The Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg, is one of the world’s largest art galleries. Its collection contains paintings, sculptures, and works of applied and folk art and covers a period from the 10th century up to the present day. The museum collection numbers over 400,000 items. The collection of the museum is exhibited in several buildings: Michael’s Palace, Benois Wing, St. Michael’s Castle, Stroganov Palace, and Marble Palace. The complex also includes the Mikhailovsky Gardens, Engineering Gardens, Summer Garden (including the Summer Palace), and the House of Peter the Great.

The Imperial Museum of Russian Art was founded in 1895 by Nicholas II and devoted to his father Emperor Alexander III. It was opened to public 3 years later in 1898. Its basic collection consisted of paintings and sculptures from the Hermitage, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Anichkov Palace and the palaces of Tsarskoe Selo. After the October Revolution the collection was extended by adding works of art from the former palaces, private art galleries and churches. The department of the Soviet art was also opened.

The main part of the museum is located in the former Mikhailovsky Palace. The palace was designed by Carlo Rossi in the classical style and built in 1819-1825. The museum collections grew in time and the western wing of the museum was added on the corner of Inzhenernaya Street and the Griboedov Canal. The building was designed by architects L. Benois and S. Ovsiannikov in 1910-1912.


Ancient Russian Art

The exhibition of ancient Russian art covers a period from the 10th century to the late 17th century. There are over a hundred icons of various schools on display. The art of icon painting flourished in ancient Russia since the country’s Christianization in 988, but many religious images were destroyed by the Mongols during the Tartar yoke (1241-1480).

The icon of the Archangel Gabriel, often called Angel with Golden Hair, is the oldest painting in the museum, dating from the 12th century. One of the most remarkable and refined icons is ascribed to the early school of Kiev- the centre of ancient Russia. The image of the painting suggests familiarity with Byzantine tradition: the angel’s big eyes, straight long nose, and small pointed lips.

A very typical image of Old Russian iconography is the Virgin of Tenderness from the Northern city of Belozersk painted in the 13th century. Virgin’s head is inclined to the child who is sitting in her arms and looking at his mother. This image is the symbol of sorrow and grief. The icon Boris and Gleb, created in the 14th century, represents the first Russian saints who became popular warrior-saints. One of the notable Novgorodian paintings is the icon of Saint George Slaying the Dragon created at the turn of the 14th century. It shows another highly esteemed warrior-saint. He lived in Rome in the 3-rd century AD and because of his adherence to the Christianity he was tortured to death. Once he rescued a king’s daughter by slaying a dreadful monster to which she was sacrificed as the most beautiful girl in the country. This legend is depicted in this icon.

The majority of medieval Russian painters are unknown. Only a few names have come down to us through the centuries. One of them is the greatest artist of icon painting Andrei Rublev (1370?-1430). Very little is known about his life. He worked at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries in the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin and in the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir. There are two full-size images of Apostles Peter and Paul that used to decorate a great iconostasis in Vladimir.

The Moscow school is represented by another outstanding master Dionysius (1440?-1502), who painted in refine and polished manner. His icon Virgin Hodegitria shows the other popular image of the Virgin meaning “leading the way”. The prominent master of the 17th century was Simon Ushakov (1626-86). Among his noteworthy icons is the Trinity. At the same time miniature icons were widespread. The originators became the merchant family of the Sroganovs, in whose workshops many famous icon- painters studied and worked. These panels were small in size but had monumental quality; detailed and multi-figured but without overcrowding; bright in colors and richly gilded. These icons were much admired. In the 17th century the first portraits, so-called parsunas appeared (from the word person) among them is the Portrait of Fedor Ioanovich. It was executed in icon technique- flat, rigid, and with the halo- but at the same time with personal features of the tsar.


Russian portrait of the 18thcentury

The turn of the 17th and 18th centuries was a time of immense changes in Russia in politics, economics, and culture. In the first quarter of the 18th century the country became one of the leading European powers. This period was marked by a decisive shift of Russian art towards “secularization”. The leading genre of the 18th century art was the portrait. Besides inviting foreign artists to Russia, Peter I founded a school of painting in St. Petersburg and sent Russian masters abroad to study. Among them was Andrei Matveev (1701-39), who was sent to Antwerp in 1715. He is famous for the Self-Portrait with his Wife.

Ivan Nikitin (1688?-1741) was one of the most significant painters of that time. He studied in Italy and later was highly esteemed by Peter I. The Portrait of Peter I, the Portrait of Hetman.

Many foreign painters, sculptors and architects were invited to Russia by Peter I. Carlo Rastrelli came to Russia in 1716. His best sculptures were created in this country. Two of his most famous works are the bust of Peter I and the full-size statue of Empress Anna Ioannovna with a Little Black Boy.

The middle of the 18th century was a period of flourishing of secular art. New genres of painting developed, such as cityscape and still-life. They were meant to decorate the increasing number of luxury residences in the capital. Portraiture remained the leading genre. These masters lived and worked in that time.

Ivan Vishnyakov (1699-1761?) The Portrait of Sarah Eleonore Fermore, Portrait of Vilghelm Fermore

Alexei Antropov (1716-95) The Portrait of Rumyantseva, The Portrait of Peter III

Ivan Argunov (1727-1803) The Portrait of Lobanova-Rostovskaya


The foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg in 1757 was an important event for the cultural life of Russia. It was there that promising young people received artistic and general education. The Academy, which became a school for many generations of painters, sculptors and architects, established general artistic principle for content, form, and purpose. The dominating artistic trend of the period was Classicism. Among its first graduates was Anton Losenko (1737-1773), who later became the president of the Academy. He treated biblical and historic subjects Vladimir and Rogneda, Abraham’s Sacrifice.

 At the end of the 18th century three great names emerged in Russian portraiture. The first one is Fedor Rokotov(1735/36-1808), who was the outstanding master of intimate portraits. His works are deeply emotional, as The Portrait of Elizaveta Santi or the Portrait of Surovtseva. The next famous artist was Dmitry Levitsky (1735-1822) He was the representative of the official trend in art. One of his notable paintings in this genre is the ceremonial Portrait of Catherine II, Lagislatrix. He created seven portraits of the Smolny students by order of Catherine II. The third painter was Vladimir Borovikovsky (1757-1825), who introduced sentimentalism into portrait painting. Its ideals were the unity of man with nature and a new taste for simple life. Informal Portrait of Catherine II shows the Empress in her morning dress and nightcap walking with her dog in the park of Tsar’s village.

Lyrical and romantic mood is reflected in his Portrait of Arsenyeva and Portrait of Skobeleva.

The Russian Museum possesses large collection of Russian sculpture. The achievement of it in the 18th century was more amazing than in painting, since there was no precedent for it in the Middle Ages. Among the most remarkable sculptors of that time is Fedosii Shchedrin (1751-1825), Feodor Gordeev (1740-1805), Fedot Shubin (1740-1805), Michail Kozlovsky (1753-1802).


Art of the first half the 19th century

Karl Bruillov (1799-1852) is one of the greatest masters of the 19th century Russian painting. As one of the best graduates of the Academy of Arts he was sent to Italy. There Bruillov began to work on the huge canvas The Last Day of Pompeii in 1830. The painter was impressed by the ancient catastrophe of 79 AD, when the city Pompeii was destroyed by the Vesuvius. He carefully studied the notes and descriptions of the disaster and made numerous sketches for the painting. It was finished in1833 and shown to the public. The painting had overwhelming success in Milan, then Paris, and finally in St. Petersburg. The other works by Bruillov in the collection of the Russian Museum include: The Portrait of Countess Yulia Samoilova Leaving the Ball with Her Adopted Daughter Amalicia Paccini, The Portrait of Shishmarev Sisters, The Self-Portrait.

The marine painter Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) was fascinated by the Black Sea. He represented it in sunlight and moonlight, in stormy and windy weather, as calm and peaceful. The Ninth Wave and  The Wave are the most famous his works.

Fedor Bruni (1800-1875) is one of the main representatives of academic style in art. He painted on biblical and historical subjects. His canvas The Bronze Serpent is one the biggest paintings in Russian art.

The Russian Museum has the preliminary drawing of The Appearance of Christ before the People by Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858). The original is now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The first half of the 19th century art was also marked by such prominent masters as Orest Kiprensky (1782-1836) Alexei Venetsianov (1780-1847), Silvester Schedrin (1791-1830).


Russian art of the second half of the 19th century

The 1860-ies were the time of great development of Russian landscape painting.  Alexei Savrasov (1830-97), Fedyor Vasiliev (1850-73), Ivan Shishkin (1832-98) showed the simple, deeply poetic views of central Russia.

The sixties of the 19th century witnessed a great change in Russian art. This period marks the coming age of critical realism in literature and art. The progressive Russian writers, composers, and artists reflected the essential social problems of the day.

The Peredvizhniks (in translation Wanderers or Itinerants), founded on the principles of realism and democracy, became a major phenomenon in Russian culture. In 1863 fourteen students of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts left it without diploma and founded The Artist Guild. They protested against conventional and academic approaches in art.  They manifested social spirit in art and proclaimed the slogan “story and purpose”. In 1865 the members organized the first exhibition at Nizhny Novgorod. The success led them to the further development of travelling exhibitions. The Russian Museum has a big collection of the representatives of this movement, such as Ivan Kramskoy (1837-87), Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920), Nikolay Ghe (1831-94), Vasily Perov (1833/34-82), Ivan Shishkin (1832-98), Konstantin Savitsky (1844-1905), Vasily Polenov (1844-1927).

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) belonged to the greatest Russian realistic painters whose works are among the highest achievements of Russian art. In 1864 he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. In 1872 he got a gold medal for his Raising of Jaures’ Daughter. In 1870 he began his famous canvas The Barge Haulers on the Volga. He spent two summers on the banks of the Volga collecting the material for it. It was highly praised by the contemporaries for its deep psychological and social aspect. At the same time Repin used subjects from Russian history and fairy-tales, such as Sadko and The Zaporozhian Cossacks Write a Letter to the Turkish Sultan. At his best Repin realized himself in portraiture. He created a fantastic gallery of the great persons of his time: musicians Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Rubinstein, art critic Stasov, writer L.Tolstoy. In 1901 Repin got the state commission to paint The Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council in connection with its centenary anniversary. During two years he made separate studies of all the statesmen and then combined them into an enormous composition.

In the end of the 19th century realistic school of painting produced artist of diverse interests and talents. Vasily Vereshcahgin (1842-1904) represented contemporary dramatic war scenes, Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) specialized in historical paintings, Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) treated subjects from Russian legends and fairy-tales, landscape was developed by Arkhip Kuindzhi (1842-1902).

The end of the 19th century was marked by the development of new trends in painting performed by gifted artists among them were Levitan, Serov, and Vrubel.

Isaac Levitan (1860-1900) is one the most prominent masters of landscape painting, who made a great contribution in this genre. He was the first who found new bright and pure colors for rendering melancholy and charm of late spring and golden autumn in Russia. He managed to reflect the state of Russian soul and mood in his lyrical landscape compositions.

Valentin Serov (1865-1911) is among the artists whose works in many ways determined the artistic image of the entire period. He was a person of great versatility and was a superb illustrator, stage designer, and graphic artist. He worked in various genres, such as landscape and historical paintings, but he was undoubtedly one of the best portrait painters in Russian art. The famous works by Serov include the Portrait of Sophia Botkina, Portrait of Princess Zinaida Yusupova, Portrait of Countess Orlova, and Portrait of Ida Rubinstein.

Michail Vrubel (1856-1910) made a great impact into the development of Russian art at the turn of the 19th and 20thcenturies. He was a painter of monumental art, theatre designer, and book illustrator; experimented in sculpture, ceramics, and furniture design. He was inspired by Russian legends, myths, fairy-tales, literature, and folklore. His Bogatyr, a warrior of Old Russian epics, personifies Russian might. The other works by Vrubel include: The Flying Demon, Six-winged Seraph.


The World of Art

The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was marked by great tensions and contradictions in Russia. The art of the period covers a relatively short time span – from the last decade of the 19th century to the October Revolution of 1917. The exceptional diversity of cultural life of the period was reflected in a multitude of styles and artistic organizations. Towards the beginning of the 20th century a new artistic movement was born in Russia, known as World of Art or Mir Isskustva. Their slogan was “Arts for Art’s sake” which they opposed to the ideas of “story and purpose” in painting expressed by Peredvizhniks.  The movement was completely antisocial with retrospective choice of subjects. The artists were attracted by forms, which until then were in decline: decorative and applied art, stage and costume design, and book graphics. There expressed a deep interest in the national traits of Russian art and its relationship to West European and Oriental cultures. Sergei Diaghilev was a leading figure among non-artists in it as an organizer of exhibitions, the originator of the Russian Ballet Seasons in Europe and America, founder of the journal World of Art, which gave the name for the movement. It included Alexander Benois (1870-1960), Leon Bakst (1864-1924), Konstantin Somov (1869-1919), Alexander Golovin (1863-1930), Nikolai Roerich (1874-1947).

Konstantine Korovin (1861-1939), Igor Grabar (1871-1960), Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927), Philip Malyavin (1869-1940) are the representatives of various artistic styles of that time.

Marc Shagall (1887-1985),  Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939), Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Kazimir Malevich(1878-1935), Pavel Filonov (1883-1941) are the masters of Russian avant-garde, abstract, and modern art.



Text by: Ekaterina Chistyakova

Location : St.Petersburg

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