Ivan Kramskoi, Portrait of an Unknown Woman, 1883
29.7 x 39 in.
Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi (1837-1887) was a Russian painter and art critic. He attended the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts from 1857-1863, however he rejected the strict rules of the academy and initiated what is known as "the revolt of fourteen," wherein a group of young students refused to paint the assigned subject of an exam painting in rebellion against the annual competition. They were expelled and founded their own group, the independent Artel of Artists. Kramskoi's paintings directly oppose the precepts of traditional academic painting. They often express a realism, both stylistically and emotionally, that does not adhere to the conventions. Although he did paint some religious and mythological paintings, and a few landscapes, he is best known for his numerous and diverse portraits, including his celebrated self-portrait of 1867 and his portrait of Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia. Portrait of an Unknown Woman is perhaps Kramskoi's most celebrated painting, and a treasure of Russian art. When it was initially shown, some critics objected to the woman's expression which they perceived as haughty and superior, even immoral, with some going so far as to say she was a prostitute. However its popularity has grown over time and the subject is now seen as a strong and resolute woman, whose character shines through the painting's rendering. All of her features are carefully rendered to express both her beauty and a certain intelligence and intensity. Meanwhile, her setting of the carriage and winter street are rendered with great texture and atmosphere. This painting has been used as the cover for certain editions of Anna Karenina, and many have associated this woman's personality with that character's, invoking the special Russianness that they share. Whoever this woman is, she is a compelling figure, both in the history of Russian art, and within the picture space of this painting, where we long to meet her potent gaze.