The seventeenth century marks a turning point for the powers of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Denmark, long the leader in the region, loses its dominance to Sweden and Russia, which in turn engage in a series of wars over land and ports in the Baltic. Although Sweden triumphs initially, Russia later wins out, gaining territory extending from Finland to Lithuania. In the eighteenth century, Russia also expands on its southern and western borders at the expense of the ever-weaker Polish Republic and Ottoman empire. A peripheral force before 1600, by 1800 Russia becomes one of the world’s great powers.
Great personalities and continual warfare dominate the region throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Mighty autocrats demonstrate their sovereignty in military campaigns and ambitious programs of patronage. Artists design and decorate weapons and fortresses as well as palaces, gardens, paintings, and sculpture. Many of the artists working in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia travel there from Germany, Italy, and France at the invitation of royal patrons and, as a result, shifts in style and taste reflect artistic currents in western Europe. The Dutch and German Baroque prevail in the early seventeenth century; later, Italian Baroque influences are definitive. In the eighteenth century, the French court becomes the primary source of inspiration for monumental projects, and by 1800 Neoclassical design is favored for architecture and interiors as well as in painting and sculpture. The founding of royal academies in the eighteenth century provides for the training of artists in the several nations.
In keeping with Russian tradition, a new crown is made for the coronation of the new czar, Michael, a grandnephew of Ivan IV and the first of the Romanoff dynasty, which will continue until 1917. The crown is resplendent with gold and jewels, but the imperial treasury is empty, so the Stroganov family, whose wealth derives from their investment in the rich mines of the Urals, pays for the czar’s regalia.
A fire devastates the largely wooden city of Oslo, then in Danish hands. King Christian IV (r. 1588–1648) shifts the settlement to the northwest, renames it Christiania, and orders it rebuilt in fire-resistant materials such as stone and brick. The Norwegians import and adapt building designs from the Netherlands. As a result, the houses of Christiania display Dutch features, like ornamented gable ends facing the street, as well as local traits, like alternating bands of red and yellow brick.
Naval build-up in the Baltic creates new opportunities for wood sculptors, whose art is flourishing throughout the region. Regularly engaged to fashion church furnishings such as altarpieces, pulpits, organ surrounds, and statues of saints and angels, wood carvers are now commissioned to adorn superb warships. In Stockholm, the German artist Mårten Redtmer supervises the team that decorates the royal ship Wasa with dozens of mermaids, lions, classical and biblical figures; the ship capsizes and sinks in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628. Ambitious navies are also built in smaller Baltic states, like the duchy of Kurland (in modern-day Latvia), where the Dutchman Nicholas Soeffrens finds work carving figures for ships around 1650; he goes on to found a shop that flourishes well into the eighteenth century.
The Nezhdanovsky brothers, merchants of Yaroslavl, underwrite the building of a brick church and tall bell tower dedicated to Saint John Chrysostom. Yaroslavl, a city on the Volga north of Moscow, has grown rich thanks to the flow of Dutch, French, and English traders calling at the Russian ports along the White Sea, and the Nezhdanovsky brothers represent one of many merchant families competing there in commercial as well as artistic enterprises.
Simon Ushakov is active at the Armory, an all-purpose art-producing workshop located in the Moscow Kremlin. Like other Armory artists, Ushakov executes a variety of commissions: he paints icons, frescoes, banners, and maps, and also produces designs for coins and guns. His careful portrayal of faces seems to derive from two traditions, both formative influences on Russian art of the period, namely, icon painting of Byzantine ancestry and sixteenth-century Flemish painting, probably known to him through prints.
Nikon, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, institutes the first of a series of reforms meant to emphasize the church’s Byzantine pedigree. In addition to changes in liturgy and devotional observances, he issues new requirements for ecclesiastical architecture: churches shall no longer be built in the time-honored manner, with pyramidal roofs and a profusion of ornamental onion-domes, but rather shall incorporate cubic forms crowned with five domes, in imitation of the Byzantine cross-in-square arrangement. Nikon’s reforms provoke resistance and controversy between the adherents of his new orthodoxy and the “Old Believers” who maintain the authority of traditional ways. The schism weakens the power of the Russian church, but coincides with a flowering of religious art. For instance, at the New Jerusalem Monastery, which Nikon founds near Moscow in 1658, hundreds of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian craftsmen make icon screens, enameled tiles, liturgical vessels, and splendid priestly vestments.
In the vast domains of the Polish Republic, the nobility, known as the szlachta, gains power and wealth, while the king’s prestige and his treasury steadily dwindle. King John II Casimir (r. 1648–68), almost unable to gather an army to defend his Lithuanian territories against invading Swedes and Russians, cannot commission works of art, but his more formidable vassals, among them the Potocki in the Ukraine and Radziwills of Lithuania, demonstrate their dominance and self-interest by building sumptuous residences and staging ostentatious pageants.
Work begins on the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Vilnius in the Lithuanian territories of the Polish Republic. Designed by Jan Zaor and Fernando da Lucca, the church has a domed interior adorned with lavish stucco ornament consisting of garlands, putti, animals, figures in varied poses, and architectural frames in low relief. The sculptures are made by the Milanese masters Pietro Peretti and Giovanni Maria Galli, with the help of numerous local craftsmen. The rich and refined interior suggests the Lithuanian reaction to the return of peace after the Thirteen Years’ War, in which Russian and Swedish armies successively devastated the region.
Nationalism and scientific enterprise fuel new artistic undertakings in Sweden. Erik Dahlberg compiles and publishes a volume of copperplate engravings depicting old buildings and other national antiquities. Also published around this time is an album devoted to the plants of Sweden, issued by Olof Rudbeck and poetically titled Campus Elysii (i.e., the Elysian Fields). Rudbeck is active in the great university city of Uppsala, where he designs a famous anatomy theater crowned with a distinctive cupola in addition to bridges and houses.
Czar Peter (r. 1682–1725) returns to Russia after a tour through Germany and Holland, where he traveled incognito, working to learn shipbuilding, sailing, and every form of European ingenuity. Back in Moscow, he frequents the foreigners’ quarter, or Nemetskaya Sloboda. Although founded under Ivan IV to keep Russians away from Germans and other resident aliens, the district had become by Peter’s time a populous and orderly miniature city with regular avenues, gardens, and fountains. Fiercely determined to make Russia the equal of Western nations, Peter embraces Western sciences, arts, and manners, and tirelessly promotes them throughout his reign.
With the permission of the Habsburg emperor in Vienna, the duke of Prussia has himself crowned King Frederick I of Prussia in the royal chapel of his castle at Königsberg (known through much of the twentieth century as Kaliningrad), near the Baltic Sea. As their territory, standing, and military might increase throughout the eighteenth century, the Prussian kings develop Berlin—well to the southeast—as their capital, but Königsberg retains its stature as their original power base and ancestral home, the capital of Ducal Prussia.
On a site beside the Gulf of Finland, Peter declares that a new city shall rise. Hundreds of workmen embark upon the seemingly impossible task of transforming a marshy wasteland into the imperial capital of St. Petersburg. Among the first buildings constructed are a fortress and a shipyard; later, churches and houses for every class of society are erected. Instrumental in the task of designing these buildings is the Swiss architect Domenico Tresini, who had earlier worked for Frederick IV in Copenhagen. In the interests of creating a city of uniform aspect, Tressini issues standard designs for each type of building, from aristocrats’ residences to tradesmen&’s quarters. Noblemen are forced to erect houses and spend time in St. Petersburg, and by 1712 it becomes the Russian capital. Peter himself is more interested in utilitarian buildings than palatial houses, but when official needs demand, he borrows one of the splendid palaces erected for his friend, Prince Alexander Menshikov.
Peter establishes the Imperial Armory at Tula. Using a great variety of metalworking methods, including a niello technique developed at Velikiy Ustyg remarkable for its delicacy and durability, the craftsmen of the Armory fashion a baffling range of intricately ornamented objects in steel, including furniture, jewelry, toilette accessories, samovars, and weapons.
Peter receives from Frederick William I of Prussia (r. 1713–40) a series of amber panels as a splendid state gift. Some combine cut pieces in different shades of amber to form intarsia designs, while others feature patterns carved in relief. Peter reciprocates by sending a state gift of equal value in the form of fifty-five excellent soldiers and an officer qualified to train superior troops. It is uncertain where and how Peter displayed the amber panels, but in 1743, Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli uses them in spectacular combination with mirrors and chandeliers to create the extraordinary interior of the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace at Czarskoe Selo.
To celebrate the Russian triumph in the Great Northern War, Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli and his son Bartolomeo Francesco enlarge a great system of ornamental fountains in the lower park of the Summer Palace at Peterhof. Water cascades down stepped terraces into a huge basin set with gilt bronze sculpture. From the palace above, observers can gaze down on the Great Cascades with the Gulf of Finland beyond, the site of many recent battles. The surrounding gardens, laid out by the French landscape architect J.-B.-A. Le Blond, imitate the grounds at Versailles and suggest a comparison between Peter and the great French king Louis XIV.
A Jewish community at Volpa in modern-day Belorussia enjoys its new wooden synagogue. The building is centrally planned, with a sweeping three-tiered roof and corner pavilions with delicate balconies; the spacious interior is vaulted with a complex eight-sided cupola. Wooden synagogues adorned with fine carving and bright paintings are common in Eastern Europe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although no examples are preserved today. The carpenters at Volpa likely worked on projects of all kinds, for wooden churches and manor houses are also erected nearby at about the same time.
Decoration in pseudo-Chinese style, or chinoiserie, is in vogue throughout the Baltic. Russian craftsmen imitate oriental lacquer for interiors at Monplaisir Palace at Peterhof, and blue and white China patterns are used in the Frederiksborg study of Frederick IV of Denmark. A second wave of enthusiasm for chinoiserie occurs in the 1760s, when Antonio Rinaldi designs a fanciful Chinese pavilion at Oranienbaum near St. Petersburg and Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz builds a Rococo Chinese village for the Swedish royal family at Drottningholm.
The accession of Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741–62) ushers in a phase of Rococo magnificence in the arts of Russia. Chief in this development is the architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. Born in Italy and trained in France during the reign of Louis XIV, Rastrelli came with his father to Russia in 1716. Well versed in the traditions of Russia as well as Western Europe, Rastrelli is ideally qualified to create the pavilions, palaces, and interiors required by the pleasure-loving Elizabeth and her lively court. His monumental Rococo perfectly expresses Elizabeth’s character, and the two share a similarity of vision unusual in relationships between patron and architect. Among his first projects for her is a temporary wooden palace in Moscow, where she stays for her coronation in 1741, and the last is the Fourth Winter Palace, the colossal residence of the czars in St. Petersburg, built between 1754 and 1762. The great three-story structure built around a square courtyard has hundreds of windows framed with white surrounds, embellished with gilding, and set against turquoise-painted walls articulated with classical columns. Rastrelli also plans glittering interiors for the palace’s hundreds of rooms; still preserved today is the Jordan Staircase, in which two stairways part from a landing above and rejoin below to create a superb setting for aristocratic watching and being watched.
Lieutenant Colonel Augustin Ehrensvärd begins building Suomenlinna Fortress on six islands off the coast of Helsinki. Constructed of granite, the fortress has an ingenious plan suited not only to classical principles and the unusual site but also to the demands of military engagement, for Helsinki is in Swedish hands throughout the period but is coveted by Russia, and the two powers are continually at war.
Empress Elizabeth of Russia engages her favorite architect, Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, to design a convent in St. Petersburg. A masterpiece of the Russian Rococo, Smolny Convent consists of two-story buildings that define a square courtyard in the center of which rises the taller cathedral, distinguished by its facade of richly layered planes and five crowning domes. As in many other examples of Rastrelli’s Elizabethan architecture, color plays a role: at Smolny, the exterior walls, painted blue, balance the white mouldings that articulate them like ornaments in white icing.
Frederick V of Denmark (r. 1746–66) cedes to the city of Copenhagen a large piece of land designated for a modern, planned neighborhood. The major architect on the project, Niels Eigtved, conceives an eight-sided plaza, the Amalienborg Square, as the focus of the district, called Frederiksstaden; regular avenues, lined with noble residences and churches, radiate from the square. Eigtved designs buildings with clean facades, balanced proportions, and restrained use of the classical orders; the interiors, on which he also works, are Rococo confections of contemporary French fashion, lavish with plasterwork and painting. In 1753, the French sculptor François-Joseph Saly comes to Copenhagen to make a proud centerpiece for Amalienborg Square: a bronze equestrian statue of Frederick V, funded by the Asiatisk Kompagni, a Danish trading company.
At Buczacz, a city in the Ukrainian territories of the mighty Potocki family, a town hall is constructed. Although nominally subject to the king of Poland, the Potocki, like other powerful landowners, had constructed Buczacz as a monument to their own greatness and as a center for the administration of their lands; it was therefore a private city whose foundation grew from aristocratic concerns rather than economic and social factors. The town hall of Buczacz, designed by Bernard Meretyn, glorifies the Potocki rather than expressing civic pride. The building consists of a two-story square block surmounted by an outsized tower adorned with allegorical figures celebrating the Potocki and sculpted by Johan Georg Pinsel.
Mikhail Lomonosov publishes his Rhetoric and Grammar, the first manual for literary language in Russian. Often compared to Peter the Great, Lomonosov is as indefatigable and omnivorous in his intellectual pursuits as was Peter in practical, technical, and cultural matters. Born a serf, he ran away from home to study in St. Petersburg, won a scholarship for further study in Germany, and later became a professor of chemistry at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a panegyric poet in the courts of the czars. Lomonosov’s grammar, however, is his most lasting achievement, for in it he demonstrates the capacity of the Russian language to speak to every occasion and audience and so establishes the foundation upon which Russian literature develops.
The accession of Catherine II to the Russian throne in 1762 initiates a shift in patronage. Eager to differentiate her serious ideals from the pleasure-loving ways of her predecessor Elizabeth, Catherine snubs Rastrelli and promotes instead the Neoclassical style in architecture and decoration. She orders the demolition of the wooden palace at Kolomenskoe, built under Czar Alexei in the 1660s and much loved by Elizabeth, but she also orders a detailed model to document its form—and to show her respect for Russian traditions. An asymmetrical complex with exterior stairways, galleries and windows of varied form, and a spiky profile composed of spires, tent-roofs, and onion-domes, the Kolomenskoe Palace has a fairy-tale exoticism but demonstrates the antithesis of the unity and monumentality that Catherine favors.
The French sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet comes to St. Petersburg at the invitation of Catherine II to execute a spectacular equestrian monument in honor of Peter the Great. A splendid statement of Catherine’s devotion to Peter and still a symbol of St. Petersburg, the bronze statue depicts the czar mounted on a rearing horse and is itself set on a gigantic boulder cut from a cliff that Peter himself is reputed to have scaled. In 1833, Aleksandr Pushkin, the first great poet of Russian literature, brings the figure to life in his poem “The Bronze Horseman,” in which the statue, and with it the force of Peter’s legacy, chases a hapless St. Petersburg man whose sweetheart has been swept away by the floodwaters of the Neva.
Bernardo Bellotto is named court painter to King Stanislaus II of Poland. The nephew of the celebrated Venetian view painter Canaletto, Bellotto studied with his uncle, painting the sights of Venice, before leaving to find new material and new patrons in northern Italy and later in Dresden. But after his release from employment at court in 1763, he traveled again. Bound for St. Petersburg, he stopped at Warsaw and remained there until his death in 1780. Stanislaus, eager to proclaim the stature of his capital city, is pleased to have Bellotto paint Warsaw and commissions a series of twenty-six views to adorn the royal castle. For the series, Bellotto employs linear perspective, a raking light source, and a wealth of atmospheric detail, but he emphasizes momentary scenes of pageantry rather than enduring buildings. For instance, his view of the king’s election, painted in 1778 (and still in the royal castle), depicts an open field framed with trees in which a mulititude of people stand in ceremonious rows and so define the orthogonals of a perspective system.
The Danish regent Johann Friedrich Struense finds the royal treasury depleted thanks to Denmark’s many wars and decreasing power. He cuts the budget of the Danish Royal Academy (chartered in 1754), cancels ambitious building projects, and sends home the many foreign artists engaged to execute them. While the crown reduces its patronage, Danish aristocrats continue to require decorative paintings, portraits, and architectural ornaments, for which they turn to such local artists as Nicolaj Abraham Abildgaard and Jens Juel.
At the first exhibition of the Russian Academy of Arts, founded in 1757, the Ukrainian painter Dmitry Levitsky wins great acclaim for his portrait of the architect Alexander Kokorinov (today in the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg), who is shown in a lilac suit and fur-trimmed coat, gesturing toward a plan of the Academy. Thereafter made professor of portraiture, Levitsky sets the standard for portraits of the Russian aristocracy, which are characterized by their psychological charge, sincerity of facial expression, expansive grace of pose and gesture, and richly textured costumes and surroundings.
The Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, who has been working in Rome for the last eleven years, returns home at the request of King Gustav III (r. 1772–92). His sculpture incorporates lessons learned by observing Greco-Roman works as well as the masterpieces of Italian Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. In addition to carving figures imbued with majesty and weight, he makes pen and ink drawings remarkable for their sense of movement and humor, frequent irreverence, and occasional eroticism.
The Tauride Palace is under construction at St. Petersburg. The magnificent building, designed by Ivan Starov, demonstrates a monumental Neoclassicism, with its six-columned temple front, symmetrical plan, and enclosed winter garden of a form adapted from Roman bath buildings; its central room, an octagon surmounted by a dome, is soon nicknamed “the Pantheon.” The palace is a gift from Catherine II to her sometime lover Grigory Potemkin, who distinguished himself as a general in the Russian conquest of the Crimea.
Charles Cameron, a favorite architect of Catherine II, completes the Agate Pavilion, a suite of six rooms in the palace at Czarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg. Cameron, a Scotsman, had written a book on Roman bath buildings which pleased Catherine so much that she invited him to Russia to work for her. His interiors, like those of Robert Adam, are inspired by Pompeian schemes, but the Agate Pavilion is outstanding for its use of costly and colorful materials. The lapis lazuli, alabaster, agate, malachite, jasper, porphyry, and marble with which the rooms are encrusted come from sources in Finland, the Urals, and Siberia, and together exhibit the wealth and extent of the Russian empire.
The Polish king Stanislaus II pays a visit to Nesvizh, the ancestral castle of Prince Karol Radziwill in Lithuania. Although legally the king’s vassal, Radziwill greets him with pomp befitting an imperial host, presenting himself as one more powerful than his royal host. A triumphal arch is built for the king’s entry, a fireworks display recreates great events of ancient history, and hundreds of courtiers, soldiers, and musicians process in brilliant silk costumes, garbed as Hungarians, Sarmatians, and janissaries. The splendor of these private ceremonies points an ironic contrast with the standing of the Polish state, diminished by the partitions of 1772.
The Swedish entrepreneur Eric Hagström invents new equipment for carving porphyry, the hard red stone prized since antiquity for its rarity and rich color. Implementing his new process, Hagström founds a porphyry works near an important source of the material at Älvdalen. The manufactory produces vases, jewelry, and objets d’art of Neoclassical design until the Swedish crown buys out the business in 1814.
Immanuel Kant, who has lived his entire life in the East Prussian city of Königsberg (Kaliningrad) on the Baltic, publishes at Riga his Critique of Judgment, in which he demonstrates the special nature of taste as a form of judgment lacking the objectivity of quantitative sciences but founded nevertheless on principles that transcend the purely subjective. Inestimably influential even into the present, the Critique formulates the basis for subsequent studies of aesthetics and the history of art.
Gustav III, king of Sweden and a flamboyant patron of the arts, is assassinated at a masked ball. Gustav was an exuberant proponent of the arts throughout his twenty-year reign. His encouragement of Neoclassical taste gave birth to the Gustavian style in the decorative arts, in which furniture and interiors incorporated elements of French design as well as patterns and colors associated with Pompeii and Herculaneum. The fine arts of Gustav’s reign display his love of spectacle. In his coronation portrait by Carl Gustav Pilo (now in Stockholm Cathedral), he is clothed in a wash of white fabric, fur, and pearls while he gazes pointedly at the viewer. He brought the architect Louis-Jean Desprez to Sweden as a set designer, and in 1775 he commissioned Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz to design a sumptuous opera house (now destroyed), which opened in Stockholm in 1782. Fittingly, Gustav’s murder is the subject of a dramatic work still regularly performed, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera of 1859.
The art collection of Catherine II, installed in the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg, numbers over 3,000 paintings. This Neoclassical building designed by Vallin de la Mothe in 1764 is adjacent to Rastrelli’s recently finished Fourth Winter Palace. Throughout her long reign, Catherine acquired individual works and whole collections on the advice of discriminating agents, including Denis Diderot and Friedrich Melchior von Grimm. When French noblemen displaced by the French Revolution were forced to sell their Old Master paintings and drawings, Catherine proved a ready buyer, and after the Russian conquest of the Crimea, she also obtained antiquities excavated there. Catherine’s holdings formed the nucleus of the Russian imperial collection, and later of the Hermitage Museum, which today occupies the great Winter Palace as well as the Hermitage that Catherine knew.
“Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=eue (October 2003)