In 2004, to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the artist Fyodor Yakovlevich Alexeyev, ten museums of Russia (including the Hermitage, the Pushkin museum and others) combined to present an exhibition of his depictions of the pre-1812 Moscow.
All biographies of Alexeyev begin with the standard phrase: ‘master of the cityscape, one of the founders of the genre of landscape in Russian art.’ Given that Alexeyev was able to establish an entire school of painting and had many students who went on after him to perfect this style, this is an entirely well-deserved accolade.
F. Y. Alexeyev was born in St. Petersburg either in 1753 or 1754, the son of a soldier hired as watchman at the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1767, his father applied for his admission to the academy, where he began with the study of still lifes. His teachers, however, did note his attraction to cityscapes and architectural motifs, and he was transferred to a newly established class on landscapes. This pretty much established his way in life.
He travelled to Italy – in Venice he trained at plotting perspectives under Italian masters, drawing architectural and natural scenes. Following his return to St. Petersburg, his career appeared to stall – he only received commissions as a copyist. But in 1790, he began to paint the imperial capital in all its splendour, his work flowered, and in 1794, he was awarded the title of Academician of Perspective Painting for his work View of St Petersburg at the River Neva.
In 1800, ordered either by Czar Paul or Alexander I, Alexeyev arrived in Moscow to ‘capture its various views.’ He spent over a year in the old city. In a letter to A. S. Stroganov, the president of the Imperial Academy of Arts, he wrote: ‘Looking at Moscow, I have found so many great things to illustrate that I am at a loss as to which view to make a start from. This must be resolved, and I have already started the first sketches of the square with the church of St. Basil, and I will spend the winter painting the picture.’
Alexeyev and his students created many watercolours depicting the pre-Fire Moscow. Many of the structures he painted – churches, monasteries, royal towers and triumphal arches – were destroyed during the war of 1812, while others perished later.
In 1802, the landscape artist was granted the title of Professor, and made a councillor of the Academy of Arts. Till his death, he led a class on perspective painting. Many of his students assisted him in fulfilling the numerous orders he received for cityscapes of St. Petersburg and Moscow, particularly in his later years when he was severely ill. One of his best students, M. N. Vorobyov, followed him to the leadership of the national landscape school he founded.
Sadly for the artist, he dropped out of public memory and he died in poverty in 1824. The Academy had to pay for his funeral and provide funds for his widow and children. Today his works are curiosities that provide historical evidence of the life and appearance of old Moscow.
[Translated excerpts from The Old Pre-Fire Moscow of F. Y. Alexeyev.]