Russian Art

Russian art and architecture

Russian art and architecture, the artistic and architectural production of the geographical area of Russia.

Early Christian Works

With the Christianization of Russia in the late 10th cent. the Russian church and its art became subject to Constantinople (see Byzantine art and architecture). Major artistic centers developed in Kiev, Novgorod, and Pskov. Although the early churches were made largely of wood (with strong Norse stylistic influences), stone was already in use in the Cathedral of St. Sophia (1018–37) in Kiev. A distinctive Russian style soon emerged, marked by steeply sloping roofs and high walls, a proliferation of domes, and later a compartmentalization of interior space into many aisles and apses. The typical onion-shaped dome made an early appearance (mid-12th cent.) in the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Sancta Sophia in Novgorod. In the 12th cent. the Vladimir-Suzdal region became an important cultural center. There the Western Romanesque was combined with Byzantine elements, as in the palace of Andrei Bogolyubsky.

The Art of the Icon

The earliest painters of religious art in Russia were Greeks or Greek-trained Russians, who generally followed the form and iconography of the Byzantine school (see icon). Within the framework of the highly schematic Byzantine rendering of the human figure, Russian art (11th–14th cent.) ranged from an extremely hieratic and intellectual concept to a softer, more devotional image. The Russians added a number of saints to the Byzantine hierarchy. Among those frequently depicted were saints Vladimir, Olga, Boris, Gleb, and later Alexander Nevsky. From the mid-13th through the 14th cent. little art flourished under the Tatar invaders except in Novgorod and Pskov, which remained free and were the dominant cultural centers until the rise of Moscow at the end of the 15th cent.

Icon painting was brought to its highest achievement as a Russian art form in the late 14th and 15th cent. with the expressive frescoes of the Greek painter Theophanes, in the church of the Transfiguration in Novgorod (1378), and with the Hellenized works of the Russian artist Andrei Rublev (e.g., Trinity, c.1410; Tretyakov Gall., Moscow). The master Dionysius introduced new iconographical motifs, scenes of miracles, which he imbued with great vitality. A high level of quality was maintained in icon painting until the 17th cent., when it deteriorated into an ornate, extremely detailed, convention-ridden art.

The Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Russian church became independent of the Greek Orthodox faith, and the Moscow school of art and architecture became the official liturgical and court art of Russia, maintaining this status until the 18th cent. In the 16th cent. art was first pressed into the service of the government. Frescoes such as The Heart of the Czar Is in the Hand of God decorated the palace walls of Ivan IV.

In architecture a new period began in the 15th cent., when the first of many Italian architects were invited to work on the Kremlin in Moscow (see under kremlin). The Cathedral of the Dormition (1475–79), planned by Aristotele Fioravanti, is notable for a new rationality of proportions, and Italian High Renaissance elements can also be seen in the decoration (pilasters, scallop shells, and arches) of the Cathedral of St. Michael (1505–9), built by Alevisio Novi. On the other hand, the Russo-Byzantine style was still very much in favor under Ivan IV. The Cathedral of St. Basil (1555–60) was designed by two Russian architects, Postnik and Barma, who combined several chapels into one unique and splendid church. With its profusion of oddly shaped cupolas, gilt and polychrome arches, and air of fairy-tale fantasy, it served as a model for Russian churches until the 17th cent.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

During the 17th cent. influences from Lithuania and Poland brought about a humanistic interest in classical antiquity that was to culminate in the Westernization of Russia under Peter the Great. In 1712 Peter moved his capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg and began the transformation of a mud flat on the coast of Finland into a sparkling European city. A host of Western architects was imported for the enterprise and continued to work under successive reigns. The outstanding architect of the period was Conte Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. Working in a rococo style, he designed the Winter Palace (now part of the Hermitage), Smolny Cathedral, and the facade at Peterhof, one of the most beautiful buildings in St. Petersburg.

Catherine the Great preferred a more dignified manner. The Italian Antonio Rinaldi (c.1709–c.1790), the French architect Jean Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe (1729–1800), and the Scottish Charles Cameron (c.1740–c.1815) were responsible for the neoclassical architecture that Catherine promoted as the official court style. Prominent Russian architects during her reign included V. I. Bazhenov (1737–99) and I. Y. Starov (1744–1808); the latter built the splendid Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg.

In the 18th cent. the infiltration of European painting styles began, and for the first time since the introduction of Christianity sculpture became a major Russian art form. European artists such as Falconet and Vigée Le Brun, came to St. Petersburg while Russian artists started to receive their training abroad. Portrait and historical painting predominated. Under Alexander I foreign architects were still imported, including Thomas de Thoman (1754–1813), who built the Bolshoi Theatre. The Greek revival style also came into vogue, and is revealed in the buildings of M. F. Kazakov (1733–1812), A. D. Zakharov (1761–1811), and V. P. Stasov (1769–1848).

The Nineteenth Century

During the 19th cent. there was a revival of medieval Russian architecture. A romantic school of painting arose in the early years of the century, and pictorial epics were produced by Karl Briullov (1799–1852), F. A. Bruni (1800–1875), and A. A. Ivanov (1806–58). The second half of the 19th cent. saw the introduction of ideological realism, particularly in the works of V. G. Perov (1833–82) and I. Y. Repin, who is now hailed as one of the first artists of the revolution. Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910), a tormented original and one of the foremost modern Russian masters, painted a remarkable series of decorations for the monastery of St. Cyril at Kiev.

The Twentieth Century

Around the turn of the century Mir Iskusstva (World of Art Group) was initiated, a movement akin to art nouveau. It served as the background for some of the first truly abstract artists who prevailed briefly in Russia after the 1917 revolution (see constructivism and suprematism). Among the more radical modern artists were Casimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Chaim Soutine, Aleksey von Jawlensky, Antoine Pevsner, Naum Gabo, Wassily Kandinsky, Mikhail Larinov, Marc Chagall, and Alexander Archipenko. Most of them left the country after 1923 and settled in Western Europe and the United States.

The Ministry of Culture soon took over the direction of Russian art, and a standardized literal style known as socialist realism was enforced while abstraction was renounced as decadent. Socialist realist artists include Georgi Nisski and Vera Mukina. Only with the death of Stalin was there a slight relaxation of government strictures, although artists working in an abstract idiom continued to be rarely exhibited and harshly criticized. From the mid-1950s to the decline of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s, so-called nonconformist art was widely practiced in the USSR. This late Soviet art encompassed a number of styles, met with official disapproval, was infrequently seen by the public, and often dealt with the harshness of life in the USSR. Among the leading artists of the period were Ilya Kabakov, Leonid Lamm, and Yevgeny Rukhin. Under Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership and with the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, artistic freedom has increased markedly. Russian architecture in the 20th cent., after a brief phase of constructivist experimentation in the 1920s, tended toward an unimaginative combination of neoclassicism and skyscraper construction.


See R. Hare, The Art and Artists of Russia (1965); A. Voyce, The Art and Architecture of Medieval Russia (1967); K. V. Kornilovich, Arts of Russia (2 vol., tr. 1967–68); C. Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863–1922 (1971); A. Zotov, Russian Art from Ancient Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (1979); G. H. Hamilton, The Art and Architecture of Russia (rev. ed. 1983); S. O. Khan-Magomedov, Pioneers of Soviet Architecture (1987); C. Cooke et al., Nostalgia of Culture: Contemporary Soviet Visionary Architecture (1988); J. McPhee, The Ransom of Russian Art (1995); O. Figes, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (2002); Vienna Centre of Architecture, Soviet Modernism 1955–1991 (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Russian Art: Selected full-text books and articles

A History of Russian Art By Cyril G. E. Bunt Studio, 1946
A Concise History of Russian Art By Tamara Talbot Rice Frederick A. Praeger, 1963
Russian Impact on Art By Mikhail Alpatov; Martin L. Wolf; Ivy Litvinov Philosophical Library, 1950
The Avant-Garde Frontier: Russia Meets the West, 1910-1930 By Gail Harrison Roman; Virginia Hagelstein Marquardt University Press of Florida, 1992
Art under Stalin By Matthew Cullerne Bown Holmes & Meier, 1991
V.V. Vereshchagin: Artist at War By Vahan D. Barooshian University Press of Florida, 1993
Soviet Emigrae Artists: Life and Work in the USSR and the United States By Marilyn Rueschemeyer; Igor Golomshtok; Janet Kennedy M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1985
Russian Icons By David Talbot Rice Penguin Books, 1947
USSR Early Russian Icons By Igor Grabar; Victor Lasareff; Otto Demus New York Graphic Society by arrangement with UNESCO, 1958
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