Five Masterpieces in The Russian Museum

It is no sheer coincidence that Saint Petersburg is known as the cultural capital of Russia. The city has a long tradition associated with art, artists, poets, writers, music, and even scientists. Per mile in the city, the amount of monuments and museums is astonishing.

Liden & Denz is located opposite Государственный Русский музей (The State Russian Museum) which is housed within Михайловский дворец (Mikhailovsky Palace). This former imperial residence is, in of itself, an amazing work of art that also deserves attention whilst walking around the Russian museum. Nonetheless and like many other buildings in the centre of Saint Petersburg, the great architect Carlo Rossi designed this palace in the 1820 – 30s.

The Russian museum happens to be one of the best and most famous museums in all of Russia. I have had the pleasure of visiting this museum a fair few times and it remains my favourite art museum. There are some paintings and sculptures which I always make sure to check out because they simply inspire and fascinate me. In this piece, I have collated a list of five great masterpieces from the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries which are all found in this museum. Each respective piece appears chronologically.

First Piece: Портрет писателя Ивана Тургенева (Portrait of the writer Ivan Turgenev) by Vasily Perov, 1872

The first painting, which caught my eye this time at the museum, was one that I hadn’t actually seen before. This painting of Ivan Turgenev – a Russian writer most famous for the novel Отца и дети (Father and Sons) – by Vasily Perov may seem uncomplicated on the surface but it really has been composed with great skill and a fine touch.

By physically bringing the armchair in this painting to the foreground, Perov is able to present Turgenev up close. It is a thorough piece presenting Turgenev as a dignified and lordly figure. The dark green background allows for Turgenev’s face to appear bolder which reflects the immense wisdom in his expression. It appears that this great writer is concentrating, but it is also clear that he has developed into an older man who ultimately possesses a lot of life experience. Perov could easily sense both this vast scale of knowledge and the depth of Turgenev’s thoughts.

Additionally, Turgenev holds on to a leather bound book in his left hand and this is significant since Perov underlines the talent and skill of one artist whilst reflecting his own gift in his own chosen art form i.e., painting. This is a rare ability which Perov was lucky to possess. It is fascinating how what may appear to be a simple portrait is, in fact, a deep and meaningful work of genuine brilliance. This is a painting that is worth admiring.

Second Piece: Первый шаг (First Step) by Fyodor Kamensky, 1872

This sculpture is from the same year as the preceding painting and is also a wonderful piece. Kamensky presents a mother who safeguards her son as he attempts to take his first steps. The child concentrates and holds on to his mother with his right hand, but has let go with the left. The sculpture uses the theme of maternity to reflect Russia in the 1860s and early 1870s at a time when the country embarked on industrial development under Alexander II’s reforms to industrialise the country. Thus, the child symbolises Russia letting go of its older past whilst taking new steps into the future. It is no coincidence that we see the child’s toy train on the floor because it encapsulates the idea of heavy industry, development and movement. These are all subtle yet ingenious points underlined by Kamensky. The sculpture is topped off with great attention to detail as the mother’s dress is shown with wonderful finesse and great care. This really is a piece that is also not be missed.

Third Piece: Витязь на распутье (Knight at the Crossroads) by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1878

Vasnetsov’s painting shows the ancient Russian folktale hero of Илья Муромец (Ilya Muromets), who is often associated with Kievan Rus’. This hero represents power and integrity, determined to defend his homeland and his fellow people. In the painting, he has come to a halt before a prophetic stone which is inscribed with the words “He who goes straight ahead cannot live”. Both the Russian warrior and the horse seem sad and tired. Vasnetsov paints a swamp beyond the stone. The atmosphere appears to be disturbing and ill-omened, especially with the skull and a black crow flying overhead. It is not clear what lies ahead for the warrior on his journey.

As an admirer of old Russian art and folklore, Vasnetsov stands apart as the first Russian artist to use folk tales as a source of inspiration for his artwork. For him, folklore reflected an image of Russian society both in terms of mentality and way of life. This makes his work especially interesting to someone not from Russia because it exposes you to other elements of Russian culture which you may have not otherwise come across. In this regard, Vasnetsov’s work is particularly out of the ordinary.

Fourth Piece: Лунная ночь на Днепре (Moonlit night on the Dnieper) by Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1880

This stunning painting shows the boundless space of the Dnieper river in Ukraine. The river flows below the lovely fluorescent moonlight on what appears to be a calm, but perhaps ominous, late evening. The green essence of the water contrasts with the darkness that encroaches the Ukrainian village.

Kuindzhi was a master of the relationship between colours and as a result, he experimented with many new and different types of paints. Due to the chemicals used in the paints which he used, his paintings have darkened over time. As such my photo certainly doesn’t do this work justice!

After completion, this piece was a huge success among the public. It was first exhibited in 1880 and it was so popular that people queued outside for hours to come and witness it being unveiled in Moscow. Kuindzhi painted many landscape pieces and this was his most successful one. He was both a realist and a romantic painter which separates him from other artists of his era. But it is his remarkable talent with colour that creates the beauty in his art work. Personally, this is my favourite piece in the museum. It is simply incredible.

Fifth Piece: Торжественное заседание Государственного Совета 7 мая 1901 года (Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council 7 May 1901) by Ilya Repin, 1903

This monumental canvas shows the State Council in session on the hundredth anniversary of its foundation. Repin completed this piece in 1903 with the help of two of his pupils. The men in the painting are dressed in their official smart uniforms, wearing the highest medals and honours that the Russian Empire could award. These men are some of the highest and most respected dignitaries in Russia at the time. The sachets on their chest represent the different Orders to which they belong. The blue sachets represent The Order of St. Andrew and the red ones represent The Order of Alexander Nevsky.

At the back but towards the centre of the piece sits Tsar Nikolai II. He is holding on to documents in his hand whilst sitting next to the Romanov Grand Dukes. The colours convey the rich atmosphere of this ceremonial gathering and they highlight the importance of such a regal occasion since the country’s top people have gathered in Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Palace in the White Columned Hall. The physical size of the painting adds to the grandiosity of the occasion depicted and it is hard to imagine how such a vast canvass can be filled in with so much detail. It is a spectacular and unique masterpiece. It is no surprise to hear that Repin was very famous in Europe and Russia, and he was even awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government.

Final remarks

All in all, the Russian museum is a must visit and should not be missed whilst you are in Saint Petersburg. There are no excuses not to go particularly because it is located so close to Liden & Denz!  There is so much that can be discovered at the museum from a wide range of periods and in different styles. It offers something for everyone and forms an important part of both Russian history and culture.

Thomas Pandolfino

Posted by Thomas Pandolfino

My name is Tom and I am a postgraduate student from London. I am an intern at Liden & Denz in Saint Petersburg. My primary interests are foreign languages, travel, music and literature. Follow my posts in order to discover more about the beautiful city that is Saint Petersburg!

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