7 Most Famous Paintings of Russian Artists

Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches.

These paintings are known to every Russian person since childhood. They are an integral part of Russian culture. And if you are interested in it, it is important to know these pictures.

1. The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov (1833)

Karl Bryullov. Last day of Pompeii.
Karl Bryullov. Last day of Pompeii. 1833. The State Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg.

The Russians learn about the tragedy of Pompey primarily dueto Karl Bryullov (1799-1852).

Once he made a splash in both Italy and Russia with his masterpiece. And all that because he found an amazing balance between the truth and the fiction.
Bryullov depicted a real street. And even a part of the characters were existent people. Bryullov saw their remains during the excavations.
The problem is, the artist showed this catastrophe  as very … beautiful. Of course, it did  not  look like that in reality.
It turns out that the viewer rather admires all these people than finds oneself repelled with the horrific details. The unfortunate heroes of Bryullov are divinely beautiful even a moment before death.
No other work at that time could surpass “The Last day of Pompeii”  in popularity. The artist was immensely commended: after all, he divided the history of Russian painting into “before and after” periods. Since 1833, the  world has started talking about Russian art.

2. The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky (1850)

Ivan Aivazovsky. Ninth Wave.
Ivan Aivazovsky. Ninth Wave. 1850. Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
Karl Bryullov said that he felt the salt on his lips when he was looking at Ivan Aivazovsky’s “The Ninth Wave”. Very realistic. But not everything is so simple.
The breaking waves DO NOT form on the surface of the high seas! The bends at the top of the crest are formed only near the shore. Therefore, surfers have nothing to do in the open waters.
Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) went to this trick to make the riot of nature … look more spectacular. After all, like Bryullov, he was a romantic and praised the greatness of nature.
The Ninth Wave had every chance of becoming a masterpiece. Aivazovsky was the only Russian marine painter at that time. He worked incredibly masterfully on details while showed the sentimental tragedy of sailors.

3. The Appearance of Christ to the People by Alexander Ivanov (1857)

Alexander Ivanov. The appearance of Christ to the People.
Alexander Ivanov. The appearance of Christ to the People. 1837-1857. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858) really wanted to outshine Karl with his “The Last Day of Pompeii”. He took the canvas 2 times wider. And he worked 4 times longer (20 years against Bryullov’s five years).
But something went wrong. Nobody applauded to Ivanov (although he hoped for it). The triumph did not take place.
The audience did not appreciate the line  of 35 characters in colourful tunics.
In addition, the composition is difficult to “read”: after all, each of these characters has their own reaction to the first appearance of Christ!
Someone is happy. Someone doubts that this is the very “Lamb of God.” And someone is angry, as a new competitor has been sought.
There is also no spectacular riot of nature in Ivanov’s painting, as is  in the artworks of Bryullov and Aivazovsky.
And there is no reason for sympathy to the tragic fate of the main characters.
As soon as the audience got used to the special effects, they were not impressed with this painting. Well, comparatively,  in our times the Hollywood blockbusters are also more popular than the arthouse  movies.
Nevertheless, Ivanov merely alone carried out a revolution  in Russian painting. It was the transition from theatrical and pompous stories to the experiences of ordinary people.
And the Russian realists (Repin, Kramskoy, Savrasov and others) became what we know them only due to Ivanov’s artistic feat.

4. The Rooks Have Come Back by Alexey Savrasov (1871).

Alexey Savrasov. Rooks Have Come Back.
Alexey Savrasov. Rooks Have Come Back. 1871. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Alexey Savrasov (1830-1897), like Alexander Ivanov, made a revolution in painting. But more highly specialized: in the field of landscape.
The Rooks Have Come Back  is the first mood-modal landscape in the history of Russian painting.
The artwork has one paradox,though.
On the one hand, the landscape … is boring and monochrome.
What else can we expect from the end of March, even in a well-established  Russian outback?
Slush and gray color is a common thing for this time of year in Russia.
But in a mystical way, all this creates a  sweet and sincere feeling. The secret is to quietly direct the viewer to positive emotions.
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After all, the artist chose a very interesting moment: it’s still cold, but warmth is about to come. We like this feeling of imminent change for the better.
Hence, the pleasant sensations appear seemingly with no reason. We barely catch this reason.
Since Savrasov created his “Rooks” in 1871, almost all of Russian landscapes have been just that – poetic and lyrical.

5. The Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1870-1873)

Ilya Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga.
Ilya Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga. 1870-1873. State Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg.
“Barge Haulers on the Volga” is the central masterpiece of Ilya Repin (1844-1930). Despite the fact, that the artist created it when he was not even 30 years old.
The painting became especially popular in Soviet times. After all, such a plot fit into the ideology of the oppressed. This way the Russians saw the painting both in school textbooks and on the side of the matchboxes.
Remember, I told above about the revolution of Alexander Ivanov? He was the first in Russian painting school  who depicted ordinary people and conveyed their range of emotions.
So Repin learned all the lessons of Ivanov. But he brought the realism to the extend of  absolute.
Real barge haulers modelled for the artist. We know their names and fate (these people are lucky: they went down in history).
Their appearance is incredibly naturalistic. As such, is the clothing that becomes this way shabby from many years of wearing ant tearing and walking along the coastal windfall.
In this regard, Ivanov was still a classicist: the tunics of his characters are too clean, as such in a store window.
But not only the ragged look of the poor makes us sympathize with them.
The artist also painted a ship in the distance. Thereby, he tells us: the engines have already been invented, and people are still being brutally exposed to hard work. Yes, Russian artists liked to add this “Oh, how bad”.

6. The Girl with Peaches by Valentin Serov (1887).

Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches.
Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Valentin Serov (1865-1911) was even younger than Repin when he created The Girl with Peaches, his main masterpiece. He was 22 years old!
Apparently this is a feature of Russian artists – to give out their best creations in their young age.
But a completely different feature is striking in this work. It is created in the style of impressionism. And it is when Russians knew almost nothing about this style of painting!
Apparently, Serov intuitively painted a picture with colored shadows, multi-colored reflexes (colored spots, reflections of some objects on others), visible strokes.
The plot is created also in the spirit of Renoir and Monet: as if a girl, blushed in the fresh air, ran into the room and sat down for a moment to eat a peach.
Thanks to this picture, Impressionism timidly “knocked” at the Russian paintings’ door. And the ubiquitous realism was a little off-set.

7. The Morning in a pine forest by Ivan Shishkin (1889).

Ivan Shishkin. Morning in a pine forest.
Ivan Shishkin. Morning in a pine forest. 1889. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) could afford himself  to judge other artists. So, Ilya Repin received criticism from him. He reprimanded him on the incorrectly drawn trees in the painting “Barge Haulers on the Volga”.
Repin destroyed his first “Barge Haulers”. And in that picture, which we know, he did not depict trees in order not to outrage Shishkin.
Yes, Shishkin was a titan of realism. His naturalism  is amazing. Standing in front of his “Bears”, you can easily feel the morning humidity and hear the crackle of twigs.
Emerald moss, gray-blue fog and buffy trunks of the old pines create an incredible aura of the forest thicket.
Photography cannot do that. Therefore, it makes no sense saying that Shishkin’s realism is not required in the era of snapshots. And the constant love of Russians for his “Bears” is a confirmation of this.
PS. Regarding the history of Russian painting
Parsing these 7 stunning Russian masterpieces, we figured out the history of Russian painting.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the  disasters were painted, but not Russian, whether it is the misfortunes of the ancient Romans (Bryullov), or the desperate struggle of foreign sailors with the rough sea (Aivazovsky). There are many theatrical passions in all this.
Then Alexander Ivanov created a quiet masterpiece: a lot of people and all with their own emotions. The work turned out to be a kind of mixture of realism and classicism (unrealistic tunics let the artist down).
Then the huge era of realism  in Russian painting began (Repin, Savrasov, Shishkin) due to the artworks of  Ivanov.
And only Serov made a timid attempt to push realism aside introducing a little of  impressionism into the Russian art.
Read about one more Russian masterpiece “Above The Eternal Peace” (by Isaak Levitan).


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