Kramskoi, Ivan Nikolaevich

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Kramskoi, Ivan Nikolaevich


Born May 27 (June 8), 1837, in Ostrogozhsk, in present-day Voronezh Oblast; died Mar. 24 (Apr. 5), 1887, in St. Petersburg. Russian painter, graphic artist, and art critic. Ideological leader of the Russian democratic art movement of the 1860’s, 1870’s, and 1880’s.

Kramskoi came from a poor petit bourgeois family.

From 1857 to 1863 he studied at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. At the academy he spoke out against academic art and initiated the “revolt of the fourteen,” which led to the resig-nation of final-year students from the academy and the formation of the Artists’ Artel. Influenced by the ideas of the Russian revolutionary democrats, Kramskoi affirmed the important social obligations of the artist and the principles of realism, progressive ideology, and folk-like spirit in art. He became one of the principal founders and ideologists of the Society of Wandering Art Exhibitions (the peredvizhniki —a progressive art movement). Between 1863 and 1868, Kramskoi taught at the School of Drawing of the Society for the Promotion of the Arts.

Kramskoi painted a virtual gallery of portraits of Russia’s leading writers, scholars, artists, and political figures. His portraits include those of L. N. Tolstoy (1873, Tret’iakov Gallery), I. I. Shishkin (1873, Tret’iakov Gallery), P. M. Tret’iakov (1876, Tret’iakov Gallery), M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin (1879, Tret’iakov Gallery), and S. P. Botkin (1880, private collection, Moscow). In these works, profound psychological portrayals result from the expressive simplicity of composition, clarity of line, and painstaking chiaroscuro modeling.

Kramskoi faithfully re-created the physical appearance and spiritual and psychological state of mind of his sitters, as well as the richness and intensity of their inner life. At the same time he imparted to his portraits the lofty moral, aesthetic, and ethical ideals of an artist and his concept of man-citizen. Kramskoi’s democratic views were most clearly expressed in portraits of peasants, who reflected the spiritual richness and inner dignity of the common man. Social protest can be discerned in some of these portraits, for example, The Woodsman (1874, Tret’iakov Gallery), Mina Moiseev (1882, Russian Museum, Leningrad), and Peasant With a Bridle (1883, Kiev Museum of Russian Art).

Kramskoi’s major work was Christ in the Desert (1872, Tret’iakov Gallery). Continuing the humanistic tradition of A. A. Ivanov, Kramskoi treated this religious subject in a moral and philosophical vein and gave it contemporary social meaning. Having “humanized” Christ and imparted to his dramatic experiences a profoundly psychological and vital interpretation, Kramskoi expressed in this painting his contemporaries’ complex meditations concerning the fate of the world and the idea of heroic self-sacrifice.

In an effort to broaden the ideological and artistic content of his images, Kramskoi created works that were somewhere on the border between portraits and thematic paintings (for example, Nekrasov During the Period of the Last Songs, 1877–78; Unknown Woman, 1883; and Inconsolable Grief, 1884—all in the Tret’iakov Gallery). These works are distinguished by a revelation of complex inner emotions, characters, and fates. A number of Kramskoi’s later works contain elements of fashionable prettiness.

The democratic tendency in Kramskoi’s art, his penetrating critical judgments on art, and his constant search for objective social criteria by which to evaluate works of art greatly influenced the development of democratic art and artistic thought in Russia between 1870 and 1900.


Pis’ma; Stan’ vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1965–66.


Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi: Ego zhizn’, perepiska i khudozhestvennokriticheskie start 1837–1887. St. Petersburg, 1888.
Repin, I. E. “Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi: Pamiati uchitelia.” Russkaia starina, [May] 1888.
Gol’dshtein, S. N. /. N. Kramskoi. Moscow, 1965.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.