Pyotr F. Sokolov: Watercolour Portraits in the Age of Pushkin

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Following my piece ‘On the Fugitive and French and Russian Poetry’ – which considered fugitive poetry in eighteenth-century France, and its influence upon the Golden Age of Russian poets including Alexander Pushkin, Konstantin Batyushkov, and Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky – I thought I would take a look at a Russian painter who encapsulated the Pushkin era. Active from the middle of the 1810s through to the late 1840s, Pyotr F. Sokolov painted watercolour portraits of the literary figures, military personnel, ruling aristocrats, and society men and women many of whom inhabited the same milieu in and around Saint Petersburg. In his airy and elegant touch and original choice of materials, trailblazing within the context of Russian art, Sokolov shares a close affinity with the Golden Age poets.

Portrait of Pyotr F. Sokolov, by Vasily Tropinin (1833). Oil on canvas. 63 x 50 cm. State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg

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Pyotr Fyodorovich Sokolov was born in Moscow in 1791. From 1800 until 1809, at the Imperial Academy of Arts – today the Russian Academy of Arts – in Saint Petersburg, he studied historical painting under the tutelage of Vasily Shebuyev and Alexei Egorov. Attaining silver medals in 1807 and 1808, in 1809 he achieved a second (minor) gold medal for his painting Andromache mourning slain Hector: a subject drawn from Homer’s Iliad, and one which the French painter Jacques-Louis David had used to mark his reception into the Académie Royale in 1783.

Andromache mourns slain Hector, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1809). Oil on canvas. 106 cm x 142 cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Andromache Mourning Hector, by Jacques-Louis David (1783). Oil on canvas. 275 cm x 203 cm. Louvre, Paris

Graduating from the Academy that year, Sokolov stayed on hoping to win a first (major) gold medal, which would have allowed him to continue his studies abroad. However, given a programme on the blessing of Dmitry Donskoy by Sergius of Radonezh before the pivotal Battle of Kulikovo in 1380 – which saw the Mongol general Mamai defeated, and led ultimately towards the formation of the Russian state – Sokolov failed in his endeavour. So in 1810 he left the Academy, and soon relinquished historical painting in favour of portraiture, first in pencil, then later in watercolour.

Struggling for a couple of years after his departure from the Academy, Sokolov took up teaching, and began to win a reputation for his pencil drawings. He drew portraits of his closest acquaintances, and his clean line and lively shading earned him a growing number of commissions from the aristocracy. It was towards the end of the decade that he embraced watercolour, initially complementing his pencil drawings with light washes. As his technique developed, Sokolov frequently avoided the use of white lead and painted in transparent colour. His palette was subtle, his works featuring thin applications of paint and pastel tones in the highlights. He used graphite pencil to draft his compositions, and to emphasise his colours once painted, adding points of detail and emboldening his line. Many of his works are signed in graphite.

In 1821, upon the recommendation of Count S. F. Apraksin, Sokolov was invited to Anichkov Palace, to paint a portrait of the soon-to-be Nicholas I’s three-year-old son Alexander, the future Alexander II. This engagement bolstered Sokolov’s fame, although it failed to secure for him any permanent engagement on behalf of the Emperor. Still, over the next two decades he painted the breadth of the Russian upper class: from writers, artists, and musicians; to public officials and senior aristocrats; the leading ladies of the court and a number of foreign princes and dignitaries; and the patriots of 1812 as well as a series on the Decembrist revolutionaries.

On into the 1840s, Sokolov began painting in deeper blocks of colour. After a brief spell in Paris in 1842 in an attempt to alleviate ill health, he returned with his family to Russia and in 1846 finally moved back to Moscow. Sokolov died two years later, in August 1848 while staying near Kharkiv, after contracting cholera. He had achieved through the course of his life more than 500 portraits.

The practise of watercolour painting surged in popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century; by the early 1900s, Sergei Diaghilev could lament that Petersburg had become a ‘city of artistic gossiping, academic professors and Friday watercolour classes’, with artistic vitality the preserve of Moscow. Sokolov’s works became much sought after, to such a degree that forgeries began to dilute his catalogue: a situation made less clear still by the fact that Sokolov often repeated, with minor variations, his paintings and sent them to friends and relatives as gifts. Today many of these forgeries have been identified owing to differences in technique and in the quality of paper used. The largest collections of Sokolov’s art are in the State Russian Museum in Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, with many of his works also in the hands of private collectors. In 2003 the State Pushkin Museum held a major exhibition bringing together more than 200 of Sokolov’s paintings from across his career, many borrowed from private collections and shown for the first time.

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Vladimir Borovikovsky, born in 1757 in Myrhorod in modern-day Ukraine, was the leading Russian portraitist at the end of the eighteenth century, favoured by Catherine the Great, and painting her portrait along with assorted figures from the noble and military classes. Closer to Sokolov, Orest Kiprensky studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts from 1788 – when he was aged just six years old – to 1803, and in fact obtained a major gold medal for his 1805 painting Prince Dmitry Donskoy after the Battle of Kulikovo, which allowed him to travel Europe. Kiprensky – who painted other literary figures including Vasily Zhukovsky and Konstantin Batyushkov – is best known for his 1827 portrait of Alexander Pushkin.

Catherine II in Tsarskoe Selo, by Vladimir Borovikovsky (1794). Oil on canvas. 94.5 cm x 66 cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Portrait of Alexander Pushkin, by Orest Kiprensky (1827). Oil on canvas. 63 cm x 54 cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Vasily Tropinin studied at the Imperial Academy only as a non-degree student: born a serf, he only attained his freedom in 1823, when he was forty-seven. He nevertheless painted in excess of 3,000 works throughout his life, many of which were portraits. And Karl Bryullov studied at the Imperial Academy immediately after Sokolov, between 1809 and 1821; his most famous work, The Last Day of Pompeii, begun in 1830 and completed in 1833, receiving lofty praise from both Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol.

The Last Day of Pompeii, by Karl Bryullov (1833). Oil on canvas. 456.5 cm x 651 cm. State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg
Woman at the window, by Vasily Tropinin (1841). Oil on canvas. State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg

Borovikovsky, Kiprensky, Tropinin, and Bryullov all produced significant art in the realm of portraiture. But they all painted in oils and made use of traditional forms; with Kiprensky and Bryullov, who along with Tropinin were important in shifting Russian painting from Neoclassicism towards a form of Romanticism, spending significant periods abroad in Italy. In Bryullov’s case, after establishing himself in Rome as a portraitist and genre painter, he turned increasingly towards historical compositions.

Sokolov was the exceptional painter of the era for his unique and innovative use of watercolour. He effectively established watercolour portraiture in Russia, leading the way for Bryullov’s engagement with the form, and for the portraits of Vladimir I. Gau. Rarely using medium or correcting his work, and with the absence of white lead allowing the white of the paper to come through, there is a sketch-like quality to many of his paintings. Characterised by his deft line, light brushwork, and delicate halftones, Sokolov seems to capture his subjects – and the careful detail of their attire – in momentary pause. Undoubtedly some of his success owed to this light touch; to his ability, using watercolour, to encapsulate his subjects in relatively few sittings. Several of these sitters returned to him again and again, as he painted them at discrete points in their lives.

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Portrait of Ekaterina Bakunin, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1816). Pencil on paper. 25 x 19.5 cm. Tropinin Museum, Moscow
Portrait of Alexander Turgenev, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1816). Pencil, pastel, and ink on paper
Portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1821). Watercolour and graphite on card
Portrait of E. K. Vorontsovoy, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1823). Watercolour on paper
Portrait of Yulia Sokolov, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1827). Watercolour on paper
Alexander II as a child, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1828). Watercolour on paper
Portrait of Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1830s). Watercolour on paper
Portrait of Lev Sollogub, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1830s). Watercolour on paper
Unknown portrait, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1830s). Watercolour on paper. Tropinin Museum, Moscow
Portrait of Sarra Tolstoy, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1830s). Watercolour on paper. 25.2 x 20.5 cm. Tropinin Museum, Moscow
Portrait of Alexandra Smirnova, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1834-1835). Watercolour on card. State Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Portrait of Alexander Pushkin, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1836). Watercolour on paper
Portrait of E. M. Hitrovo, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1838). Watercolour on card. State Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Portrait of A. P. Stroganova, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1840s). Watercolour on paper
Portrait of A. V. Velyasheva, by Pyotr F. Sokolov (1847). Watercolour on card