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Rome, Russia and the Tricky Business of Disaster Painting

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Blakesley, RP 


The intention of Russia’s Academy of Arts to send students abroad to complete their education was enshrined in its statutes from the start, with the co-called Privileges which Catherine the Great granted the institution in 1765 devoting several paragraphs to the terms and conditions of its coveted travel awards.1 While Paris was the favoured destination in the 1760s and 1770s, reflecting the Francophile leanings of Catherine’s court, Rome soon emerged as the ultimate hunting ground, just as it was for other European artists and cultural enthusiasts embarking on a Grand Tour. So strong was the city’s allure by the second decade of the nineteenth century that the celebrated Russian painter Orest Kiprensky (1782-1836)wrote wearily of “whole regiments of artists” there in 1817.

Received wisdom has it that Rome’s importance for the maturation of Russia’s artists continued unquestioned into the 1830s. Karl Briullov’s magnum opus The Last Day of Pompeii, with its ambitious intellectual references, hyperbolic composition, and exemplary technique, was seen to epitomise the benefits that working in the venerable city could bring. Nor was the flow of influence one way, for Russian painters left their own impression on other artists in Rome. For all the richness of these encounters, however, views on the value of the Italian experience for Russian artists were neither uniform nor uncomplicated. Significantly, the decade that followed the completion of The Last Day of Pompeii saw a crisis of confidence in Russian history painting – reflecting that identified in France – which began to affect opinion on how long and to what purpose Russian artists should study in Rome. At the heart of this debate lay a handful of large-scale projects which can loosely be categorised as disaster paintings, all of which were conceived from 1830 to 1836 while their artists were based in Italy. Close analysis of their production and critical reception reveals a set of shifting aspirations and anxieties that plagued Russian history painting in this period, and unsettled notions of Rome as the promised land of artistic fulfilment for Russian artists abroad.



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Burlington Magazine

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