Peter the Great: A Life in Art
June 9th marks the 345th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great. Here we review the life of one of Russia’s most famous monarchs through of one his greatest legacies; art
Advancing the arts was one of the many great innovations which Peter the Great brought to Russia. Prior to his reign, the only artworks produced in Russia were religious crafts and indigenous customs such as icon painting and local lubok prints. Following his travels to the West, however, Peter founded the first prototype art academies in Russia, which his daughter and successor – Elizabeth the First and Catherine the Great respectively – would capitalise on during their reigns, exploiting the power of art as a powerful tool in cultural diplomacy. In doing so they inaugurated the great collections that we see today in the Hermitage, Russian National Museum and Tretyakov Gallery. Even after his death, the legend of Peter would inspire countless artists to create some of their most powerful works. Here are three of his most iconic portrayals in art:
1. Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1698)
One of the first royal propaganda portraits of a Russian leader, this painting was created in the late seventh-century England during Peter’s travels in the U.K. Although primarily there to study shipbuilding, (including a stint working himself in a shipyard in Debtford) Peter was also struck by the British tradition of deifying monarchs through grandiose portraiture. He commissioned this image from Godfrey Kneller, a well-established painter who had already portrayed many European Kings and Queens. Here, the young Tsar is wearing armour to indicate his prowess in warfare, and is adorned with the regalia of his royal stature; an embroidered ermine clock and bejewelled crown. Note how in the background, the artist ensures to include Peter’s favourite subject: ships.
2. Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy, Vasily Surikov (1881)
The subject of this huge canvas (which currently hangs in the Tretyakov), is the historical event of September 1698 when the Streltsy (Russia’s units of guardsmen) attempted an uprising before the walls of the Kremlin. Peter may be hard to spot initially in this crowded composition – he’s the figure atop a horse towards the back, on the right. This painting, completed several centuries after Peter’s death, embodies the fascination he continued to hold on the Russian populace. The psychological intensity of the painting – especially seen in the direct line of eye-contact stretching across the image between Peter and the Streltsy leader being lead away in the cart ensures that, even though Peter isn’t centralised in the painting, he is still unquestionably its focal point. Our eye is always drawn back to him – upright, confident and, even as a background figure, embodying the supreme power of the monarchy.
3. Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich at Peterhof, by Nikolai Ge (1871)
A painting by Nikolai Ge, one of Surikov’s contemporaries, shows one of the most controversial moments of the Tsar’s life – the day he had his own son sentenced to death for allegedly plotting against him. Despite the intense drama of the moment, the artist masterfully opts to illustrate a moment of quiet psychological intensity rather than melodrama. Peter – even though seated lower than his standing son, embodies absolute authority with his perfectly still body language. His son, unable to meet his eye, looks instead down to the floor where the letter of confession his father has extracted as proof of his imminent betrayal has fallen. Note how the perspective of tiled floor warps slightly underneath Alexei, heightening the sense of psychological unease. The unlit fireplace in the background echoes the lack of warmth in this paternal relationship, whilst the row of chairs ominously portends the jury deciding Alexei’s fate.
So there you have it – three incredible works of art inspired by one incredible monarch. Do you have a favourite painting or sculpture of Peter? Let us know – drop us a line in the comments with your preferred works of Russian art!
This post was brought to you by Kamila, currently studying at Liden & Denz Moscow