Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky

Past exhibition archive
17 March - 26 June 2016

★★★★ ‘The great figures are all there in their most iconic portraits... A vivid and intimate survey of an extraordinary period’  Daily Telegraph

★★★★ The Guardian

★★★★ The Times

★★★★ Time Out

Russia and the Arts was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see masterpieces from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The exhibition focused on the great writers, artists, actors, composers and patrons whose achievements helped develop an extraordinary and rich cultural scene in Russia between 1867 and 1914.

The exhibition also showed how Russian art was developing a new self-confidence, with penetrating early Realism later complemented by the brighter hues of Russian Impressionism and the bold, faceted forms of Cubism.

Generously supported by

Blavatnik Family Foundation logo

With support from the Russia and The Arts Exhibition Supporters Group:
Sophia Contemporary Gallery
Tsukanov Family Foundation
AVC Charity Foundation

Spring Season 2016 sponsored by

Herbert Smith Freehills logo
Baroness Varvara Iskul von Hildenbandt (detail)


Curator Dr Rosalind P. Blakesley leads an audio tour of the exhibition.



Vladimir Dal by Vasily Perov
Vladimir Dal by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery


Writers acquired unparalleled respect in the nineteenth century. As the country’s autocratic system of government came under growing scrutiny, writers were venerated for their ability to voice social, political and moral concerns. Of importance to many was the need to develop Russian traditions in art, music and literature, rather than imitate western European practice. Vladimir Dal and others devoted themselves to the preservation of Russian proverbs, folk songs and fairytales, while Vladimir Stasov and other nationalistic critics championed local artists and encouraged Russian themes.

Painting of Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov
Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery


However rich the talent that characterised Russian writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev, Fedor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy stand out from the crowd.

Turgenev established his credentials in 1852 with an acclaimed collection of stories known as A Sportman’s Sketches, which he followed with novels, short stories and plays that established him as one of the most lyrical chroniclers of Russian life. Dostoevsky mined the darker seams of urban existence in his debut novel, Poor Folk (1846), as well as in his later psychological masterpieces such as Crime and Punishment (1866). Tolstoy acquired an international following with War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), before renouncing his earlier fiction in order to devote himself to religious and philosophical enquiry. Together, they exemplify the diversity and ambition of Russian fiction during one of the cultural heydays of imperial rule.

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery


Russia boasted a variety of theatrical venues by the end of the nineteenth century. In St Petersburg, the opulent Mariinsky Theatre was balanced by the elegant Alexandrinsky Theatre. In Moscow, the Bolshoi Theatre mounted vast spectacles on an extravagant scale, while the adjacent Maly Theatre favoured intense plays by the likes of Turgenev, Ostrovsky and Pisemsky.

Most radical was the Moscow Art Theatre which was conceived by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko in 1897. From its performance of The Seagull in 1898, the theatre championed Chekhov’s work, and acquired renown as Russia’s most innovative and risk-taking theatrical space.

Painting of Modest Mussorgsky
Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin, 1881
© State Tretyakov Gallery


In 1862, Anton Rubinstein founded the St Petersburg Conservatoire to further the education and professionalisation of Russian musicians. At the same time, a group of young composers that included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Modest Mussorgsky began to experiment with forms of music that were identifiably Russian rather than derivations of European styles. The critic Vladimir Stasov zealously promoted them as exemplars of the national musical tradition he longed for and dismissed the conservatoires system. However, composers such as Tchaikovsky came to value both western and native musical styles.

Painting of Ivan Morozov
Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov, 1910
© State Tretyakov Gallery


The late nineteenth century was a period of great cultural vitality in Russia, not least thanks to some notably generous and open-minded patrons. The railway magnate Savva Mamontov extended lavish hospitality to artists at his country estate of Abramtsevo, where an entire colony of painters and sculptors gathered from the 1870s. Most celebrated of all are Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov who amassed some of the richest collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting, and opened vital new dialogues between French modernism and Russian art.

Painting of Anna Akhmatova
Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914
© State Tretyakov Gallery


On 22 January 1905, several thousand demonstrators marched towards the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. They were fired on by the Imperial Guard, leading to scores of fatalities and a period of acute social and political unrest.

These events forced Russians to reconsider their social, political or creative responsibilities. In response, a new generation of writers produced poetry and prose of stunning originality and resonance. Abandoning previous convention, they exemplify the richness of Russian culture in the twilight of imperial rule.


Pavel Tretyakov by Ilia Repin, 1901
Pavel Tretyakov by Ilia Repin, 1901
© State Tretyakov Gallery

In 1856, the same year as the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery in London, a young textile industrialist called Pavel Tretyakov began to collect Russian art. A quiet but resolute man, Tretyakov dedicated vast resources to the development of his collection over the next four decades. Tretyakov envisaged a national portrait collection within his gallery to celebrate prominent figures in public, intellectual and cultural life and commissioned Russia’s leading painters to portray them. By the time he donated it to the city of Moscow in 1892 it was valued at nearly 1.5 million roubles and comprised almost two thousand works of art. It now forms the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s national gallery in Moscow and the greatest collection of Russian art in the world.


The unprecedented cultural exchange between the National Portrait Gallery, London and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow took place to mark the 160 anniversary of the foundation of both galleries. The project was part of an ongoing programme of national and international loans which enabled us to share our Collection with as wide a range of people as possible.

2016 was also declared the joint UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature.

Visitors in London could see Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky (17 March - 26 June 2016). The exhibition included celebrated portraits of key figures from a golden age of the arts in Russia and was the most important exhibition of Russian portraits ever to take place at a British museum.

In Moscow, the State Tretyakov Gallery hosted Elizabeth to Victoria: British Portraits from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery (21 April - 24 July 2016). Among the loans from the Gallery to this exhibition were portraits of Dickens, Newton, Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Darwin and the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare.

The exchange also enabled the Gallery to display further works from the Collection. Some of the paintings loaned to Moscow were replaced by other portraits of those sitters and a series of ‘Contemporary Conversations’ interventions showed modern portraits alongside their historical counterparts.