Russian Painters For Dummies

Published: January 24, 2015

In response to a wider trend of “Art History for Dummies” that has recently gone viral, the staff at, a Russian website, recently created a short guide that will help you to distinguish Brullov from Surikov and Kandinsky from Malevich. Please note: this is not an art appreciation course but a simplified guide created with a purpose to make the world of art a little closer and clearer for all of us. And to put a smile on your face.

Over its many centuries, Russian culture has given us many talented painters. There is only one problem – for someone without a degree in art history, it is not easy to remember all the names.

So, let’s start with the basics.

You see only the sea in all its conditions, with boats and sometimes a few people hopelessly trying to overcome the elements. It’s Ivan Aivazovsky.


If you see the magnificent beauty of Russian forests, many pines and oaks, and maybe a few brown bears, this is the art of Ivan Shishkin. Except the bears. Those belong to Konstantin Savitsky, a partner of Shishkin who collaborated on many of paintings (mainly the bear parts) who tends to get precious little credit these days…


Do you see happily ample-bodied beauties in a midst of gaily decorated and brightly colored bourgeois interiors? – You can confidently shout “This is Boris Kustodiev!” and you will probably be correct.

Fairy tale heroes surrounded by epic auras and light gloom – this is the work of Viktor Vastnetsov.

Look, so many birch trees, and all so thin that they resemble semi-translucent flower stems – this is the world as seen by Isaac Levitan.

The only thing better than mountains are Nicholas Roerich mountains – they are pink, blue, lavender, absolutely unrealistic, absolutely beautiful and absolutely in every painting.

Is everything in dark tones with many half-naked brunettes frozen in unnatural poses? Meet Karl Bryullov, lover of ancient Roman tragedies.

If an artist is only interested in two extremes – the East with all its beauty or a war with all its horrors and mounds of skulls, it must be Vasily Vereshchagin.

Ancient Rus… crowds of people… no one can tell what’s happening… probably something grand and fearsome… Drop an indifferent “Typical Vasily Surikov,” and move on to the next painting.

Are there a great number of chaotic color spots that blend into something ethereal and epic? Without a doubt before you is a masterpiece of Mikhail Vrubel.

If everything is sweet, cozy, homey, in light disorder, with everyone is wearing robes while eating or proposing, and you catch glimpses of cats or dogs, you can make a bet it’s Pavel Fedotov.

If the landscape is minimalistic, but it still takes your breath away and sends shivers up and down your spine, it is Arkhip Kuindzhi.

Everything you need to know about Valentin Serov: he was very successful in painting girls with peaches, young ladies with bulls, and ladies with dogs in magnificent, wide, impressionist strokes.

Does it look like the artist was on hallucinogenic drugs or something worse? You are likely looking at the works of Russian abstractionist Vasily Kandinsky.

If the canvas contains a somethingorother composed from geometric shapes, it is Kazimir Malevich.

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has managed the SRAS Family of Sites, a grouping of publications that cover geopolitics, history, business, economy, pop culture, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He lived in Moscow, Russia from 2003-2022. He also assists in program development and leads SRAS' scholarship programs.

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