Mark Antokolskii (1843-1902), whose works represented the highest achievements in Russian realism, was regarded as the most important Russian sculptor of the second half of the nineteenth century. Early in his career, the artist was drawn to subjects from Russian history and he created celebrated portrayals of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible, among others.
Antokolskii greatly admired Peter the Great as a hero of his age. He was, according to the artist, an "extraordinary man in all ways. He had extraordinary height, extraordinary strength and an extraordinary mind." It was these qualities Antokolskii sought to capture in sculpture. While living in Italy in 1871, the artist made preparatory sketches and began the construction of a frame for the sculpture. With the assistance of Vladimir Stasov, he was sent drawings by Kramskoi of Peter's head from his death mask and further details of Peter's appearance and uniform. After much trial and error, a plaster cast was completed in June of 1872 and it was sent immediately to Moscow for the First All-Russian Polytechnic Exhibition, which coincided with the bicentennial of the birth of Peter the Great.
The finished work of Peter I embodied the qualities Antokolskii believed so characterized the emperor. The figure was modeled to emphasize Peter's great height, and every detail creates the impression of dynamism, movement, impulse. Peter's head is upturned and his gaze intense; his right arm projects from his side to create an acute angle with his walking stick; his right leg is placed in front of him; the lower part of his uniform is blown by the wind.
Peter I was met with varied reactions by fellow artists and critics. Tretyakov, Repin and Victor Vasnetsov praised the work, while Chistyakov, Kramskoi and Turgenev were not so favorable. Antokolskii's reaction was to make improvements to the plaster cast; however, popular opinion remained ambivalent. The statue was kept in the yard to the casting workshop of the Art Academy in St. Petersburg, where it eventually became severely damaged by the climate. It was later returned to Antokolskii, who spend considerable time and effort restoring it.
In 1878, Peter I was cast in bronze and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Antokolskii and his work were widely praised by European critics and the attention sparked renewed interest in Russia. Following the exposition, the Russian government placed Peter I in front of Peter's own Monplaisir Palace at Peterhof. A further monument was planned for Taganrog, a city founded by Peter the Great which was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial. In 1898, Anton Chekhov met with Antokolskii in Paris to discuss the production of the bronze monument. Aware of the great importance of Peter I to his country, Antokolskii was personally involved in the process of casting the bronze and he refused payment from the Russian government for making necesary changes to the statue. The monument was opened to the public in May 1903, following Antokolskii's death the previous year. Other monuments to Peter I were subsequently erected in St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk.
For another example of this model cast by the Barbédienne foundry, see Sotheby's, London, 14 May 1980, lot 51.