The artist, thinker and theorist Alexander Ivanov, in the words of the
writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky, 'belonged in his aspirations to that small
elite of geniuses who are decidedly people of the future'.
Alexander Ivanov was born in St. Petersburg. His father Andrei Ivanov
was a professor of historical paintings. In 1817 Alexander joined the Academy
as an 'external pupil' and—unlike
the regular pupils—continued to live at home. He had his first success
with the picture *Priam Begging Achilles for the Body of Hector* (1824,
TG). The subject is taken from Homer's
Iliad and the picture, which was painted when Ivanov was eighteen,
won him a gold medal.
The artist completed his student years with a program work on a Biblical
theme: *Joseph Interprets the Prisoners' Dreams* (1827, RM). Ivanov was
awarded a first-class gold medal.
However, the ideas which were clearly expressed in the picture—of man's
defenselessness in the face of tyranny, and the flouting of the concepts
of justice and lawfulness—caused
dissatisfaction among the Academy's ruling circles. The depiction on
the dungeon wall of an Egyptian execution was seen as a direct allusion
to the execution of five leaders of the
December uprising. True, the Academy officials could find no real proof
of such an analogy and tried to hush up the whole episode, but still Ivanov
had to produce a new diploma work
in order to obtain the right to go to Italy. In the spring of 1830,
having completed a small work entitled *Bellerophon Sets Out on a Campaign
against Chimaera*, Ivanov finally was given an opportunity to travel to
Italy at the expense of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists.
Hoever, the start of his stay in Rome was overshadowed by the news of
his father's retirement -being dismissed from the Academy of Arts on Nicholas
I's orders, after thirty-two years of service. 'Born in the fetters of
the monarchy,' wrote Alexander Ivanov from Italy 'I have often seen my
cofretters tormented, I have seen the haughtiness of the aristocracy and
emptiness of those who occupy important positions ... I have always
heard my relations complaining of the injustices of their superiors, whose
power intimidates and enslaves them.'
But his personal sufferings did not dampen his belief in the power of
art to transform man spiritually. In Italy he studied Classical and Renaissance
art and particularly admired the
Venetian frescos. In response to all of this, he produced one of his
most poetic orks—*Apollo, Hyacinth and Cypress Making music and Singing*
(1831-34,TG). This painting was a hymn to lyricism, warm friendship and
creative inspiration. From the very start of his stay in ltaly Ivanov was
constantly on the look out for a theme that might totally engross him.
It was while he was still working on Apollo, Hyacinth and Cypress that
he conceived the idea
of a large-scale painting about the appearance of the Messiah. As a
kind of 'trial run' for this work, he painted a two-figure composition
on a theme from the Gospels: *The Appearance
of Christ to Mary Magdalena* (1834-35, RM). The picture was successfully
exhibited in Rome and then was sent to the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts.
Ivanov was consequently awarded the title of an academician.
The artist was becoming more and more absorbed by the idea of the moral
regeneration of mankind. 'The worrid abounds in evil... Art has forgotten
to keep pace with social ideas,' he
wrote from Italy.
0ver a period of twenty years Ivanov worked on his huge canvas *Christ's
Appearance to the People* (1837-57 TG). The artist's notes show that he
conceived the painting as a historical
work. 'In this painting I must portray people from different estates,
people who are inconsolable as a result of the debauchery and oppression
of secular governmental figures and as a result of atrocities committed
by the Judaic kings themselves, ingratiating themselves with the Romans
to ensure their place on the throne ... I must show their timidity and
fear of the
Romans, and their feelings that show through their desire for freedom
The subject for the painting was taken from the Gospels. On the bank
of the River Jordan, where the ceremony of baptism has just taken place.
John the Baptist addresses the people
with words of hope, pointing to the figure of Christ walking on the
hillside. The excitement caused by John's words has a great effect on the
people. Behind him are the future apostles
of Christ—the impetuous John, the grey-haired Andrew and the doubting
Nathanael; on the other side are Pharisees, Romans and others. At John
the Baptist's feet are two seated
figures—a patrician and his slave. On the tortured furrowed face of
the slave there is a resemblance of a smile: 'For the first time joy showed
through the suffering to which he was
accustomed,' wrote Ivanov.
In that it showed the great and noble beauty of the human spirit, and
in its penetration of human suffering, the image of a slave was a true
revelation in Russian and world painting.
The artist saw in this Biblical legend a chance to express his dream
of freedom: '... the day of humanity has dawned, the day of moral perfection.'
And the moral perfection of people
should turn the world which 'abounded in evil' into a world of universal
The artist's dream of transforming society may have been utopian, given
the acute social contradictions of the age, but it did adumbrate the ideas
of progressive thinkers of the next
generation. Ilya Repin said of the painting: 'Its idea is close to
the heart of every Russian. It depicts the suppressed people, longing for
freedom, crowding after a fervent preacher.'
The painting of this enormous canvas (40 m2) was preceded by extensive
preparatory work. Ivanov made more than 600 preliminary etudes, sketches
and drawings. These etudes
proved to be a wonderful school in realism for the following generation
of artists as well. The best of sketches is the etude of the head of John
the Baptist (TG and RM), in which the broad sweeping manner of painting,
based on contrast of cold and warm tones, increases the emotional effectiveness
of the image.
Ivanov's searching and realistic aspirations manifested themselves most
strongly in the preliminary landscape studies. He studied every detail
of his picture and tested it against
nature —from the stones, grass and color of the soil to 'the distant
landscape, hidden in luxuriant olives and covered by the morning vapors
of the earth'.
The more closely he looked at nature, the more riches he discovered
in it. The single object exists in a whole infinite space. The treatment
of distance, the integrated depiction of
nature as a multitude of linked parts, became the main aspect of Ivanov's
landscape painting. *Pontos Marsh* (RM), *The Bay of Naples at Castellammare*
(TG) and *The Via Appia at Sunset* (TG) are captivating because of their
epic grandeur and simple composition.
Working on his etudes in the open air, Ivanov set himself the complicated
task of showing the interaction of sunlight and colour. Particularly noteworthy
are his famous landscapes
with 'boys bathing', in which he succeeded in conveying the link between
his models and the landscape: *Boys at the Bay of Naples* (TG), *Seven
Boys in Coloured Clothing and
Drapery* (RM). *Etude of Nude Boy* (RM). These works are considered
masterpieces of Russian and world landscape-painting.
The work on etudes required enormous concentration, inventiveness and
capacity for work. But Ivanov's sponsorship by the Society for the Encouragement
of Artists was over and
both the Society and the Academy were persistently urging him to return
home. 'The thought of returning knocks the palette and brushes from my
hands.' he wrote. He knew only too
well what was happening in Nicholas I's Russia from letters and meetings
with friends. In Italy he made friends with Gogol and Herzen and the scientist
The eventful 1840s, the revolutionary tremors in Italy, Ivanov's own
reflections on the social conditions of life and his friendship with people
who were linked with a new stage in the
development of Russian culture—all this brought about a volte-face
in Ivanov's world-outlook. In autumn 1857 he went to London to meet Alexander
Herzen and to discuss with him the latest views on religious and cultural
events in Europe and Russia. 'We have gone far... in our thoughts, in the
sense that faced with the latest decisions of literary scholarship the
basic idea of my painting is almost completely lost . . . and I barely
have the spirit to improve on it.' Ivanov's disillusion about the universal
significance of the picture to which he had
devoted his best years did not break him. The desire to 'found a new
station of art' inspired him to further plans, in particular the creation
of a monumental mural.
The mural was to have comprised a unified series of 500 works. The artist
managed to complete about half of the planned studies, done in gouache,
water-color, sepia or pencil.
Ivanov wished to express in poetic imagery, popular traditional tales
which were refracted in various ways in the Biblical stories. By juxtaposing
Biblical legends with the myths of the
Greeks, Egyptians and Assyrians, he tried to divine their common basis.
His comprehension and conception of religious subjects was quite novel
at that time.
In essence, these Biblical studies restated the theme of the heroic
personality and the people in the theme that runs through the whole of
In the spring of 1858 Ivanov returned to St. Petersburg. His masterpiece,
*Christ's Appearance to the People*, and the numerous etudes for it, exhibited
in the halls of the Academy of Arts, drew a cold reception. The artist
was the butt of much bitter and unjust criticism. But Ivanov did find some
worthy friends in his homeland—the art critic Vladimir Stasov and Nikolai
Chernyshevskv, with whom he shared his plans, discussed the possibilities
of starting a new Russian art school and of setting up educational institutions
for young artists,
and dreamed of travelling over Russia and painting new national historical
Alexander Ivanov's life came to an abrupt end in July 1858, when he
died of cholera. Alexander Herzen wrote an obituary for the journal Kolokol
(The Bell); Ivan Kramskoi, too, wrote with profound sorrow about Ivanov,
predicting the enormous effect that the moral power of his art would exert
on future generations of artists.