“In the Wild, Distant Forest”: Exploring Native Russia in the Landscapes of Ivan Shishkin and Mikhail Nesterov

By Lucia Hawkes

How bare our countryside! What dearth
How stark the hamlets’ desolation…
Long suffering country of my birth,
poor homeland of the Russian nation.
— Fyodor Tiutchev, ‘Untitled’ (1855)

Ne to chto mrdte vy Priroda, ‘Nature is not what you think it is’ – in a poem written in 1836 by the Pan-Slavist Fyodor Tiutchev, Russia’s native land is personified; it feels, speaks and is characterised by a boundless freedom: “[nature] has a soul, has freedom, love and a tongue.” Influenced by German Romanticism, Tiutchev’s verse projected dreams of nature’s ‘dark-flowing’, hidden depths; and a longing for a world wherein man and nature could be, once again, unified. By 1855, Tiutchev’s description of the Russian ‘homeland’ becomes fretful, figured as a site of ‘suffering’ and ‘desolation’. Under the rule of Alexander II – which, coincidentally, commenced the year Tiutchev’s poem was written, in 1855 – the arts also became increasingly preoccupied with nationalistic concerns. At the same time, Russia’s inhospitable countryside was criticised within the popular genre of travel writing. Both Russian and European travellers commented upon the ‘overwhelming vastness’ of Russia’s murky forests and bleak Steppes. The harmonious and idyllic classical Italian vistas found in the seventeenth century paintings of Claude Lorrain held sway over the development of eighteenth-century European landscape aesthetics; a natural environment, rendered with fine light and a blissful rurality, which, as posited by Christopher Ely, had no counterpart in Imperial Russia.

Ivan Shishkin,  Felling Trees,  1863, Oil on Canvas. 125 х 196.5. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow  https://www.tretyakovgallery.ru/en/collection/rubka-lesa/

Ivan Shishkin, Felling Trees, 1863, Oil on Canvas. 125 х 196.5. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Alexander II’s emancipation of serfdom in 1861 contributed vastly to the reconfiguration of Russia’s landscape, which became even more a symbol of contention, ownership and centuries of subjugation. In the eyes of the peasants, Russia’s land belonged to God – and, ultimately, to those who had spent their entire lives cultivating it. Whilst the nobility received governmental compensation following Alexander’s reform, Russia’s peasantry remained dissatisfied, burdened by ‘redemption’ taxes; the civil unrest Alexander hoped to quell would thus become increasingly fervent in the ensuing decades. Concomitantly, discontented with the Imperial Academy’s autocratic artistic regime, a group of students broke away in 1863 to form the Peredvizhniki – otherwise known as the Wanderers’ - a ‘radical’ society of travelling artists, who propounded an ethos of social and moral didacticism. Russia’s landscape would thus become an integral part of the group’s Realist philosophy, and one of their most extensively produced, and popular, subjects; the Peredvizhniki thus fostered a new admiration for the ascetic sentiments of rural life.

 Holy Russia, they say, is cutting down its slumbering forests...
— F. Treimut, ‘Is it Profitable to Follow Correct Forest Practices in Forested Regions?’ (1871)

Following the abolition of serfdom, Russia’s forests were felled at an alarming rate. Alexander’s reforms eliminated any serf responsibility to regulate and protect land, and encouraged the appearance of vast ‘peasant-owned’ plots, used, primarily, for widespread logging. Throughout the nineteenth century, concerns regarding the environmental effects of deforestation were voiced by authors such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky – a consciousness sharpened by the rapid growth of Russia’s population, and the appearance of increasingly overcrowded, squalid urban centres. As underscored by Jane Costlow, the ‘forest question’ became increasingly pertinent throughout the nineteenth century, occupying a ‘major place’ in state commissions, literary and artistic endeavours. Visual representations of Russia’s landscape were infused, therefore, to re-use Costlow’s phrase, with a ‘geography of loss’ – as Russia’s indigenous forestry became, even more so, emblematic of an old order, facing rapid decline.

A member of the Wanderers, Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) rendered Russia’s native land with an almost obsessive exactitude. With their low vantage points, his paintings elicit the sensation of being, literally, down in the dirt – encouraging viewers to be conversant with the forest floor; its budding plants, grassy stumps, soggy, mudded and rocky tracks. Shishkin’s Felling Trees (1863) (fig. 1), for example, is exhaustive in its precision; the forest floor is carpeted with vegetation – toadstool mushrooms, lichen, chips of wood and flowering weeds; a botanical diorama. A red-furred stoat, barely distinguishable from moss, clambers over a newly-felled pine; with its alert head, the animal gazes warily at the toppled tree. The animal’s anxious gesture subtly alerts our view towards the right hand side of the canvas, where Shishkin includes three men – active in their destruction of the forest’s natural habitat. Felling Trees is not, however, an overt condemnation of the impacts of deforestation. Although vulnerable to man’s exploitation, the forest of Shishkin’s conception thus remains wild and abundant – replete with lush fauna and inquisitive creatures.

W. J. T. Mitchell’s claim that landscape is an instrument of ‘cultural power’, which naturalises an artificial environment as if it were real or spontaneous, seems apt in relation to Shishkin’s painting. With this in mind, Shishkin’s image seems deliberate in its construction of pastoral harmony, and presentation of a noble, folkish livelihood - a livelihood that was, in actuality, endangered. In relation to Shishkin’s style, David Jackson has emphasised the ‘objectivity’ and emotional deficiency characteristic of Shishkin’s work – an idea also voiced by Shishkin’s contemporary, Ivan Kramskoy, who considered his landscape scenes to be ‘over-burdened’ with detail. Conversely, Shishkin’s meticulous technique could be regarded as a testament to the artist’s sensitivity towards, and familiarity with, the Russian countryside; an attentive draughtsmanship that illuminates areas of beauty and complexity in the most ordinary of settings.

Ivan Shishkin , Countess Mordvinova' s  Wood  (1893) Oil on canvas. 84 х 110.5cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.  https://www.tretyakovgallery.ru/en/collection/v-lesu-grafini-mordvinovoy-petergof/

Ivan Shishkin, Countess Mordvinova's Wood (1893) Oil on canvas. 84 х 110.5cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


In Dawn (1883) (fig. 2), for example, Shishkin again foregrounds minutiae, such as pine needles and snapped twigs – ephemera aptly described by Christopher Ely as a ‘momento mori’ of the natural world. Under closer inspection, areas of foliage are handled by Shishkin with a sketchy brushwork; with small dabs, lines and scratches replicating the tangled, elaborate undergrowth. Reflecting the sun’s golden glow, the puddles indicate that rain has recently fallen, saturating the scene with a chilly dampness. Writing on Shishkin’s Dawn, Elizabeth Valkenier has emphasised the painting’s sense of ‘urgency’– yet, the scene, more accurately, relays a stillness, and an acceptance of nature’s continual fluctuation. With their bindles resting against the mighty pines, it is unclear as to whether Shishkin’s figures are lingering or vacating; they could be members of a Mir peasant commune, foraging for food or journeying for work; around the newly-lit fire – suggested by the white smoke – a small dog sits alertly and obediently, perhaps waiting for scraps. Shishkin's forest is not a threatening space. On the contrary, a path leads outwards from the thicket, opening onto daybreak, as the sun emerges, hazily and sleepily, from beyond the forest's dark interior. Apprehending a moment of transition – from night into day, from the heart to the periphery of the woodland – Shishkin thus reminds us of nature’s cyclical rhythm, and provides a broader, universal emblem for the unrelenting flux of human life.

The figures found throughout Shishkin’s paintings – although sporadic – are comparable, in size and symbolism, to the Rückenfigur of Casper David Friedrich’s early nineteenth-century Romantic landscapes. With their backs turned to the viewer – thwarting and subsuming the viewer’s access to the sublime vista – the Rückenfigur thus instilled Friedrich’s paintings with what Joseph Koerner has described as a ‘heightened subjectivity’. Moments of passage – the times of dusk and dawn – were also presented by Friedrich as sacred experiences; metaphors for the ‘dawning’, and spiritual awakening, achieved through the Christian faith. Akin to Friedrich, Shishkin also employed low horizon lines throughout his landscape scenes, generating the illusion of infinite space. This, in effect, encouraged the spectator to imagine beyond the ‘apparent finality’ of the landscape scene, and to experience nature’s interminable expanse.

Friedrich’s The Chasseur in the Forest (1814), for example, embodies the German notion of Waldeinsamkeit – a word that translates, roughly, as ‘woodland solitude’. Friedrich’s hunter is overwhelmed by the forest’s menacing darkness – an allegory, perhaps, of man’s insignificance in the face of nature’s all-encompassing force. A sense of ‘Waldeinsemkeit’ is also evoked in Shishkin’s Countess Mordvinova’s Wood (1891), a painting that includes a lone, aged figure, dwarfed by tall pines. With his hat, stick, white beard and long overcoat, Shishkin’s elder resembles an ancient sage. The man’s dishevelled appearance and reddened cheeks are also comparable to Ilya Repin’s A Shy Peasant (1877); yet, his confidently propped cane and knowing glance exudes a self-assurance more akin to that of Kramskoy’s Forester (1874). Conceivably, Shishkin’s solitary figure could be a dissenting Old Believer; or a runaway serf, evading capture. Ely has suggested, however, that the nomadic figure within Shishkin’s landscape is a symbol for the brevity of human existence, and the inconsequence of man in the wake of nature’s splendour; Shishkin’s painting is, however, equally illustrative of man’s potential union with the natural landscape. In both the works of Shishkin and Friedrich, we find an evocation of nature’s sublimity, and an infusion of native forestry with exalted, metaphysical symbolism. At the turn of the century, however, Russian artists would go even further in reconciling the landscape with spiritual themes, glorifying Russia’s indigenous Steppes with surreal and Saintly visions.

I will be a hermit in the wilderness,
In the wild, distant forest.
— Priestless Old Believer spiritual verse

Besides its practical usage, the ‘glorious’ wilderness of the Russian taiga pertained to an ancient, spiritual and mythical history. Epic folk tales from the Bylinas of the Pudoga Region, originating from the tenth century, spoke of ‘peasants from the dark forest’ whose animals had been slaughtered by ‘strange’ outsiders. Whilst conceived as a site of danger, from the fourteenth century onwards, hermits had been known to venture into ‘unsettled’ forests and form monastic communities. From the eighteenth century, Old Believer communes, known as skity, were also formed in the woodlands of the Northeast. The forest thus became an increasingly appropriate locale for expressions of spiritualism and narodnost – a concept associated with nationalism, populism and folklore, which came into vogue during the 1820s.  At the same time, a new group of artists in Russia, reaching maturity in the 1890s, became progressively apathetic towards the Realist tradition of the Peredvizhniki. In an era of rapid social change, the artistic language of European Symbolism – of dreams, occultism, and theosophy – appealed to the dissatisfied, restless and revolutionary sentiments of a younger generation.

Mikhail Nesterov,  The Youth of Venerable Sergius  (1892-1897) Oil on canvas. 251 х 232cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.  https://www.tretyakovgallery.ru/en/collection/yunost-prepodobnogo-sergiya/

Mikhail Nesterov, The Youth of Venerable Sergius (1892-1897) Oil on canvas. 251 х 232cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Raised as a devout Orthodox Christian, the paintings of Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) are infused with a sense of the artist’s personal piety, and convey a wistful longing for a Russia’s lost, medieval past. Nesterov’s first painting series depicted scenes of ‘sanctity and labour’, from the life and work of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, completed during his stay at the Abramtsevo estate. In the fourteenth century, Bartholomew – Saint Sergius’ name prior to canonisation – built a timber chapel in the forest, known as ‘Holy Trinity,’ which, henceforth, became the wellspring of a widespread monastic movement. Although not a ‘landscape’ in the conventional sense, Nesterov’s painting The Youth of Venerable Sergius (1892-1897) (fig. 4) utilises nature as its central theme. The fauna of Nesterov’s painting is reproduced with a verisimilitude analogous to Shishkin. A sense of doubling is evinced in Nesterov’s image; two Siberian bullfinches are seen perched in the young birch tree; Sergius’ nimbus is echoed in the dome of the wooden chapel; two yellow butterflies, their wings, twitching and blessing the newly sprouted trees, serve as a symbol of rebirth and resurrection; birch, spruce and pine saplings – symbols of growth, youth and springtime – are figured in the foreground. Moreover, the bear, ruler of the forest and a national symbol of Russia, is tamed and made drowsy under Sergius’ calming presence. Two tree stumps, to the right of the canvas, indicate that the land has been worked. Akin to Shishkin’s Felling Trees, Nesterov ensures, however, that with destruction comes the potential for renewal – an allegory perhaps, of the Christian promise of salvation.

At the start of the twentieth century, Russia’s socio-political structure remained highly volatile. The year of 1905 saw the wave of revolutionary fervour explode throughout the Russian Empire, during which Peter A. Stolypin, minister of internal affairs in Russia between 1906 and 1911, implemented a series of reforms to ‘modernise’ village life, establish ‘well-ordered’ plots of land; and to impose a greater punitive authority over Russia’s peasant class. Stolypin’s land reforms thus contributed to a fracturing of peasant social identity, and traditional agrarian life. Abbott Gleason has suggested that Nesterov, perhaps in response to this intensified demarcation between man and nature, thus conjures a pre-lapsarian Russian vista, and a world within which the ‘Russian individual’ could still live in harmony with God’s creatures. Costlow delves deeper, arguing that Nesterov’s image is best understood as a representation of a ‘culture of seeing’ indebted to the Russian icon – an image that thus demands ‘communion’. Nesterov’s paintings also have an embellished, flattened quality, stylistically comparable to the Byzantine religious icon. With Sergius’ face trickling with tears, however, Nesterov implies that, perhaps, this idyllic existence is unobtainable, only available within the confines of his imaginary world.

Mikhail Nesterov, Autumn Landscape (1906) Oil on canvas. 102 х 134cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.  https://www.tretyakovgallery.ru/en/collection/osenniy-peyzazh/

Mikhail Nesterov, Autumn Landscape (1906) Oil on canvas. 102 х 134cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Nesterov’s later work, Autumn Landscape (1906) (fig. 5) is devoid of human, or Saintly, inhabitancy. It is an image rendered with a thick and free handling of paint; dabs and smudges of green, red, orange and blue constitute the ‘wild, distant woodland’, whilst flat planes of muted colour form the grassy banks of the lake. As a result, Nesterov’s light is hazy and autumnal. The lake, which reflects the enormous white sky, predominates on the canvas – filling the space with a motionless, vacant and silent expanse. Consequently, the sky and ground exist in a reciprocity of perpetual reflection and refraction - a symbolic allusion, perhaps, to Nesterov’s own introspective, and eternal, contemplation. Significantly, Jeff Malpas has likened the representation of landscape to the act of ‘revelation’; like revelation, landscape painting ‘connects’, ‘allows things to appear’, yet, simultaneously, ‘obscures’. Malpas’ definition has a remarkable resonance to Nesterov’s interpretation of the natural world; Nesterov constructs his landscape as Divine vision; a ‘revelation’ of Russia’s gifted and bounteous nature.

Shishkin’s landscapes also unfold in a ‘revelatory’ sense; we are drawn to the deceptive ‘truth’ of his exacting style, only to be simultaneously reminded of its artifice. Parallel to the conception of Russia’s peasants as the sole-survivors of an unspoiled Christianity, Russia’s land, too, became imbued with nationalistic and religious symbolism. The decision to examine these two – ostensibly different – landscape painters, lay in their representations of two distinctive moments in Russian history; we also find in both the paintings of Shishkin and Nesterov, a documentation of Russia’s changing natural environment. Whilst repeatedly noted for their Russian, nationalistic propensities, the natural scenes of both artists are, arguably, fundamentally universal in their recourse to spirituality and mysticism; both imbue the Russian forest with a sacrosanct and numinous vitality, thus transforming their ‘poor’ homeland into a vision – not merely idyllic or charming – yet, something far more visceral and deeply personal.



Primary Sources:

Priestless Old Believer spiritual verse, popular in the Upper Kama, from: Robert Douglas, The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009)

Treimut, F., “Is it Profitable to Follow Correct Forest Practices in Forested Regions?” (1871) in: Jane Costlow, Heart-Pine Russia: Walking and Writing the Nineteenth-Century Forest, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2010)

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