Russian Sculpture
History, Characteristics of Plastic Art in Russia.

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"The Bronze Horseman" (1766-78)
St Petersburg, Russia.
Monument to Tsar Peter the Great,
by Etienne Maurice Falconet.
One of the greatest sculptures ever.

Arts in Russia
For a guide to painting and
sculpture (c.30,000 BCE - 1920) See: Russian Art.

Russian Sculpture (c.1740-1940)
History, Characteristics, Artists


Fedot Shubin (1740-1805)
Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791)
Michael Kozlovski (1753-1802)
Theodore Gordeev (1749-1810)
Fedor Shchedrin
Ivan Martos (1754-1835)
Ivan Prokofiev (1758-1828)
Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
House of Fabergé
20th Century Russian Sculpture

Constructed Head No. 2 (1916)
Nasher Sculpture Centre, Dallas.
By Naum Gabo.


Unlike painting, sculpture is essentially a form of public art, in which monumentality, size and durability, are common if not essential attributes. Few sculptors, after all, have achieved major recognition for small scale works. Thus we might say that plastic art requires far more time, money, and (arguably) iconographic stability that most other types of art. To what extent Russian sculpture has suffered because of lack of resources or iconographic uncertainty, is unclear, although the emergence of numerous high quality Russian sculptors in the early 20th century - concurrent with the collapse of the old order - suggests that lack of talent is not a problem. In this article we cover six of the greatest Russian sculptors up to 1900, plus Carl Fabergé the goldsmith. We also review the leading Russian artists of the early 20th century.

For a list of the world's top
3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

For the origins & chronology
see: History of Sculpture.


Fedot Shubin (1740-1805)

Tsar Peter the Great (1686-1725), the driving force behind early 18th century Petrine art, opted to use foreign sculptors like Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli the Elder (1675-1744), father of the architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-71). So it is only since about the middle of Catherine the Great's reign (1762-96) that Russia produced a continuous flow of native sculptors. Some of their output is lacking in merit, much is competent, if unexciting; but here and there work of the highest order was produced. Among the great sculptors, Fedot Shubin was outstanding. The son of a White Sea fisherman, he was himself a fisherman until the age of nineteen. It was then that he learnt the rudiments of his craft, for White Sea fishermen were renowned throughout Russia for their carvings in whalebone and mother-of-pearl, as well as their wood carving. In the eighteenth century they sold their handiwork at the Archangel fish market in St. Petersburg, and it is very probable that some of the carvings of Shubin's boyhood found their way to the stalls there.

In 1759 Shubin somehow obtained employment as a stoker at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. He may have owed this appointment to his fellow-countryman, the distinguished poet Lomonosov for he, too, was of humble birth, the son of peasants, neighbours of the Shubins. Fedot's father had, in fact, taught the future poet his letters. This alone would have predisposed Lomonosov to the son, but Lomonosov was a skilled exponent of mosaic art, and the help he gave his young neighbour was probably as much due to his appreciation of Shubin's talent as to gratitude.

Whatever the means by which he earned his living, Shubin began his training very soon after his arrival in St. Petersburg, when his name appears on a list of students studying sculpture under Nicholas Gillet at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Gillet worshipped elegance and grace, and fervently supported Greek sculpture and the Hellenistic idealization of the human body. Shubin, on the other hand, was a realist. Gillet disliked his views and considered his style inelegant, but he was sufficiently broadminded and receptive a teacher to recognize Shubin's genius and to obtain a travelling scholarship for him.

Shubin set out for Paris in 1767 armed with letters of introduction to Diderot and to Delarive de Julles. On their advice he became a pupil of Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785), and, since both master and pupil were realists at heart, Pigalle was able to convince Shubin that there was a good deal to be said in favour of the elegance that Gillet deemed essential in a work of art. Under his new master's influence Shubin agreed to accept elegance, but he mainly strove to acquire a classic touch, to develop his eye for detail and to master the three-dimensional approach.

Shubin visited Italy and England before returning to Russia. His travels, together with his studies, transformed him from a temperamental genius into a mature artist, and the sculptures which he produced after his return no longer had anything experimental about them. On the contrary, they were remarkable for their sureness of touch, their diversity, their vitality and, above all, their psychological convincingness, for Shubin excelled at portraiture. His Potemkin, his Paul I, his Zavadovski, all his portrait busts, in fact, are enthralling psychological studies, and all reveal his superb technique. In each the sitter's character shines out with brilliant clarity, but Shubin's years of apprenticeship had not been wasted, for the resemblance was not achieved at the expense of elegance. Each bust is fined down to satisfy the most fastidious taste, and each reflects, if only in the meticulous rendering of lace trimmings and the easy sweep of the drapery, Shubin's power to combine his own realistic views with the eighteenth century's insistence upon refinement.

Although Shubin was at his best in portraiture, he also excelled at decorative art. The low relief plaques which he produced for the Cheshmen Palace and for the Trinity and St. Isaac cathedrals in St. Petersburg, fulfil their purpose admirablyy. Each is a carefully worked out and admirably conceived whole, but all are subordinated, as indeed they should be, to their architectural setting.

Sadly, in 1789 Shubin fell into disfavour, and the remaining sixteen years of his life were spent in dire poverty: he died in penury. His productive life was therefore confined to sixteen years. Yet in these years he produced 188 major works, 40 of them busts, and all of high quality.

Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791)

The importance of Shubin's achievements is apt to be over-shadowed by that of the Frenchman Etienne Maurice Falconet, who came to St. Petersburg in 1766. He produced only one sculpture there, but this is both his masterpiece and one of the finest sculptures of the age. It is a bronze equestrian statue of Peter the Great, mounted on a huge slab of granite, which was cleft by lightning from its bed in Finland, at a spot where Peter often stood, and dragged a distance of twelve miles to the capital because its shape and size were exactly what was required to offset the statue. The sculpture is to a certain extent a composite work, for Marthe Collot, at the time Falconet's pupil, and later his wife, modelled the face from Rastrelli's bust of Peter. It is, however, a work of complete unity, and so much of Peter's and of Russia's spirit has found its way into the work that - although the creation of a Frenchman - it is essentially Russian. It serves as yet another illustration of the way in which Russia affected foreign artists, for it differs as much from Falconet's Western works as for example did Fioraventi's cathedral in Moscow from his Italian churches. Its size is Russian; so is its sense of latent energy and force.

Michael Kozlovski (1753-1802)

Falconet's bronze statue took twelve years to complete. Russian sculptors watched it grow with such absorbed interest that all of them were influenced by it, though in varying degrees. Michael Kozlovski was perhaps more deeply affected than the majority of his colleagues. Like Shubin, he, too, was a pupil of Gillet, and his early works, such as the classical plaques in low relief for the Marble Palace in St. Petersburg, were in the Hellenic manner. Then he developed a deep admiration for Michelangelo but at the same time was unable to withstand the fascination of Nicolas Poussin's romanticism. Two visits to France developed the latter facet of his taste, and the sculptures he produced at this time were permeated with a dreaminess somewhat reminiscent of Greuze. In the 1790s, largely owing to Falconet's influence, Kozlovski entered upon a heroic phase and produced some fine pseudo-classical sculptures, such as a life-size figure of Alexander the Great as a youth, a Hercules and his Steed, as well as a monument to Suvorov. His greatest work - the fountain statue of Samson and the Lion - is dated to 1800. It stood, until its destruction in the last war by the Germans, in the Great Cascade at Peterhof. It had about it something of Michelangelo's vigour and, of Falconet's nervous energy as well as true inspiration. It proved how great a sculptor Russia lost by Kozlovski's relatively early death.

Theodore Gordeev (1749-1810)

In his statue of Prometheus, Theodore Gordeev, too, shows clearly the influence of Falconet. This fine sculpture is full of a promise which Gordeev failed to fulfil, for, instead of persisting with the difficulties of his medium, Gordeev turned to a more facile path, concentrating mainly on mortuary statues, and to a lesser degree on decorative work, such as his relief sculpture for Voronykhin's Kazan Cathedral. His poignant, weeping female figures, his obelisks, urns and medallions invested St. Petersburg's cemeteries with attraction, but they fall short of the emotional level attained by his Prometheus.

Fedor Shchedrin

Side by side with Shubin and Kozlovski, Fedor Shchedrin appears as the period's third great sculptor. Most of his works were intended to decorate architectural edifices, yet all possess the emotional tenseness and fineness of conception of pure art. His best work was done for the Admiralty, and occupied him from 1806 to 1811. The caryatides erected at the main entrance and the statues of warriors ranged along the base of the spire are the finest of his achievements. The caryatides are over life size. Emblems of fortitude, they stand raising the terrestrial globe high above their heads. Their strength and patient acceptance of this burden may be regarded as a symbol of Russia's power of endurance. Their bodies are superbly modelled, and their draperies fall in so lovely a line that even Gillet would not have found anything to criticize in them. Equally powerful and imaginative is the head of Neptune which Shchedrin set above a number of the Admiralry windows; its vigour and its laconic severity are most impressive.

Shchedrin was a great admirer of the sculpture of ancient Greece, and he often strove to recapture its beauty in his own work. In his figures of Mars and of Endymion Asleep, he came near to succeeding, for these statues have a directness and an unbroken fluidity reminiscent of Hellenistic sculpture. But his goddesses, such for example as his Venus, Diana or Psyche, are less successful, owing to slight mannerism and over-refinement. He is at his best on his own ground - that is to say, in the decorative sphere. Thus his enormous female figure of the River Neva, erected in the Great Cascade at Peterhof, combining restraint, forcefulness and repose, is undoubtedly the work of a true artist. This statue, together with the rest of those at Peterhof, was destroyed by the Germans in 1942-1943.

Ivan Martos (1754-1835)

Ivan Martos, who also produced work of the first order, was a pupil of Kozlovski. His sculptures - for example, his caryatides in the throne room at Pavlovsk or his mortuary monument for Princess Kurakin - still reflect eighteenth-century currents. Before very long, however, he came in contact with the neoclassical sculpture of Antonio Canova (1757-1822), and his admiration for these works resulted in a change of style, which was all to the good, for his work acquired a new directness and an almost classic calm. Martos's bust of Alexander I is technically perhaps his masterpiece, and has the additional merit of being the only likeness of the Emperor, whether in painting or sculpture, which expresses the enigmatic, yet at the same time appealing aspects of his character.

Ivan Prokofiev (1758-1828)

Though not a great sculptor, Ivan Prokofiev produced so many decorations for St. Petersburg's houses that he cannot pass unnoticed. These mostly belong to his later years, and are invariably based on allegorical subjects. His earlier work is more vigorous - for instance, at Pavlovsk, where he worked for a time for Charles Cameron (c.1745–1812), fashioning the low reliefs for the exterior of the palace and for the Grand Duchess's dressing-room. Peterhof, however, inspired his finest achievements - the superb triton heads and the figure symbolizing the River Volkhov which he produced in 1801-1802 for the Great Cascade.

Prokofiev was virtually the last sculptor to succeed in embellishing St. Petersburg, for in the 1840s the art of decorative sculpture began to decline in Russia, and the task of adorning the capital's houses passed to the hands of craftsmen. As a result massive ornamentation replaced fine workmanship, and the standard of the designs deteriorated as much as their execution. Consequently work dating from the latter half of the nineteenth century is for the most part valueless.

Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)

The turn of the nineteenth century witnessed a partial revival of sculpture, mainly, however, of busts and ornaments as opposed to statues, fountains and plaques. They were produced by a comparatively large number of competent sculptors, but apart from Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) none attained the summit of their art. Vrubel alone produced work of high quality, but, since he was essentially a painter for whom sculpture was only an occasional medium of expression, his sculptures are restricted in scale and far from numerous, yet in style and quality they can bear comparison with the small scale work of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).




Metal-work and jewellery of superb quality continued to be produced in Russia throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the stress laid rather upon refining workmanship than on evolving new forms. By the end of the 19th century the excellence of Russian craftsmanship was such that, under the leadership of Carl Fabergé, there were produced in Russia some of the finest objects of fancy known to either the Eastern or Western worlds.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Russian craftsmen, working mainly in gold and silver, produced chiselled, embossed, engraved and stamped objects, as well as niello and enamel-ware. An exceptionally high standard was attained in niello, where, in contrast to the more usual practice, the backgrounds were frequently blacked in and the designs left to appear in silver. Vologda was a particularly important centre for this work, and objects of quality continued to be produced there down to the end of the nineteenth century.

More important artistically, however, were Russian enamels. Already in the seventeenth century enamels had ceased to be a rarity and the colour range had become extensive. Moscow and Vologda enamellers produced a remarkable variety, and attained a lovely transparency. In spite of this, comparatively few enamels were produced during Peter's reign, as he was not especially fond of the art. Enamelling came into its own under Catherine the Great, with Rostov and St. Petersburg as the most important centres. The former produced extremely intricate designs, carried out in a wide variety of colours; the latter presented a complete contrast, for the colours were limited to the dead white or deep blue of the ground on which designs, often of great elaboration, were delicately worked in silver or bronze. It is not surprising that this intensely restrained art failed to prove generally popular. Its output was, in fact, very limited, and even today enamels of this type are scarcely known outside Russia.

Far more generally familiar is the goldsmithing of Catherine's reign, especially in the form of snuff-boxes. The number produced at this time was prodigious, but the workmanship was invariably of very high quality, and each box is a gem in itself, fit to delight the most exacting eye.

House of Fabergé (1842-1917)

Similar high artistry and inventiveness were again attained at the close of the nineteenth century, when Carl Fabergé, a Huguenot in ancestry, but a Russian both by birth and temperament, established his famous workshops in St. Petersburg. There, exquisitely fashioned and delightfully ingenious trifles were produced in the rarest metals and precious stones, to delight the Courts of Europe. Fabergé's animals and birds are, technically speaking, among the most perfect ornaments in existence, and they are often also of high artistic quality. The animals show a most successful compound of Western naturalism and extreme stylization; the flowers display an almost Oriental observance of Nature, expressed with Russian unaffectedness and fastidiousness. Both groups of objects can stand photographic enlargement to any size - a sure test of their excellence of proportions. The awesome Fabergé Easter Eggs, cigarette boxes, some surmounted with musical birds, or jewels, all rival French goldsmith work at its best.

See also: Russian Painting (19th-Century).

20th Century Russian Sculpture

The sudden emergence of Picasso and Braque's Cubism (fl.1908-14) rocked the art world to its foundations. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Twentieth century sculptors were quick to respond. Perspective became flatter and more fragmented, as a whole new series of three-dimensional works began to emerge. Examples of Russian Cubist sculpture include: Woman Walking (1912, Private Collection) by the Ukrainian-born Russian sculptor Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964); Symphony No.1 (1913, MoMA, NY) by the Ukrainian-born Russian experimental painter and sculptor Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine (1888-1942); Man With Guitar (1915, MoMA, NY) by the Lithuanian-born artist Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), one of the foremost Cubist sculptors.

Italian Futurism (fl.1909-14) was another highly influential art movement. This sought to express the dynamism and speed of the new technological world. Exemplified by Umberto Boccioni's radical sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913; casts in MoMA NY, Tate London and elsewhere), the movement had a major impact on the development of Kinetic art. Russian sculptors affected included: Naum Gabo (1890-1977), creator of Kinetic Construction (1919-20, Tate Collection, London).

European sculpture before, during and after the First World War continued to be shaped by developments in Paris, but also by those in revolutionary Russia, where art fused with political fervour to create modernist forms of expression like Constructivism, which challenged sculptors to construct works out of industrial material like metal, glass and plastic. Examples of Russian constructivist sculpture include: Construction No.557 (1919) by Konstantin Medunetsky (1899-1935), a pupil of Tatlin and Rodchenko at the Higher Technical-Artistic School, Moscow; Monument to the Third International (1920, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) by the Ukraine-born Russian designer Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), who founded Constructivism; and Spatial Construction No.12c (1920, MoMA, NY) by the Russian sculptor and industrial designer Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956); Torso (1924-6, MoMA, NY) by the Russian-born French sculptor, Anton Pevsner (1884-1962); and Constructed Head No.2 (1916, Nasher Sculpture Centre, Dallas) by Naum Gabo. Another important Russian sculptor associated with this form of non-objective art was El Lissitzky (1890-1941), a member of the non-objective art group Abstraction-Creation (1931-36).

Two other 20th century Russian-born sculptors worth highlighting are Zadkine and Nevelson.

The New York-based Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) (born Louise Berliawsky) achieved belated international recognition for her unique style of assemblage art. Examples include: Dawn's Wedding Chapel (1959, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Mirror Image 1 (1969, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).

The Russian-born French sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), best known for his modern expressionistic style, achieved worldwide fame for his masterpiece The Destroyed City (1953, Schiedamse Dijk, Rotterdam) and other works.

Examples of Russian Sculpture can be seen in some of the best art museums and sculpture gardens around the world.

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