Portraits of Russian Tsars

October 21, 2006 – May 27, 2007


The exhibit introduces the wider public to the portraits of the Russian tsars and their family members from Estonian art collections—in paintings, graphic art, sculpture, as well as applied arts. The portrait gallery starts with an effigy of Rurik, Russia’s ancient ruler, although it focuses primarily on the rulers from Peter the Great to Nicholas II, or those, during whose reigns Estonia was part of the Russian Empire.


The works on exhibit come from the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia, Art Gallery of the Narva Museum, Tallinn City Museum, Estonian History Museum, University of Tartu Library, Tartu Art Museum, Saaremaa Museum and private individuals.


Royal portraiture constitutes a separate art genre, the importance of which is not limited to art history. Rather they are documents of a period or historical remembrances, which can tell the experienced observer something about the power structures, ideology, mentality of the people, and social structure during the period in which they were created. Being ceremonial portraits, royal portraits are at the top of the genre, and its most influential manifestation.


Placing the treatment of Russian royal portraiture in the Estonian context adds many interesting dimensions, because all the works on display come from local collections and speak to us about the history of the local mentality, as well as the problems of power and intellect. Tsarist portraits were only ordered from court painters, or those who had received recognition in the art world, in Russia or abroad. At the same time, certain “originals” existed that were approved by the ruler, and which were massively copied and distributed to administrative agencies.


Both the first and second portrait types can be found in Estonian collections and one must admit that the general quality of the portraits is surprisingly good, especially for those completed during the 18th century. Along with compulsory provincial portraits that are rather stiffly painted and crude (mostly the work of unknown artists), we find extremely interesting signed works, as well as copies of singular quality.


The exhibit is accompanied by a substantial catalog in Estonian, Russian, and English, which contains articles by art critics and art historians, along with copious pictorial material and an annotated list of the works on display. The catalog is intended for both the wider public as well as professional people, as its goal is to illuminate and popularize, as well as research.

Compilers of the exhibit and catalog: Mai Levin ja Aleksandra Murre

Designer of the exhibit and catalog: Peeter Laurits