Summary of Peredvizhniki
Established in 1870, The Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions, commonly known as Peredvizhniki - meaning "Itinerants" or "Wanderers" - believed in representing subject-matter drawn from everyday life, with an accuracy and empathy which reflected their egalitarian social and political views. They worked across several types of painting, from landscape and portraiture to genre and historical painting, and by the close of the 19th century had become the most famous art movement in Russia. In 1923 the group was disbanded, but its impact was felt across many subsequent genres of Russian art, from Neo-Primitivism to Socialist Realism.
- The Peredvizhniki artists were perhaps best-known for their landscapes, paintings of archetypal Russian settings such as pine forests, wheat fields, and water meadows, which depicted their subject-matter with near photographic accuracy. At the same time, these landscapes were symbolically significant, representing the mood of the painter or viewer - as in the so-called "lyrical landscape" - or summing up some archetypal aspect of Russian culture or character.
- Peredvizhniki was the first group of Russian artists to recognize that the everyday Russian citizen was a worthy subject of their attention. They set about creating portraits and genre paintings which evoked aspects of the worker or peasant's daily life, or their hopes, fears, and allegiances. In an era where focusing on the common man or woman was synonymous with political radicalism, this work effectively sounded a clarion call for democratic reform.
- Peredvizhniki was the first great nationalist movement within Russian art. Rejecting what they saw as the Academy's slavish adherence to European taste, they forged a body of work which could become a talisman for an independent Russian spirit. Through their historical and religious paintings, for example, they presented the events and figures who had shaped the collective Russian consciousness.
- Like many of their peers in the French Realist movement of the mid-19th century, the painters of Peredvizhniki were striving not just for a new stylistic paradigm within their nation's art, but for sweeping social and political change. But if Gustave Courbet's involvement with the Paris Commune of 1870 symbolized an unrewarded revolutionary fervor, the Peredvizhniki movement survived to witness the Russian Revolution of 1917, and thus for the transformation it had willed: if not in the form it would have expected.
Overview of Peredvizhniki
Peredvizhniki developed out of The Artel of Artists, a cooperative commune established in 1863 following what was called the "revolt of fourteen." This came about when fourteen young artists, all studying at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art, rebelled against the choice of topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, "The Entrance of Odin into Valhalla". The group felt that the topic summed up the Academy's stifling focus on the Neoclassical tradition, and wanted to paint the reality of contemporary Russian life, learning from the examples of Realism and Naturalism in Europe.
Important Art and Artists of Peredvizhniki
Ilya Repin's painting, arguably the defining work of Peredvizhniki, shows a group of exhausted men in harness pulling a barge along the sandy banks of the Volga. The composition emphasizes the harrowing effort of their labor, the diagonal line of workmen mirrored by the diagonal line of the shore (as if the whole scene were responding to and compounding the scale of their task). The laborers at the front of the line are larger, tilting forward with slack arms as if bearing down upon the viewer - the front man fixes our gaze pointedly - while the men that follow seem on the verge of collapse; at the end of the line, one figure slumps forwards, as if only held upright by the strap around his torso. In the distance to the left, a barge with sails unfurled can be seen on the still reflective waters: perhaps an ironic nod to Romantic landscape painting, emphasizing the abjection of the central scene.
Repin began making preliminary sketches for this work in situ on the Volga in 1870, though the painting took three years to finish. Each of the barge haulers was based upon a real person whom Repin encountered during this preliminary visit, such as Kanin, a former priest, and Konstantin, a former icon painter. By using a wide, narrow canvas to accentuate the line of men, and by working with a high degree of naturalistic detail - creating precise tonal gradations, for example, and contrasting the lightness of the landscape with the shadow surrounding the men - Repin transformed what might otherwise have been a staid work of genre painting into a harrowing masterwork of Realism.
Repin was the most famous artist in Russia by the close of the 19th century: the almost uncanny visual and psychological accuracy of works such as Barge Hailers influenced a whole generation of painters, and also had a deep effect on the nation's social conscience. The work was arguably all the more powerful because, as Vladimir Stasov wrote, it was "not painted to move the viewers to pity," but simply to "show [...] the types of people Repin saw."
Alexei Savrasov's landscape painting shows a group of bare, twisted trees on a snow-covered hillside in front of a monastery. In the distance, beyond the steeple, a snowy expanse stretches to the horizon, generating a sense of enveloping isolation. The white of the snow and tree trunks, and the sharp angles of the walls and spires, create a kind of harsh clarity, suggesting the biting cold of the winter, but the top half of the canvas is dominated by billowing clouds and blue sky, and by the rooks which flock to the tops of the trees, heralding the spring.
Savrasov painted almost exclusively in the landscape genre, and was associated with the development of so-called "lyrical landscape", a genre associated with the Peredvizhniki group in which the landscape becomes a mirror for human emotions. During the 1860s he had travelled to Europe, and had been influenced by Romantic landscape painters of the Swiss (Alexandre Calame) and British (John Constable) schools, but this work conveys a distinctly Russian spirit. It practical terms, it represents the area around the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma, a provincial town 200 miles north-east of Moscow.
Seen as the high-point of Savrasov's career, The Rooks Have Come Back is at once a highly allegorical work, showing the replenishment of the landscape after winter, and a piece of almost informal-seeming naturalism. It was well-received when it was shown at the first Peredvizhniki touring exhibition of 1871, and was later admired by Isaac Levitan, a pupil of Savrasov's whose emotionally evocative landscapes would themselves become famous. As Levitan put it, the work is "very simple, but beneath the simplicity [...] is the tender artist's soul".
This painting, depicting a water-meadow in the Russian countryside, is sometimes taken as the founding work of the "lyrical landscape" style, and is a classic example of Peredvizhniki landscape painting. In the foreground, scrubby vegetation is picked out with naturalistic detail; behind, a patch of earth leads in zig-zag pattern to a shallow lake, which in turn forms a curving diagonal drawing the eye upwards to the tree on the horizon line. The sky, filled with low-lying clouds, and the earth, are presented as contrasting areas of light and dark, with a shadow cast across the whole ground, stretching from left to right of the canvas.
Though he was only twenty in 1870, Fyodor Vasilyev became one of the founding members of Peridvizhniki, and by the time he composed Wet Meadow in 1872 he had already collaborated with, and been tutored by, some of the most important artists attached to the movement. In 1867, he spent several months working on Valaam Island with the landscape painter Ivan Shishkin; in 1870, he travelled to the Volga with Ilya Repin - the trip on which Repin made his preparatory sketches for Barge Haulers - creating works in response such as Volga View: Barges (1870). A year later, in 1871, Vasilyev's painting The Thaw propelled him to fame - a copy was ordered by the family of the Tsar - as a result of which his friendship with Shishkin devolved into a rivalry. This particular work was created in the Crimea, while Vasilyev was attempting to recover from Tuberculosis. Its composition is based on memories of his native Russian landscapes, which perhaps helped to concentrate the strongly emotive mood of the piece.
Vasilyev never recovered from his illness, dying in 1873 at the age of 23. However, by this point he had already produced a body of work that would have a profound influence on the development of landscape painting within the Peredvizhniki group, inspiring artists such as Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov.