Irina Sokolova

The perception of Rembrandt and his work in Russia

(This version of the text lacks the notes, which will be published in the forthcoming proceedings of CODART TWEE.)

The perception of Rembrandt’s works in Russia and the influence of that perception on Russian culture is one of only a few subjects not already covered by Western literature on Rembrandt.

Russian 18th- and 19th-century art is almost totally unrepresented in picture galleries abroad and is very little known. Attention is rarely paid to it by specialists in Dutch art, making all the more pleasant a recent article by Alison Hilton entitled Rembrandt, Rubens and Repin. Russian art historians themselves have also largely ignored the influence of the great Dutchman on Russian masters. It would seem that Russian painting, which in the 18th and 19th centuries was mainly oriented towards Italian and French models, provides little material for direct comparison with the art of the Netherlands. The cult of Raphael and Guido Reni, clearly evident in the work of the academic school, has been far more frequently studied.

This does not mean that the subject of Rembrandt has never come up in Russian art-historical literature. References to his influence are scattered throughout monographs on Russian painters and in studies of Rembrandt’s pictures in the museums of St. Petersburg and Moscow. This interest, however, is limited to a mere general assertion of similarity (often only very approximately understood) to “Rembrandt’s style”. The sole work devoted to the assessment of Rembrandt by Russian 19th-century artists and critics is a small article of 1957 by I. E. Vertsman. A number of new resources and observations allow us to considerably broaden our conception of how Rembrandt’s paintings were perceived in the Russian arts. Of particular interest here are incidents of similar interpretations of Rembrandt’s images in works both artistic and literary. Works by philologists (unlike those of art historians) have picked up a good number of cases where Rembrandt’s name is mentioned in poetry. Worthy of particular attention is a book by the Dutch Slavist Jan Paul Hinrichs, From “The Night Watch” to Huizinga: Russian Poets on the Netherlands, published in 1994. This is the first publication to gather together the abundant but highly varied literary material.

This paper has no pretensions to being conclusive or incontrovertible. Rather, the author seeks to clarify how profoundly art of the 18th and early 19th centuries was influenced by an acquaintance with the numerous works by Rembrandt which had by then arrived in Russia; and how was the myth of the great artist was transformed when it reached Russian soil.

By the end of the 18th century, Petersburg had what was perhaps one of the most extensive collections of works by Rembrandt in Europe. Catherine the Great’s Hermitage listed 58 paintings attributed to the Dutch master. Even these were not the first works to arrive in Russia under the name of Rembrandt. We know that in the first quarter of the 18th century Peter the Great’s collection included three paintings by the master: David”s Parting from Jonathan, which hung in the Tsar’s favourite summer residence, the Monplaisir pavilion at Peterhof, and two canvases in the Imperial Kunstkammer in St. Petersburg, a surviving Adoration of the Magi (in fact a weak copy) and Christ Showing his Wounds to his Disciples. The first two are now in the Hermitage; the last is known only from descriptions.

Acquaintance with the art of Rembrandt was still largely secondhand at this time. The majority of paintings which then arrived in Russia were in fact works by pupils, imitators and copyists. The inclusion of copies alongside originals is no surprise, for in the early 18th century Russians were taking only their first steps in connoisseurship and questions of authenticity were barely considered. It was simply important to own an image which brought the collector closer to the European cultural tradition. Listed in the inventory of paintings acquired in the 1740s by Count Pyotr Borisovich Sheremetev (1713-1787) for his Fountain House in St. Petersburg, for instance, we find the following: “Portrait of a woman who has the nose and mouth of a parrot, around her a painting by the famed painter Rembrandt and a portrait of Mr Burgav (Herman Boerhaave?)” The way the paintings were hung indicates that they were valued for their unusual or curious subject matter, as had been the case in the Kunstkammer of Peter the Great.

Clearly, only the odd canvas was accessible, and then only to a very limited group of people. This cannot be considered evidence of serious interest in Rembrandt. Nonetheless, the mention of Rembrandt’s name three times in descriptions of the very earliest Russian collections is worthy of note.

After the death of Peter the Great, the collecting of paintings in Russia ceased for nearly two decades. Many canvases formerly hung in palaces were despatched to storerooms and almost totally forgotten. Purchases for the Russian court were revived only with the accession to the throne of Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, in 1741. As we know, this monarch had an exclusive preference for Venetian decorative painting. The sole supposed Rembrandt acquired during this period arrived from Prague as part of a large collection which in 1745 was hung in the imperial palace at Tsarskoe Selo. The painting was recorded in documents as Young Man in Half-armour Combing his Hair. Like many other apocryphal “Rembrandts,” this painting cannot be identified today. Most of these were paintings of old men and women (“heads”), a description so general as to defy precise identification.

From the middle of the 18th century on, Rembrandt began to play a more tangible role in Russian artistic life. The key event in this development was the founding of the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg in 1757. We know that pupils started at the Academy at the age of six and went through five courses, each of which lasted three years. The teaching programme included the study of Western European paintings and the final stage involved the copying of originals. There is documentary evidence that as early as 1766 these study copies were available for sale on the Petersburg market. Works to be copied were chosen from the Academy’s own collection, formed on the basis of the private gallery of its first President, Chancellor Ivan Shuvalov. Amongst the 100 canvases from the Shuvalov collection documents record Rembrandt’s “Uriah,” “The Appearance of the Angel to St. Anne”, and “The Parable of the Vineyard” (probably the so-called Young Man with a Bunch of Grapes).

From the second half of the 1770s, students of the Academy were also allowed to copy works in Catherine the Great’s Hermitage. Visits were initially permitted only during the summer period while the Empress was at her country residence. Unfortunately, no early copies have survived. Judging by recently published lists, clear preference was given to the Italian and French schools, as was totally natural for an institution which took the Académie Royale in Paris as its model.

Nonetheless, the most commonly selected models included numerous mentions of two compositions in the Academy then attributed to Rembrandt. One of them, Young Man with a Bunch of Grapes, belongs to the school of Rembrandt and is now in the Hermitage reserve collection. The title of the second, Old Woman Looking Through Glasses and Plucking a Fowl, is perfectly in keeping with a composition now known in two versions in foreign collections. These two works in the Academy confirm that the assessment of Rembrandt’s style was based largely on single-figure genre compositions.

In the late 1770s, aspiring artists could gain a broader and undoubtedly clearer conception of the art of Rembrandt from the rich collection in the Hermitage. There was also an extremely large and varied collection of drawings and prints in the Academy of Arts. Original works from this collection were lent to students, who took them away for copying and critical commentary, and might often keep them for years. Fyodor Alexeev (1753/4-1824), who later earned himself the title of the Russian Canaletto, is recorded as having on loan a drawing by Rembrandt showing Vertumnus and Pomona from 1767 to 1773.

Works suggested to students as models were not limited by the Academy in terms of subject or school, as we can tell from a manuscript by Prince Dmitry Golitsyn of 1766. In his Description of the Famous Works of Schools and their Artists he wrote: “Make your brush daring and soft, but whether it be even as Correggio’s or uneven and rough like Rembrandt’s, it should be flowing.” Prince Dmitry Alexeevich Golitsyn (1734-1803) was responsible for the first mentions of Rembrandt in Russia in theoretical works and he it was who acquired masterpieces by the Dutch master for the Hermitage. Of particular importance was his purchase for Catherine the Great in 1772 of the Crozat de Thiers collection. Suffice it to recall that this brought inThe Parable of the Vineyard, The Holy Family and Danaë(all three still in the Hermitage); Portrait of an Old Man with a Staff and the so-called Pallas Athena, known also as Alexander the Great or Warrior (Gulbenkian Collection, Oeiras, Portugal); and two works which were for many years considered autograph: Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife and Girl with a Broom (National Gallery of Art, Washington). In France, the Rembrandts in the de Thiers collection were deservedly famous, as we can tell from the copies of The Holy Family, The Parable of the Vineyard and Girl with a Broom by such masters as Charles Coypel and Jean Honoré Fragonard. The literature also indicates that Fragonard was also able to copy the famous Danaë (for more information on this subject see the articles of Jean Cailleux). Much less well known is the fact that amongst the visitors to the gallery in 1765 was the Russian painter Anton Losenko (1737-1773). In his Journal of Noble Works seen in Paris in 1765 he mentioned: “In the house of (Croazat) baron de Thiers: Tax-farmer paying his workers [The Parable of the Vineyard]. Reproduction of light in the painting extremely good, by Rembrandt. Also Portrait of Rembrandt’s Father [Old Warrior], the colours are quite natural and he had an expert mastery of the brush. By Rembrandt.” This would seem to be the earliest of a long chain of references to Rembrandt in the diaries and letters of Russian artists.

The taste for Dutch and Flemish painting at the Petersburg Academy brought sharp criticism from Denis Diderot. On his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1773, he acquainted himself with the way artists were taught and expressed particular dissatisfaction with the habit of copying Teniers, Rembrandt and other 17th-centuiry painters from the Netherlands. Such works could not, in his opinion, inculcate a sublime manner and great taste. Far more suitable for their development he considered the works of Poussin purchased for the Hermitage through his mediation (Landscape with Polyphemus, Landscape with Hercules and Cacus [the latter now Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow]). But the range of Rembrandt compositions in use at the Academy gradually widened: according to published documents, by the end of the century it included also David and Uriah, Portrait of an Old Man, and Portrait of an Old Woman.

In his famous notes on the fine arts in Russia, Jacob Staehlin (1709-1785) expressed high praise for the art of Rembrandt. In the middle of the 18th century Staehlin assembled a mass of information about the master’s paintings not only in imperial but also in private collections. The authors of the first Russian-language treatises on art theory only mention Rembrandt in passing. Neither Pyotr Chekalevsky in his Thoughts on the Free Arts with a Description of Some Works by Russian Artists (St. Petersburg, 1792) nor Ivan Urvanov, Short Handbook to the Mastery of Drawing and Painting of a Historical Nature, Based on Observation and Experiment (St. Petersburg, 1793), pay any attention to the Dutch master. We find several passages referring to him in the book Understanding of Contemporary Painting, Serving as a Basis to Judge the Works of Painters, and Notes on Portraits, The first translated from the Italian and the second from the French by the Collegiate Assessor Arkhip [Matveevich] Ivanov (St. Petersburg, 1789). This text, a free translation of the famous work of Roger de Piles (Abrégé de la vie…, 1699), particularly noted Rembrandt’s great skill as a colourist: “In order to understand it [colour] we must look how it was used by Titian, Rubens, van Dyck and Rembrandt , for their art is most marvellous.” Ivanov also noted the freedom and unfinished nature of Rembrandt’s drawings which, “although they are not very correct, however they always have their merits, for they contain much intellect and character”. French aesthetic thought, of which Diderot was an authoritative representative, could not but affect the way Rembrandt was perceived in Russia. The first treatises repeat rather closely (or are simply translations of) the works of Roger de Piles and Dezallier d’Argenville (Abrégé de la vie…, 1745-52). Within the borders of 18th-century aesthetics, Rembrandt, admired as one of the greatest painters of all times, was censured by Diderot among others for his “bizarre” taste (which Diderot described as “ignoble”), for his unattractive sitters and incorrect drawing. This assessment remained in force for quite a long time. In the published list of Rembrandt’s paintings in the Academy of Arts of 1842, we find the following commentary: “In general all these works by Rembrandt are marked by extreme force of drawing, energetic brushwork, effect, the skilful application of paints, brilliant and characteristic expression. The composition of historical paintings have neither majesty nor naturalness, nor elegance, we can see only imagination and majesty in the manner of painting.

On the whole, the 18th century in Russia, a period marked by the consolidation of the academic school, was a time of introduction to and mastery of European models. A vast role was played by collections of paintings, where Rembrandt was amongst the most revered masters. Nonetheless, instances even of mere imitation of his art were extremely rare during the Neoclassical period in Russia, and we can mention but a few examples. The young Feodosy Yanenko (1762-1809) depicted himself in a Self Portrait of 1792 (Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) wearing a metal helmet and breastplate, a favourite costume of Rembrandt’s figures in the 1630s. Such fantastical attire suggests that attention was being paid to the Dutch artist’s repertoire. A possible prototype can be seen in a work then in the Hermitage and attributed to Rembrandt, Young Officer. This example is all the more notable in that the attire of Rembrandt’s heroes was totally out of keeping with accepted norms. Fifty years later, in 1841, the journal Pamyatnik iskusstv [Artistic Monument] continued to criticise Rembrandt’s incorrect taste in costume: “Everyone knows how Rembrandt dressed his figures. His turbans, sleeves, slippers, halberds, his vast rubies, gold and silver jewellery simply make us laugh.”

At the dawn of the 19th century, Romantic mysticism and melancholy reached Russia, introducing a new, unprecedented sentiment in Russian culture. Rembrandt’s images and the myth surrounding the artist himself proved to be in keeping with the new mood. This is reflected in both Russian painting and literature, on the pages of artistic journals, and in diaries and letters. Probably the most striking example of Rembrandt’s profound effect on Russian painters of this period is the story of Orest Kiprensky’s Portrait of the Artist’s Father (Portrait of Adam Schwalbe) of 1804 (Russian Museum, St. Petersburg). During his second Italian journey, in October 1830, Kiprensky took part in an exhibition in Naples which was open to foreign painters. He presented three works, including his early Portrait of the Artist’s Father. The work aroused doubt and suspicion. As the artist related in a letter home, Italian experts suspected that he was passing off a work by an old master as his own. “The portrait of my father they took for a masterpiece by Rubens, others thought van Dyck, and one Alberti was pleased to suggest Rembrandt. A special commission was appointed to resolve the matter, and decreed that this painting is of course an imitation of Rembrandt, since in the dark tones of the body and in the depiction of fur we can pick out the diligence and imperfections of the imitator, very far from the master’s freedom and transparency of colour, but able nonetheless to easily mislead those who have not a sufficient comprehension of painting.” This apparently improbable tale is totally confirmed both by information from Russian envoys to Naples and Rome, and by material in the Vatican archives. It was also widely reported in Petersburg society. The story concluded with the purchase of the work by Emperor Nicholas I for the Hermitage in 1835. In the Hermitage gallery Kiprensky’s Portrait of the Artist’s Father hung not far from Rembrandt’s Polish Nobleman (the so-called “Jan Sobiesky”), which Dr. Irina Linnik sees as the possible prototype which inspired the Russian artist. We should note that in the extensive correspondence between witnesses of the Neapolitan story, Rembrandt is listed amongst several possible authors of the painting and only gradually emerges as the sole name, a good indication of the somewhat limited nature of Italian connoisseurship of works by northern masters.

Another work by Kiprensky also aroused associations with the name of Rembrandt, a portrait of Senator Alexey Ivanovich Korsakov which for many years figured in the literature as Reading by Candlelight (c. 1808; Picture Gallery, Tomsk). The sitter was first identified by Russian art historians in 1985 on the basis of the perfect agreement between the composition and a description of the painting in a poem by Count Dmitry Khvostov:

He sits, resting on his elbows, by the fire, Perhaps resolving some dispute of the Muses. All think that he, his gaze fixed intently, Is engaged in mute conversation with Rembrandt.

The name of Rembrandt is not only a symbol of the sublime in art, but directly draws the reader’s attention to Korsakov’s famous passion for collecting. His picture gallery, one of the most valuable in Russia (it included Leonardo da Vinci’s Benois Madonna), was sold after his death in 1821. Amongst its masterpieces was Rembrandt’s Crucifixion, the very painting with which Korsakov is perceived to be “engaged in mute conversation”. All traces of the work, however, have since been lost.

Kiprensky’s prints and drawings include a similarly strong reference to the legacy of the Dutch master. He copied one of Rembrandt’s etchings (Bartsch 291) in his gryphonage in the Russian Museum, while an album of 1807, also in the Russian Museum, has an outline sketch of the Old Man in Red in which Rembrandt’s worthy and wise figure is given keenly tragic features, in accordance with Romantic aesthetics: the look in the disproportionately enlarged eyes gives the face an excessive exaltation and tension lacking in the original.

The Romantic interpretation of Rembrandt’s art was reflected in literature in the 1830s, the most famous example being a verse by the outstanding Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, On a Painting by Rembrandt (1830). This is thought to have been inspired by the painting A Young Capuchin Monk (Portrait of Titus), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. In the 19th century the painting, known as “Portrait of a Young Man as St. Francis”, belonged to Count Alexander Sergeevich Stroganov, a major collector and famous patron of the arts.

This enlightened and refined connoisseur, head of the Academy of Arts, put together in his palace a magnificent picture gallery (it included another work now in the Rijksmuseum, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem) and every week students of the Academy had the opportunity to copy masterpieces here. The gallery was open to all art lovers.

Lermontov may well have known Rembrandt’s painting through a painted copy or from the engraved publication of the Stroganov Gallery published in 1807. Thus the argument that the poet first arrived in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1832, while his poem is dated to 1830, cannot be seen as a serious argument against the identification of the painting as the source for the literary work.

Lermontov opens his poem with an address to the artist, the gloomy genius:

You understood, oh gloomy genius, That sorrowful, inexplicable dream, The gust of passion and inspiration.

In Lermontov’s poem, the figure in the painting bears the stamp of profound spiritual anguish, of melancholic meditation, and he becomes now “a fugitive in the dress of a holy monk”, now a portrait of the artist himself (“or haps in years of suffering thou didst depict thyself”).

Rembrandt’s canvas draws the poet with its unusual psychological effect. Neoclassical aesthetics demanded that reason should control man’s instincts and his emotions; for Lermontov, the art of Rembrandt opened up the element of the subconscious. The unusual nature of the Dutch master’s images, which had given rise to so much censure in the 18th century, was ideally suited to the Romantic poet.

Exaggeration, hyperbolic feelings, fits of passion, all are reflected in many works executed à la Rembrandt in accordance with the new artistic taste. They became fashionable in Russian painting and graphics in the 1820s and 1830s. Even the life of the imperial family was touched by the interest in Rembrandt. We know that Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna (1795-1865), daughter of Emperor Paul, copied one of Rembrandt’s paintings in the Hermitage, “Old Woman Teaching a Child” (currently attributed to Willem Drost and entitledTimothy and Lois; Hermitage Museum). This may have been part of an extensive educational programme to prepare Anna Pavlovna for her forthcoming move to the Netherlands after her marriage in 1816 to the Crown Prince of the Netherlands, the future Willem II. The copy remained at Pavlovsk Palace (near St. Petersburg) right up to the start of the Second World War.

Russian variations on the theme of Rembrandt’s art are often quite naive, but provide evidence of a deep and sincere reverence for his skill. Such are the works of Alexander Orlovsky (1777-1832) (drawing: The Raising of Lazarus, 1809, State Museum of Russian Art, Kiev; based on the composition of an etching by Rembrandt of 1632 [Bartsch 73]; lithograph: Unknown Man in Medieval Dress, mid-1820s, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). Orlovsky was famed for his lithographs of Russian life, but he had studied in his native Poland in the studio of Jan Piotr Norblin, a passionate admirer of the great Dutch artist. Orlovsky remained faithful to this style throughout his life.

In speaking of Rembrandt’s influence within Russia, mention must be made of the outstanding Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. According to one of contemporaries (V. V. Tarnovsky), Shevchenko was even called the Russian Rembrandt by his fellow students at the Academy of Arts because of his reverence for the Dutch artist. There are too few surviving works by Shevchenko the artist to confirm the justice of the nickname but evidence of a careful study of Rembrandt’s works can be found not only in his 1858 etching after the Hermitage Parable of the Vineyard but also in his own original engraving of 1844, Gifts in Chigirin.

During the first third of the 19th century, Rembrandt’s images also began to appear on works of applied art. At the beginning of the century the Petersburg Tapestry Manufactory produced a tapestry showing “Jan Sobiesky”, then one of the most famous works in the Hermitage (National Gallery of Art, Washington). A copy of another painting, Young Woman with Earrings, was reproduced in the 1830s on a porcelain vase, a favourite element of interior decoration during the reign of Nicholas I (the only known example of this vase is in the State Museum of Ceramics, Kuskovo, Moscow).

Rembrandt’s name is often mentioned in poems and prose during the first half of the century, notably in the 1830s. This was probably facilitated to no small degree by a heightened interest in the phenomenon of the creative personality: suffice it to look at the very titles of stories published at this time: Gogol’s Portrait, Shevchenko’s The Painter and Nikolay Polevoy’s The Artist. Several curious facts contain indications of a more direct interest in the Dutch master.

One of the most famous lines in all of Russian poetry comes fromHouse in Kolomna (1832-1833) by the great Alexander Pushkin. He describes one of his heroines thus: “Old Woman. (I have a hundred times seen precisely such faces in the paintings of Rembrandt).” This reference is sufficient for the reader to conjure up a sentimental picture of a worthy old woman, of the kind seen in many variations in Rembrandt’s late works. Pushkin also, however, uses the name of Rembrandt in connection with a more complex series of associations in his “Journey to Arzrum during the Campaign of 1829”. He describes the wild countryside of the Caucasus, which reminds him of “the rape of Ganymede, a strange painting by Rembrandt. The very gorge was lit totally according to his taste.” Gloomy magic – to use Pushkin’s words – and the majesty of the mountainous landscape were seen through the prism of the “strange” Ganymedes, which Pushkin may have known from the engraving by Christian Schulz or from a painted copy. The painting conveys a sense of head-spinning height not in the landscape background but in the figure of the child, crying in fear and helplessly swinging in the air. This was the enthralling feeling Pushkin experienced when he looked upon the deep and narrow gorge. Perhaps this reflects the specific nature of Russian quotations of Rembrandt motifs, which differ from examples in European Romanticism. The strange fantasy of Rembrandt’s paintings was intertwined in the Russian consciousness with the exotic world of the Caucasus, a perpetual source of inspiration.

Reproductive engravings of Rembrandt’s paintings were undoubtedly an important source for information about the artist in Russian society. A far back as 1789, Arkhip Ivanov, in the section “On the Benefit and Use of Prints”, had noted that “they show us distant objects as if they were before our very eyes, things which we could not see without most difficult journeys, or without the need for great expense”.

It is interesting that at the very time that Journey to Arzrum was being written, The Rape of Ganymede inspired the attention of another famous artist, Karl Bryullov. This is all the more curious in that Bryullov was a master of precise drawing and bright decorative colouring, his style having been formed under the strong influence of the Bolognese school and of Flemish 17th-century painting. At first sight it seems unlikely that the work of this artist could have links with Rembrandt’s style. Yet a private collection in St. Petersburg contains an unpublished copy of the Ganymede made by Bryullov in the late 1830s (oil on canvas, 45 x 34, signed). Taken from an engraving, it was enhanced by the artist’s own recollections from Bryullov’s visit to the gallery in Dresden during a journey back to Russia from Italy. In keeping with contemporary taste, Rembrandt’s composition was corrected in the academic style and given an abundance of decorative pink. Reminiscences of Rembrandt are also aroused by the Portrait of Katerina Tittoni (dated 1851; priv. coll., Western Europe). Bryullov’s interest becomes clear when we recall that it was he who said “Rembrandt is a god! He has stolen the sun’s rays.”

Analysing Russian interest in works by the Dutch master, it becomes clear that this was manifested in the most varied art forms during the first half of the 19th century. The strongest and most unusual expression of this is to be found in the literary tradition. This author would like to put forward a hypothesis not previously noted in the literature.

In their rich oriental dress, Rembrandt’s exotic figures made a great impression during the Romantic era. The Russian public knew these works in particular from numerous engraved reproductions as well as from paintings in the Hermitage, such as the Man in Turkish Dress. This calls to mind a passage in one of Nikolay Gogol’s most amazing and excellent stories, The Portrait. It relates the story of a talented young painter, which has given rise to numerous interpretations in the scholarly literature. At the very beginning of the story, the attention of the hero is captured by chance in a shop by a portrait, described thus: “It was of an old man with a face the colour of bronze, with sunken cheeks, a sickly face; the features would seem to have been captured in a moment of convulsive movement and to reflect a most southern passion. The midday sun was imprinted upon them. The figure was draped in broad Asiatic costume. How damaged and dusty was this portrait, but when he was able to clear the dust from the face, he saw the traces of a sublime artist. The portrait appeared to be unfinished; but the force of the brush was striking. Most unusual of all were the eyes: it would seem that to these the artist applied all the force of his brush and all his diligent zeal.” We should note that both in subject (an oriental old man in broad “Asiatic” costume) and in manner of execution, the portrait Gogol describes quite clearly summons up an image irrevocably tied to the art of Rembrandt and “mass produced” in the work of his followers. There is another important feature in this portrait, totally in accord with Rembrandt’s compositions: the unusual eyes, which are fixed fast upon Chartkov, the young artist. This preoccupation recurs in the description of Rembrandt’s old men in a poem by Osip Mandelstam of 1931: “I enter the marvellous dens of museums, With their devilish leering Rembrandts.” Mandelstam stresses the disturbing note which he, a poet of the 20th century, saw in Rembrandt’s figures. In yet another poem, Mandelstam speaks directly of Rembrandt’s paintings: “They trouble one not for good, they trouble one without it.” It is interesting that Gogol’s story was published in 1832, at the height of fascination with the style à la Rembrandt in Russia. This was also the period of Gogol’s most pronounced sensitivity to the fine arts. We do not claim that Gogol was inspired by a particular original by Rembrandt. The painting behind the story (if it had a real source at all) may have been by a Russian artist, for the portrait described represents an archetypal Rembrandt image, an archetype which appears in the mind’s eye as one reads.

Variations, imitations or interpretations of Rembrandtesque images in Russian art are even to be found in the works of artists who were concerned with totally different subjects, the ideal of patriarchal Russian life. Young Woman Looking Through a Window (The Treasurer’s Wife) (1841, Russian Museum) by Vasily Tropinin, a standard work in the Russian consciousness, can rightly be included amongst the numerous European compositions which are adaptations of Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window of 1645 (Dulwich College Picture Gallery, London). In contrast to the other types of Rembrandtness in Russia we have discussed so far, this latter-day version of the woman in the window has a quality that French 18th-century treatises describe as agréable. At bottom, this means that the female figures had a coquettish expression and a low decolleté. The direct source of inspiration for Tropinin may have been a painting by Ferdinand Bol in the Rembrandt Room of the Hermitage. We know that the artist was closely acquainted with this collection for he made a copy of “Jan Sobiesky”, now in the Art and History Museum, Dmitrov.

Another quite evident example of such borrowings is Abraham’s Sacrifice (1849, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) by Yevgraf (Gerhardt von) Reutern (1794-1865), which for many years hung in the Russian Painting Room of the Imperial Hermitage. Its closeness to Rembrandts composition makes any further commentary superfluous.

In the second half of the 19th century, Russian art was marked by a rejection of academic norms, a cult of truth to life and an interest in acute social themes. In this atmosphere, the relation of Russia to the classical heritage of the West became a subject of sharp dispute. The great debate between the Westernisers and the Slavophiles split society into two camps. There was keen discussion of the subject of Russian uniqueness versus borrowings from European culture. Against this politicized background there was a notable desire to make artistic collections accessible for the enlightenment of a wider circle of people. In the middle of the 19th century the Hermitage became a public museum, and anthologies of reproductive prints were produced in large quantities. Amongst them was a series of etchings by Nikolay Mosolov devoted to the Rembrandt Room in the New Hermitage. Meanwhile an outstanding collection of Rembrandt prints was being put together in St. Petersburg by the lawyer Dmitry Rovinsky. From 1854 the explorer and geographer Pyotr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky took up a new hobby, the collection of Dutch 17th-century paintings.

In this fresh Russian artistic environment Rembrandt too came to be perceived differently. Now the taste was not for imitations in the spirit known as genre de Rembrandt, presuming an interest in whimsical and exotic subjects, but for skill in conveying the sitter’s psychological characteristics and a range of feelings such as those found in late Rembrandt paintings. Figures submerged in their own internal world, their faces reflecting melancholy concentration and sorrow were seen as unusually close to the psychology of the Russians, ancient qualities in the Russian national character. Without the influence of these features we cannot imagine the achievements of Russian portraiture, such as Ivan Kramskoy’s Portrait of Vladimir Solovyov (1885, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg), in which the natural pose, the gesture of the hands and the lack of setting all concentrate our attention on the psychological state of the man himself.

The greatest admiration for Rembrandt’s legacy appears among the artists who studied in the studio of Pavel Chistyakov (1832-1919). This artist has gone down in the history of Russian art as an outstanding teacher who trained a whole series of talented masters. One of his famous paintings, The Boyar (1876), was despite its Russian subject immediately perceived by the public as Rembrandtesque. The Moscow collector Pavel Tretyakov acquired it for his gallery of Russian painting in 1877 (now the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

Chistyakov contributed to the development of such dissimilar creative individuals as Ilya Repin, Mikhail Vrubel and Valentin Serov, the cream of the Russian school at the beginning of the 20th century. Undoubtedly, they were all to a greater or lesser degree subject to the influence of Rembrandt. The main source of satisfaction for this interest during the early years was the Hermitage (the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow has a copy by Repin of the Hermitage Portrait of an Old Woman, while the Russian Museum has a drawing by Serov of the same portrait and a sketch on the subject of The Prodigal Son). Later, artists saw many works by Rembrandt during journeys abroad. At times their diaries and notes record a sense of surprise. In a letter from Serov, written in The Hague in July 1885, we read: “It is strange, I always thought that here, in this place, I would see many good works by Rembrandt and suddenly in the museum in Amsterdam I see only five works, of which just two are indeed excellent, the others being nothing out of the ordinary. I keep remembering in amazement how many marvellous portraits by Rembrandt we have in the Hermitage. Although it’s not a new story of course. It’s the same in the Crimea, only not with painting but with grapes: good grapes are more difficult to find in the Crimea than in St. Petersburg, unless you are acquainted with the owner of the vineyards.”

Russian art of the beginning of this century, for all the variety of individual styles, did not lose its inherent traditionalism. Of very great interest here are certain echoes of Rembrandt in the work of Mikhail Vrubel, an artist of the Russian Symbolist trend. In his Girl with a Carpet in the Background (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), we are reminded of Rembrandt’s images of women by the female figure with a cascade of long hair descending onto her shoulders, the pearls, the oriental carpet, by the warm shades of dark red, as if this were a translation of the subject of “the Jewish bride” into the language of 20th-century art. The impression is reinforced by his other works. Vrubel’s skilful drawings (Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) at times copy very closely the style of Rembrandt’s etchings of the 1630s.

A characteristic example of the way in which Rembrandt was taken up can be seen in the work of Academician Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945), father of the poet Boris Pasternak. Rembrandt literally suffuses many of Pasternak’s drawings. In his private collection in Moscow was a painted sketch for a Danaë inspired by the Hermitage masterpiece. Strangely, this is the sole known Russian picture which directly reflects admiration of this particular painting. We should recall that Rembrandt’s work, which lay for many years forgotten in the Hermitage, was re-exhibited only in the middle of the 19th century. Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, who saw it in 1868, wrote in a letter to Pauline Viardot: “Rembrandt’s Danaë, for all its shockingness, created a very strong impression on me. It is devilishly strong, colourful, bright. And how stereotyped is Bryullov’s Last Day [of Pompeii]”. The image of Rembrandt’s Danaë appears at the turn of the century in the engravings of Vasily Mate (Basil Matthée; 1856-1917) and his studio.

Pasternak left us yet another piece of evidence, totally in accordance with the literary treatment of Rembrandt: he wrote a book on the artist. His monograph on Rembrandt was written in Moscow during a time of extreme difficult, between 1918 and 1920, immediately after the Revolution, at a time of civil war and famine. It was published in Berlin in 1923 in a run of 1,000 numbered copies. Pasternak accompanied the rare edition with his own graphic portrait of Rembrandt. The book’s theme was an analysis of Rembrandt’s paintings in which, according to the author, marvellous features from the heart of the Jewish people are conveyed with such love and profundity. Amongst them particular attention is given to The Return of the Prodigal Son.

From its first appearance in Russia this monumental canvas occupied a very special place in the Hermitage. Staehlin described it as “one of [the] greatest originals which the great artist ever created”. All the old descriptions of the Hermitage picture gallery, like all the memoirs of the foreigners who visited Russia’s northern capital, express consistent admiration for the work. The very earliest depiction of it is perhaps in a drawing by Giacomo Quarenghi of 1800, an aborted project for rehanging the Hermitage gallery. Later the painting was to be the permanent central object in a special Rembrandt Room, a room which in fact moved three times, being originally in the Old Hermitage and later in the New Hermitage.

In the Russian consciousness the significance of this scene (taken from the traditionally didactic New Testament parable of the repentant sinner) acquires a new interpretation. In the 20th century the picture was taken up and mentioned particularly frequently. To this painting Russian literature owes marvellous lines by Osip Mandelstam: we know that Rembrandt was one of his favourite artists. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the poet, the epithet in the poem – “I shall abandon the land – raspberry caress – which magically colours the gesture of touch” – was a recollection of the colour of the father’s clothing in Rembrandt’s painting. Mandelstam also devoted a famous poem to the artist, “As a martyr of light and shade, Rembrandt” (1931), which has become the subject of a vast number of literary studies.

The stormy and tragic history of Russian culture in the 20th century transformed Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son into a deeply symbolic work, turning it from a biblical scene into a symbol of the end of earthly sufferings. One confirmation of this is to be found in the recollections of the historian Nikolay Antsiferov (1889-1958), author of the renowned book, The Soul of St .Petersburg. An outstanding scholar, passionately devoted to the Italian Renaissance, he was arrested in the early 1930s and spent five years in the camps on the Solovetsky islands. Years later he was allowed to return to Leningrad.

This is how he describes his return to his native city: “We arrived so early that the trams were still not running. With sacks over our shoulders we set off to the Grevses [the family of an old university professor, Antsiferov’s tutor]. Ivan Mikhaylovich opened the door and embraced me. And at that moment I recalled Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son. Here was I, exhausted by a long journey of almost five years, kneeling before him, and he lovingly placed his hands upon me.” Thus Rembrandt’s painting entered not only the artistic consciousness but the whole Russian outlook in the 20th century.

The examples cited above provide far from an exhaustive survey of clear and hidden quotations from Rembrandt in Russian art of the 18th to 20th centuries. In the eternal duality of Russian artistic culture, of which Dostoevsky wrote “We have two native lands. One is Russia, the other Europe,” the artist occupies a unique and perhaps even now not fully comprehended role.

 

Page last updated on 3 June 2002