The Prince de Ligne, who knew everybody and everything of account in the Europe of his time, described St. Petersburg, about 1787, as “the finest city in the world.”28 In 1812 Mme. de Staël judged it to be “one of the finest cities in the world.”29 Peter I, jealous of Paris, began the adornment of his newborn capital; Catherine the Great consoled her discarded lovers with palaces more lasting than her love; and Alexander I continued the royal guard of classic columns sternly fronting the Neva. It was the neoclassic period in Europe, and Czar and Czarina, alike forgetting Russian forms and recalling Rome, sent to Italy and France for architects and sculptors to come and uphold Slavic pride with classic art.
The Winter Palace, begun in 1755 by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, and completed in 1817 by Giacomo Quarenghi and C. J. Rossi, was the most imposing royal house in Europe, dwarfing and outshining Versailles: fifteen miles of corridors, 2,500 rooms, countless columns of marble, a thousand famous paintings; on the lowest floors, two thousand servants, and, in one wing, hens, ducks, goats, and pigs,30 in a consortium paved with straw.
Alexander I, especially after meeting Napoleon at Tilsit, found stimulus to rival him not only in the reach of his power but in the grandeur of his capital. He brought in French and Italian architects to support with their backgrounds and skills the zeal and energy of native builders. The Western artists remained attached to classic models, but they went beyond Rome and its ruins to southern Italy and such Greek survivals as the temples of Hera at Paestum (Paese, near Salerno); these were as old as the Parthenon, and almost as beautiful; and the masculine strength of their Doric columns gave fresh spirit to Russia’s neoclassic ecstasy.
But the distinguishing feature of Alexander’s “Empire style” was the gradual emergence of Russian architecture from Latin tutelage. Whereas the outstanding builders of Catherine II’s reign (1762–96) were three Italians—Bartolomeo Rastrelli, Antonio Rinaldi, and Giacomo Quarenghi—the chief architects under Alexander I were Thomas de Thomon, Andrei Voronykhin, and Adrian Zakharov, three Russians under French influence,31 and an Italian, Carlo Rossi, who came to the fore in the later part of Alexander’s reign.
In 1801 Alexander commissioned Thomas to design and build a Stock Exchange to grace the activities of the rising class of merchants and financiers in St. Petersburg. The ambitious architect raised (1807 ff.) an immense fane inspired by the temples of Paestum, and matching the contemporary Bourse (1808–27) of Alexandre Brongniart in Paris. —Voronykhin’s chef-d’oeuvre is the Kazansky Sobor—the cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, and built on the banks of the Neva in 1801–11; its fine semicircular colonnade and three-tiered dome frankly go back to the masterpieces of Bernini and Michelangelo, or, more immediately, Soufflot’s Panthéon in Paris. —More highly rated is the Admiralty, a quarter-mile-long complex of columns, caryatids, frieze, and sharply pointed steeple, designed for the Russian Navy. —Rivaling this sanctuary are the Offices of the General Staff, raised in the Palace Square by Rossi shortly after Alexander’s death.
At the behest of Nicholas I, Ricard de Montferrand crowned Russia’s Alexandrian Age with a tall, monolithic column (perhaps remembering the Vendôme Column in Paris), as a lasting tribute to the Czar who had conquered France, but had never ceased to reverence its art.
Russian sculptors also sat at the feet of French artists who had knelt before Roman artists who had borrowed from conquered Greece. Before the West-oriented Catherine II, the influence of a Byzantine religion largely Oriental and fearful of the human body as an instrument of Satan had led the Russians to shun most sculpture in the round; and only slowly, with the lusty paganism of the Enlightenment entering with Catherine, had this taboo yielded in the eternal war and oscillation between religion and sex. Etienne-Maurice Falconet, lured from France by Catherine in 1766, carved and chiseled in Russia till 1778, and, in his epochal statue of Peter the Great, not only raised a horse and a man of bronze into the air, but struck a blow for the right of art to speak its message uncurbed by anything but its conception of beauty, reality, and power.
Meanwhile Nicolas-François Gillet had come in 1758 to teach sculpture in the Academy of Fine Arts which had been opened in St. Petersburg a year before. One of his pupils, F. F. Shchedrin, was sent to Paris to refine his chisel; he did so well that hisVenusrivaled its French model, the Baigneuse of his master, Gabriel d’Allegrain. It was Shchedrin who carved the caryatids for the main portal of Zakharov’s Admiralty. —The last among Gillet’s famous pupils, Ivan Markos, worked for some time with Canova and Thorwaldsen in Rome, and added to their classic idealism something of the Romantic emotion that was replacing the neoclassic age; critics complained that he made the marble weep, and that his work was fit only for a cemetery.32 The cemeteries of Leningrad still display his art.
Russian painting had undergone a basic transformation through French influence in the Academy of Fine Arts. Till 1750 the art had been almost entirely religious, mostly consisting of icons painted in distemper or fresco on wood. The French inclinations of Catherine II, and her importation of French and Italian artists and paintings, soon drew the Russians to emulation; they passed from wood to canvas, from fresco to oil, from religious to secular subjects—”histories,” portraits, landscapes, and, last of all, genre.
Four painters reached excellence under Paul and Alexander. Vladimir Borovikovsky, perhaps taking a hint from Mme. Vigée-Lebrun (who painted in St. Petersburg in 1800), found attractive sitters among the young women of the court, with their gay or meditative eyes, their proud bosoms, and their flowing robes;33 but also he caught the aging Catherine in a moment of simplicity and innocence hardly to be expected of a royal nymphomaniac; and he left, in a ruthless mood, a discouraging portrait of An Unknown Woman with a Headdress,34 which is probably Mme. de Staël circling Europe to escape Napoleon.
Feoder Alekseev, sent to Venice to become a decorator, returned to become one of Russia’s foremost landscape painters. In 1800 he made of Moscow a series of paintings and drawings that remain as our best guide to the appearance of that city before Rostopchin’s patriotic arsons burned a third of it under Napoleon’s nose.
Sylvester Shchedrin, son of the sculptor aforesaid, loved nature more than women as inspirations to his brush. Dispatched to Italy in 1818 to study art, he fell in love with the sun, the bays and shores and woods of Naples and Sorrento, and sent back landscapes that must have made St. Petersburg doubly cold.
Orest Adamovich Kiprensky (1782–1836) came closest to greatness among the Russian painters of his time. The illegitimate son of a woman serf, he was adopted by her husband, was freed, and found his way, helped by accidents, into the Academy of Fine Arts. One of his first and best portraits was of his adoptive father, painted in 1804, when the artist was only twenty-two; it seems incredible that one so young should have reached both the understanding and the mastery to see and convey in one portrait the strength of body and character that made Suvorov and Kutuzov, and that led the victorious Russians from Moscow to Paris in 1812–13. Entirely different is Kiprensky’s portrait (1827) of the poet Pushkin—handsome, sensitive, questioning, with a dozen masterpieces in his head. Again unique is the full-length picture (1809) of the cavalry officer Evgraf Davidov—gorgeous uniform, proud mien, one hand on his sword as the supreme court. And in 1813, in a quite different world, the portrait of young Aleksandr Pavlovich Bakunin—no known relation to the Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin who, a generation later, harried Karl Marx with different absolutes, and founded the Nihilist movement in Russia. Kiprensky himself was something of a rebel, sympathized with the “Decembrist” rising in 1825, was marked as a social rebel, and sought safety in Florence, where the Uffizi Gallery had asked him for a self-portrait. He died in Italy in 1836, leaving it to later generations of Russians to recognize him as the greatest Russian painter of his time.