Russian art in the 19th century went through three distinct phases. In the early part of the century, Russian artists followed the European techniques and styles, so they largely focused on the Romanticism aesthetic. Towards the middle of the century, artists shifted towards ideological realism, and the end of the century saw artists move towards the Russian or Slavic revival as the culture of Russia moved inwards.
Russian Romanticism was the result of Russian artists’ feeling that Europe was superior in the arts. This attitude saw Russian artists going to Western Europe to learn to emulate their styles and techniques. Like most of Europe at the time, Russian artists preferred the romantic aesthetic. Portraits, self portraits and depictions of historical events were the prevailing subjects.
Karl Bryullov came to prominence in this period. Born in Italy, Bryullov was raised and educated in Russia. Despite his classical training, he never really liked the classical style he was taught to use, and he introduced more nationalistic, less neoclassical elements into his work. This allowed more artists to look to Russia for inspiration, giving rise to the next phase in Russian art.
After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, art began to be produced for the masses. Artists felt it was their role in society to create works that would speak to and instruct everyone, giving peasants a moral and social education and giving voice to social criticisms against the more well off. While subjects began to focus on Russian heritage, the techniques used were still largely influenced by Europe.
During this time, a group of artists left the Russian Academy of Arts, which at the time was the arbiter of style and taste in Russia. The artists who left formed Peredvizhniki (the Travelers or Itinerants), so named for their travelling exhibitions. They became disillusioned with the academy, feeling it didn’t understand what Russian artists wanted or needed to do. This break led artists to look back, calling up more historically Russian subjects.
Russian (Slavic) revival
The next logical step for Russian art was the Slavic revival. The late 19th century saw a conflict between those who wanted to align themselves more closely with Europe and those who wanted to find inspiration in Russia itself. The Slavic revival found inspiration in Russia’s medieval art and the culture and traditions of the Russian peasants. Folk tales, heroic epics and the iconography of the Orthodox church proved fertile grounds for artists.
The subject matter was immensely popular with the newly rich industrialists of Russia. They began financing the artists, who in turn founded art colonies throughout the country. This new collective spirit led to a new cultural movement, called Mir iskusstva (The World of Art). It included painters like Alexandre Benois, Konstantin Somov, and Léon Bakst, who began pushing art into new directions.
At the end of the century, the Russian avant-garde movement came to the forefront. The 20th century brought its own movements, not least because of the Russian Revolution, but the cultural shift away from Europe and towards Russia itself as a rich source of inspiration changed the art world in Russia irreversibly.