A Portrait of Voevode Ivan Vlasov
first quarter of the 18th century
This painting is from the very beginnings of Russian fine art in the reign of Pyotr Veliki. Before this, there was iconography, manuscript illustrations, and popular woodcuts, but not “formal art” in the European sense. Pyotr resolved to change this, as he intended to change so much more in Russian society. Young Russians were sent to study abroad and old iconographers attempted to paint in the Western style. I believe this is an example of the latter. At first, many artists imitated Western models, and many would continue to do so until the third quarter of the 19th century with the rise of the Peredvizhniki (“Wanderers”), the founders of a distinct Russian national art school. Nonetheless, a good deal of the earlier work is technically excellent; no one can deny that. The work illustrated is rather crude, which shouldn’t surprise, considering that it came from a transitional period. It is one of the most-copied pieces of Russian art, for unknown reasons, for the technique is crude and the subject obscure.
A voevode was a military leader in Old Russia. Therefore, this picture may date from before the time of Peter’s journey to the West. Most probably, it postdates that journey, but it may not, as Western ideas and techniques had seeped into Russia since the 12th century. The Old Russian traditional clothing and the fact that this boyar is bearded do indicate an early date in Peter’s reign. As we all know, Peter forced his nobles to shave off their beards and adopt Western dress after his return from his Western journey. This is a look into a world that vanished; a look into a world that differed radically not only philosophically from the West (as Russians have always done), but one that also differed in appearance.