of Russian cultural and social life and also establishes the two related polarities that run through subsequent chapters like a leitmotif: Western versus Slavophile orientation on the one hand, and Academic idealization versus contemporary, often socially critical realism on the other. The author emphasizes, however, that these are often not clear cut opposites but rather distinct, though constantly interwoven threads.

The first chapter traces the history of collecting in Russia. Imperial and aristocratic patronage favored Western art, including, a substantial component of seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting, and was centered in St. Petersburg. Muscovite collectors generally started later, came from the merchant and industrial class and preferred native talent. The presence of an artwork in Russia did not, of course, necessarily make it available to the public. A visit to the Hermitage, for instance, required a black frock coat and white gloves.

As the first chapter surveys the visual resources available to Russian artists, the second explores the intellectual currents that influenced them. Discussion of the arts in the periodical press became increasingly lively as the century progressed, and major Russian writers, such as Aleksandr Herzen, Vissarion Belinsky, Nikolai Chernyshevksy and Nikolai Dobrolyubov, advocated for a culture that would be both national and socially relevant. …