Early Slavic tribes created handsome jewelry, wall hangings, and decorated leather items that have been recovered from burial mounds. The folk-art motifs made liberal use of animal forms and representations of natural forces. A 5,000 year-old Siberian rock engraving shows a stone-age man on skis trying to have sex with an elk.

Subsequently, the strongest single influence on Russian art was the acceptance of Christianity in A.D. 988. Transmitting the idea that the beauty of the church's physical attributes reflects the glory of God, Byzantine religious art and architecture penetrated Kiev, which was the capital of the early Russian state until about 1100. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The northern cities of Novgorod and Vladimir developed distinctive architectural styles, and the tradition of painting icons, religious images usually painted on wooden panels, spread as more churches were built. The Mongol occupation (1240-1480) cut Muscovy's ties with the Byzantine Empire, fostering the development of original artistic styles. Among the innovations of this period was the iconostasis, a carved choir screen on which icons are hung. In the early fifteenth century, the master icon painter Andrey Rublev created some of Russia's most treasured religious art. *

As the Mongols were driven out and Moscow became the center of Russian civilization in the late fifteenth century, a new wave of building began in Russia's cities. Italian architects brought a West European influence, especially in the reconstruction of Moscow's Kremlin, the city's twelfth-century wooden fortress. St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, however, combined earlier church architecture with styles from the Tatar east. In the 1500s and 1600s, the tsars supported icon painting, metalwork, and manuscript illumination; as contact with Western Europe increased, those forms began to reflect techniques of the West. Meanwhile, folk art preserved the forms of the earlier Slavic tribes in house decorations, clothing, and tools. *

Book: “A Concise History of Russian Art” by Tamara Talbot Rice (Pelican)


World's Oldest Sculptures

The world's oldest known sculpture is an animal head carved in wooly rhinoceros vertebrae. Found in Tombaga Siberia, it was dated as 34,960 years old.

The oldest known sculptures of human figures are the Upper Paleolithic "Venuses" found in Russia, the Ukraine, Austria, the Ancient Near East, the Czech Republic, Crete, Western Asia, France and the Aegean. The figurines are 27,000 to 20,000 years old and were usually made of soapstone, limestone, calcite serpentine and ivory, possibly from the tusks of wooly mammoths. Some were made from ceramics. Most of the known Venus figurines are from Central Europe and Russia.

The first fired ceramics appeared in the Gravettian cultural period (roughly 28,000 to 22,000 years ago). Thousands of fragments of human figures, as well as the kilns that produced them in sites in Morabbia in what is now Russia the Czech republic dated at 26,000 years ago. The figurines were made from moistened loess a fine sediment fired at high temperatures. Predating the first known ceramic vessels by 10,000 years, the figurines, some scientists believe, were produced and exploded on purpose based on the fact that most of the sculptures are fond in pieces.

Pazyryk Art

The Pazyryks were a horseman group that lived at the same time as the Scythians in the 5th century B.C. and were similar ethnically to them and had a similar lifestyle. They lived in the Altai region of southern Siberia near where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan all come together. Images of wolves and deer, predators and prey were common themes in their art." One Pazyryk tomb yielded an elaborate funeral chariot, wood carvings, and the world's oldest carpet. The carpet, dated to the 5th century B.C., has over 1,125,000 knots and the deer and horse motifs are of Persian origin."

The Pazyryk are known for their tattooing skills. Fish tattoos have been found on the frozen bodies, archaeologists believe, were made my "stitching" the skin with a fine needle and thread and using soot as a coloring agent. Fine bone needles and thin sinews of thread have been found in Scythian graves. Three frozen bodies discovered in a Pazyryk tomb had elaborate tattoos. The first had a tattoo of a deer with fantastic antlers on his wrists and shoulders; the second, a woman, had a large tattoo of a an elk that spanned her chest, back and shoulders; the third had 14 dots tattooed on his spine and six on his head.

Much of what is known about the Pazyryk is based on artifacts and frozen mummies found in Pazyryk tombs. The tomb that yielded the world's oldest carpet was found in 1949 in southern Siberia. In 1993, a 2400-year-old frozen mummy of a Pazyryk woman, perhaps a warrior queen, was found in southern Siberia on the Ukok Plateau, a 7500-foot-high region near the Altai region. Dubbed the Pazyryk Queen, she was draped in a robe of marten fur, and was dressed in a robe of silk and wool, a white silk blouse, red skirt and white stockings. Her head was fitted with a wig and golden headdress.

Other extraordinary pieces from around this time include a golden headdress ornament with mountains and a snow leopard taken from the grave of a Sakian aristocrat and dated at 450 B.C.

Art Under Peter and Catherine the Great

The European style of picture painting didn't really occurred until Peter the Great encouraged Russians to emulate Western style of art. Under Peter the Great, Russia experienced a much stronger dose of Western influence. The Academy of Fine Arts, founded by Elizabeth in 1757 to train Russia's artists, brought Western techniques of secular painting to Russia, which until that time had been dominated by icon painting.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96), another energetic patron of the arts, began collecting European art objects that formed the basis of the collections for which Russia now is famous. Aleksey Venetsianov, the first graduate of the academy to fully embrace realistic subject matter such as peasant life, is acknowledged as the founder of Russia's realistic school of painting, which blossomed in the second half of the 1800s.

Russian Art in the 19th Century

In the 1860s, a group of critical realists, led by Ivan Kramskoy, Il'ya Repin, and Vasiliy Perov, portrayed aspects of Russian life with the aim of making social commentary. Repin's Barge Haulers on the Volga is one of the most famous products of this school. In the late 1800s, a new generation of painters emphasized technique over subject, producing a more impressionistic body of work. The leaders of that school were Valentin Serov, Isaak Levitan, and Mikhail Vrubel'. In 1898 the theatrical designer Alexandre Benois and the dance impresario Sergey Diaghilev founded the World of Art group, which extended the innovation of the previous generation, played a central role in introducing the contemporary modern art of Western Europe to Russia, and acquainted West Europeans with Russia's art through exhibitions and publications. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the nineteenth century, Russia's architecture and decorative arts combined European techniques and influences with the forms of early Russia, producing the so-called Russian Revival seen in churches, public buildings, and homes of that period. The European-trained goldsmith, jeweler, and designer Karl Fabergé, the most notable member of a brilliant artistic family, established workshops in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London. His work, including jeweled enamel Easter eggs produced for the Russian royal family, is an important example of the decorative art of the period.


Peredvizhniki (Wanders) was an 19th movement led by artists who believed that art could be a force of social change. The name is derived from the fact that the art wandered through Russia as part of touring exhibitions Peredvizniki artists included Valentin Serov, Vasily Surikov and Ilya Repin. Famous painting included Kipresnsky's portrait of Pushkin; Repin's “Portrait of Turgenev”, “A Religious Procession through Kursk” and “”Ivan the Terrible and His Son”; Stepanov's “The Cranes Are Flinging” and Kuznettsov's portraits of Tchaikovsky and Chekhov.

Ilya Repin is one of Russia's most beloved painters. He was famous for portraits of people like Tolstoy and his massive historical paintings like “Barge Haulers on the Volga”, “The Zaporozhian Cossacks “and “Letter to the Turkish Sultan .”

Vasily Surikov was a Cossack artist known for painting historical scenes such as “Yermak's Conquest of Siberia. “ Valentin Serov was known for his portraits. Isaak Levitan produced lovely landscape paintings. Mikhail Vrubel was inspired by Byzantine mosaics. Karl Briulluv painted “The Last Day of Pompeii”.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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