Despite the rapid changes in Western art in the nineteenth century, the Russian Academy of Arts was far behind and still taught and promoted the neo-classical technique and subjects of painting. The professors of the Academy directed their students attention to great examples of Italian art, claiming that it contained all the elements which characterize the highest achievements of the so-called historical painting. They considered all other kinds of art, including genre painting, much less appropriate for an artist, and they barely tolerated such works in the walls of the Academy. The statutes of the school obligated all the students, after they finished their courses in drawing and painting from nature, to paint mythological, historical, biblical or evangelical topics assigned by the Academy as the subject of the gold medal competition.
However, the conservative character of the Academy and its outdated and inflexible rules were bound to change. Following the rare early attempts of eighteenth-century artists, Shibanov and Argunov, to depict peasants, in the 1820s, Alexei Venetsianov created slightly idealized scenes of village life. He also trained a number of serf painters, like Grigorii Soroka, who by the virtue of their birth were interested in peasant topics. Even though, according to the director of the Academy, Olenin, this kind of idealized painting, which showed peasants engaged in real activities, but seemingly unaffected by heavy physical labor, was just "tolerated," it was an important step towards liberalization of Russian painting. Another step was made in the late 1840s by Fedotov, whose mildly satirical and humorous studies from real life, for instance, The Major's Marriage Proposal, The Fastidious Bride or The Widow, were received with great enthusiasm and wholeheartedly approved by audiences in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Facing these new developments, the Academy made concessions and even began to award silver and gold medals for genre painting. Moreover, several students, including K. Makovskii, were allowed to switch from a historical to a genre track. After 1861, the influential critic, V. Stasov, became a supporter of those new trends, even though many conservative voices kept decrying the decline of Russian painting. Stasov not only approved of genre painting, but sharply criticized the classical trend in the Academy and demanded that historical paintings become national and popular in content.
The changes at the Academy can be blamed, at least indirectly, for the famous rebellion of the thirteen artists. In 1863, I.N. Kramskoi, B.B. Venig, N.D. Dmitriev-Orenburgskii, A.D. Litovchenko, A.I. Korzhukhin, N.S. Shustov, A.I. Morozov, K.E. Makovskii, F.S. Zhuravlev, K.V. Lemokh, A. Grigor'ev, M. Peskov, and N.V. Petrov were scheduled to participate in the annual gold medal competition. Every year, the winning works were purchased and their authors received an all-expenses-paid three year scholarship to work and study abroad. In the same year, several months before the competition, the Academy's Council announced new rules for the competition. According to the new rules, the Academy was not going to assign specific topics, as it was done before, but instead, general themes (for example, anger, joy, love for one's country, etc.). Each student was to pick a theme, either from history or from contemporary life, according to his preferences, but all students were to compete for one gold medal. Realizing that the Academy was slowly adjusting to the new trends in Russian painting and to new realities of Russian life, the thirteen decided to strike while the iron was hot, and asked for even more freedom -- namely, to be allowed to pick any topic, without any restrictions. They believed that the single general theme could not give an equal chance to all participants. This petition was not only rejected, but the angered Academy Council decided that, instead of a general theme, it would assign a specific topic, as in the past. The assigned topic was to be "Odin's Feast in Valhalla." Disappointed and upset, the 13 artists refused to participate in the competition and resigned from the Academy, forfeiting their chances to sell the paintings and receive an art scholarship.
Instead, the protesters formed an independent organization called the Association of Free Artists (Artel' svobodnykh khudozhnikov). Their protest was not just an act of anarchic insubordination; it stemmed from the artists' belief that the time had come for each of them to paint according to his own artistic preferences and tastes rather than someone else's directives. The Association established its own statutes and began accepting orders. Profitable commissions and financial success brought new artists to the Association. Soon, however, the members of the Association lost their initial unity and common purpose; in 1870, after an argument with one of the artists, Kramskoi left the Association. The same year, at the initiative of G.G. Miasoedov, who came up with the idea as early as in 1868, the Society of Traveling Exhibitions of the Works of Russian Artists (Tovarishchestvo peredvizhnykh vystavok proizvedenii russkikh khudozhnikov) was founded. The Society invited the members of the defunct Association of Free Artists to join the new organization. Initially, the Association members' response was hesitant and lukewarm. But in the next 28 years, the Society attracted all the major Russian painters, including the following (listed in the order of joining): Miasoedov, Perov, Kamenev, Savrasov, Amosov, Ammon, Ge (Gay, Ghe), Kramskoi, M.P. Klodt, M.K. Klodt, Prianishnikov, Shishkin, Bogoliubov, Gun (Huns), V.E. Makovskii, Maksimov, Briullov, Savitskii, Kuindzhi, Bronnikov, V.M. Vasnetsov, Litovchenko, Lemokh, N.E. Makovskii, Repin, Polenov, Volkov, K.E. Makovskii, Leman, Surikov, Nevrev, Kharlamov, Kuznetsov, Bodarevskii, Dubovskoi, A.M. Vasnetsov, Svetoslavskii, Shil'der, Arkhipov, Levitan, Ostroukhov, Zagorskii, Lebedev, Stepanov, Pozen, Kasatkin, Miloradovich, Shanks, Serov, Bogdanov-Bel'skii, I.P. Bogdanov, A. Korin, Endogurov, Nesterov, Baksheev, Orlov, and Kostandi.
The first exhibition of the Society took place in 1871 (in the exhibition halls of the Academy) and consisted of 46 works, including paintings of non-members approved by the members' committee. Nikolai Ge's Peter I Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexis and Savrasov's The Rooks Have Returned were among the works exhibited. The response of the public was extremely positive; even M. Saltykov-Shchedrin, who rarely commented on artistic events, applauded the establishment of the Society as "an important event in Russian art," and particularly appreciated that exhibitions were scheduled to travel not only to Moscow and St. Petersburg, but to other Russian cities. For the first time, the Russian public would get a chance to see the masterpieces in all their glory instead of being restricted to reproductions in art journals or exhibition catalogues. The first exhibition was also a considerable financial success -- many paintings were acquired by collectors and the Imperial family. P. M. Tretiakov played a particularly important role in the success of the Society; his frequent purchases allowed the painters to worry less about their income and concentrate on the creative process. Encouraged by the success of the first exhibition, the Society staged the second in 1872 and by 1897 could boast of 25 exhibitions, many of which traveled to Kiev, Kharkov, Nizhnii Novgorod, Kazan', Samara, Penza, Tambov, Kozlov, Voronezh, Novocherkassk, Rostov, Taganrog, Ekaterinoslav, and Kursk. In the first 25 years of its existence, the Society's members created 3504 works seen by about a million viewers. All in all, the Society organized 48 exhibitions and survived until 1923, when it was incorporated into the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR).
Undeniably, the Wanderers played an extremely important role in the development of Russian art, especially before the end of the nineteenth century. They contributed greatly to the victory of realist painting over the stilted neo-classicism and expanded dramatically the boundaries of painting -- abandoning formal portraiture and mythological subjects and focusing attention on genre painting, landscape, and historical compositions based on events from Russia's history. Since almost every important painter of the late 19th century was, at least for some time, a member of the Society, disregarding its importance would be unjustified. The Wanderers also affected the Academy of Art -- with their accomplishments and popularity came teaching positions and professorships at the Academy. Many members of the Society joined the organization because they firmly believed that all Russia, not only the elite, needed their art; that their paintings would be a weapon in the battle against social and economic injustices. Thus, initially, the Society was a progressive phenomenon. However, the truly great artists could not subscribe to the ideas of the Society for long; they continued to search for new means of expression, new style, and new ideas. When the Wanderers' ideology, officially adopted by the Academy, began to stifle originality and ostracize the innovators and experimentators, the inevitable reaction occurred. The arrival of modernism in Russia at the end of the 19th century led to a profound shift from the ideological and critical realism of the Wanderers to the decorativeness, richness, and symbolism of the World of Art and, very soon afterwards, to the non-objective experiments of the Russian avant-garde. Not surprisingly, the Wanderer ideology and style found their greatest defenders and admirers in the Soviet authorities and their uninspired continuation in the works of socialist realists. [A.B.]
[Sources: Valkenier, Butromeev, Lebedev.]