The Neo-Russian style
To assert that a particular historical moment marks the beginning of a particular cultural movement is a hazardous proposition inasmuch as any such moment is only one link in a chain of preceding and subsequent conditions that characterize or define such a movement. However, while precedents to, and consequences of, a “magic moment” (e.g. 1917) can always be found, there is often a constellation of events and circumstances that hastens or emphasizes what may have been a latent action, giving rise to its manifestation as a cultural expression (e.g. constructivism after the October Revolution) and there is at least a conventional wisdom in pursuing this method. The decade of the 1850s is such a moment, for it marked an important juncture in the evolution of Russian culture and gives us a strategic date for establishing a division between what could be called the “classical” and “modern” eras of the Russian visual arts.
From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, the Russian school of painting and sculpture, as opposed to the Moscow and regional schools of icon painting, had been centered in St. Petersburg, where the Imperial Academy of Arts held sway, supporting the neoclassical, idealist canon. Distant from the wellsprings of native culture, the St. Petersburg Academy had elaborated its artistic ideal according to the techniques and aesthetic canons of classical antiquity and cultivated the models set by the Old Masters. But with the passing of Karl Briullov and Aleksandr Ivanov, its greatest sons, in the 1850s, the autocracy of the Academy quickly waned and its official style became increasingly conservative.