Fyodor Tolstoy, one of the most interesting and original artists of the first half of last century, was born in St. Petersburg into the family of the head of the War Commissariat, and—as was customary then—was immediately registered as sergeant to the Preobrazhensky regiment. His parents, who envisaged their son becoming a military man, sent him to the PolotskJesuitCollege and then to the Naval Corps. The boy’s artistic abilities were discovered very early, and while still studying at the Naval Corps he began to attend the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. Gradually his desire to become a professional artist grew stronger, but to do that he would have to retire from the service, give up his military career and face the fury of his parents and family and a break with his relatives and friends. Only great courage and his boundless love for art allowed him to take this step. In 1804 he sent in his papers, and a life full of privations and difficulties began for the young artist.
At the Academy of Arts Tolstoy studied sculpture under professor I. P. Prokofiev and also became friendly with Orest Kiprensky, whose guidance helped him in drawing plaster-casts.
Tolstoy copied antique statues and studied ancient history with gusto, fascinated by the customs and mores of the people of the distant past. His deep and sincere love for classical art, which emerged in his youth, would stay with him for the rest of his days. His remarkable talent and diligence quickly led to success. His first works were drawings and bas-reliefs on classical themes: in 1806, for example, he made the drawings Alexander of Macedon’s Trust in the Physician Philipp, The Judgement of Paris, and The Struggle of Hercules (RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG). For the wax bas- relief Alexander of Macedon’s Triumphant Entry into Babylon (1809, StateHermitageMuseum, Saint Petersburg) Tolstoy was elected honorary member of the Academy of Arts.
Tolstoy worked in almost every sphere of art —in model designing, sculpture and graphic art, and later in painting and decorative art. His early works, haut-reliefs in rose wax — Boy Under a Shawl, Children Bathing (both 1808-09, Kalinin Picture Gallery), Psyche (1808-09, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg) — exhibit a high level of professionalism. The figure of Psyche is distinguished by its beautiful lines, smooth contours and gentle, expressive modelling. Tolstoy’s contemporaries were impressed by his knowledge of natural forms and by his superb mastery of the secrets of wax modelling.
A quite unusual aspect of his early period was his wax portraits—small profile representations executed in fairly low relief in light-coloured, yellow or rose wax on a black board or glass. While in his early portrait bas-reliefs the sculptor sought to express the workings of his subject’s minds (portrait of A. F. Dudina, portraits of Tolstoy’s brothers), in his later works he tended rather to generalise and typify the images, exercising great freedom in his choice of artistic devices (cf. portraits of K. A. Leberecht and P. A. Tolstoy).
Tolstoy’s early work as a medal-designer was done entirely under the auspices of the St. Petersburg Mint, where he was appointed in 1810. A medal, in his view, ought to be clear and accessible, ‘so that everyone can immediately understand the occasion for its being minted’.
‘I proposed to design the medals required of me,’ wrote Tolstoy, ‘in the classical Greek manner, this being the best in the fine arts, strictly reflecting the customs, costumes, locality and country of the time and the persons involved in the events to be depicted on the medal. . .’
His first medal, In Memory of Chatsky’s Educational Work, which conformed to the best traditions of classicism, appeared in 1809, and in 1813-17 he produced many more medals, including one to be awarded to pupils at the Academy. All of them had a strict composition, beautiful contours, smooth rhythms and precise drawings. In his long, arduous years in the field of medal-designing, Tolstoy developed a doctrine of ‘what and how to learn in order to become a medal-artist rather than a medal-master’.
Real fame came to the artist after he created a series of medallions on themes from the 1812 War against Napoleon. ‘I am a Russian and I am proud of that name,’ he wrote during the war. ‘Wishing to participate and share in the glory of my countrymen, I ventured upon an undertaking which would trouble even the greatest artist. But the hitherto unheard of glory of our days can inspire even a mediocre talent to enter the gates of the future. I decided to convey to posterity all the shades of emotions felt by me, and wished to tell the people of the future that in our day everyone felt as I did, and everyone was happy to bear the name of a Russian.’
It is important to point out that Tolstoy carried out this work—for more than twenty years—not at the request or orders of some highly placed personage, but motivated purely by his own genuine patriotism. He celebrated the military actions not in portraits of generals but in figures which symbolised the Russian troops and people’s volunteer army. He carefully studied the details of battles, read the descriptions by military experts and talked to war veterans. The drawings and sketches which have been preserved allow one to follow the creative process behind each composition and show that the laconic, expressive qualities of Tolstoy’s artistic idiom were the fruit of extensive searches and painstaking labour. He achieved his goal that ‘everyone who looks at the finished medal should recognise the event being illustrated without resorting to the inscription’.
Tolstoy’s medallions are very diverse both in subject-matter and treatment. The majority of them concern the most important battles of the Patriotic War, and all are firmly rooted in real life and history, interpreted with sincerity and emotion.
The medallions became widely known not only in Russia but also abroad, and Tolstoy was elected as a member to almost all the European academies of arts. His artistic peak coincided with his most active period of political and civic activity. Like many progressive people of his time, Tolstoy longed for sweeping changes in the social order. In 1816 he joined the free-masons, and later he took part in the organisation of so-called ‘Lancaster schools’, the aim of which was to spread literacy among the population.
Tolstoy’s social activities led him in 1818 to join a secret society—the Union of Prosperity, of which he became one of the leaders. He did not wholly go along with the Decembrists, but he did not lose his convictions, his daring and his broadmindedness. This can be clearly seen from two memoranda which he submitted to Nicholas I in 1826 in which he bravely defended the dignity of the human personality, harshly criticised the senseless drills and discipline of the cane in the army, and angrily condemned serfdom and bureaucratic extravagances. He was most active in his attempts to achieve freedom for the Ukrainian poet T. G. Shevchenko.
But the artist’s involvement in public affairs did not cause him to desert his art. In 1816 he made four wax bas-reliefs illustrations for Homer’s Odyssey (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW). These works represent an invaluable part of his sculptural legacy. His fine understanding and knowledge of the antique world, his great insight into Ancient Greek life which fascinated him so, enabled him to reconstruct pages from history with lyrical charm and realism.
Apart from medallions and bas-reliefs, Tolstoy produced several sculptures. In 1822 he modelled a Head of Morpheus (terracotta, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), in 1839 a Bust of Nicholas I (marble, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) and in 1848 a Head of Christ (plaster of Paris, RM; marble, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW). In 1849 the Council of the Academy of Arts confirmed him in the post of professor, in recognition of his services to sculpture.
An important place in his artistic legacy is occupied by his illustrations to Ippolit Bogdanovich’s poem Dushenka (Psyche). For thirteen years he worked on these drawings (1820-33, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW), which were later used to make engravings. In these drawings, the brilliant use of the line — which characterised all his work—manifested itself particularly clearly. The line or contour, was for Tolstoy the main means of artistic expression. In his hands the line is elastic and precise, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, creating a full impression of depth and materiality in his figures and objects. The varying character of the lines allowed him to solve plastic and spacial problems with extreme concision. Tolstoy’s illustrations to Dushenka were his finest graphic achievement.
Fyodor Tolstoy was also renowned as a designer of sets for ballets and operas. In 1838 he designed the scenery and costumes and did a large number of drawings of individual dance steps for the ballet The Aeolian Harp, and in 1848 for the ballet The Echo.
Tolstoy considered sculpture, medal-design- ing and graphic art his main spheres of activity, and it was to them that he directed most of energy. In his rare free hours he used to cut silhouettes from black paper; this he did for himself and his friends, quite independently of prevailing tastes and of the demands of the Academy and official commissions. The silhouettes vividly reflected his realistic aspirations and interest in the surrounding world. He also painted several pictures: Family Portrait (1830, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), Embroiderings. In the Rooms (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) and View of the Markoville Summerhouse in Finland (1855, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW).
Fyodor Tolstoy died on 13 April 1873, at the age of ninety. His life was long and industrious, and he left a glowing legacy. Created over a hundred years ago, his works are still very much alive today.