Russia was late in getting its own national art. Although the Imperial Academy of Arts was founded in St Petersburg in 1757 (pre-dating the Royal Academy in London by 11 years) to train native artists, its largely French and German professors taught a classical western European tradition that was ultimately designed to produce bombastic history or religious paintings and stately portraits. Whereas British artists quickly found their feet and created schools of portrait and landscape painting, Russia lagged decades behind developments on the rest of the continent. As late as 1873, an English traveller observed that: “Artists in St Petersburg live in comparative isolation,” and the same could be said of any Russian city. “They are as a colony planted on the utmost verge of civilisation,” he continued, “they are as exiles or exotics, far away from the commonwealth of art, left to pine or starve in a cold and sterile soil.”
The artist who did most to fertilise that sterile soil was Aleksei Venetsianov (1780-1847). He was a cosmopolitan figure, a Muscovite of Greek and Ukrainian extraction who moved to the Francophile imperial capital St Petersburg to make his way. His family traded in saplings and tulip bulbs, but Venetsianov chose to become a draughtsman and surveyor in the civil service. He proved to be a success, attaining the rank of titular councillor (the ninth out of 14 grades on Russia’s bureaucratic scale, the Table of Ranks), but he nevertheless also nurtured a desire to work as an artist.
Venetsianov was largely without formal training but learned about painting by copying Old Master works in the Hermitage and probably attending evening classes at the Academy, where he became the unofficial apprentice of the leading Russian portraitist Vladimir Borovikovsky. He was skilled enough to gain admittance to the Academy in 1811 and strike out as a society portraitist. He ran his painting and civil service careers in tandem until 1819. What changed both his career and the subject of his art was a broken arm.
In 1815, Venetsianov had received a legacy from his father and used it to buy a country estate, Safonkovo, in Tver province some 100 miles north-west of Moscow. Along with arable land and farm buildings, he now owned 70 serfs. It was while recuperating there, his arm in a sling, that he decided to resign from the civil service and paint pictures of peasant subjects – his chattels. From this point on he spent his summers at Safonkovo and his winters in St Petersburg.
It was a propitious time to look to his homeland. The Napoleonic Wars were not long past and with them went a reflexive nod to French culture. Whereas previously, as one disenchanted patriot put it, “we imitated them [the French] like monkeys”, now Russia’s artists sought to find their own way. There was, though, rich irony in Venetsianov’s choice of language when he proclaimed his own version of this independence: “Enough of painting à la Rubens, à la Rembrandt! Let us paint à la nature!”
Venetsianov’s peasant genre included portraits of his serfs – mostly of women and children rather than men – and scenes of ploughing and agricultural life. The sitters are not given names because they stand as representatives of the narod, the Russian common people who were seen by progressives as the true, uncorrupted carriers of the national spirit. Healthy, content and dignified in fetching rural costume, his peasants are romanticised versions of an idea rather than individuals. Unlike Gustave Courbet’s stone breakers and Jean-François Millet’s field labourers from later in the century, Venetsianov’s rustics are not bent by poverty but ennobled by their work. As creatures tied to Russian soil they are also symbols of its regenerative properties.
Two of his early peasant works, Cleaning Beets and Threshing Floor, were bought by Tsar Alexander I, giving Venetsianov the imperial seal of approval. The most lyrical of them, however, is the gently meditative Harvest Time, Summer (c 1827), now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The picture is a distillation of atmosphere in which the painter calms the insect hum over the fields, halts the corn dust in the air and softens the heat rising from the plain. Here a reaper sits on the threshing floor, lays aside her sickle and breastfeeds her child; she is at once a peasant with her baby, a madonna with her child, Mother Russia, and Ceres, the Greek goddess of agriculture. The landscape itself is as formless and vast as the sky: Russia, fecund and immeasurable, goes on for ever.
This is, nevertheless, a highly artful picture. Venetsianov’s aim is neither realism nor social comment, and his composition, for all its low subject matter, is painted with a refined technique, harmonious colours and is steeped in classical calm. There is nothing threatening or uncomfortable here; indeed Venetsianov sought to pass on his melding of the academic and the rural to pupils of his own and started a painting school at Safonkovo – his students included serfs.
If an accident was responsible for Venetsianov finding his métier in the countryside it was another accident that caused his death. One day in 1847, his horses bolted and his carriage tumbled down a hill and crashed. Venetsianov died in the fields he painted.
This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe