Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 1, 2017
Rosalind P. Blakesley The Russian Canvas: Painting in Imperial Russia, 1757–1881 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 380 pp.; 135 color ills.; 155 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300184372)

Finally there exists a comprehensive study of Russian painting before the twentieth century: Rosalind Blakesley’s gloriously illustrated, exceptionally researched history of painting from the foundation of the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1757 to the death of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. This is a book we may not have even known we were waiting for, but now that it is here, it may well change the field of art history. To say that “it fills a gap in existing literature” (2) is a gross understatement. The Russian Canvas: Painting in Imperial Russia, 1757–1881 not only shows us in profound depth how large our art-historical blind spot to Russia has been, but fills it with a treasure trove of biographical information on artists, rich formal analyses, and nuanced contextual readings of works and movements. This is a book that also stands “to recalibrate the geographical compass of the history of art” (3) by completely remaking our understanding of nearly two centuries of art making in a larger pan-European context. Blakesley has in this single volume removed any lingering iron curtain to give us a full view of the richness of artistic production in a long-understudied place and period.

Packed with information about artists and works that are in many cases completely unknown outside Russia, The Russian Canvas comprehensively brings together an array of information that previously was littered across many divergent sources. Drawing on English-language scholarship (some out of print or published in Slavic Studies journals that are off most art historians’ radars) as well as untranslated Soviet sources, Blakesley creates a magisterial account of the development of Russian painting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book is organized around ten well-paced chapters. The first four focus on processes of education: the creation of the Academy (chapter 1), the life and works of the Academy’s earliest painters (chapter 2), the arts under Tsar Nicholas I and the emergence of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists (chapter 3), and the beginnings of the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture as well as provincial art schools (chapter 4). The next two chapters are devoted to Russian painters who worked abroad in Paris and Italy, while chapter 7 considers artists who occupied marginal territory due to their location or lack of formal training. Chapters 8 and 9 return to St. Petersburg and the critical direction in Russian realist painting as well as the formation of the Association of Traveling Art Exhibitions. The book concludes with a chapter on the social and political circumstances that both hindered and enabled the work of women artists beginning in the late eighteenth century.

Blakesley is careful throughout to situate Russian artistic production within larger understandings of western European art (ranging from Britain and France to Italy, Germany, and Spain), while still maintaining an unwavering focus on the indigenous pictorial tradition. A case in point is Blakesley’s critical investigation of how French and German artists influenced the Russian realists of the 1860s and 1870s. The discussion of the importance of the Barbizon school and Düsseldorf painters for Ivan Shishkin and Fedor Vasilev is revelatory. Shishkin in particular is often considered the pinnacle of Russian nationalism in the landscape tradition. But Blakesley reconsiders his indebtedness to peripheral artists and schools through an analysis of his travel records and letters. While other accounts have briefly considered the influence of the Barbizon on Shishkin’s work, Blakesley takes this contextualization to a new level, showing how an exploration of “pan-European concerns” (255) adds a vital new dimension to our understanding of even the most heavily studied areas of nineteenth-century art.

Blakesley also provides crucial reassessments of certain moments in Russian history that have applicability beyond the eastern European setting. Her nuanced discussion of artists who forged careers outside of major cities in chapter 7 adds important new insights in terms of how center and periphery operate within a broad geographical context. She develops this discussion by adding a further dimension: she looks at “the periphery within cities” (168; emphasis in original), examining artists who worked outside the standard systems of production and patronage. For example, this approach provides a new way of understanding art production under Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825–55). Whereas earlier scholars often focused on the heightened state control and censorship that characterized this period, Blakesley makes a case for a fresh view of Nicholas’s reign as not entirely deleterious for the arts. She is careful not to overstate the reactionary nature of his reign and discusses his addition of new galleries for modern Russian works in the Winter Palace (the only contemporary art displayed in the Hermitage at the time) along with his purchase of works by native artists to raise the profile of Russian art.

In each reassessment, Blakesley builds contextual evidence step-by-step, challenging evaluations that have come before and often performing a total recalibration of periods in Russian art’s history. This is particularly true of her fresh account of what happened with the “Revolt of the Fourteen” in 1863. Blakesley takes the reader through the events that led fourteen Academy students to withdraw from the school, something that other scholars working on the period such as Elizabeth Valkenier and David Jackson have also done. But Blakesley provides perhaps the richest picture of this important moment by carefully negotiating the “minefield of critical opinion” (237) that characterized the time. Through her reassessment, a new picture of the Academy emerges: long supposed to be a conservative and retrograde inhibitor to Russian artists, it is shown in a much richer and progressive context than previous evaluations have acknowledged.

Throughout the volume, Blakesley skillfully marries visual analysis and historical detail, weaving between descriptions of paintings, analyses of iconography, and discussions of the larger social and political context. Blakesley has an eye for details and a voice that allows her to enrich our understanding of Russian culture in an inclusive way. She adroitly handles Russian terms—giving explanations that will allow readers without any Russian to understand some of the intricacies of the language. Cases in point include her brief discussions of isskustvo vs. khudozhestvo (both words for “art” in Russian) and russkii vs. rossiiskii (both usually translated into English as “Russian”). Blakesley also proves a master of evocative analogies. Her description of works that epitomize “the cocktail of native and foreign influences that many Russian artists imbibed” (54) is a good case in point, as is her characterization of “the viper’s nest of quasi-xenophobic recrimination” (17) in which the new Academy emerged. But it is as a historian that she truly shines. She provides biographical detail for nearly every artist she discusses, in particular emphasizing their class origins—a boon for scholars who want to study lesser-known figures of serf origin.

There is also much that is new in this book from a historical standpoint. Blakesley’s presentation of the emergence of provincial art schools, for instance, breaks important ground. She examines these institutions in relation to the origins of the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture, and discusses all of the training centers in relation to the Academy in St. Petersburg. The section on the understudied, but highly skilled, Romantic portraitist Orest Kiprensky is also wonderfully fresh. Blakesley provides a rich level of detail on his life and a select group of his works, bolstering her account with previously untranslated sections of letters and contemporary criticism, footnoted to guide prospective future work. The same can be said of the chapter on women artists, which draws together fragmentary evidence to provide perhaps the first comprehensive view of Russian women’s experiences as practitioners and professionals in the period. That contribution leads to a larger point that needs to be made about the exhaustive, synthetic research Blakesley has conducted. She brings together material scoured from Moscow and Petersburg archives with analyses and quotes found in a wide array of untranslated Russian studies and monographs. She then adds central ideas culled from major Western art-historical and cultural thinkers such as Michael Fried and Michel Foucault. And she combines these with the most recent work by junior scholars in the field, including unpublished dissertations and in-progress manuscripts. A tremendous quantity of material has been synthesized here, and readers are left with the impression that potential for future work on this period is endless.

That being said, there were occasionally moments when one might wish for Blakesley to continue her arguments at greater length. Often, her insights are so provocative and fresh that it seems they could have been drawn out further, as in her fascinating but brief comparative discussion of Dmitri Levitsky’s and Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits from the second half of the eighteenth century. She suggests fleetingly that Gainsborough’s motif of balletic poses actually postdates its use by Levitsky and should force a reconsideration of Russian painters’ indebtedness to the West. But she lets this stand as something that “merits some thought” (45) instead of bringing it to fuller fruition. Likewise, her discussion of the Neoclassical stalwarts Karl Briullov and Aleksandr Ivanov along with Fedor Bruni—“a figure often mentioned only in passing . . . despite unparalleled success as an academic history painter in his time” (141)—is significant. There has long been a need to reconsider Bruni as Blakesley does in the context of Neoclassicism in Russia. But her discussion of his work, compared especially to Ivanov (to whom she devotes twelve pages to Bruni’s five), feels rather thin. In each instance it seems as though much more could be said.

At one point Blakesley writes that “it was going to require the efforts of artists independent of the Academy, as well as those working within the system, to persuade Russian and foreign observers alike that Russia had a pictorial tradition of sufficient diversity and longevity to hold its own on the international stage” (83). These lines were meant to describe the formation of a national school in Russia, but they could also be applied equally well to the work Blakesley does in the book. Students and scholars alike have long needed persuading that Russia’s pictorial tradition can hold its own among the western European heavy-hitters of early modernism. The Russian Canvas makes the most convincing case to date for Russian art’s ability to hold its own on the international stage. Perhaps now, in its aftermath, persuasion will no longer be necessary.

Allison Leigh
Assistant Professor, Department of Visual Arts, University of Louisiana at Lafayette