The Great Masterpiece of Russian Art

In 1833 a
young Russian artist, fresh out of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, went
to Italy in search of a great idea. Alexander Ivanov, the son of a member of
the Academy, had begun studying art at the age of 11 and was by then a well-skilled
artist, if as yet uninspired. In Rome Ivanov studied the Italian masterpieces
and dedicated himself to a study of the Bible. Finally he found what he wanted
to paint: the moment when Christ appears to John the Baptist and a group of people
on the banks of the Jordan River as described in the Gospels of Matthew and John.

Svetlana
Stepanova, senior researcher in the Tretyakov Gallery’s Department of Painting
of the 18th and first half of the 19th Century, described the subject of the painting
as “a highly emotional moment — people are being baptized, see Christ and
experience him for the first time. Ivanov, ecstatic, wrote his father that he’d
found the ‘story that began all stories,’ the subject would unite his
compatriots… His father wrote back, ‘it’s a wonderful subject, but how are you
going to express it visually?’”

That was
the problem that Ivanov would spend the next 20 years of his life trying to
solve.

He began
work in 1837, filling his damp Roman studio with dozens and then hundreds of
sketches. Ivanov was at heart a realist; he needed to paint real people,
places, trees, and hills. He traveled around the country looking for landscapes
and models. He painted dozens of people for each of his characters; he placed
his figures in different positions; he tried different colors for their robes;
and he painted Christ over and over again, with different features and
expressions, and once with the dove descending from heaven. By the time he brought his enormous canvas
back to Russia, he would paint over 800 preliminary canvases.

Ivanov’s
painting and his hundreds of sketches became the talk of the Russian art world.
“Everyone knew that Ivanov was in Rome working for the glory of Russian art, painting
his great masterpiece,” Stepanova said.

Finally, in
1858, 20 years after he began, Ivanov brought his work to his homeland. It was,
the artist thought, unfinished, in part because he’d had problems with the
varnish in his damp studio, which resulted in one character’s face — the slave
— developing a green tinge. But all the same, he presented it first to the tsar,
and then brought it to the Academy of Arts. The reactions of the Academy
members, artists and public were varied. Some thought it was too brightly
colored, or the characters were too Semitic, or the perspective was off. Ivanov’s
father thought that the figure of Christ was too small and that there should
have been signs of divinity. But the tsar liked it, and other critics immediately
saw the painting’s brilliance.

Ivanov was distressed
by the criticism, but unable to respond. He died of cholera 25 days after
returning to his homeland.