St. Petersburg in 1908

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Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva. ‘St. Petersburg: Colonnade of the Stock Exchange’. Woodcut on Paper, 1908. The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

I first saw St. Petersburg from the air. We had spent some days in Helsinki, a very fine city built in the Russian 18th century neoclassical style, and took the very short flight to Peter the Great’s glorious capital on the banks of the Neva one fine sunny morning toward the end of May. Many years before I had read rather romantic accounts of the last Russian imperial family taking annual cruises on the Gulf of Finland on their splendid yacht Standart, and I thought of them as I looked down at the bright blue waters below. Then soon there it was: the city itself, its many spires and cupolas sparkling blindingly in the noonday sun at the end of the gulf, a sight I will probably never forget. Then came the working docks, the long lines of pastel palaces fronting the busy riverscape and rimming the canals, the green squares and rectangles of parks. The vast ugly monstrosity of post-revolutionary and crumbling Leningrad which began at the edges of this 18th and 19th century marvel attracted my attention hardly at all, but that was very soon to change: no one can walk or ride through those later and in many ways depressing, even alarming quarters of the city without thinking long and hard about the tragic fate of the place. That’s what happened to me, at any rate. 

And here’s something no one ever tells you: St. Petersburg is essentially a maritime city. That is evident in everything from the intense smell of the sea on the air, to the cries of gulls as they soar over the steeples and alight in the squares, from the dampness arising from the docks and chilling you through to the bone as you stroll along the canals, to the greenish water, direct from the gulf, which fills your tub as you prepare to bathe. But here’s something people do say, because it’s true: after a few days in Russia, you will begin to want to leave. But then, once you have left, you will forever long to return. It creates a very mysterious relationship with you. I am convinced that Russia has a soul, and a very intense one at that. If it draws you to itself, it will never really let you go. It forges a bond which endures, whether you like it or not. But you probably will.

The woodcut print shown above is of a corner of the porch of the old St. Petersburg Stock Exchange, designed by the French architect Thomas de Thomon and inspired by the Greek Temple of Hera at Paestum. It was built between 1805 and 1810 and is one of those many iconic images of the city which stay with you. The view looks out toward the spire of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, where several generations of Romanovs lie buried, and the ramparts and towers of the fortress which surrounds it and where prisoners were kept and sometimes executed. This is the scene as the artist saw it in 1908. 

Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva (1871-1955) was the daughter of a high government official who became a senator. The first part of her hyphenated last name literally means ‘sharp-witted’, and the second part is related to the Russian word for ‘swan’, perhaps derived from a farm or country estate named after that graceful bird. In any case, she had a glorious education, first at the Stieglitz School of Technical Drawing, then at the Academy of Art under the great painter Ilya Repin. In Paris she worked in the studio of the American James Whistler, then, back in St. Petersburg, and as before, at the Stiegliz School, under Vasily Mathé. She studied watercolor with Leon Bakst, travelled widely in western Europe, and became a regular exhibitor with the Russian ‘World of Art’ movement. She mainly worked in wood block prints, engravings and watercolors, for she had a severe allergy to oil paint and could not work in that medium at all. 

I have seen various versions of this same woodblock print, each done in a different spectrum of colors, perhaps to reflect the different seasons of the year and shiftings of light. I love every one. 

 

 

 

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