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Fyodor Rokotov (1735/36–1808). To the 275th birthday anniversary

Fyodor Rokotov (1735/36–1808). To the 275th birthday anniversary


A new vision which had determined the development of fine arts in the epoch of the reforms, undertaken by Peter the Great, gave birth to new art forms, and portrait became one of them. Active development of the genre was encouraged by an awaken interest in vivid and strong personality, having brought to life the very spirit of times: energetic, hungry for knowledge and actions. A sort of a personality’s “discovery” was taking part in art, which in its turn was gradually gaining its secular character. In the images created by landscape painters and sculptors both social and “state” value of the depicted came into forefront.

In the second half of the 18th century portrait is being filled with more complex and profound value. The ideas of French Enlighteners (who turned the thinking Europe to the problem of freedom and dignity of a personality as well as its “natural” rights) fall on the fertile ground in Russia: those ideas gained the support of the Empress Catherine II at the very beginning of her reign, who proclaimed the equality of all the people before the law in her famous “Mandate”. The conception of a “harmonious personality” living in harmony with Nature becomes an organic part of art programme of the time. A lot of great masters are being inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment. A peculiar talent of Fyodor Rokotov vividly stands out amongst these artists: in his creativity the art of portrait inherits the following traits such as spirituality, intimacy and lyricism, which were previously unknown to this type of art.

Many circumstances of the artist’s life are still unknown. Fyodor Rokotov was born in 1735 or 1736, in the village Vorontsovo near Moscow. There are a number of theories about his origin: according to one of them – he is a serf of the Prince Pyotr Repnin; according to another one – he is a nobleman. Rokotov spent his early childhood years in Moscow. He was familiarizing himself with the nuts and bolts of fine arts in one of the icon-painting workshops. Perhaps the Count Shuvalov – a favorite of the Empress Elizabeth II, the patron of many artists and one of the founders of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts – had found out about a talented young man through the Repnin Princes. It was presumably under the Count’s order that in 1760 Rokotov had been admitted to the Academy, where he studied for two years under the supervision of such teachers as Louis Joseph Le Lorren, Louis Jean François Lagrenée, and Francesco Fontebasso. After receiving in 1762 the title of Adjunct of Painting, and in 1765 – an Academician, he began teaching at the Academy of Arts. In the middle 60s Rokotov returned to Moscow. (Even today the house where he lived stands in Staro-Basmannaya Street (after its reconstruction)). Not having his own family, the artist was bringing up his two nephews – the sons of his elder brother who died in his young ages.

After a cold and official St. Petersburg Moscow was the city where it was far easier to breathe: here the artist was surrounded by the representatives of the intelligentsia – the Golitsyns, the Repnins, the Vorontsovs, the Kurakins – who had European education, were well-minded, more free and independent. (From the reigning times of Peter I Moscow was a “lurking place for disgraced nobles”). His Moscow circle of friends, his social intercourse with famous writers and poets – Sumarokov, Maikov, Kheraskov, and Struisky – contributed to the development of intimacy in Rokotov’s creativity. The best art works performed by the artist were created in Moscow.

Rokotov is enchanted by the mystery of a human soul; this mystery of the created images is hidden in a glance, a head turn, a faint smile. A man stands before us in his secret and mysterious nature. A face – its mobile features, reflecting subtle emotions – becomes the main trait of portrait. A special “Rokotovian” brushwork – easiness and violence of a pencil or a brush, airiness of painting facture – allowed the artist to capture a spiritual self of a contemporary in all his depth and complexity.

Three art works performed by Fyodor Rokotov are stored at the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus.

The portraits of a married couple of the Sheremetyevs were created in the 1770s.

It is well known about Vasily Sheremetyev (1743–1806) that he served in the Life Guards of the Horse Regiment, and that he was a collegiate counselor.

An intelligent and delicate face which is lit inside with golden shine draws the eye by its surprisingly exalted features. His gray eyes are soulfully and frankly staring at us; there is clarity of thought, and a feeling of fullness and richness of inner life inside them. Sheremetyev’s whole appearance bears a stamp of refined culture, generosity and a genuine intelligence. The “spiritual aristocraticism” of the model is emphasized with the softness of light and melting lines, and tailored dark tones of the palette.

A “pompadour” hairstyle, crowned with feathers, an elegant dress, decorated with fur and lace, are seen at the portrait. A sense of inner strength, and, first of all, a sense of human dignity are seen in gracefulness and slenderness, in a proud and confident bearing, and in a calm glance of narrow dark eyes. Vasily Sheremetyev’s wife – Anna Sheremetyeva (1759–1821) – bursts upon our eyes in such an appearance, which is described above. Overcast and gloomy air, shimmering with the shades of gray, red, gold, and brown and shrouding a thin figure, is masterfully conveyed by the painter.

The breath of the epoch, which proclaimed the freedom of a human spirit and respect for an individual, is felt in a complex emotional composition of portraits. An oval canvas, which is Rokotov’s favorite one, compositionally combines the images of the spouses Sheremetyevs, emphasizing their inner, spiritual “harmony”.

The portrait of Anna Kutaisova (1760–1848), the wife of the Count Ivan Kutaisov – a favorite of Paul I, created in the early 1780s, captivates its viewers with a charm of blossoming womanhood. The painter uses the gentlest brush when he depicts a youthful face, shining on a dark background like a high-priced pearl. He creates his artwork with an inconceivable pictorial elegance. The image attains a lively spontaneity and charm through a morning negligence of the costume; fluffy curls of a wig, lying loosely on her shoulders; a glad and arch sparkle in her eyes; and through her bright lips touched with just a slight smile. A young woman stands before us in the fullness of her natural state, not constrained by the conventions of beau-monde. She is an entire embodiment of youth and joy of life. The beauty and poetry of her appearance is emphasized by a soft silver and charcoal-grey palette.

“Painting is one of the ways of Universe creation”. This wonderful expression belongs to Arkhip Ivanov, the author of the treatise – “The Concept of a Perfect Painter” written in 1789, and it can be fully attributed to the creativity of Fyodor Rokotov.

Like other great masters of brush Rokotov had created his stunning and unique world, in which an individual appears before any viewer as the greatest mystery, ever created by Nature.


The poem written by Nikolay Zabolotsky all of a sudden recurs to the memory:


Do thou remember how from darkness,

Lightly enfolded in satin

Again from Rokotov’s portrayal

Dame Struiskaya was staring at us?


Her beauty eyes are like two mists,

Just half a smile, half a cry,

Her beauty eyes are like two lies,

Both covered with the evil fortunes.


And when thick darkness is setting in

And a severe storm is brewing,

Just from the bottom of my soul

Her beauty eyes begin to gleam...


Authors of the project:

Text – scientific researcher of NAM RB Marina Scherbakova

Illustrative material (digital imaging of the artworks) – Dmitry Kozlov

Web site placement – Head of the Multimedia Technology Branch of the Department of Scientific and Educational Work of NAM RB Polina Yanitskaya


The authors of the Project express their special appreciation to the Keeper of the Funds, a leading scientific researcher of NAM RB – Elena Shaposhnikova. They are very grateful for her support and help in the process of the exhibition organization.