From its place on the bank of the River Neva in St Petersburg, the Russian Academy of Art has witnessed more than two centuries of turbulent Russian history.
But inside the neo-classical edifice, there’s a sense of continuity.
Dr Rosalind Polly Blakesley is a senior lecturer in Art History at the University of Cambridge.
“One of the lovely things about working on the Russian academy is there’s been a pretty continuous history.
"It moved into that building properly in 1788 and it’s been there ever since, so if you work on the Academy and you go into that building you still get knocked over by young art students so it’s still Russia’s premier art school, so there’s a sense of generation after generation following on within this one very august institution.”
Catherine the Great
Founded in 1757, the Academy was supported by Catherine the Great, the outward-looking leader of 18th Century Russia.
Presiding over Russia’s enlightenment period - and a correspondent of Voltaire – the Empress wanted to put Russia on an equal footing with the European powers of the day.
She created an imperial arts school, based on the academies in Paris, Berlin and Rome.
French and German tutors were drafted in, but the students were strictly Russian. This was an unashamedly ambitious institution, with the goal of producing great painters of its own.
To achieve this aim, the Academy established a boarding school, enrolling students as young as five years old.
The students were expected to study there until adulthood – with little interaction with the outside world.
The idea was to mould them into a new breed of professionals, shielded from tradesmen working on the building and separated from their families back home.
“Arguably, the thing that set the Russian Academy apart most is that it had its own boarding school. It was absolutely unique in that respect.
"Founded in 1764 by Ivan Betskoy, Catherine’s advisor on education, but absolutely with her sanction.
"he idea was you would set up a lot of boarding schools where children, mainly boys, would reside from the ages of 5 to 21. So pretty much most of their life until adulthood.
“And that they would therefore be set apart and rescued from any moral failings.
So they would be taken away from corrupt society, from bad family habits and they would be brought up to be fine upstanding, moral citizens. And they were not allowed home, they weren’t allowed visits from family members. Occasionally it happened, but largely they were entirely separate from their family so they had to sever links and it’s an incredible immersion programme.
“They got up at 5 o’clock in the morning, they did separate lessons that went on long into the evening so it was an incredible, very sort of insular, hermetically sealed environment in which to learn to be an artist.”
All walks of life
Younger students would copy paintings across the river in the newly opened Hermitage. They were then allowed to join life drawing classes, before finally embarking on oil compositions of their own.
The students came from all walks of life including some who were serfs. The school believed that great artistry could be taught, passed on from master to student – a far cry from the modern belief that artistic talent is a gift that can be nurtured but not instilled.
Dr Blakesley says: “It’s part of my belief that the Academy was a very clear business-headed operation to start with. They did believe you could create artists in the same way that if you’re studying to be a dentist, you learn the skills of dentistry, they did firmly believe you learn the skills to become an artist. They’re identifiable skills that you can transfer from a teacher to a student.
“Some of the people they took on never became good artists and were instead taught a different vocational trade – so clock-making or joinery, something like that, they were found different careers.
“But at the heart of it the Academy really believed you could find an intelligent young boy and turn him into a successful artist.”
Also setting the Russian Academy apart from its Western counterparts was its charter, a lengthy document known as the Privileges.
Published in 1764 in the name of Catherine the Great, the Privileges set out what was expected of students and what they could expect when they left the institution.
Art historian Rosalind Blakesley says the elaborate document went much further than those at other European Academies.
“They gave artists very clear rights once they’d graduated which were unusual in Imperial Russian in the18th Century. So notably, if you graduated as an artist from the Academy you couldn’t be en-serfed, if you were already a serf you were given your freedom, so this was massive social mobility.
“You were given specific remuneration depending on what level you graduated at, and you were kind of given your freedom, your liberation from things like the poll tax, the military draft. [These] were set out in the document so there was no way somebody could later conscript you because the Empress had decreed that as an artist you were to be free to travel, and to work.”
Dr Blakesley says the progressive Privileges and the demanding boarding school set the Russian Academy apart, making it an important part of Europe’s cultural heritage.
“There’s a sense, I mean, it’s to do with the Western focus of art history in general. The canon of artists has been Western European, then to extend to encompass American artists largely in the 20th Century and now of course there’s massive interest in areas like South East Asia and China, Japan and Middle Eastern Arts.
“Russia in traditional canonical accounts of the history of art has always been on the margins, it’s been this peripheral outsider and the Academy has been part of that story. I think looking at the Privileges and looking at the history of Academy in the 18th Century, it joined the party late - it came late to the Academic party, so it was founded in 1757 when a lot of academies had already been founded abroad but it made a very significant impact when it arrived.
“Part of the reason for that is that it had this munificent imperial patronage. Catherine poured money into it and was very clear it should be a fine upstanding intuition to professionalise the arts. Later tsars as well, notably Alexander I, was very keen on the academy, very supportive; Nicholas I – less supportive, a bit more meddlesome, he wanted to remodel it in very specific ways. But yes, the Russian academy was a really important part of this pan-European academic dialogue that we need to take into account. ”
A rare copy of the Privileges forms part of the Russian collection at the British Library. It’s a dark red volume printed in Cyrillic on high quality paper, published in 1765.
Dr Katya Rogatchevskaia is lead curator of East European Studies.
“It is quite rare although I wouldn’t say that that’s the only copy recorded. But I would say we have the best collection of foreign material and obviously Russian material probably in Europe, I would claim, outside Russia. So we have a fairly comprehensive collection, although we don’t have all, we have a fairly comprehensive collection of Russian material printed in the 18th Century.”
That’s largely due to Sir Antonio Panizzi, the Italian immigrant who became Keeper of Printed Books then head Librarian of the British Library, at that time part of the British Museum. He spotted a gap in the Library’s collection of foreign material so he campaigned for funding from Parliament.
Dr Rogatchevskaia says the Library’s Russian collection now boasts everything from Soviet war posters to Cyrillic manuscripts dating back to the 15th Century, as well as thousands of postcards, maps and stamps.
“I’ve spent 10 years dealing with the Russian collections here at the British Library but I would say that systematic collecting of Russian material started in the 1840s. So we have millions of volumes.
“We have a really good collection of Russian imperial material; we have a really good collection of Russian 18th Century imprints; we have about 70 manuscript books in Cyrillic; some archives and early printed books – not a big collection but quite an interesting and important collection.
“And we have a fantastic collection of Avant-garde Russian books and constructivist books and covers. And everything else is just current more or less.”
Nobody knows how a rare copy of the Privileges travelled from St Petersburg to London. The book is marked with a Library stamp that indicates it was donated - but just who bestowed it isn’t clear.
Today its presence is helping spread the word about the Russian Academy of Arts – fulfilling the dreams of Catherine the Great long after her own chapter has closed.