The life of Ivan Nikitich Nikitin exemplifies all the dangers inherent in a position of a favorite court painter. Nikitin was born about 1699; he began his career as a singer in the court choir, and received some training in art from Gottfried Dannhauer. From Peter the Great's Field Journal we learn that Nikitin completed the tsar's portrait in 1715. Probably at the same time he painted the Portrait of Tsarevna Natalia Alexeyevna that shares many stylistic similarities with the works of Andrei Matveyev. In 1716, Peter the Great sponsored a group of young Russian artists to be sent to Europe for training. Included in this group were Ivan Nikitin and his brother, Roman. Ivan ended up in Florence, Italy, where he studied at the Academy of Arts with Tomaso Redi.
The studies in Italy profoundly affected Ivan's developmant as an artist. While the Portrait of the Tsaritsa Praskovya Fedorovna, according to scholars, still shows Nikitin's "flat, awkward parsuna style," his studies in Italy changed his style to "an unpretentious and straightforward but naturalistic presentation". However, despite the changes after his visit to Italy, Nikitin never completely abandoned the teachings of Gottfried Dannhauer. The artist returned to Russia in 1720 at the request of the Tsar, and received a title of the court painter. Before moving to Moscow in 1730, Nikitin lived and worked in St. Petersburg, creating several portraits of Peter, his family, and court officials. With the death of the tsar, Nikitin's favorite position at the court was dramatically weakened. In 1732, the brothers Nikitin were involved in the "Rodyshevsky affair." They were arrested for possessing "a notebook containing a lampoon on Feofan Prokpovich, Archbishop of Novgorod." After five years in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the brothers were whipped with a knout and exiled to Tobolsk in Siberia. Recalled from exile by the Empress Elizabeth in 1741, Ivan Nikitin died on his way home.
Only a few signed works of Ivan Nikitin survive: Portrait of Peter the Great on His Deathbed and the Portrait of the Field Hetman are the best known.
One of Ivan Nikitin's best works is the Portrait of a Field Hetman. Very little is known about this painting - its subject is unknown (the man is sometimes identified as hetman Polubotko or Jan Kasimir Sapieha) and its title is based on an inscription found on the back of the canvas. However, the name of the subject is not important. More important is the way that the subject is painted. Since Nikitin's studies in Italy exposed him to the works of Italian and Dutch masters, particularly Titian and Rembrandt, it is not surprising to find in the Portrait of the Field Hetman Rembrandt's characteristic light and Titian's richness of colors. The face of the hetman expresses intelligence and wisdom while his clothes and his uniform identify him as a high-ranking soldier. "The dark background, illuminated face and richly painted clothes betray the hand of not just a diligent student, but also a talented master".
It is a pity that Nikitin's biography is not very well documented; this leads to questions about many aspects of his life, which include the exact dates of his birth and death (some scholars believe that he was born around 1699 and died around 1754). However, regardless of the lack of information about Nikitin, he is important as one of the first Russian artists educated abroad and as an example of Russian artists' successful transition to the Western style of painting.