For most Americans, Russian art means icons and onion domes, samovars and jewel-studded Easter eggs by Faberge.
Thus, "The Art of Russia, 1800-1850," which opened last night at the Renwick Gallery, comes as something of a surprise. Despite a samovar or two, there isn't an icon in sight.
Rather, there are 145 paintings and prints most of which look as though they had been painted in France, in Italy or in England. There are even a few landscapes that could have come from the Hudson River School.
The fact is that by 1800, Russian painters had entered the mainstream of European art, and at a very high level of skill. Like artists everywhere, they were juggling the current trends (most coming out of France) of neoclassicism, romanticism and realism.
And why not? A century had passed since Peter the Great set out to "westernize" Russia, and with a big assist from Catherine the Great, it was accomplished. When Peter founded his new capital at St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) in 1703, he called it his "window on Europe." His "mirror" might have been more precise.
To build this glittering European city, artists were imported from all over Europe, and many stayed to decorate and then teach at the St. Petersburg Art Academy, founded in 1772. The students, with grants from the academy, traveled frequently to Rome where they became part of the international community of painters, writers and musicians.
This period was, in fact, a golden age for Russian art, and though writers like Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoi, and composers Glinka and Rimsky Korsakov are well-known here, few Americans have heard of the painters Briullov, Ivanov, Fedotov, Shchedrin or even Venetsianov, who inspired the first real "school" of Russian painting.
If none of these painters reached Tolstoian heights in their art, they are surely worthy of more attention than they have had.
This handsomely installed exhibition begins its survey of early-19th-century Russian art by giving a sense of place, a look at the true setting for all those Russian novels. There are awesome panoramic views of St Petersburg, and grandiose paintings that make the city look like Venice, revealing the exuberance and general optimism of the time, following the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. There are also views of Moscow, the old capital and still the heart of Russia.
The various prevailing trends are surveyed in a section called "A Commitment to Art," which covers the vast territory between the neo-classicism of David and the romanticism of Delacroix as seen in the self-portrait of the popular and dashing painter Kiprensky.
Borokovsky's "Portrait of Princess Gagarina" is in every sense a fine Empire portrait, except for the very unFrench visage, compelling and unidealized. This is European painting, but with a distinctive Russian twist, which is true of the best of all these works.
"Interior View of the Women's Section of the St. Petersburg Drawing School" by Ekaterina Nikolaevna, a woman artist who here depicts students drawing among typical 19th-century academic paraphernalia, plaster casts, architectural details, and engravings of female faces excerpted from Italian Renaissance paintings.
At the center of the painting, however, one student, perhaps the artist herself, turns and looks straight out at us, recalling Velasquez. This sort of great immediacy and almost photographic realism is also a persistent strain throughout much of the best Russian art of the period.
A section on "Russia in Italy" reveals one of the most beautiful paintings in the show, a sun-drenched view of the Bay of Naples from "The Terrace" by academician Silvestr Shchedrin, who went to Italy and stayed. "War & Peace" includes several caricatures dealing with the foibles of both Napoleon and the Russian aristocrats who emulated the French.
By the mid-19th century, Russian painters began at last to use European-derived styles to render more specifically Russian subject matter, developing the first national "school" of painting under Aleksei Venetsianov. Acquiring a small estate near Moscow, he began to focus on rural subjects, the serfs at work and quaint images of village life. His goal: "To depict nothing in any way different from how it appears in nature, and to obey it alone, without recourse to the style of any other artist.
Though soon overtaken by the flashier Karl Briullov, Venetsianov's followers have provided this exhibition with some of its most splendid paintings. Soroka one of many serfs who studied with Venetsianov, made portraits and magical landscapes that are among the wonders of this show. Krendovsky conjures Manet in his spacious "Square in a Provincial Town," with its precisely rendered parade of various types. Denisov's "Sailors at a Cobbler's" is a startling genre scene of the period.
After 1860, this realist tradition became politically engaged in narrative preaching with a group called "The Wanderers," forerunners of socialist realism, and here the exhibition wisely concludes.
It makes a major point, however. When the Russian avant-grade artists of the early 20th century turned up Malevich, Chagall, Kandinsky, Rodchenko, et al. -- they did not, as has been surmised, spring out of nowhere. They had a solid tradition and open communication lines going, eclipsed or not.
This exhibition came about when the curator of the University of Minnesota Art Gallery, Barbara Shissler, walked into the ministry of culture during a visit to Russia in 1974. "There had been many exhibitions of art from Russian musemums, but none of Russian art," she says. The result: "The Art of Russia, 1800-1850" opened at her museum last October. After stopping at four other university galleries in the Midwest, it is now winding up at the Renwick, where it will remain through Nov. 12.
As elsewhere, several related concerts, courses, tours and films have been organized around the show, here by the Smithsonian Associates, which charges a fee. A free lecture on Russian Art of the period will be given Tuesday, Aug. 7 at 8 p.m. at the Renwick. CAPTION: Picture, Detail from a portrait by Karl Briullow