Russia and the Arts: Stories behind the portraits

Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is at the National Portrait Gallery until 26 June, 50% off with National Art Pass.


Mikhail Vrubel, Savva Mamontov, 1897

Savva Mamontov was a well-known Russian railroad entrepreneur. His capacity for work was truly impressive: almost half of the railroads in the European part of Russia are the result of his efforts. Mamontov also loved the arts. Despite his father’s strong disapproval and no matter where he was sent, Mamontov found a way to stay close to his passion; either through lessons or socialising with the creative community. In 1870, he purchased the Abramtsevo Estate (north of Moscow) where he founded an artistic commune which included some of the best Russian artists of the early 20th century including Mikhail Vrubel. Despite Mamontov’s generosity, Vrubel’s portrait doesn’t show any signs of gratitude. Instead, it conveys the steely persistence with which the patron often bent artists to his will.


Nikolai Ge, Leo Tolstoy, 1884

Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. He was born into a noble Russian family at Yasnaya Polyana (an estate 120 miles south of Moscow) where he completed some of his most celebrated works: War and Peace, and Anna Karenina. Although the works received critical acclaim, by the 1880s, Tolstoy was facing a profound crisis. He began seeing himself increasingly as a moral leader as opposed to a writer, questioning faith, science, art, marriage and justice. His pacifist views found large international followings and had a powerful impact on prominent 20th-century figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. In this portrait, Nikolai Ge depicts Tolstoy in simple clothes against a plain background – testament to his puritanical ideas – surrounded by hints of luxury (such as golden paperweight).


Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, Anna Akhmatova, 1914

Anna Akhmatova published her first collection of poetry in 1912. She came into poetry as a representative of the poetic school Acmeism which strove for compact form and clarity of expression. The decades following the painting of this portrait brought political persecutions and personal anguish for the poet. Both her son and partner were imprisoned during the mass arrests of the 1930s. Although Akhmatova was unable to publish her work, she became one of the most read poets as her work circulated on manuscripts. She was revered for her courage to depict and express the horror of the Bolshevik and Stalinist regimes during which so many were silenced.


Vasily Perov, Fedor Dostoevsky, 1872

At the age of 28, the young writer Fedor Dostoevsky was arrested and sentenced to death for his involvement in an underground society which opposed the monarchy and serfdom. As he lined up with other prisoners to face his fate, the Tsar changed the sentence to four years of punitive labour at the very last moment. After serving his sentence, Dostoevsky was forcibly enrolled into the Siberian line battalion where he served for another six years. The traumatic period informed Dostoevsky’s unsettling accounts of crime and depravity, illness and insanity, and the depths to which degradation and irrationality can lead. In this portrait – the only one that was painted from life – the slightly raised shoulders, and the strangely entangled and exaggerated fingers suggest a fiercely creative but turbulent mind.


Ilia Repin, Modest Mussorgsky, 1881

Modest Mussorgsky was a Russian composer whose work was strongly influenced by Russian history, Slavic mythology and folklore. He was a member of The Five, a group of five Russian composers who tried to create a truly national school of Russian music. Despite his relatively small output (he composed 65 songs), Mussorgsky’s influence on later composers was phenomenal. Sadly, his creativity was accompanied with chronic alcoholism for which he was hospitalised in 1881. The artist IIia Repin hurried to paint this portrait in Mussorgsky’s hospital ward. Most tellingly, Repin captured the composer’s shirt with traditional Russian embroidery underneath the robe. Mussorgsky died a few days after the artist’s visit. Repin was so distraught that he donated his fee for the portrait to a memorial for the composer, loathe to profit from such an emotional work.

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