The New Era in Russian Culture: The 18th and First Half of the 19th Century

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"The New Era in Russian Culture: The 18th and First Half of the 19th Century"

Evgenia Petrova
Published in 2005
11 pages, fully illustrated

Without experiencing a Renaissance of their own and having no antiquity to reinvent, the newly founded Orthodox culture of Russia learned and borrowed from European forms in an attempt to establish their own artistic sensibility and cultural norm. Evgenia Petrova's essay analyzes this cultural phenomenon, examining the reign of Peter the Great, the influence of his successors, and the birth of an empire.


Russian art of the eighteenth century illustrates significant cultural shifts. There is, first of all, the appearance, and ultimately the dominance, of secular genres, primarily portraits. The transition of influence and power from the church to the state during this period also influenced artistic monuments. There was a boom in the construction of administrative and private architectural complexes in the European style. The new, secular regime needed confirmation of its own significance by immortalizing its own image. The icon, in its sacred function as representative and substitute for the saint on earth, could no longer satisfy the new ethics. The icon is a divine, spiritual representation of the holy, a window into eternity. Its creation is a ritual process: preparation of the board, covering it with levkas (gesso), selection of a proper model for the painting of the face, and finally the painting of the icon, accompanied by prayer and fasting. An icon generally took a long time to make, and was often created by more than one artist. The depiction of a real, living person demanded a different approach—hence, the appearance of portraits in oil paint on canvas or metal at the end of the seventeenth century. This was both necessary and logical.

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