Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887) was one of Russia's most famous nineteenth-century painters. He was from a petty bourgeois background but worked his way into the St. Petersburg academy in the late 1850s. That was an era of conflict between young artists and old traditions all across Europe, and Kramskoi joined the rebellion against academic expectations. He was part of the "Revolt of the Fourteen," a group of graduate students who insisted on choosing their own topics. They were all expelled. Of course, they went on to become the most important artists of the era. Above, one of his most famous works, a portrait of landscape painter Ivan Shishkin (1880).
What Kramskoi and his friends wanted to do was paint truly Russian scenes; they were nationalists reacting against the foreign domination of Russian culture, just like so many writers and composers of their time. For the young Kramskoi this included portraits of Russian characters, like these heads of a peasant and a woodsman (both 1874).
Christ in the Desert (1872)is the most famous of Kramskoi's early works. The desire to understand Jesus as a historical figure of his time was common in the nineteenth century; here we see him more as a thoughtful man in a bleak setting than as a divine incarnation.
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, 1873. What a glare that man had, just like you would imagine him.
Moonlit Night, 1880.
A Russian Girl in a Blue Shawl, 1882.
Portrait of Yakov Polonsky, 1882. Polonsky was a poet and a friend of Kramskoi's.
Of course Kramskoi and his rebellious friends eventually became the Russian art establishment, and he was invited to paint the Tsar and Tsarina and other court types. Just how things go in the modern world. Kramskoi did a nice job with the dress and jewelry, but she wasn't the most attractive of monarchs.
Portrait of an Unknown Woman (1883), probably his work most widely reproduced today. It's used as the cover image by a couple of art blogs. And why not? It's lovely and a little mysterious.