The frame and the self-portrait, in an exhibition at the State Russian Museum

The State Russian Museum in St Petersburg is currently holding an exhibition of self-portraits, My own self, from 29 June-22 August 2016. It is reviewed here by Oksana Lysenko, Senior Academic at the State Russian Museum, from the point of view of the frames.

Karl Bryullov Self portrait 2016 exh State Russian Museum ed

Karl Bryullov (1799-1852), Self-portrait, 1848, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

This exhibition of self-portraits is a very interesting exhibition in itself! But unfortunately what it also demonstrates quite clearly is how small the opportunity we have today to display portraits in accordance with the artist’s purpose – i.e. in their own original frames. Many such settings, alas, were lost or replaced in the Soviet era.

In fine – from the works of the 19th century we are fortunate to have Bryullov’s Self-portrait in its frame. It is a carved giltwood frame in Rococo revival style, and was commissioned by Countess Bobrinskaya; nevertheless it is perfectly in the spirit of Bryullov’s work and enhances the beauty of the painting.

Karl Bryullov (1799-1852) always paid great attention to his frames. In his opinion, the frame should adorn the work in order to present it effectively to the public. In 1824 the artist wrote to his father: ‘Papa! I’m sure that you do not want to see our works [those of Bryullov himself, and of his brother Alexander, an architect] at a disadvantage – you know how much the frame means to the picture: the same as a corset for a girl’.

Bryullov produced sketches of frames for his paintings, some of which are preserved, and are today in the collections of various museums; but unfortunately no-one has yet managed to find a frame created from one of these drawings.


Karl Bryullov (1799-1852), Portrait of Princess Saltykov, o/c, 1841, in its original carved wood trophy frame, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

However, looking at the magnificent design of one frame in a drawing (for the portrait of Ulyana Smirnova) in the collection of the State Russian Museum, we can assume that an actual grand-luxe carved & gilded frame on the portrait of Princess Saltykova (also in the collection of the Russian Museum) might have been produced from a drawing by Bryullov. But we need the documents or sketches to confirm this.

Grigory Soroka Self-portrait ed

Grigory Soroka (1823-64), Self-portrait, 1840s-50s, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Grigory Soroka’s self-portrait now has an opulently gilded frame, ornamented with a garland of carved bay leaves, and expressive run of egg-&-dart moulding. It seems a beautifully decorative setting for the painting, but such full-scale classical decoration hardly seems to fit with the modest image of this artist, born to serfs.

Grigory Soroka Self-portrait detail

Grigory Soroka Self-portrait, detail

Soroka was a serf belonging to the landowner Milyukov, and lived in Vyshnevolotsk, in the province of Tver. From 1842-47 Soroka was a disciple of Aleksey Venetsianov, who asked Milyukov to give Grigory his freedom, but Milyukov did not agree. If this portrait still had its original frame, it would certainly be a much simpler, narrower profile, probably decorated in a provincial style.

Alfred Eberling Self portrait 2016 exh State Russian Museum ed

   Alfred Eberling (1872-1951), Self-portrait, 1903, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

A very refined and apparently original artist’s frame contains an early 20th century self-portrait by Alfred Eberling, who apparently ordered this frame whilst staying in Europe.

Nicolai Sarzhin Self portrait 2016 exh State Russian Museum ed

Nicolai Sazhin (b. 1948), Moidodyr, 1982, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Nicolai Sazhin’s self-portrait, Moidodyr, is set in a salvaged looking-glass frame, which is an integral part of the work and was chosen by the artist. He depicts himself in the nude, as if he had just come out of the bathroom or the bathhouse, with a long towel draped over his shoulders and hanging in sculptural folds at the sides; this brings to mind images of a Roman patrician. Sazhin put the painting into a carved looking-glass frame in order to create the illusion that this is not really a portrait in a frame, but the artist himself, emerging from the bathroom to look into the glass. Thus Sazhin invites the viewer into a peculiar game, in which the frame plays a major part.

Solomon Rossine Self Portrait 2016 exh State Russian Museum ed

Solomon Rossine (Albert Solomonovich Rozin; b. 1937), Self-portrait, 1965 & 1988, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

It is especially pleasing there are some other works by 20th century artists still in their own original frames: those by Solomon Rossine, Nicolai Andronov and Nicolai Tuzhilin. These frames are all quite simple, but they form an integral part of the original vision of the artist, intended to be appreciated by the spectator. Here, the form (especially in Rossine’s design), profile and colour (in those of Andronov and Tuzhilin) all play a significant rôle.

Nicolai Tuzhilin Self portrait in own frame 2016 exh State Russian Museum of self portraits

Nicolai Tuzhilin, (b. 1930), Self-portrait (also called ‘Valya died‘), 1987, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg


Oksana Lysenko is a senior member of the academic staff of the State Russian Museum, St Petersberg, where she has worked since 1995. She organized the exhibition, The clothing of pictures: Russian frames from the 18th to the 20th century (2005, RussianMuseum), and produced the accompanying catalogue.