As everywhere in Europe, the first years of the nineteenth century in eastern Europe and Scandinavia are shaken by Napoleon’s military campaigns. After the conclusion of hostilities, the Danes, who sided with the French, are stripped of Norway, which is ceded to Sweden, who had sided against France. The Russians’ bold and ultimately successful resistance to the French invasion earn them respect and admiration in international circles.
Between 1815 and 1848, growing prosperity and nationalist sentiment in both eastern Europe and Scandinavia foster the development of all the arts. Painters trained at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen portray the unique qualities of Northern light and the harsh beauty of the Scandinavian landscape. In Russia, fresh attention to folk culture and contemporary social realities invigorates efforts in painting, literature, and music.
By the 1850s, poverty, emigration, and depopulation weaken Scandinavia, while the Russian empire continues to prosper, dominating eastern Europe and recognized everywhere as a major player in world affairs. By the end of the nineteenth century, Russian authors and composers, among them Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky, are read, heard, and acclaimed throughout the world.
The assassination of Czar Paul I brings his son Alexander to power in Russia. Continuing the tradition of his predecessors, Alexander I pursues an ambitious building program in Saint Petersburg. The architecture reflects his taste for military pomp and the French Empire style. In 1805, work begins on the Stock Exchange, a building in the form of a Doric temple designed by the French architect Thomas de Thomon (1754–1813). Adrian Zakharov (1761–1811) designs the Admiralty Building, an august structure whose massive arched gateway is crowned with a tall spire and adorned with classical elements. After the defeat of Napoleon, Alexander commissions buildings of a triumphal character, like the Pavlovski Barracks (1817–20), where the architect Vasilii Petrovich Stasov (1769–1848) designs a balanced Neoclassical facade with a giant Corinthian order to conceal functional spaces inside.
Napoleon’s armies sweep through Russia, devastating the country as they go, and reach Moscow by autumn. Rather than leave their city to the invaders, the Muscovites burn it to the ground. The gesture shocks Napoleon and reverses his fortunes: threatened by privation, disease, and the onset of winter, the army retreats, losing some four-fifths of its initial troops in one of the greatest military disasters in world history. The strength of Russian resistance to Napoleon profoundly impresses western Europe and stirs Russian pride for generations afterward. It is magnificently evoked by Leo Tolstoy in his novel War and Peace (1865–69) and by Pyotr Tchaikovsky in his 1812 Overture (1880).
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853) returns from Rome to his native Denmark. During his six years away from home, Eckersberg studied life drawing with the French painter Jacques Louis David in Paris; in Italy, he honed his skills as a landscapist, painting monuments and city views from unusual angles and rendering the effects of sunlight. He pursues portraiture and landscape painting when he returns to Copenhagen. His example inspires the next generation of Danish painters, many of whom are his pupils at the Royal Academy, and his career inaugurates the so-called Golden Age of Danish painting that lasts into the 1850s.
Subjects from Old Norse mythology and Viking history become popular in Scandinavian art. The Danish sculptor Hermann Ernst Freund (1786–1840) applies classical formulas to the representation of Norse gods, such as Odin (1822, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen), modeled after the Belvedere Torso. Painters, similarly trained in the academic manner, also cast Northern subjects in classical colors. For example, the Norwegian painter Frits Jensen (1818–1870) adapts the iconography of the Rape of the Sabines to portray a Viking attacking a Southern woman (1845, Bergen Billedgalleri), and the Swedish artist Nils Jakob Blommér (1816–1853) paints the goddess Freja seeking her husband in the guise of a Renaissance Venus in a chariot drawn by cupids (1852, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). The growing interest in Scandinavia’s medieval history is also seen in the work of landscape painters such as Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857), who sometimes includes rune stones and other Viking references in his views of Norwegian scenery (e.g., Winter at the Sognefjord, 1827, National Gallery, Oslo). The German artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) shares Dahl’s enthusiasm for Nordic mythology and history; in the early 1820s, the two work and exhibit together in Dresden.
Upon the death of Alexander I in Russia, his brother Nicholas is poised to succeed him. His accession is threatened, however, by voices calling for democratic reforms, including a constitution modeled on that of the United States. On December 14, the uprising led by these so-called Decembrists is brutally crushed, and the hopes of Russia’s progressives are frustrated for another generation. Nicholas I, known as the “Iron Czar,” enforces military discipline and strict censorship during his thirty-year reign.
Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837), celebrated as a poet and a dandy in his own time and ever after, meets Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852) in Saint Petersburg. It is a heady time for Pushkin: after a youth full of romantic escapades and literary successes, he is savoring the first months of his marriage to a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl. Gogol is faced with more trying circumstances: his stories, later appreciated for their sharp satire and ingenious narrative strategies, win little praise from his contemporaries.
The Russian artist Karl Briullov (1799–1852) completes his monumental painting The Last Day of Pompeii (Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg). It is the result of long study and residence in Italy, where Briullov made sketches of Roman ruins, the countryside, and figural groupings in frescoes by Raphael and Michelangelo. The dramatic lighting, classical subject, and awesome horror of his canvas appeal to the Romantic taste of the time, including the English authors Sir Walter Scott and Bulwer Lytton, who based his novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) on Briullov’s canvas.
The Danish painter Christen Købke (1810–1848) moves with his family to a house near Blegdammen outside Copenhagen. He paints the surrounding scenery in summery, ethereal light, using sensibilities he developed under his teacher, C. W. Eckersberg. He frequently visits the sixteenth-century Frederiksborg Castle, and paints it in the limpid light of a fairy-tale evening. Because of Købke’s attraction to the magic of the everyday, he is sometimes compared with his Danish contemporary, the celebrated fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875).
Johan Gustaf Sandberg (1782–1854) completes the frescoes in Uppsala Cathedral. An energetic proponent of the arts in Sweden, Sandberg paints people in folk costume, as well as Swedish customs and vignettes of life in the countryside, and he encourages other painters to embrace such themes. His cathedral frescoes depict a grander nationalist subject, scenes from the life of Gustav Vasa, the great sixteenth-century king who led Sweden to independence from Denmark.
The Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen is built under the supervision of M. G. B. Bindesbøll (1800–1856). The templelike structure will house the impressive array of sculpture given to the public by the internationally renowned Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1768/70–1844). Thorvaldsen’s first teacher was his father, an Icelandic immigrant and woodcarver, but his style is most indebted to the monuments of ancient sculpture displayed in Rome, where he moved in 1797 and remained for forty-one years. An expert in the Neoclassical manner of the early nineteenth century, Thorvaldsen becomes famous for sculpting portraits imbued with a classical grandeur and coolly elegant figures of Greco-Roman gods and heroes. His talents also earn him important commissions from the most powerful patrons of the period: Napoleon orders a frieze depicting the exploits of Alexander the Great, intended to adorn the Quirinal Palace in Rome (1812), and the papacy commissions him to design the tomb of Pope Pius VII (1824—31).
The Russian painter Aleksandr Ivanov (1806–1858) completes The Appearance of Christ to the People (Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow), which had occupied him since 1833. The painting, which represents Christ approaching a crowd assembled around John the Baptist, expresses the artist’s own religious feeling and spiritual mission as well as his extensive research into the landscape of the Levant and the iconographic precedents for this scene. In its aspirations and scope, Ivanov’s enterprise is comparable to the literary efforts of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Danish painter Constantin Hansen (1804–1880) begins work on a large canvas commemorating the constitutional assembly of 1848, the meeting that marked King Frederick VII’s willing surrender of powers to the legislature of a newly established constitutional monarchy in Denmark. In the interest of historical accuracy, Hansen makes studies of the room in Frederiksborg Palace, where the meeting occurred, and also makes use of photographs of participants taken twelve years before.
Alexander II, crowned czar in 1855, abolishes serfdom in the Russian empire. The gesture is part of a progressive social agenda embraced by many in Russia, including the influential critic Vladimir Stasov (1824–1906) and the artists Vasilii Perov (1834–1882), Ivan Kramskoi (1837–1887), Vasilii Surikov (1848–1916), and Ilia Repin (1844–1930). The group known as the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), with which Surikov and Repin show their works, takes exhibitions to the Russian provinces in order to educate the public and encourage appreciation for contemporary art. Among the Wanderers’ favorite subjects are scenes of rural life, peasant labor, and Russian history—all painted with uncompromising realism.
An unsuccessful rebellion in Lithuania brings punishment on its leaders from the country’s Russian rulers. Among the rebels’ efforts to cultivate national pride was a museum in Vilnius that housed works of art and objects relevant to Lithuanian history. The Russians disbanded the collection and took much of it to the Rumiantsev Museum in Moscow. Lithuania, subject to Russian rule since the partitioning of Poland in the late eighteenth century, has maintained a stormy relationship with Russia: a previous revolt was crushed in 1831.
The self-taught Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881) submits the score of his opera Boris Godunov to the imperial censors, who require substantial changes. The work, based on a play by Pushkin, draws on Russian history, folk music, and the composer’s own unorthodox approach. Mussorgsky is one of a group of Russian composers, known as “the Mighty Handful,” who gain recognition abroad and seek to write music expressive of the Russian spirit. Their contemporary is the academically trained composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), who uses western European musical conventions to treat Russian themes in works such as the balletSwan Lake and the opera Eugene Onegin.
In honor of the recently crowned Czar Alexander III, a group of his subjects in Estonia commissions a gift for him: a painting, Tribute to Caesar (Art Museum, Talinn), by the Estonian painter Johann Köler (1826–1899), a fashionable Saint Petersburg portraitist. The wooden frame is carved by Amandus Adamson (1855–1929), a recent graduate of the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Like many artists of his generation in the Baltic nations, Adamson was trained in the style favored by the czars and executed monuments throughout the Russian empire until 1917.
Czar Alexander III gives his wife a splendid Easter egg expressly designed and made in the shop of Carl Fabergé (1846–1920). According to tradition, the jeweler made the first such egg when the czar asked him for something to cheer his wife from the persistent distress that she suffered after witnessing the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. As jeweler to the last two czars, Fabergé furnishes magnificent ornaments and objets d’art as well as an exquisite and ingenious new Easter egg created every year until 1916.
In Oslo, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) exhibits his picture The Sick Child (National Gallery, Oslo), on which he has worked obsessively for over a year. The picture has a rough surface composed of many heavy layers of paint and depicts a dark, enigmatic human subject. The Oslo public is at a loss as to how to regard it, and Munch’s later efforts are misunderstood. He leaves Norway in 1889, settling in Paris and later in Berlin, where he explores themes of alienation, eroticism, and death in such paintings as The Voice (1893, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), The Scream (1893, National Gallery, Oslo), and The Vampire (1894, Kunstmuseum, Göteborg).
Pavel Tretiakov (1832–1898) gives his magnificent collection of paintings to the city of Moscow. The donation marks the culmination of his lifelong promotion of Russian art through his collection of ancient icons as well as his support of modern painters. The Tretiakov Gallery today houses masterpieces of Russian art from the middle ages to the present, including a collection of portraits acquired or commissioned by Tretyakov to represent the great men of Russian culture. Among them are the authors Pushkin (by Orest Kiprenskii, 1827), Dostoevsky (by Vasilii Perov, 1872), Tolstoy (by Ivan Kramskoi, 1873), and the composer Mussorgsky (by Ilia Repin, 1881).
The Icelander Ásgrímur Jónsson (1876–1958) arrives at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. He is one of a generation of painters that brings to an end Iceland’s long artistic stagnation. He is best known for his portrayals of the Icelandic landscape, volcanic eruptions, and themes from Scandinavian myth.
“Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=10®ion=eue (October 2004)