Today it is hard to imagine someone who has never seen, for instance, the smile of the Mona Lisa, even among those who have not visited Paris or set foot in the Louvre. Works of art from all epochs and countries surround us. We see them on the internet and on television; we can easily buy postcards of famous paintings and art books with high quality reproductions. Even those artists just starting their careers already have their own websites, so that as many people as possible can see their work.
But what was it like a hundred and fifty years ago? You could see paintings in museums, but only in the few cities where museums existed. There was no such thing as a major collection of Russian art – the Moscow merchant Pavel Tretyakov was only just starting to assemble one. Most paintings were in private collections, so they could only be seen by those fortunate enough to receive an invitation from the owner. The only ways to learn about the world’s greatest masterpieces was to embark on a lengthy and expensive trip or to buy an etching or drawing that reproduced the canvas with some degree of accuracy.
Up to a certain point in time, artists were perfectly satisfied with this situation. The artist-client relationship somewhat resembled the relationship between servant and master (indeed, in pre-emancipation Russia, artists were often serfs or former serfs of the subjects of their portraits). But times were changing. Artists were developing self-respect and a growing sense of their audience.
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Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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