Prominent Russians: Ivan Kramskoy
Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy was a Russian painter and graphic artist, a master of genre, historic and portrait painting and an art critic.
He was born in the town of Ostrogozhsk in the Voronezh Region in southwestern Russia into a commoner’s family. He received a basic education in a district school. During his childhood Kramskoy independently studied drawing and later began working with aquarelles. When he was 16, he worked as a color correction artist for a Kharkov (Ukraine) photographer. In 1856 he moved to St. Petersburg and continued to work with the best of the capital’s photographers. The following year he entered the Arts Academy, where he soon showed great talent in drawing and painting. During his academy years, he gathered the progressive youth around him. He was the head of the protest against painting the far-fetched pieces ordered by the council (the so-called “programs”). The artists graduating from the Academy created the St. Petersburg Team, which owed its atmosphere of mutual help, co-operation and strong spirituality to Kramskoy.
Kramskoy began to mature as a portraitist. He often employed his favorite graphic technique, using sauce, bleach and Italian pencil. With this method, he drew portraits of the artists Morozov (1868), Shishkin (1869), Myasoedov (1861), Chistyakov (1861) and Koshelev (1866). His portraits were very accurate and without obliquities, but with reserved colors. His art technique corresponded well with the image of the intellectual democrat, a common character of his paintings such as “Self Portrait” (1867) and “The Portrait of the Agronome Vyunnikov” (1868). In 1863-1868 Kramskoy taught at the Drawing School of the Artist Encouraging Society. By the end of the decade, the St. Petersburg Team lost its unity and social status. Kramskoy quit it and became one of the founders of the Peredvizhniki Society (The Comradeship of Moving Arts Exhibitions). The first exhibition displayed his “Portrait of F. A. Vasilyev” and “Portrait of M. M. Antokolskiy.”
A year later he displayed the painting “Christ in the Desert” (“Khristos v pustyne”), which he had been working on for several years. According to Kramskoy, “the artists of the past had used the Bible and mythology as a means to convey their contemporary thoughts and feelings.” He himself, in the image of Christ, portrayed an ideal man full of high spiritual thoughts, preparing himself for self-sacrifice.
Kramskoy often returned to Christ as a theme for his art. His large painting “Laughter” (“Khokhot”), which followed the theme, was never finished, though. While gathering materials for it, he went to Italy. He also traveled extensively throughout Europe.
His prevailing success remained in portrait art. In the 1870-1880s, he
created some of his best works, including a series of portraits of prominent people of the time: Leo Tolstoy (1873), Nikolay Nekrasov (1877 and 1877-1878), Petr Tretyakov (1876) and Ivan Shishkin (1880), among others. He also painted collective images of peasants such as “The Forest Ranger” (1874), “Mina Moiseev” (1882), and “A Peasant with a Bridle” (1883). At times he turned to a way of painting that comprised portrait and life painting: as in “The Stranger” (1883) and “Desolate Grief” (1884). During his lifetime, Kramskoy also executed many orders for church paintings and portraits to earn his living.
Ivan Kramskoy died at work, while standing at his easel. He was elaborating the portrait of Doctor Rauchfus, which remained unfinished.