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The best starting place for an examination of Russian twentieth-century visual art is the immediate nineteenth-century context. Of course, Russian art itself goes back much further, and a full study would require careful consideration of the religious tradition of icon painting (a tradition that was to be resurrected in a secular context at the beginning of the twentieth century and by this route play a significant role in Russian modern art). We would also have to consider the appearance of Russian secular painting in the 18th century, and the rise of the "Academy" in the nineteenth century.

For our purposes, however, our survey can begin with a group of artists who gradually broke from the prevailing academic trends and patronage reward systems of the Academy in the late 1860s. Their revolt culminated with the founding of the Tovarishchestvo peredvizhnikh khudozhestvennykh vystavok (The Association of Traveling Art Exhibitions) in 1870-71. The members of the Association were collectively known as the "peredvizhniki" (usually translated in English as "the Wanderers"). Among them were most of the best realist painters whose work came to dominate the Russian pictorial scene in the last decades of the 19th century. As opposed to the "Academy" painters, who favored (classical) historical and religious scenes, "the Wanderers" painted primarily Russian subjects in a more or less realistic mode, emphasizing scenes that could be interpreted to have "progressive" or "democratic" content. Their interest in specifically Russian national themes links them with such musicians as Musorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov, while their painterly realism — which was based, in theory, on a commitment to painting from life — links their work to that of the great Russian 19th- century writers like Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. The few paintings reproduced here are typical in both style and execution of the "Wanderer style."

Portrait of the writer Ivan Turgenev
Portraits of major Russian intellectual figures of the period were a specialty of many of the wanderers. This portrait of the writer Ivan Turgenev (1872) is by Vasily Grigorievich Perov (1833-82). Note the concern with expressing intense psychology through the portrait.