Tretyakov Gallery: A journey through Russian history

Vasily Vereshchagin 'Apotheosis of War' (1871). Source:

Vasily Vereshchagin 'Apotheosis of War' (1871). Source:

The large gallery in Moscow shows Russia of yesteryear in a way that no history textbook possibly could. It houses several paintings depicting life in Czarist Russia, from portraits of the elite to scenes of pilgrimages and the peace of the countryside.

It’s difficult to remain unmoved after looking at Vasily Vereshchagin’s horrifying masterpiece, ‘Apotheosis of War.’  The oil and canvas work, which stands at 127 X 197 cm and is probably Vereshchagin’s most famous painting, dates back to 1871. This was a time when the Russian Empire was in complete expansion mode and on its way to stretching from Scandinavia in the west, to the Pacific Ocean in the east, right through to the gates of India in the south.  The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow shows Russian history in a way that no textbook possibly could.

The Snow Maiden
Vasily Vereshchagin 'Doors of Tamerlane' (1872). Source:

Vereshchagin travelled through Central Asia as the Russian Empire began annexing one territory after the other, and the artist’s travels can be traced through his works such as the ‘Doors of Tamerlane’ and ‘Triumphing,’ another gigantic artwork that measures 195.5 X 257 cm and shows a blue-tiled mosque in what is now Uzbekistan. The artist made his way to India and his paintings of the country pre-date those of the Roerich family.

Viktor Vaznetsov’s ‘The Bogatyrs’ is another enormous painting and the three huge knights on their healthy horses are even more magnified by the 295.3 x 446 cm painting. Given Russia’s violent history and troubled past, quite a few Russian artists depicted war scenes, but the gallery has several paintings depicting life in Czarist Russia, from portraits of the elite to scenes of pilgrimages and the peace of the countryside.

Viktor Vaznetsov ‘The Bogatyrs’ (1898). Source:

In 1862, Vasily Pukirev painted ‘Marriage of Unequals,’ depicting a wedding of a man in his 60s to a woman, who doesn’t look even look half her groom’s age. The wedding is in an Orthodox church and looks to clearly be of a man belonging to the elite of that time. Pukirev was well ahead of his generation when it came to his views on women’s rights and the societal lust for money.  Other artists like Illarion Pryanishnikov show us life during the 1860s both in the countryside and in cities. It’s possible to admire Dostoyevsky’s  much-written about humble peasant, in Pryanishnikov’s ‘Unladen,’ which shows a middle-aged man trying to stay warm in a sleigh on a cold winter evening.

The gallery also has a fine collection of portraits: Vasily Perov painted two of Russia’s greatest writers, Alexander Ostrovsky and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, while Ivan Kramskoy’s portfolio included Lev Tolstoy, Pavel Tretyakov-himself and artist Ivan Shishkin, whose work also prominently features in the museum.

The Snow Maiden
Vasily Pukirev ‘Marriage of Unequals’ (1862). Source:

Some of the sharpest images, which almost look like photographs, were painted by another great 19th century artist, Ilya Repin. The furious eyes of Princess Sophia Alekseyevna greet the visitor to the hall featuring Repin’s work. The artist paints an angry princess, a year after her imprisonment in the Novodevichy monastery during the execution of the Streltsy in 1698.  In another masterpiece, Repin shows the horrified eyes of Nicholai Mirlikiyskiy as he saves three innocent men who were sentenced to death. Repin also painted portraits including those of Lev Tolstoy and composer Alexander Glazunov, but he is better known for his grandiose images of real life events such as the ‘Procession in the Kursk province,’ believed to have been painted in 1891.

The State Tretyakov Gallery’s history can be traced to 1856 when Moscow merchant Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov bought works by Russian artists of his day with the aim of creating a collection that could one day grow into a national art museum.

Another iconic painting at the Tretyakov gallery is Mikhail Vrubel’s ‘Demon.’  The image of the dark and handsome demon has always drawn mixed responses from visitors. The most interesting take that this writer has ever heard on the painting is from a Russian art professor now based in Italy. She says that the demon looks sad since he has the all the weight and burden of the earth on his shoulders. Vrubel‘s works have been classified as part of Russia’s Symbolist movement but he made a point to be aloof from contemporary art trends, making his works stand out at the gallery.  

Mikhail Vrubel 'Demon' (1890). Source:

All of Russia’s great artists and writers have paid special tribute to the country’s glorious seasons and spectacular nature. Isaak Levitan’s ‘Golden Autumn’ captures the beauty of the Russian Fall, where the dominant colour of the foliage is golden yellow and not red, like in North America. The

In 1892, Tretyakov gifted his collection of about 2000 works to the Russian nation.

gallery also houses other masterpieces of the painter who was known for his ‘mood landscapes,’ including ‘Evening, Golden Plyos,’ which was painted from a hill on a summer evening and shows a white Orthodox church by the riverside. Few works of art capture the essence, spirituality and simplicity of summer life in rural Russia in the late 19th century as this work of Levitan.


Isaak Levitan 'Golden Autumn' (1895). Source:

The Tretyakov Gallery offers something for the art-lover, history fan and those fond of Russian culture. One can easily get lost both in the large museum and in the masterpieces of the dedicated Russian artists. 

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