Russian Museum’s paintings. 7 Masterpieces Worth Seeing

If you are interested in russian art, the Russian Museum in Saint-Petersburg is a real treasure chest. Of course, there is the State Tretyakov Gallery that is better known in foreign countries, but the Russian Museum is the best place to look for Repin, Bryullov, Aivazovsky, or other Russian masters.

The painting that most people automatically associate with Bruyllov’s name is “The Last Day of Pompeii”; with Repin’s – “Barge-Haulers on the Volga”; Aivazovsky’s – “The Ninth Wave”. These and other pieces that all Russians grow up knowing, such as “Moonlit Night on the Dnieper” or “The Merchant’s Wife at Tea”, are all located at the Museum. No guide would pass by them, so neither will I, adding a few of my personal favorites along the way.

1. Karl Bryullov. Last Day of Pompeii

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

4 years of preparatory sketches, a year of nonstop work in the studio, a few fainting fits – and here is the result: the death of a city on 30 m2 of canvas. Truly, it wasn’t in vain: there was probably never another painting that created such an uproar. It was constantly surrounded by a thick crowd; the critics proclaimed Bryullov a new Titian, and even Nikolai I honored him with a personal visit.

What was it that won every heart then and continues to amaze us now? The beauty of tragedy.

In a few minutes, everyone here will die. We know this well: Bryullov copied the people’s poses from the actual bodies that were preserved by the ash. The street is also real, you can visit it even today. Such realism is striking, and yet the piece feels like a myth, a work of fiction.

Everything is harmonic. The young girls’ clothes go together with the burning red sky. And the magnificent crash of the statues, and the Hercules-like man rearing his frightened horse! We are entranced by the beauty of destruction, the catastrophe and the people facing it. 

2. Aivazovsky. Ninth Wave

Ivan Aivazovsky. Ninth Wave.
Ivan Aivazovsky. Ninth Wave. 1850. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

This is Aivazovsky’s most famous work, a painting familiar even to people far from the arts. Why is it so popular? 

People have always enjoyed watching others fight the raging elements – especially with a happy end. This painting offers exactly this, drama and beauty in one. The six last survivors cower on the mast of a sinking ship, and the ninth wave is rising – the fatal ninth, the one deemed most dangerous by ancient superstitions. A long and exhausting grapple for life awaits these people. 

But the sun is showing through the ragged clouds; it gives hope that the storm will end soon. Although we know they’re not having much fun, we can’t help but to admire the shining, clear water, sun flares and  pink sky.

This painting produces an effect similar to that of the previous painting: drama and beauty in one container.

3. Nikolai Ge’s. Last Supper

Nikolay Ge. Last Supper.
Nikolay Ge. Last Supper. 1863. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

The two previous paintings were accepted by the public very well. That was not the case with Ge’s piece, though. Many, like Dostoevsky, found that it was too earthly and portrayed a basic human power squabble instead of a holy scene. 

Especially irritated was the Church, so much that they banned even reproductions of the work! It wasn’t lifted until 1916.

Why did this happen? 

Think of how other artists showed this scene before – Leonardo da Vinci, for example. Jesus and his apostles sit around the table together, Judas among them. 

 Nikolai Ge ignores this cannon. He shows Christ lying down, which is historically accurate: that was the way Jews ate 2000 years ago. He also only paints 9 apostles to make the scene less crowded and obviously not giving much significance to the number. For the Church, however, these details were vital. Jesus has already announced his prophecy and asked Judas to leave and finish what he planned. Judas stands up to go.

We meet him in the doorway. He’s putting on his cloak, about to step into the dark – both literally and figuratively. His face is obscured by his own sinister shadow. 

This scene causes more complex emotions than Bryullov’s or Aivazovsky’s. Jesus feels Judas’s betrayal deeply but accepts it. Peter is outraged and confused: he’s leaped from his seat and follows Judas with his eyes. John can’t believe what he sees, just like a child meeting unfairness for the first time. All these individual reactions caused the censure and the bans. 

Art Quiz

4. Ilya Repin. “Barge-Haulers on the Volga”

Ivan Repin. Barge-Haulers on the Volga.
Ivan Repin. Barge-Haulers on the Volga. 1870-1873. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

When Repin first saw a group of barge-haulers (burlaks, as they were called) on the Neva River, he was so shocked by the contrast of their awful appearance and the nearby summer cottages, that he immediately decided to paint them. 

Although he omitted the beach-goers to avoid problems, the opposition still remains between the ragged, dirty people and the idyllic landscape behind them. He also places a ship in the background that could have easily done the work for them.

In reality, the burlak’s fate wasn’t that terrible: they were fed well and always given time to rest. A man could earn enough during the summer season to get through the winter without working. 

Repin planned the composition of this piece masterfully. He choose an elongated landscape canvas and picked a great angle to look from – the men are headed towards us, but they don’t crowd each other, so we can easily see every one’s faces. Repin knew all of them personally and had long discussions with them, which is why they are so different and easy to remember: the leader with a wise face, the youth who can’t get used to the strap, the greek man in the back turning to his partner.

5. Kuindzhi. Moonlight Night on the Dnieper. 1880

Arkhip Kuindzhi. Moonlight Night on the Dnieper.
Arkhip Kuindzhi. Moonlight Night on the Dnieper. 1880. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

“The Moonlight Night on the Dnieper” is Kuindzhi’s most famous work, which is not surprising, given the original way he introduced it to the public. He held a private exhibition in a darkened hall, with the only lamp illuminating the only painting. 

People were mesmerized. The greenish reflection in the water hypnotizes; we can barely make out the outlines of a village on the other side of the river, a black windmill, parts of the walls. It seems realistic and phantasmagoric at once. 

How did he achieve this effect? Chemistry! Mikhail Mendeleev, a great Russian scientist, helped create a paint that would glow eerily in the dark. 

While we can praise Kuindzhi’s advertising strategy – his work enjoyed a great success – he suddenly left soon after this exhibition and lived as a recluse for 20 years, painting a lot but only for himself.

The painting was bought even before the exhibition by the great Prince Konstantin, Alexander I’s grandson, who liked it so much that he took it with him into a circumnavigation trip. Salt and moisture ultimately destroyed the paint, dulling the piece and destroying its glow. Kuindzhi later made brighter copies that you can see at the Simferopol art museum or in the Tretyakov Gallery.

6. Altman. The Portrait of Anna Akhmatova. 1914

Nathan Altman. Portrait of Anna Akhmatova.
Nathan Altman. Portrait of Anna Akhmatova. 1914. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Altman’s Akhmatova is very vivid and easy to remember. This is the iconic portrait that immediately comes to mind when you think of the poet. Ironically, she herself disliked it, finding it too bitter and strange. 

But this description is rather accurate; Anna’s sister said that she was just like it – a true lady of the modern age.

Young, slender and tall, her angular figure – knees and elbows! – fits well into the cubist conception. The bright blue dress drapes over her sharp shoulders and skinny hands. 

Altman perfectly portrayed an image of a stylish and original woman. He himself was like that, too. 

He didn’t understand how an artist could work in a messy studio with week-old crumbs in his beard. He was always elegantly dressed down to his undergarments that were specially made based on his own designs. 

He was also rather extravagant. One time, when he discovered some cockroaches in his flat, he… caught a few and painted them different colors. One, the “winner”, was granted a golden coating and released, “to surprise his cockroachess!” 

7. Kustodiev. The Merchant’s Wife at Tea

Boris Kustodiev. Merchant's Wife at Tea.
Boris Kustodiev. Merchant’s Wife at Tea. 1918. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

“The Merchant’s Wife” is a very positive painting. It shows the solid, well-fed life of the merchantry. The woman, her big white hands, the cat, just like his mistress, the shined samovar, a watermelon on a rich dish – everything is round, content and very material. 

Such a work could lead us to think that the painter was like his model, but that could not be further from the truth. It was created in 1918, during the raging revolutionary years. Kustodiev and his family lived very poorly; their thoughts whirled around earning a piece of bread and housework. 

Why all this abundance, when everything around is so poor? Kustodiev was trying to capture the life that was lost forever. 

Even the woman on the painting is an ideal: Kustodiev joked that thin women didn’t inspire him to create. However, in life he prefered the opposite;his wife was skinny, too. 

Kustodiev’s optimism is truly amazing, especially taking into account that at the time this work was made, it’s been three years since tuberculosis confined him to a wheelchair. 

His attentiveness to detail during the era of avangard is also surprising. Every carefully crafted crisp, every watermelon seed, the passer-bys in the background, a young man rearing a horse- everything creates an atmosphere of some fairy tale that once was but won’t return. 

In conclusion:

If you want to see Bryullov, Altman, Kuindzhi or Repin, the Russian Museum is the right place to go. 

Bryullov’s “The Last Day of Pompeii” – on the beauty of catastrophe. 

Aivasovsky’s “The Ninth Wave”- on nature’s power. 

Ge’s “The Last Supper”- about the sense of near betrayal. 

Repin’s “Barge-haulers on the Volga” – about the XIX century worker. 

Kuindzhi’s “Moonlit Night on the Dnieper” – about the soul of light. 

Altman’s “Anna Akhmatova” – on the modern woman. 

Kustodiev’s “The Merchant’s Wife at Tea” – on an era lost forever. 

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Translated by Irina Indeikina

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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