Michael Prodger

Romanov Retrospective

The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia

By Susan Jaques

Pegasus Books 466pp £20 order from our bookshop

The Russian Canvas: Painting in Imperial Russia, 1757–1881

By Rosalind P Blakesley

Yale University Press 365pp £50 order from our bookshop

In 1873 an English traveller put his finger on the whole problem with Russian art. ‘Artists in St Petersburg live in comparative isolation,’ he wrote, ‘they are as a colony planted on the utmost verge of civilisation; they are as exiles or exotics, far away from the commonwealth of art, left to pine or starve in a cold and sterile soil.’ The same was true of artists in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Perm and everywhere else. Who indeed wouldn’t struggle to name a single Russian artist before 1900 with an international reputation? It was the political revolutions of the early 20th century that fertilised that cold and sterile soil to produce a cluster of celebrated figures whose influence was felt beyond the empire’s borders, among them Malevich, Chagall, Kandinsky and Gabo.

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