Orest Kiprensky, the great portraitist of the early ninteenth century, was born in the Oranienbaum district of Petersburg Gubernia, on an estate belonging to the landowner A.S. Diakonov. The future artist was entered in the register of Koporye church as the illigitimate son of the peasant Anna Gavrilova, who a year after the birth of her son was married to the landowner's manservant Adam Schwalbe.
In 1788 Kiprensky was sent to the school run by the Academy of Arts and nine years later he entered the class of historical painting, which was usually reserved for pupils who displayed some ability. His teachers were the professor of historical painting G.I. Udryumov and the master of profound and decorative painting Gabriel-Francois de Doyen.
The artists won his first gold medal in 1805 for the historical canvas Dmitry Donskoi on Sustaining Victory over Mamai (RM). But it was not historical paintings that brought him fame.
As early as 1804 Kiprensky painted one of his most talented works - a portrait of his father, Adam Schwalbe (RM). The portrait is impressive because of its remarkable maturity, its deep understanding of human nature, and the level of mastery attained at such an early stage in the artist's career. We see a self-willed man, full of dignity and spiritual strength. The work is realised in warm colours with free sweeping brushwork, built on contrasts of light and shade.
This brilliant portrait impressed Kiprensky's contemporaries. In 1830 it was displayed at an art exhibition in Naples and, as the artist himself wrote, 'the Academy here concocted the following ideas ... some considered the portrait of my father a Rubens masterpiece, others thought it was a Van Dyck, while a certain Albertini went as far as Rembrandt!'
The artist's early works included a Self-Portrait (1808, RM). The easy-going, elevated character of this inspired image, and the distinctive style of painting and composition were clear signs of a new attitude to portraitures.
Both the personality and the work of the artist were suffused with the spirit of the liberal first decade of the nineteenth century. Kiprensky was a romantic artist, the first of the portraits to catch the tenor of the age and to poeticise the value and beauty of man's spiritual wealth. 'Who said that feelings deceive us?' he wrote in an album of drawings.
The year 1808 saw the start of Kipensky's friendship with the well-known collector and art patron A.R. Tomilov, whose house was one of the centers of artistic life in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
It was around this time that the artist painted portaits of A.R. Tomilov (1808, RM), I.V. Kusov (1808, RM), A.IKorsakov (1808, RM) and also another Self-Portrait (1809, TG).
On 27 February 1809 Kiprensky left for Moscow, where he was to help Ivan Martos complete his work on the monument to Minin and Pozharsky. In Moscow the artist's contact widened. In Rastopchin's salon and at Mme Muravyova's house, he met the poets K.N.Batyushkov, P.A. Vyazemsky, V.A. Zhukovsky, S.P. Marin, and also Denis and Yevgraf Davydov. He was enormously influenced by the atmosphere of such meetings and creative discussions, by Rastopchin's private art gallery (which had something like 300 exhibits, including pictures by Velazquez, Van Dyck and Tintoretto) and by the pre-war mood of Russia society.
Abounding in impressions, Kiprensky's life in Moscow was conducive to intensive artistic activity. 'Kiprensky is half-crazed by his work and by his imagination,' wrote Rastopchin to the conference secretary of the Academy of Arts, A.F.Labzin.
Among the works of the Moskow period, 1809-1812, are portaits of A.A. Chelishchev (1810-1811, TG) Ye. P. Rastopchina (1809, TG) and Ye. V. Davydov (1809, RM) In his full-dress portrait of Ye. V. Davydov, a hero of the 1812 war decorated with the gold sword for his bravery, Kiprensky strove to depict a man of a progressive turn of mind, a forerunner of new social forces in Russia. The attraction of the portrait lies in the nobility, dignity and emotional elevation of the character.
In March 1812 Kiprensky returned to St. Petersburg. For several of his portraits - including those of Ye. V. Davydov, Prince Oldenburgsky, I. A. Gagarin and A.I.Kusov - he was awarded the title of academian of portrait painting.
Kiprensky reached his peak as a portraitist at the time of the 1812 war. As though in a rush to record the heroes of the war, Kiprensky made numerous pencil drawings. A series of graphic portraits depicted the artist's friends: the brothers M. and A. Lanskoi, General Chaplits, the home guard A.P. Tomilov and P.A. Olenin, the poets KN. Batyushkov, I.I. Kozlov and V.A. Zhukovsky, and the fable-writer I.A.Krylov.
Some of Kiprensky's best painting also date from this time - including his masterly portrait of D.N. Khvostova.
During his years in Italy (1816-1823) the artist continued to work intensively. However, his mood and to some extent his works of this period were affected by the hostile attitude towards him of the civil servants in the Russian embassy in Rome, who kept an eye on their pensioners, and by the upheavals of the revolution in Italy. Among his best works of these years were his portrait of A.M. Golitsyn, his pencil portrait of S.S. Scherbatova and his famous Self-Portrait of 1819, wich was commissioned by the Firence Academy for the Uffici Gallery.
This self-portrait brings out new traits of the painter's work. Here, nothing remains of the sparkling immediacy and thirst for life that were the keynote of his earlier self-portrait. The world around him had lost its joyful attraction and was daubed in sombre hues. Kiprensky was acutely aware of the dichotomy between ideals and reality.
In July 1823 Kiprensky returned to his home-land, which was going through a period of cruel reaction under the auspices of the chairman of the Military Department Arakcheyev. Arakcheyev and Minister Guriev were made honorary members of the Academy of Arts. 'The Academy,' wrote Kiprensky on his return to St Petersburg, 'has grown mouldy.'
The suppression of the Decembrist Uprising in 1825 threw Kiprensky into a state of grief and disillusion. There is no information available on the artist's attitude to the Decembrists' secret society, but he did meet many of them at the house of the officer of household cavalry D.N. Sheremetiev, and was most certainly deeply moved by their fate, as was a considerable part of the Russian society.
There was a general feeling of indignation at the fact that Kiprensky, who had made such impressively realistic drawings and paintings of participants in the 1812 War, was not asked to paint portraits for the official 1812 War Gallery. Alexander I passed over other Russian artists too, and gave the comission to the English artist George Dawe.
'I went to Italy, ' wrote Kiprensky, 'with the sole purpose of bringing to Russia the fruits of a more mature talent, but instead, on my return I was covered by the envy of my adversaries. Ignoring this envy, I always strode firmly onwards, knowing that sooner or later time always reveals the truth.'
At the end of the twenties he again left for Italy. His marriage to his former pupil and inspiration Maria Falcucci failed to brighten up the last years of his life.
Orest Kiprensky died on 5 October 1836 and was buried in Rome.
'The celebrated Kiprensky has died,' wrote the artit A.A. Ivanov from Italy. He was the first to bring a Russian name to Europe... Kiprensky was never decorated and never granted favours by the Court - and proud to seek such things.'