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Sketches of Events from Russian History

January 10, 2021

If you think of Fedor Bruni (1799 or 1801–1875) at all, you probably think of him as the third-biggest star (after Karl Briullov and Aleksandr Ivanov) to come out of the Academy of Arts in the Pushkin/Gogol generation, or possibly as the rector of the Academy during the Rebellion of the Fourteen in 1863, or else as the creator of The Bronze Serpent (Медный змий, 1827–41).

He also did a series of engravings from Russian history based on episodes from Karamzin’s History of the Russian State (История государства российского, 1818–29). You can see the whole album, Sketches of Events from Russian History (Очерки событий из российской истории, 1839), courtesy of the Russian National Library, though if you only care about the images and not the text explanations, they’ll load faster on Wikipedia. He worked on the series beginning in late 1825 or early 1826.

Alla Vereshchagina speculates that Bruni, who hadn’t been paid for two recent large paintings, turned to engraving because it was cheap and to Russian history because he thought a patriotic topic would help him get a stipend from the Society for the Encouragement of Artists (which it did). He went on to do about 30 pictures for the series, of which 10 were published in the two volumes of the album, including an introductory one that showed the artist seated in front of a bust of Karamzin and a lot of lightly sketched figures from early Russian history in the background, apparently representing the artist’s imagination.

According to Vereshchagina, Bruni tried to live up to his promise of depicting “a few great incidents from the national history,” full of heroes doing their duty for their country, and sometimes he more or less achieved a patriotic and neoclassical mood (46–47):

Oleg Nails His Shield to the Gates of Tsargrad

But he didn’t always manage to keep this up:

If one considers the subjects chosen by the artist for his engravings, then among the 16 plates dedicated to pagan Rus, there are not all that many depictions of truly great events. “The Invitation of the Varangian Princes,” “Oleg Nails His Shield to the Gates of Tsargrad,” and a few others can be put in this category. But “The Death of Askold and Dir,” “Olga’s Vengeance against the Drevlian Envoys,” and similar events are difficult to call great. They are instead striking in their monstrous cruelty. From the point of view of classical aesthetics, there is nothing in them to ennoble the viewer; from the point of view of an enlightener, there is nothing worthy of emulation. (48–49)

An example of a picture with more cruelty than greatness is “The Death of Igor,” where Igor is killed by the Drevlians by being tied to two trees, then torn in two; elsewhere in the series Bruni shows how Igor’s wife Olga avenged him by burying Drevlian envoys alive.

The Death of Igor” (“Igor is Killed by the Drevlians”)

Vereshchagina attributes Bruni’s lingering on scenes of suffering to Karamzin’s text and the general influence of the Romantic movement on both Karamzin and Bruni; if artists in Italy (where Bruni was) were still mostly working in a more Neoclassical than Romantic vein, compared to French or English or German artists, they weren’t entirely out of step with the rest of their generation.

A few “scenes from the life of the first Christians” in Rus were, in Vereshchagina’s opinion, “almost all static, sometimes mannered,” as these subjects didn’t inspire the artist (52). How would you expect a painter seeking support from an organization close to the family of Nicholas I to depict Christians from the Byzantine Empire arriving in tenth-century Rus? What would the pagan East Slavs’ attitude toward these visitors be?

Bruni doesn’t produce the kind of grand, triumphant, Rus-centered image you can see in a fresco painted half a century later by Viktor Vasnetsov (it’s not portraying the same event, of course, but it’s also about the beginnings of Christianity in Rus). Instead, in Vereshchagina’s words, “those meeting the envoy, who has brought extravagant gifts to Rus to convert the Kievans to the Christian faith, look at the new arrivals in different ways: with distrust, with uncertainly, and in one case with fury” (52).

The Arrival of a Bishop in Kiev

See A. G. Vereshchagina, F. A. Bruni (Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1985), pp. 44–59. Vereshchagina’s monograph is excellent and has made me a lot more interested in an artist who frankly didn’t initially seem that interesting.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    January 10, 2021 7:46 am

    Interesting stuff, and I’m delighted to see you posting again! I keep wondering whether it would be worth my while to read at least some of Karamzin’s History; it had a huge influence, but it’s probably not a riveting read (and is doubtless full of misinformation).

    • January 10, 2021 1:00 pm

      I mean to read more of it myself. My experience with Karamzin so far is that his writing is pleasant and easy to read for a few pages, but the pacing is a bit relaxed and I lose patience before finishing the book.

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