Russia • 1716−1795

Biography and information

Alexey Antropov (25 March, 1716, St. Petersburg - 23 June, 1795, St. Petersburg) was one of the first Russian artists who began to paint secular portraits and work with “live models” He was a monumental decorator who worked in the Baroque and Classicist style (the murals for the Winter Palace, Anichkov Palace, the works in Tsarskoye Selo and Peterhof, the interiors (altar) of the St. Andrew's Church in Kiev, etc.); Antropov's students were Peter Drozhdin and Dmitry Levitsky.

Peculiar features of Alexey Antropov’s art. Early in his career, the artist executed portraits of the imperial persons (Peter I, Elizaveta Petrovna) to decorate the palaces according to ready-made designs and the established canons, but gradually, under the influence of the Italian master Pietro Rotari, who worked in Russia, Antropov began to paint live models (the portrait of Peter III), which significantly increased the quality of his work. Despite the fact that Antropov’s paintings are distinguished by the well-known archaic manner with dull dark backgrounds, artless frontal compositions, color rigidity and not always perfect drawings, his best portraits are also characterized by a precise psychological characterization (especially in the portraits of old ladies from the royal household, Vorontsova and Rumyantseva), and the impartial objectivity, which is peculiar only to the great masters. Aleksey Antropov’s particular addiction “to blackness, to yellow and olive tone” is explained by the fact that being the official artist of the Synod, he inherited the old icon-painting tradition. But this pseudo-iconic color, according to Alexandre Benois, had an adverse impact on the subsequent history of Russian painting.

Famous paintings of Alexey Antropov: “Portrait of Countess M.A. Rumyantseva”, “Portrait of the Lady-in-Waiting A. M. Izmaylova”, “Portrait of Peter III”“Portrait of Father Fyodor Dubyansky”.

Although Aleksey Antropov does not belong to the “first rank masters,” he is nevertheless an important figure in the history of Russian painting. Having neither its own Antiquity, nor its Renaissance, the 17th century Russian art made an incredible leap from the Middle Ages immediately to the New Age. Alexey Antropov’s oeuvre is, actually, the first step of the new Russian secular painting: uncertain, timid, but still completely independent.

Antropov was born in 1716 and lived to 1795. In a way, he was fortunate enough to be born in post-Petrine times, when, thanks to the efforts of the Tsar-reformer, nobility was less valued than one’s natural talents. Antropov was a soldier’s son and grandson of a gunsmith. He was hardworking and had limited capacity to intrigue. Only talent and work helped him to promote himself.

Peter Antropov, the Imperial Guard and participant in the Battle of Poltava, had four sons. After graduating from military serving, Antropov's father became a locksmith at the Armory yard, then he worked in the Chancellery of buildings. That's where all four of his sons would go in their father's footsteps: Stepan will become a locksmith, like his father, Ivan will become a watchmaker, Alexey and Nikolai will begin to study painting.

At the time of Antropov’s apprenticeship, the Academy of Arts has not been yet established in Russia. All important masters were listed at the Chancellery of buildings - they worked, but also studied and taught. At different times, the Chancellery was led by such remarkable artists like Ivan Vishnyakov and Andrey Matveyev. Matveyev was one of the first "pensioners" - those Russian artists who received the life pension by the Emperor to study abroad. He became the mentor of Antropov (by the way, he was his distant relative). His other teacher was Louis Caravacus. Having been invited to Russia, he made a career at court, being able to artfully flatter, so he succeeded in ceremonial portraiture. Antropov did not have the chance to go to study in Amsterdam or Rome, so the slick Caravacus served as the intermediary between Antropov and European painting. Being already a mature master, Antropov would learn from another court foreigner - Pietro Antonio Rotari, the famous “master of female heads”. It was him who taught Antropov to paint from life and not "according to canons."

Antropov’s apprenticeship dragged on. For a long time he worked on the decoration of many iconic buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo. Elizaveta came to the throne in 1742, and Antropov took part in the presentation of coronation celebrations in Moscow, and also painted several portraits of the Empress. Elizaveta initiated large scale constructions, so Antropov always had a job: he made paintings for Anichkov and the Summer Palaces, painted icons and a ceiling in the Winter Palace, participated in the creation of the Opera House sceneries.

The construction of the St. Andrew's Church, the magnificent baroque cathedral, was completed in 1754 in Kiev. It was built under the supervision of Ivan Michurin on the order of Elizaveta Petrovna, according to the Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s project. Antropov was invited to Kiev – and this was the evidence that the artist had already reached a certain level of recognition. But this was also a chance for himself: he was under 40, but still considered an apprentice. Mikhail Bulgakov, who named his main character Master, would live down the cathedral on Adreyevsky Descent a century and a half after. Long before that, St. Andrew's Church made Antropov a master. Not only in the sense of increased professionalism, but also literally: he had ceased to be an apprentice and received the title of master. His best work of this period is work The Last Supper.

After the death of Elizaveta Petrovna in 1762, her nephew Peter III ascended the throne. A ceremonial portrait was immediately needed. We can judge about the competition between the artists, who worked at the court, by the following example. The artist Fyodor Rokotov was the first to paint a portrait of the new Emperor in record time. But Peter III rejected his image: he did not like the portrait by Rokotov. And then, at the insistence of the Synod, Aleksey Antropov undertook the work.

Antropov had heard about the oddities of the "Holstein", about his love for Prussia, playing with dolls and military drill, as well as about his hatred of everything Russian. Being a sincere person and a good artist, Antropov did not try to dissemble and flatter. He portrayed Peter III as a tall and awkward man, bursting with complacency, with a disproportionately small head, but a large belly. But the Emperor, oddly enough, liked the portrait, - he was happy to find in the painting exactly what he saw in the mirror. “You are a real artist, - said Peter to Antropov. – No one can convey the human soul as you did!”

Antropov was also entrusted with a more intimate commission - he painted the favorite of the Emperor Elizabeth Vorontsova, whom Peter III seriously intended to marry. But the fortune of the court artist was changeable. Peter stayed on the throne for only six months and was overthrown by his own wife Catherine II. And she brought Rokotov closer to her, announcing that all her subsequent portraits should be painted from the Rokotov standard. Antropov, on the other hand, lost his place in the Synod and suffered many disasters before the Empress had mercy and gave him opportunity to work.

In April 1760, Antropov wrote a petition addressed to Catherine for allowing him to work "... I paint the walls and ceilings, as well as portraits, I also paint on enamel," he faithfully reported on his own skills.

“Supervisor of icon painters and artists” was called the position with a salary of 600 rubles, which the Holy Synod had already appropriated to Antropov in 1761. For two decades the artist had to "oversee" the works of the young painters and to improve them if necessary. He proved himself as a gifted teacher. The most famous students of Antropov were Peter Drozhdin (we know how Antropov looked like thanks to a Family portrait painted by Drozhdin) and Dmitry Levitsky. Antropov would later donate his own estate to locate the Art School there, asking only about just one thing for himself and his wife - that they would not be put out on the street.

In his youth, Antropov painted the Empress Elizabeth a lot. He also painted Catherine II (1, 2, 3, 4), although his works were less skillful than the ceremonial portraits of the foreigners and compatriots like Rokotov and Levitsky. In comparison with them, the portraits of Antropov look immature and naive. In the 1770s, Antropov painted numerous copies of the members of the Romanov’s tsar’s house, and if their artistic value remains insignificant, the historical one is undeniable.

In easel painting Antropov worked exclusively in the genre of ceremonial and chamber portraiture. His most significant works include the portraits of Maria Rumyantseva and Anastasia Izmaylova, confessor Elizaveta Petrovna, Fyodor Dubyansky and archbishop Sylvester Kulebyaka, a remarkable portrait series of the Buturlin family (1, 2, 3). With all the technical limitations of Antropov and not so flawless drawings, in his portraits one can feel the impartiality of the artist's vision.

Antropov died at 79 years old from a fever in St. Petersburg, where he lived, and was buried in the necropolis of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, not far from Peter III, the Emperor who valued the painter the most. Actually, a year after the death of Antropov, the son of Peter III, Paul I transfered the ashes of his father to another place. But the burial of Antropov remained undisturbed: his plate at the Lazarevsky Lavra cemetery survived to this day.

Author: Anna Vcherashnyaya