The Peredvizhniki, or The Wanderers, were a movement of Russian Realism born from the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1863. Under the rule of Alexander II, Russia was struggling through a series of liberal reforms that were part of a greater humanitarian movement. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 deconstructed much of the social and economic hierarchies that had defined tsarist Russia for centuries. Paralleling these social and political movements, progressive thinking took hold of the artistic world as well. The Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg fostered a conservative attitude that promoted neo-classical style, biblical and mythological subject matter, and the stringent divide between high and low art. The topic of the Academy’s annual Gold Medal painting competition in 1963 was “The Entrance of Odin into Valhalla.” Many students found the competition’s subject not only outdated and irrelevant, but also removed from the realities of Russia and her people. In dissent, 14 students left the Academy to form an independent Artists’ Cooperative Society.
While the reforms invoked by Tsar Alexander II promoted an idea of increased equality, in actuality immense poverty and social inequality was the overarching result. Serfs were freed from the bondage of service, yet they were left with little means for developing a successful livelihood. Those living in the countryside were sometimes able to eek a living off of the land, but city dwelling serfs had no such resources. During this time of transition, in 1870, the Artists’ Cooperative Society started the “Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions.” Their goal was two-fold: to make art accessible while promoting a greater understanding of the media, and to depict the diversity and daily realities of the Russian population, regardless of social and economic class. Rather than focusing their artistic attentions on the aristocracy and inaccessible images of Greek mythology, the Society depicted a profoundly humanistic view of the true Russian life, in all its beauty and hardship.
The Wanderers largely focused their art on narrative genre paintings. These pieces were filled with populist themes that celebrated the beauty and honesty of the peasantry while simultaneously addressing the corruption of society. Beyond examining the facade of social hierarchies, they addressed religious corruption as well. The prominent artist Vasily Perov (1834-1882) openly depicted the themes of social and religious realism in his painting Easter Procession (1861). The painting shows a coalition of drunken clergymen exiting the local tavern amidst a crowd of both religiously devout and apathetic peasants. This portrayal of the humanistic reality of society exposes the fraudulent nature of the church and equally the potential for integrity that exists among the people. Showing the peasants to be more devoted than their religious leaders, Perov highlights the hypocrisy and corruption of the age.
In addition to deconstructing elevated ideas of institutionalized religion, the Wanderers created relatable images of Christ as a very human man removed from inaccessible neo-classical Biblical imagery. Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887) is noted for his piece Christ in the Desert (1872). The painting portrays Christ after his forty days and nights spent wandering and fasting in the desert. Rather than a porcelain god, Christ is shown as a haggard and exhausted man whose internal and external pains are visible. Such a piece strongly contrasts the neoclassical standard of 19th century Russian art as seen in Alexander Ivanov’s (1806-1858) painting The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene (1834-1936) in which Christ is a milky-white body-builder in a toga. Ivanov’s Christ doesn’t visibly bear the burden of humanity’s salvation. He is not God incarnate, but rather God himself. This is the very concept that the Wanderers sought to defy.
These social and religious pieces often came under criticism for their openly liberal themes and controversial ideals. Yet, as a part of a larger artistic movement involving the literary world, the Wanderers were increasingly encouraged to act as social commentators and catalysts for change. Writer, revolutionary and socialist, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, greatly influenced the developing democratic movement that inspired the progressive steps of the Wanderers and their literary brothers. Author of the novel What Is to Be Done?, Chernyshevsky was an early critic of current political and social structures and demanded that social and moral commentary be an essential function of the arts. Under such responsibility, prominent artists of the movement such as Vasily Perov, Ivan Kramskoi, and Ilia Repin depicted societal truths in their work, as did writers of the age including Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Despite criticism towards their ideology and aesthetic, these artists believed their work to be much more than simple portrayals of the people. Rather, they believed it to provide a crucial social service.
Another major subject of the Wanderers, which transcended social commentary, was their work depicting the Russian landscape. While these pieces encouraged national pride and understanding, they received less criticism than their populist counterparts. These pieces portrayed the beauty and diversity of a landscape that was often underappreciated. As a part of their education, prominent students of the Imperial Academy of Art often spent time in Western Europe learning the Renaissance style and painting the French and Italian landscapes. Rejecting this precedent, The Wanderers brought to light the subtle magnificence of Russian nature. Ivan Shishkin, known for his work as a landscape artist, portrayed not only the beauty of Russian nature, but also her heroic spirit. In his piece entitled Oak-wood (1887), the grandeur and power of the trees and countryside invoke a feeling of pride and awe. While foreign viewers might have little appreciation for such a harsh and sometimes bleak countryside, the Russians were reminded of the particular magnificence of their land and their connection to it. Russians have a unique connection to their homeland – one forged in the cruelest of seasons, through the cultivation of the earth. By consequence, from fairytales to ancient religion, the landscape has long held an important place within the Russian mind. Artists Ivan Shishkin, Alexey Savrasov, Vasiliy Pelenov and Isaak Levitan, among others, were noted for their work as landscape artists during the movement.
The Wanderers were able to sustain their movement and livelihood by selling their pieces at the traveling exhibitions. They were received with overall success, but their landscape pieces were undeniably the most popular and solidified the efforts of the Wanderers to establish the Russian landscape as an icon. Beginning their movement within the major metropolitan centers of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the Wanderers were able to openly confront the stringent artistic and social hierarchies of the Academy of Arts and the aristocracy. As their success grew, they were able to bring their exhibitions across the nation and its provinces, reaching the cities of Kiev, Kharkov, Nizhnii Novgorod, Kazan’, Samara, Penza, Tambov, Kozlov, Voronezh, Novocherkassk, Rostov, Taganrog, Ekaterinoslav, and Kursk. During their over five-decade history, the artists arranged 48 exhibitions and brought their progressive art and ideals to millions of Russians.
Continuing through the early part of the 20thcentury, the Wanderers increasingly gained influence in both social and artistic circles. The same Imperial Academy of Arts that had initially ignited their artistic revolution extended teaching positions to the artists. From this prominent platform, the Wanderers were able to spread their progressive message on an even greater scale. They taught Russia’s up-and-coming artists to understand their work as more than simple aesthetics, but rather as an opportunity to discover the soul of humanity and to explore its daily struggles and joys. As the people awakened to see the flaws of the system in which they lived, they were primed to begin a revolution.
The Wanderers succeeded in reshaping individual and institutional understandings of art. Even so, their movement began denying new styles of art the very artistic freedoms they had initially fought for. As the nation underwent political revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, movements of Russian modernism and the avant-garde were gaining momentum. Rather than fostering a continued appreciation of originality and innovation, the Wanderers lost themselves in resistance to change. The final exhibition of the Wanderers was held in 1923 and was the end of a distinct and powerful era. Despite disintegration, the achievements of the Wanderers forever redefined what it meant to be Russian – in art, identity and nationality.