Portrait Painting Under
Elizabeth and Catherine

Dominant as architecture is in Russia until the 1760s, we should not let it overshadow the more modest, but important development of painting. Peter the Great sent several young artists to Western Europe for training. West European painters in turn came to Russia, and the aesthetic principles of western art and techniques such as oil painting were adopted in Russia as quickly as other western borrowings. One genre dominated painting throughout the eighteenth century and beyond: the portrait.

By the start of the eighteenth century, portrait painting, within the aesthetic framework of Old Russian art, had risen to significant status and quality. A style of painting developed that was somewhere between iconography and portraiture, known in Russian as "parsuna" (a derivation of the Latin persona). Parsuna is a type of portrait art combining stylistic qualities and techniques of traditional Russian icon painting and the Western European secular portrait. A parsuna, like an icon, was usually painted on a wooden panel. Unlike an icon, it was a representation of an ordinary and living human being. The figure was drawn in a rigid manner, with linear perspective, so as to fix and commemorate the features of the person depicted.

Ivan Vishniakov (1699-1761) Vishniakov’s "Wife of Mikhail Yakovlev" (after 1756) has features of the parsuna, such as a lack of perspective, a lack of interest in facial expression, and a concern with surface decoration. Perspective, a development of renaissance painting, is, by its very nature less likely to be of primary importance in close-up portraiture than in other forms of painting.

Ivan Argunov (1721-1802), had been a serf in the wealthy Sheremetiev family, but benefited from that family’s interest in art. Argunov’s "Portrait of a Peasant Woman in Russian Costume" (1784) shows the beginning of Russia’s interest in peasant life and folk costumes.

Anton Losenko (1731-73) benefited from the opening of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in 1757. He studied at the Academy 1758-1760, then studied and worked in Paris and Rome. Losenko was one of the first Russian professors at the Academy. Whereas his predecessors had been mostly portrait-painters, Losenko attempted historical subjects. His "Vladimir and Rogneda" (1770), is the first painting on a theme of Russian history. Losenko based his canvas on Mikhail Lomonosov’s "Russian History," rather than drawing from the Bible or Greek and Roman history, as in the Western European school. Depicted is Prince Vladimir of Novgorod, who had proposed marriage to Rogneda, princess of Polotsk. Being refused, Vladimir waged war on Polotsk, killing the princess’s father and brothers and forcefully made her his wife. In keeping with classicism’s critique of despotism, Losenko shows the moment of repentance when Vladimir begs forgiveness for his deeds. Resonating with the principles of classicism are local Russian features. The faces of the warriors are typically Russian and the maiden is wearing a Russian dress. But the mosaic floor, antique vase in the corner, and pilasters on the walls are purely classical. The costumes resemble theatrical ones, as do some of the expressions on the faces.

Through this work, Losenko moved away from abstract idealization of figures towards capturing human passions in painting. Nonetheless, Losenko had no followers in historical painting among his contemporaries. Portrait painting continued to dominate Russian art and it would be another two generations until painters appeared who were equal to the challenges of representing Russian history in painting.

Fedor Rokotov (1735-1808) had worked with the first professor of painting at the Petersburg Academy. He specialized in the so-called "chamber portrait," or intimate portrait, which at the time was a new genre in Russian art. He created an entire gallery of refined images of women, portraying their nobility as well as mysteriousness, concealing a complex inner world. One example is the "Portrait of Countess Elizaveta Vasil’evna Santi" (1785). His pictures suggest a subdued lighting and focus the viewer’s attention on the subtlety of the subject’s features. His intimate portraits, often of an unusual oval shape, portray the ideal of Woman in the era of Enlightenment: free and unfettered by the fuss of day-to-day life.

Dmitrii Levitskii (1735-1822), was a Ukrainian, the son of a priest. He came to St. Petersburg in 1756 and became an associate of the Academy in 1769. According to W. Bruce Lincoln: "Portraits became secular icons through which eighteenth-century aristocrats could perceive the worldly realm in which they hoped to live, just as earlier icons had offered their ancestors brief glimpses into the world of the spirit and the kingdom of God" (78). Levitskii invented the character of St. Petersburg society. In his portraits, he created the image of an aristocracy to be emulated. In distinction to his predecessors, he also succeeded in finding a proper type of portrait and style of interpretation for each class and kind of person.

For example, "The Architect Kokorinov" (1769-70) was painted for the reorganized Academy of Fine Arts in 1770. This was a ceremonial portrait in its conception. For the inauguration of the academy Kokorinov had ordered a new suit of lilac satin and a white fur-trimmed coat, which gave Levitskii the opportunity to show his mastery of textiles. Despite the genre of ceremonial portrait, Levitskii portrayed his model freely and naturally. In contrast to the faces drawn by Vishniakov, for example, Kokorinov is shown expressively, with dignity and independence mixed with a shade of fatigue. His plan for the Academy of Fine Arts is spread out on a bureau to his side.

The Empress Catherine commissioned Levitskii to paint her favorite pupils at the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens. Once completed, Levitskii’s "Smolianki" suite decorated the Great Palace at Peterhof, until it was acquired by the Russian Museum. Perhaps the best known painting from this series is "Princess Khovanskaia and Mlle. Khrushcheva" (1773), acting their roles in a play given before the Empress. Again, his mastery of textures can be seen in the contrast between the man’s coat, a bit too large for Khrushcheva, and the lighter, sheer fabric worn by the young princess. He captures how the girls show off and mimic their elders, but also captures traces of adolescent awkwardness.

Vladimir Borovikovskii (1757-1825) came from a family of icon-painters in Ukraine. It’s not insignificant that dominant painters such as Borovikovskii as well as Levitskii were Ukrainian. In the Ukrainian lands, post-renaissance art was already known because of links to Poland. When Prince Potemkin arranged Catherine the Great’s triumphal journey through the Crimea in 1787, he hired Borovikovskii to decorate a temporary palace. Catherine was so pleased with his work that she brought him back to St. Petersburg. At first he did state portraits of the imperial family, which were rather unremarkable. Where Borovikovskii stands out, however, is in his portraits of women and girls. Often in informal dress, in relaxed and natural poses against a park-like background, they demonstrate, in accordance with the principles of sentimentalism, the relation of human personality to nature. Sentimentalism, an important development of the late eighteenth century, was characterized by unity with nature as a counterbalance to convention. This is illustrated in Borovikovskii’s "Ekaterina Nikolaevna Arsenieva" (second half of the 1790s). The subject is depicted as a shepherd girl, with a straw hat, a simple dress, and an apple, on the green backdrop of a garden.