- A Russian Paints America: The Travels of Pavel P. Svin'in, 1811-1813
Born into a provincial gentry family, Pavel P. Svin'in (1787-1839) studied at the Noble Pension in Moscow, and then painting at the Imperial Academy of [End Page 394] Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. He traveled with the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean and in Western Europe before coming to the United States in the fall of 1811 as secretary and translator to Andrei Dashkov, who led the first Russian mission to the new republic. Until his departure from America in the summer of 1813, Svin'in travelled extensively from the consulate in Philadelphia to Virginia, Niagara Falls, and even the Newfoundland Grand Banks. Wherever he went, he painted and wrote extensively about what he saw, including Sketches of Moscow and St. Petersburg, published in English in 1813 for an American audience.
Back in Russia by 1815, Svin'in founded a conservative literary journal, Otechestvennia zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland) in 1818, and wrote, mostly on Russian themes, for it and other publications. He continued to write and paint, and also collected antiquities, on his family estate in Kostroma in his later years. He was generally scorned by literary contemporaries such as Pushkin and Gogol as superficial, derivative, and too pro-monarchist, but his reputation has revived in recent years.
Swoboda has given us the first complete English translation of Svin'in's A Picturesque Voyage through North America, originally published in Russian in 1815, and of his The Free Visual Arts in the United States of America, which appeared in Russian in 1829. Carefully matched with the text are twenty-nine black and white and eight color reproductions of Svin'in's watercolors. The author includes extensive notes on the people, places, events, and Russian terms in Svin'in's account, corrects his factual errors, and traces the sources of his acknowledged and unacknowledged borrowings. She also identifies paintings mistakenly attributed to Svin'in in earlier works. Swoboda's introductory essay puts Svin'in in the broader context of the travel and picturesque genre, and traces continuities between his writings on America and those on Russia. William Benton Whisenhunt provides a sketch of Russian-American diplomatic relations of Svin'in's time and a short biography of him, while Christopher Ely contributes a general introduction. The book includes an extensive bibliography of works by and about Svin'in and his era.
The Picturesque Voyage is not a structured narrative but a series of unrelated impressionistic sketches compiled from articles written earlier, beginning with a cursory political, economic, and geographical overview of the United States. Svin'in then gives vignettes of various American religious rites: a black Methodist service in Philadelphia, a Quaker meeting, and an Anabaptist river baptism, with some commentary on religious toleration in the United States. Following is a long description of Robert Fulton's steamboats, which so captivated him that he tried unsuccessfully to serve as an agent for introducing the new technology to Russia. Svin'in also has a lengthy account of how he escorted General Jean Victor Moreau, who lived in America after [End Page 395] being exiled by Napoleon, back to Europe in 1813, with fulsome praise of the general and his heroic death at the Battle of Leipzig. Other sections of the Picturesque Voyage recount a trip to Niagara Falls, the customs of American Indians, and fishing for cod on the Grand Banks. The Free Visual Arts in the United States of America is a survey of painting and painters in America, with critical assessments of individual painters, such as Stuart, West, and Trumbull, and of individual paintings, plus comments on public and private architecture and sculpture. In each section, Svin'in's striking paintings tell us much more about his subjects than do his entertaining, yet somewhat superficial written accounts.
Like other sophisticated European visitors to America during the early Republic-many, like him, from the...