While studying at the Stieglitz School of Technical Drawing in St. Petersburg, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva became increasingly frustrated with the slavish copying from Old Masters, and so dropped out. It was only after the persistent lobbying of Vasily Mate, her teacher at the Academy of Arts — where she enrolled as a student in the early 1890s—– that she was persuaded to return to the woodblock and gouge. Further study under Ilya Repin and James McNeill Whistler in Paris between 1896 and 1898 convinced Ostroumova-Lebedeva of the potential of the medium.
2. Her preferred printing technique was woodcut
Although Ostroumova-Lebedeva worked in watercolour and, occasionally, in oil, she is best known for her woodcuts. In Russia, the woodcut was traditionally linked with lubki — popular prints dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries characterised by their naïve pictorial style, minimal text and folkloric or religious subject matter. Lubki were inexpensive to reproduce and printed in large numbers, and, in some cases, are compared to modern-day comic strips. Ostroumova-Lebedeva elevated this traditional art form by producing small editions of prints, which were characterised by her sophisticated and laconic lines by hand.
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Devised in 1899, Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s distinctive monogram — an entwined A and O — is a nod to the influence of Albrecht Dürer, whose woodcuts had revolutionised the medium 400 years earlier. The prominence of her monogram in the Tuscan landscape, Fiesole (above), dating to 1904, can be read, according to Russian Art specialist Sarah Mansfield, as an assertion of her status as an established artist.
4. Her first competition entry was so extraordinary that judges dismissed it as a watercolour
Ostroumova-Lebedeva submitted ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ after Peter Paul Rubens to the jury of the All-Russian printmaking competition, organised by the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, in 1900. It was, however, initially disqualified on the grounds that it was a watercolour, not a woodcut as originally stated. Ostroumova-Lebedeva challenged the decision and explained her technique, forcing the jury to re-examine the work and reconsider their decision. They acquiesced, and awarded her second prize.
5. Landscape prints: Paeans to St Petersburg
Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s stylised landscapes document her travels in Finland, Belgium, Spain, France and Italy, and, perhaps most memorably, in Rome, Florence and Venice. The pinnacle of her achievements as a printmaker, however, lies in her pristine panoramas of her beloved St. Petersburg. In his brief introduction to a collection of her St. Petersburg views published in 1922, Alexandre Benois credited Ostroumova-Lebedeva with creating the definitive ‘portrait gallery’ of the city.
6. Ostroumova-Lebedeva had a soft spot for dogs
Ostroumova-Lebedeva avoided depicting figures, preferring not to spoil what she considered to be the ‘quiet grandeur of nature’ with their presence. This stance, however, did not apply to animals: she made repeated images of her beloved French bulldog, named Bobbi.
7. She was involved with the Russian Mir iskusstva movement
Established towards the end of the 19th century in Russia, Mir iskusstva, or World of Art — the name given to a magazine, a group of artists, and a series of art exhibitions — explored artistic individualism and other principles of Art Nouveau. Founding members of the artistic movement included Sergei Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst and Konstantin Somov, a close friend of Ostroumova-Lebedeva with whom she corresponded for many years. Ostroumova-Lebedeva was one of few women artists, with the exception of Maria Iakunchikova, actively involved with the group.
8. She was a notable collector of Japanese prints
The first major exhibition of Japanese prints in Russia in 1896 triggered a craze for Japanese art and design in the country. Like her Russian peers — namely, Léon Bakst, Konstantin Somov and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky — Ostroumova-Lebedeva assembled a notable collection of Japanese prints, which included significant works by Hokusai and Hiroshige. Ostroumova-Lebedeva responded to the rich yet subtle visual language of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints in her work by employing flat areas of colour and gradation, severe crops, silhouettes and decorative patterns to create her own distinctive landscapes.
9. Her work probably inspired the Russian avant-garde
‘Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s woodcuts were instrumental to what has been called the “rebirth of original printmaking” in Russia at the turn of the 20th century,’ says Galina Mardilovich, Curator of Russian & European Art at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. ‘Many artists sought her advice about the medium, different techniques, and printing in colour — including at one point Mikhail Larionov, who visited her with his friend Vadim Falileev.’
10. The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, holds the largest collection of her work in the world
Ostroumova-Lebedeva bequeathed a significant number of works and woodblocks to The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, in 1956. Her work can also be seen at the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Bibliothèque Nationale, the Louvre Museum and the Fondation Custodia in Paris.