Stepan Pimenov, one of the great Russian sculptors of the early nineteenth century, was born the son of a humble St. Petersburg customs official. Having discovered in him the makings of an artist, his parents sent him at the age of eleven to the Academy of Arts, where he soon distinguished himself by his exceptional abilities and diligence. The talented young sculptor’s works frequently won awards. In 1801, for example, he gained a silver medal for “modelling from nature” and the next year he received a gold medal for a bas-relief entitled Jupiter and Mercury in the Guise of Wayfarers Visiting Philemon and Baucis.
“Pimenov’s distinguishing features,” wrote his contemporaries, “are his powerful passionate composition and spirited, sweeping modelling”. Pimenov took part in a competition in 1802 to carve a memorial tombstone to his favourite teacher and professor at the Academy, Mikhail Kozlovsky (plaster, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, St.Petersburg), who had recently died. The competition was won by Vasily Demut-Malinovsky, whose bas-relief composition fulfilled the conditions laid down for the competition. Pimenov received the Second Gold Medal, but as regards artistic perfection and poetic embodiment of the subject his work was in no way inferior to that of Demut-Malinovsky. Pimenov did not go in for a complex allegorical representation. The tombstone is simple and majestic. In it, the muse of sculpture is represented as a beautiful young woman, thoughtful and sad. Her head is lowered, her eyes are closed, and the hand holding a hammer hangs limply. The contours of the inclined figure are smooth and beautiful. With its perfect composition and clear conception, this work was a striking manifestation of the young sculptor’s exceptional giftedness.
In 1803 Pimenov graduated from the Academy with a Grand Gold Medal for his diploma work The Killing of Two Varangian Christians Who Refused to Bow Down Before Perun. Then, together with Demut-Malinovsky who had also graduated, he set about the interesting task of making sculptural decorations for Kazan Cathedral which was then being built (1801-1811). The cathedral was designed by the architect A.N.Voronikhin, and the responsible task of decorating it was given mainly to sculptors of the older generation—Martos, Shchedrin, Prokofiev and Gordeyev. A special resolution of the Council of the Academy of Arts spoke of the “adoption of all measures to ensure that the work on the Kazan Cathedral does honour to the Academy and to the artists themselves”. Pimenov produced two statues for the main facade: one of Prince Vladimir (1804-1807), the other of Alexander Nevsky (1811). Prince Vladimir is portrayed as an intrepid fighter, energetic and strong. His face is severe and concentrated, his attitude free and independent. With a broad gesture of his right hand he grips a cross, while his left hand holds a short sword. The sculptor had undoubtedly studied Russian national types, and this can be seen in his treatment of Vladimir. With its heroic qualities, its clear imagery and plasticity, the statue is one of the best examples of early nineteenth century monumental sculpture. On the strength of this piece, Stepan Pimenov was elected academician.
Alexander Nevsky is portrayed quite differently from the resolute, wilful Vladimir. The celebrated military leader is seen just after having sustained a victory. He has laid down his shield and removed his armour, and looks to the skies in gratitude. Though this is a common motif in sculpture, Pimenov’s image is not ostentatious or theatrical. Alexander Nevsky appears as a grand, wise, worthy man. The soft, generalised moulding of his face conveys his inner state well. Both this statue and that of Vladimir were cast by the famous Russian master V. P. Yekimov.
The work of Pimenov and other sculptors who decorated the Kazan Cathedral was highly rated by their contemporaries. “The successful construction and decoration of this Cathedral,” wrote A.Pisarev, “shall turn the attention of all Europe to the artistic geniuses of Russia and shall usher in the epoch of successful Russian art in this enlightened age”.
After the inauguration of the Kazan Cathedral Pimenov was awarded a diamond ring. His success did not escape the notice of the Academy of Arts, and he was made an assistant professor with teaching responsibilities. Meanwhile, he and Demut-Malinovsky were intrusted with the task of producing sculptures for the Mining Institute, the premises of which were also designed by A.N.Voronikhin. Here Pimenov’s talent as a monumentalist really shone through: his sculptural ensemble Hercules and Antaeus (1809-1811), with its powerful plastic forms, harmonised beautifully with the majestic solemnity of the building and with the massive columns of the high portico.
The sculptor based this work on an ancient myth, according to which Antaeus derived strength from the Earth-Mother and so long as he remained in contact with it was invincible. In order to be conquered, Antaeus had to be separated from the earth. Pimenov conveys here the tensest moment in the struggle—Hercules has lifted Antaeus and has him in his clutches, his own mighty figure seemingly rooted to the ground. Antaeus resists furiously and tries to free himself, but his body is already weakening. His head and hand thrown back in exhaustion indicated that his strength is sapping away. The muscles of the wrestling figures are marvellously sculptured, and one can feel that Pimenov had an excellent knowledge of human anatomy. The drama and acuteness of the struggle do not, however, undermine the general solemnity and equilibrium of the sculptural group. This is achieved by means of the integrated composition, the monumental forms, the consummate modelling and the expressive silhouette. Transferred to Pudozh stone by the best stone-cutter of the time Samson Sukhanov, Hercules and Antaeus was rapturously applauded by Petersburg art-lovers. A bronze cast of the model was exhibited in the RUSSIAN MUSEUM, St.Petersburg.
In 1811 Pimenov, Shchedrin, Terebenev and Demut-Malinovsky were invited to design sculptures for the Admiralty which was being constructed to the plans of A.Zakharov. The statues sculptured by Pimenov (it is known that in 1812 alone he carved 16 figures from Pudozh stone) included allegorical representations of Fire, Air and Summer, plus colossal statues of Asia and America and the rivers Dnieper and Neva, intended for the upper colonnade of the tower. Unfortunately, Alexander II had them destroyed in 1860.
Pimenov’s work at the beginning of the nineteenth century was exceptionally versatile. While on the one hand producing monumental works, he also worked in the field of small decorative sculpture. In 1809 he was asked to supervise the sculptural section at the Petersburg porcelain factory (now the Lomonosov Factory). Here he designed a series of sculptural groups and also supervised the production of services. The best known of the pieces created by Pimenov at the factory was the so-called Guriev service with figures of Russian girls and boys in national costumes.
In his small china genre statuettes dating from this period, Pimenov embodied types from the simple Russian peasantry. The best of these figurines are Girl with Yoke and Boy-Water-Carrier (1810s, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, St.Petersburg), which strongly recall the works of Venetsianov. The sculptor’s last works at the porcelain factory—the ensembles Russian Troops Crossing the Danube and Russia’s Protection of Moldavia and Walachia (1829)— were a response to the events of the Russo-Turkish war of 1828.
Pimenov’s most prolific period, the 1820s, was linked with the name of the architect Carlo Rossi, with whom the sculptor collaborated on his best monumental-decorative works. Their cooperation started in 1817, when Pimenov made models of soldiers for the facades of the pavilions of the AnichkovPalace in St. Petersburg. The next year Rossi invited him to help decorate two large palaces which were under construction—the Yelaginsky and the Mikhailovsky. For the Yelaginsky Palace Pimenov made models of decorative statues intended for the facades of the kitchen wing: bas-reliefs and decorated columns for the orangery, haut-relief figures for the vestibule. In the exterior of the MikhailovskyPalace (which now houses the RUSSIAN MUSEUM) Pimenov was responsible for the sculptured composition of the winged figures of Glory, the trophies in the tympana of the main facade and numerous reliefs over the ground-floor windows. Inside the palace all that remains of Pimenov’s decorations are the caryatides in the gallery and the bas-reliefs in the White-Columned Hall.
Together with Demut-Malinovsky, Pimenov helped decorate the building of the General Staff in St. Petersburg, whose triumphal arch was conceived by Rossi as a memorial to the victories of 1812-1814 Patriotic War. The sculptural group which crowns the arch—a fine example of the synthesis of architecture and sculpture— became the pride of Russian monumental art. Designed to be observed from various angles and from a great distance, it is noted for its beautiful, clear-cut silhouettes and universalised forms.
Pimenov went on to sculpture decorations for the two large structures which constitute the ensemble of the Alexandrinsky Theatre—for the Public Library he made statues of Homer and Plato, and for the theatre a model of Appolo’s chariot.
The artist’s last monumental works were for the Narva Triumphal Gates, built by the architect V. P. Stasov (1827-1834). The Narva Gates were erected in St. Petersburg on the site of old wooden gates which had fallen into decay. They were an unusual monument to Russian arms, which had secured victory in the 1812-1814 War, and to the courage and glory of the Russian army. The sculptor produced a statue of a hero, which stands between columns in front of the wall of the pylon: the figure of a warrior, dressed as an early Russian epic hero, embodies courage, strength and quiet confidence. For the chariot which sits atop the arch, Pimenov sculptured a figure of Glory (1832).
For many years Pimenov taught at the Academy of Arts, performing his duties with great devotion. In 1814 he received the title of professor, but in 1830 Nicholas I had him dismissed “for independence and boldness of opinion”. The talented sculptor, a master monumentalist who had decorated many of the architectural monuments of St. Petersburg, was forced to give up the work he loved in his prime.
The cruelty of Nicholas I and the constant fault-finding of official circles were, it seems, one of the reasons for the sculptor’s early death. He died in 1833 at the age of forty-nine.