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Georgian Easel Painting: The beginnings

The history of Georgian easel painting is considered to start with the genre of portraiture, namely with the portraits from the second half of the XVIII century of the Georgian royal family and nobles living in exile in Russia.

Unknown painter, Erekle II, oil on canvas, 89x71cm, II half of the XVIII c.

Georgian easel painting was conceived in the context of the Russian Empire and reflects its co-current trends, including the popularity of portrait paintings. For both, Georgian and Russian portraits, the European court portraiture is the main reference. The works created follow the rules set for the genre – larger canvases depict the sitters in almost real size, realistically depicted, they are slightly embellished, but the characters are created with scrupulous observation. In addition, precious jewellery and clothing are painted in great detail as the main signifier of the social status. For the Georgian royal family in exile it was necessary to have portraits painted, to integrate into their new reality, as required by their status and the etiquette. Commissioning portraits was also necessary in order to then create copies and have them widely distributed.


However, Georgian court portraits so are distinguished from other works created within the Russian Empire, that these later came to be known as ‘Tbilisi School of Portraiture’. In almost every surviving portrait, the image of a sitter, up to the waist or knee, is placed in the centre of the canvas, occupying almost the entire area, seemingly rising out of a flat background. Flatness on the background is created in plain, dark tones, without any indications or details. Such a thing is quite rare in European or Russian analogues; it is possible that this was due to the modest lifestyle of the Georgian nobility. But at the same time, there is an undeniable parallel with the orthodox iconography tradition when perspective and three-dimensional perception are rejected.

Unknown painter, Queen Darejan, oil on canvas, 68x60cm, II half of the XVIII c. 

The painters of the Georgian court portraits are almost always unknown artists, despite the fact that Russian and European artists working at the same time were already signing their works. It can be assumed that the unsigned works belong to Georgian artists or it was a request of the sitters, that foreign artists also considered and did not sign the works. This strange phenomenon can also be connected to the ecclesiastical tradition; very rarely, almost never, are the authors of frescoes known. It is especially noteworthy that co-current 19th century archives contain information about different painters, but unfortunately it is impossible to identify which of the existing works belong to which artist. The influences of icon painting and fresco painting are abundant in the group of portraits, especially since ecclesiastical painting has a centuries-old tradition of depicting church patrons. In addition, the 19th century portraits often have writings identifying the sitters, something that is often found on church frescoes.

Unknown painter, Tekla Batonishvili, oil on canvas, 87x63cm, I half of the XIX c.

In general, Parsuna is considered to be one of the forerunners of the portraiture in the Russian Empire - a memorial portrait of the dead, which rose from the tradition of icon painting and gained popularity in the XVII century. Therefore, it is not surprising that the figures depicted on Georgian portraits return their gaze to us with a balanced, grand calmness and remind us of the centuries-old tradition of icon painting. Unlike Russian portraits, group portraits are often found in Georgian, which is more common in the Western European portraits. Another unique feature of the Georgian court portraiture is the influence of Persian painting, more emphasis on ornament and decoration and a tinge of flatness read through the works.

Unknown painter, Nino Eristavi, oil on canvas, 135x90cm, 1829

The 1820s Georgian easel painting sees the birth of Tbilisi School of Portraiture which differs from the court portraits, although the main influence here too is European genre of portraiture and the ecclesial tradition of patron portraits. Tbilisi School of Portraiture paintings are smaller in size and become more intimate, paired portraits are frequent, the outline takes a central role - rather than scrupulously painted, sharp outlines define different aspects, the drawing becomes flatter and is more reminiscent of the patron portraits from churches.

 Unknown Artist, The Family of Nikoloz Mukhran-Batoni, 94.5x136cm, 1862

The scene sees its first professional artist, Grigol Maisuradze, educated at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, as an 'extracurricular student' in Karl Briulov's class. His early works are executed in the style of the Tbilisi School of Portraiture.


However, in the 1870s daguerreotypes and many photo studios appeared in Georgia, after which the genre of portraiture lost its popularity and a new stage in Georgian easel painting began.

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