Review: Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy & Tchaikovsky, National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition celebrates the best of the Golden Age of Russian culture through a series of portraits of those who influenced Russian culture. 

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov, 1910. (c) State Tretyakov  Gallery, Moscow. 

Russia and the Arts is certainly a display that has plenty of pride and talent woven into its very core – but it is hard not to feel that everything has been crammed into the space at the National Portrait Gallery.

This is not to dismiss the success of the National Portrait Gallery’s selection of work on display (having been told that it has taken five years to bring the portrait of Tolstoy over to the UK from Russia) and the level of detail that has gone into the creation of the exhibition, but it feels slightly rushed and sections have been forcibly crammed down.

Incredibly, many of the portraits on display have never been seen in the UK before making this an extra special display at the gallery.

But the beginning of the exhibition thanks the textile business man Pavel Tretyakov, who spent four decades collecting Russian art and by the time that he donated the collection, it was worth 1.5 million roubles for two thousand  pieces of art. The collection now forms the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.


Divided into sections such as theatre, writers, poets and music the exhibition is a celebration of Russian culture at its best – as well as those who captured the talent through paintings.

Russia and the Arts has a very traditional vibe about it, going into depth into the many tragic backstories of some the subjects – particularly with regards to what was happening at the time that the painting was being created, that adds an additional layer to the exhibition.

Some of the highlights of the exhibition include portraits of Dostoevsky (the only portrait of the writer to be painted from life), Tolstoy sitting at his desk in his study at the time when he was deciding to turn his back on his masterpieces and write more philosophical work and Anton Chekov.

Yet it feels as though that because the portraits are many of Russia’s most prized, the exhibition feels as though that despite it being a celebration of Russian culture, it feels a bit sombre in atmosphere and perhaps slightly cautious.


But it is an extraordinary tribute to a period in Russian history that saw a rise in talent by many of the authors, musicians and playwrights who are still strongly influential in Russia and across the globe today.

Overall, it is a display that deserves a lot more space to be more fully appreciated and just to add a touch of finesse that is just slightly lacking in terms of more detail about this period. But the National Portrait Gallery does the subject justice and will hopefully lead to more exhibitions linking with Russia in this way.

Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky opens to the public on the 17th March and will be on display until the 26th June 2016. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: