Peter the Great. Founding of St. Petersburg

Alexey Gavrilovich Venetsianov • Painting, 1838, 351×260 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait, Genre scene
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1838
Size: 351×260 cm
Artwork in selections: 17 selections

Description of the artwork «Peter the Great. Founding of St. Petersburg»

Peter the Great. Founding of St. Petersburg is a large-scale (260x351 cm) canvas at the main staircase of the State Tretyakov Gallery. It has several interesting stories associated with it.

Peter the Great... is the only historical painting of Venetsianov
This picture is not typical of Venetsianov’s work. He did not get any academic art education and he was by no means a historical painter who specialized in portraiture and rural genre. What made him take on a project of such responsibility and complexity as the image of Peter, without having the necessary experience and inclinations for this?

Venetsianov came up with the idea of painting Peter the Great for a competition that was announced by the St. Petersburg authorities. Its sponsor was the millionaire Anatoly Demidov. The winner was awarded a prize of 8 thousand roubles, a very large sum for the time. That could improve the shaky financial affairs of the artist, who spent all his free funds on ransom for talented peasants from serfdom and teaching them artistic skills.

For the painting, Venetsianov asked the Imperial Chancellery to give him costumes from the Peter the Great era
Feeling unsure of the historical genre, Venetsianov wrote an official letter asking to give him the costumes of the times of Peter the Great. He hoped to achieve objectivity by putting them on the sitters. But he received a refusal from the Royal Chancellery. He was only allowed to sketch out the costumes in the store, which made the velvet camisoles of Peter and his courtier look not very convincing.

Overly correct features of Emperor Peter raise suspicion
Venetsianov never received the prize, although his work turned out to be the strongest in the competition. The Academy Commission decided not to award the first prize to anyone.

Modern experts have recorded the multiple oddities of Peter the Great. First, the yellow-green sky was not painted in a Venetian style at all. Secondly, the proportions of the stone were surprising (later it would appear at the base of the Bronze Horseman statue): for some unknown reason, in the picture, it looked much smaller than it was in reality. Thirdly, the features of Peter’s face looked painfully correct and sugary and therefore not expressive enough (Venetsianov, by the way, was not the first to depict him).

The experts suspected that the top paint layer might not belong to Venetsianov’s hand, but it could be a later retouching. The X-ray taken confirmed this assumption: another layer was hidden beneath the top one. After a tense discussion at the restoration council, a risky decision  to “clean up” the canvas was approved.

The top paint layer of Peter the Great was not applied by Venetsianov
The result, although it was partly predictable, still amazed: in the original, the Thunder-stone was really larger and more proportional, and the artist painted Peter’s face much more brutal, but emotional and lively. It turned out that earlier there was a tear in the canvas and a restorer corrected the situation at his own peril and risk by overpainting Venetsianov’s work.

In 2005—2006, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Tretyakov Gallery, a restoration of the painting was planned. The discoveries described above forced the restoration to be made deeper and more extensive. The painting gained its original look. The renewed Peter the Great returned to its original place at the entrance to the Tretyakov Gallery.

Author: Anna Vcherashniaya