The Early 18th Century: The Age of Peter the Great
After decades of famine and political turbulence, in 1613 Michael Romanov was named Tsar of Russia. The Romanov dynasty would reign until a revolution in 1917 ended imperial rule.
When Peter I (Peter the Great) ascended to the throne at the end of the 17th century, Russia was a backward land that stood outside the political affairs of Europe. Superstition, distrust of foreigners, and conservatism characterized most of the society. The economy was based on primitive agriculture and the military organization was sorely out of date. The reign of Peter I (1682–1725) was a turning point in Russian history. He was determined that Russia become and remain a great European power and carried forward the Westernizing policies in a radical and uncompromising manner.
Early in his reign, Peter traveled across northern Europe to learn the skills that Russia needed to grow and prosper. He visited shipyards, workshops, and factories, gaining knowledge of shipbuilding, clock-making, copper engraving, and dentistry. Peter returned with 260 chests filled with weapons, scientific instruments, tools, and a stuffed crocodile. He also recruited a large number of military and technical experts, who would teach their skills to Russians. He would also remodel the armed forces and bureaucracy along European lines and impose new taxes that dramatically increased the state’s revenues.
The construction of St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s grand legacy, was begun in 1703 on marshy territory won from Sweden. Foreign architects directed the project, and thousands died from the toil of building a new capital city from scratch.
This cultural and economic transformation demanded both ingenuity from the tsar and even greater sacrifice and suffering from the population. In 1649 a code of laws effectively divided the society into ranks and occupational classes from which neither the individual nor his or her descendants could move. The laws imposed on peasants froze not only social status but also residency and imposed a harsh form of serfdom and despotic rule.
Peter I, who would come to be known as Peter the Great, set the foundation for a new culture conceived in imitation of Western Europe. Art forms that had been forbidden by the medieval Russian Orthodox Church—such as portraiture, instrumental music, and dramatic productions—entered the mainstream of the nation’s cultural life. By the mid-18th century Russians were producing ballets, operas, chamber music, baroque architecture, and novels. Under Peter I’s rule, artists were sent abroad to study, and painters from Western Europe were brought to work in Russia. When Peter died in 1725 Russia was more respected and feared in Europe than ever before.
About this work
One genre dominated painting throughout the 18th century and beyond: the portrait. Russian artists sought to make portraits more than simply representations of “likenesses.” In this time of new ideas and social change, symbolism in painting, especially in portraits, became an important means of defining oneself and one’s place in a society.
The artist Ivan Nikitin (1688–1741) began his career as a singer in the court choir. In 1716, Peter the Great sponsored a group of young Russian artists to be sent to Europe for training. Included in this group were Ivan Nikitin. Ivan traveled to Florence, Italy, where he studied at the Academy of Arts. The studies in Italy profoundly affected his development as an artist. When he returned to Russia in 1720 he received the title of court painter. While in St. Petersburg, Nikitin created several portraits of Peter I, his family, and court officials. One of the few surviving signed works by Nikitin is this Portrait of the Field Hetman.
Although very little is known about the person depicted, it is valued for way that the subject is painted. The painting demonstrates the lessons that Nikitin would have learned during studies in Europe in the way both dramatic light and rich color are used. The hetman’s (captain’s) clothes and uniform identify him as a high-ranking soldier. The painting also shows another influence brought about under Peter I’s reign. Traditionally Russian men had long, full beards. This style had been practiced for centuries as part of official church doctrine that linked the beard with a connection to Christ. Determined to introduce Western customs into Russia, in 1698 Peter I issued an edict that imposed a tax on beards and decreed that officials must wear Western clothes. This painting, therefore, not only signals a change in artistic style, but in culture and fashion as well. Nikitin is important as one of the first Russian artists educated abroad and as an example of Russian artists’ successful transition to the Western style of painting.
- Although little is known about the subject of Nikitin’s Portrait of a Field Hetman (captain), look carefully at this work and invent a short imagined biography, based solely on your careful observations of the painting. Include your ideas about his age, personality, class status, profession, family, and outlook on life. What “clues” in this portrait led you to these conclusions? Share your writing with your classmates. Did you reach similar or very different conclusions about the life and personality of the man portrayed?
- Compared to other portraits in this section of the exhibition, or other portraits you are familiar with, would you describe this portrait as realistic or idealized? What observations can you point to in support of your conclusion?
- The dichotomies between tradition and innovation persist in contemporary culture. Name some current issues where this debate continues, and discuss where you stand on the old vs. new continuum.
- Some historians consider Peter I a hero who steered his country in the direction of progress. Others see him as a villain who damaged Russian society by cutting it adrift from its traditions. After researching Peter’s reign, hold a class debate focusing on the seeming schism between holding on to traditions and embracing progress.
- From the powdered wigs of the 18th century to “afros” and Beatles haircuts in the 1960s, hairstyles have been important indicators of political and social affiliation. Research an era through its hairstyle and report on how it reflected the temper of the times.
- Peter I’s attempts to bring Western ways to Russia affected not only the government and economy, but also details of everyday life from hairstyles to table manners. In 1717 he issued a book on etiquette which included the following rules:
- Peter I’s attempts to bring Western ways to Russia affected not only
the government and economy, but also details of everyday life from
hairstyles to table manners. In 1717 he issued a book on etiquette
which included the following rules:
First, clip your nails. Wash your hands and sit down in a refined manner, sit upright and do not be the first to grab the dish. Do not eat like pigs and do not blow into the bowl so that it splashes everywhere.…When you drink, do not wipe your lips with your hand but use a napkin, and do not drink until you have swallowed your food. Do not lick your fingers, and do not gnaw at bones, but rather, take the meat off with a knife.
–From The Honorable Mirror of Youth, 1717
Consider current codes of behavior that you are obliged to obey, including dress codes, buckling seat belts, wearing helmets when biking, and limits on cell phones use. Should government and institutions be able to impose rules on personal behavior? Explain your responses.