It’s been over 70 years since the death of Prince Paul Troubetzkoy (1886-1938), a bronze sculptor known around the world — especially in Russia — for his portrait masterpieces. He was born to a Russian diplomat and an American opera singer near Lake Maggiore, Italy, and was exposed to a blend of cultures throughout his life. Once an established artist, Troubetzkoy moved to Russia, where he lived from 1898 to 1906, first in Moscow and then in St. Petersburg.
Troubetzkoy’s Success in Russia
Troubetzkoy achieved a huge level of success in Russia, where ‘Silver Age’ artists soon accepted, appreciated, and supported him. His artwork appeared in almost all issues of ‘World of Art’ magazine, and he taught sculpture at Moscow’s Academy of Fine Art. The Academy had been keen to recruit Troubetzkoy to refresh its sculpting classes, and 40 people signed up for his course within his first year. The Academy arranged a bronze foundry and a studio with a high ceiling, skylight, and large doorways for Troubetzkoy.
Troubetzkoy’s Russian Heritage
Russian culture was deeply spiritual and rich with unique talent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This culture kept Troubetzkoy’s works on the crest of the wave as he captured the spirit of the age. In 1900, Troubetzkoy displayed his works at the Russian section of the World Fair in Paris. Ever since, the world has tied his name to the Russian school of sculpture. Although Russia itself didn’t necessarily influence Troubetzkoy’s works, the country arguably created ‘the Troubetzkoy phenomenon’.
During his time in Russia, Troubetzkoy refused the shackles of societal conventions and remained an uninhibited artist. He didn’t pay attention to the opinions of leaders in the art community. As a result, many advocates of the old academic tradition consider Troubetzkoy’s works ‘decadent’, a term that referred to creations that didn’t conform to traditions in literature, painting, or sculpture at the time. The phrase ‘to model a la Troubetzkoy’, which means to model quickly, exuberantly, and cheerfully, became a catchphrase amongst Moscow’s sculptors.
Troubetzky’s Sculptures in Russia
Troubetzkoy experienced an artistic renaissance while living in Russia. Here, he created some of his most well-known pieces, including ‘Mrs. Botkina with an Umbrella’, ‘Mrs Gagarina With a Child’, ‘Mr. Witte With a Setter’, ‘Children. Troubetzkoy Princes’, ‘Dunechka’, ‘Muscovite Cab Driver’, ‘Isaac Levitan’, ‘Portrait of Leo Tolstoy’, and ‘Leo Tolstoy on a Horse’. (Troubetzkoy was deeply inspired by infamous writer Tolstoy’s humanitarianism and became a vegetarian after meeting him.) Troubetzkoy also created pieces that depicted the Wladimirovich Grand Dukes, Russian politicians, and aristocrats like Prince Lev Galitzin and Princess Gagarina. Each of these sculptures gave an unsophisticated glimpse into the real world and its characters, or, as Vasily Rozanov put it, ‘the world of delightful particulars and details of a life that is purely Russian’.
Troubetzkoy’s growing fame caused a divide of opinion over his works; the Russian press both praised and criticised him. For example, critic Vladimir Stasov referred to the ‘angular bits’ on the surface of Troubetzkoy’s sculptures as ‘most weird’. In his article ‘Decadents in the Academy’, he claimed that Troubetzoy ‘maimed in clay so many gentlemen, servicemen, civilians, and even dogs and horses’. On the other hand, Alexander Benois referred to the same figurines as ‘marvellous’ and ‘astonishing’.
Many academics considered Troubetzkoy a ‘plebian in art’ who lacked drawing skills and knowledge of anatomy. Troubetzkoy considered many of these academics ‘workman painters’ who produced imitations instead of original interpretations of real life.
While ‘Golden Fleece’ magazine praised Troubetzkoy’s sculpting as ‘perfect in its savagery’, Russian officer Ivan Tolstoy was at a loss when Troubetzkoy requested payment for a model that was 10 times higher than the biggest fees paid to the Russian sculptors who were officially recognised.
Controversy over Troubetzkoy’s works grew yet further in 1901, when many sculptors were keen to obtain a commission for a monument to Alexander III, but this was commissioned to Troubetzkoy. When the monument was unveiled in Znamenskaya Square in St. Petersburg, critics accused Troubetzkoy of having pronounced that he would portray one animal on top of another, which gave rise to sweeping conclusions. At the time, many people interpreted sculptural works within literary frameworks, and critics attempted to identify a message of fearless criticism from Troubetzkoy within the statue. Troubetzkoy claimed that he had not made political or social comments in the making of the statue, which became a symbol of Russia’s instability.
Troubetzkoy’s Impact on Russian Culture
When Troubetzkoy left Russia for Milan (and then Paris) in 1906, it was as though he’d disappeared from Russia’s cultural horizon as quickly as he’d arrived. Nonetheless, his works have left a lasting impression on Russian culture. Today, it doesn’t matter what kind of attention Troubetzkoy’s works received. Regardless of criticism, he brought sculpture back into art critics’ conversations — the topic had long been largely ignored for many years.
About The Troubetzkoy Archive Project
In 2019, the entrepreneur and philanthropist James Drake launched The Troubetzkoy Archive Project (TAP) in collaboration with the Paesaggio Museum in Verbania. The project involves the development of an online central database for the bronze sculptor. This database comprises information from major private and public collections and an archive belonging to Troubetzkoy expert John Grioni. A panel of world-leading Troubetzkoy experts oversees the project, which will improve the resources available for those studying and appreciating Troubetzkoy’s works.