Tortured Genius: Get up close to Russia’s cultural icons

Enjoy War & Peace? Well, if that’s wetted your appetite for the “Golden Age” of Russian literature and culture, catch the latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

As part of an exchange with Moscow, Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky coincides with an exhibition of loaned portraits of famous Britons at the prestigious State Tretyakov Gallery this year to celebrate both galleries 160th birthdays.

The exhibition in London brings us face to face with the great writers, artists, composers and patrons whose achievements helped to develop a rich cultural scene in Russia between 1867 and 1914.

The collection was founded by the philanthropist Pavel Tretyakov, who set out to create a “Russian pantheon” by commissioning portraits by the celebrated painters of the day including Vasily Perov, Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov.

The traditional portraiture may seem a little dour compared to the avant-garde works by artists such as Kandinsky but they are notable for a psychological depth, projecting the inner life of Russia’s cultural icons. The curator has carefully selected the “crown jewels” from the Russian national collection and hung them low to increase the immediacy for the viewer. Here are some highlights.

Modest Mussorgsky

Portrait of Modest Petrovich Moussorgsky (1839-81) 1881 by Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Many of Mussorgsky’s works, including the opera Boris Godunov, were inspired by Russian history, folklore, and other nationalist themes but he was also a chronic alcoholic.

Pavel Tretyakov commissioned this painting after he heard of Mussorgsky’s self-destructive troubles, dispatching Repin to a military hospital to capture the composer before it was too late. This last portrait shows a red-nosed, watery-eyed broken man that is one of the stars of the show.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81) 1872 by Vasili Grigorevich Perov (1833-82) / Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia


Vasily Perov’s portrait of Dostoyevsky is the only one the writer ever sat for and his serious expression and hunched pose suggests a tortured soul.

The creator of novels including Crime and Punishment (1866) was sentenced to death for his allegedly anti-government activities, but instead his punishment was changed at the last moment to confinement at hard labour.

The writer’s spouse said that “Perov captured…Dostoyevsky’s ‘moment of creation’ when he ‘peered into himself’ as it were.”

Anton Chekhov 

Portrait of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, 1898 by Osip Emmanuilovich Braz (1873-1936) / Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia /

Anton Chekhov is the most frequently produced playwright after William Shakespeare, with works confronting the social changes in Russia following the liberation of the serfs.

Only gradually did Chekhov’s new form of drama, emphasizing characterization, detail and symbolism instead of plot development and incident, gain acceptance. This portrait of the writer (and practising doctor) in 1898, gazes directly at the viewer, analytical and highly intelligent.

Stanislavsky’s production of  Chekhov’s The Seagull, produced in the same year as this portrait, has been described as “one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama.”


Portrait of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), 1893 by Nikolai Kuznetsov (1850-1930) / Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Tchaikovsky is widely considered the most popular Russian composer in history. Among his most famed late works are the ballets The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892).

Despite his many successes, Tchaikovsky’s life was punctuated by personal crises and societal pressures to repress his homosexuality. Tchaikovsky died in St. Petersburg in 1893, the same year this intense portrait was painted. While the cause of his death was officially declared as cholera, some of his biographers believe that he committed suicide.

Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his brother Modest: “In Odessa the painter Kuznetsov painted a really astonishing portrait of me.”

Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 17 March to 26 June.

 Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov (1832-98) in the Gallery, 1901 by Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930) / Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia


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