February 17, 2016, 13:30 UTC (17:30 local time) - 1/2 hour before sunset
© 2016 Andrew Varlamov, All Rights Reserved.
Nicholas Benois was born on 1 July 1813 in St. Petersburg in the family of maitre d'hotel at the court of Empress Maria Feodorovna. His French father, Louis Jules Benois, a descendant of a farmer from the suburb of Paris Saint-Ouen, was educated in the school of his father that his grandfather had opened at a nearby abbey. To continue studies, he moved to Paris, at the court of the Duke of Montmorency where he mastered the craft of confectionery. Then, he entered the service of the Prussian diplomat, and by the will of fate, was soon in St. Petersburg, at the court of Russian Emperor Paul I. Here Louis Jules was offered the position of butler. He stayed in the city, married Anna Catarina Groppe, a girl from a German settlement. They had 11 children. Nicholas - the middle son of five boys - was the godchild of the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Paul I's wife.
The father's service at the court made it possible for the family to live a comfortable life until the breadwinner dead in 1822 (during a cholera epidemic). Nicholas studied at the SS. Peter and Paul German school (St. Petrischule) attached to the Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg. He early showed a talent for drawing under the guidence of the celebrated teacher of the time, the artist Kabel. ...
Responding to a request from Nicholas' mother to put the boy to the Academy of Arts, and «due to Empress Maria Feodorovna's interest in the fate of the widow of her deceased maitre d'hotel Benois», Emperor Nicholas I ordered to admit the 14-year-old Nicholas to the Academy of Arts for the study of architecture. Benois was accepted to the Academy on 1 December 1827, after an examination. Nicholas was well prepared, and his extraordinary zeal made him an excellent student during next nine years.
On 27 September 1836, the Council of the Academy awarded Benois by a gold medal: the graduate excellently fulfilled the task given by Director A. Olenin: to create a project of the School of Jurisprudence building in an elegant classical style. The medal gave the right to a grant for a six year trip abroad. A recipient of a grant began to be paid since his arrival in Rome, to which he was sent after the return of previous grantees.
After graduating from the Academy, waiting for his turn to go abroad, Nicholas was assistant of his teacher Christian Meyer in building. Soon, Konstantin Thon, knowing Benoit as an excellent draftsman, appointed Benois to aid him in his work (first in the construction of the Church of the Life Guards Semenov Regiment in St. Petersburg, and then the Moscow Kremlin Palace and Maly Theater). ...
At last, in the summer of 1840, Nicholas Benois went abroad. His companions in this trip were: the architect Michael Shchurupov and artists: the landscape painter Sokrat Vorobiev, the genre painter Vasily Sternberg and the seascape painter Ivan Aivazovsky.
Drawings of landscapes, of architectural elements and compositions came out from the pen of Nicholas Benois every day of the journey. He studied different architectural styles of European architecture, examining great buildings from the middle ages. The Gothic architecture particularly impressed him, and soon Nicholas Benois became the best Russian expert in the field. His first biographer P. Petrov: ' many of the artist's colleagues, indulging the taste of the nobility, launched into designing in the fashion manner, but everything they made was cold and dull. The problem is that the purpose of casual authors was to grasp the main lines, with the poverty of elements in which they even be erred. The in-depth study of Gothic architecture in the place of creation of its greatest examples, in which the Academy's grantee Benois was absorbed, opened to him the secret how to bring the beauty to the simple intersection of curved lines and in the details, unboring for the eyes, even in a long replication. Reaching this state, he worked exquisitely and freely, and the dead Gothic style revived in his elegant and brilliant compositions ... But Benois applied the Gothic style not slavishly, but making good use of others that our time have inherited'.
Numerous sketches and watercolors are contained in N. Benois' albums. Of those, the Department of Manuscripts possesses two large and five small travel albums. In large albums that Nicholas shared among his sons in his will, he pasted his drawings «for the memories». A gallery of colourful sketches, made in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, astonishes us by his sense of beauty, the ability to select the most picturesque objects, landscapes, and views. They characterizes Benois as an outstanding painter of architectural views. All his further works arose from the knowledge and experience gained in Europe, when studying the evolution of architecture over four centuries.
Wonderful sketches depicting the Villa Farnese at Caprarola, the Monastery of St. Lawrence, near Orvieto, the facade of the Scuola of San Marco in Venice, the Cathedral of St. Rufinus in Assisi, an antique aqueduct near Rome, Cathedrals in Worms, Altenberg, as well as typical Swiss houses — only a small portion of the extant watercolor miniatures. Notworthy among them is the «Architectural Fantasy» in which he combined famous architectural landmarks from various times and different places in one sheet, and matched them with an example of Russian architecture (in the forefront). Alexander Benois' evidence about his father and his friends can explain this drawing, 'they believed in the theory that the medieval architecture of Italy had much in common with the Old Russian architecture, and they also took upon themselves the task of reviving the domestic architecture on their return to Russia'.
Nicholas Benois was guided by such considerations when choosing one of the most remarkable Italian Gothic buildings for a close examination. After the second trip throghout northern Italy, he stayed in Orvieto where he, togerther with the grantees A. Rezanov and A. Krakau, spent two years carefully measuring all parts of the main facade of the Cathedral of Our Lady. Benois wrote about it, 'we consider the Cathedral of Orvieto as a perfect example of Christian architecture of the 15th century'. The building was constructed after the design of the architect Lorenzo Maitani. The construction lasted almost three centuries: work at the cathedral was started in 1248 in 1290 and was completed in 1612.
Before the final departure, Benois came back from Orvieto to Rome where he spent two months, studying the collected materials. Then, having received money for traveling throughout Europe from the Academy, he left Italy and, after a short trip, returned to St. Petersburg on 2 November 1846, six years later.
In Rome, N. Benois had a conversation with Russian Emperor Nicholas I travelling throughout Europe and impressed him by a deep knowledge of classical samples and subsequent architectural styles. So upon arrival to the fatherland, he immediately was taken on the staff of the His Imperial Majesty's Cabinet and, over three years, was given the salary equal to the grant for a grantee abroad.
From the emperor, Benois received an order to design a Catholic altar made of malachite for a gift to the King of Sardinia. He presented to Nicholas I fourteen variants to choose from. The Manuscripts Department has stored a project approved by the Emperor. The project was then carried out at the Lapidary Works at Peterhof, a suburb of St. Petersburg. Nicholas Benois showed a big talent and taste when designing, also on behalf of the sovereign, bronze tables for the Hermitage, executed in intricate elegant rocaille forms (June 1847). ...
Then Nicholas I started to arranged well his favorite Peterhof, paying particular attention to the gift of his father — the Alexandria Park. In this landscaped park, there were royal summer residences: the Cottage and Farm Palace built by Adam Menelaws in the spirit of English Gothic Revival architecture. The park also had a Gothic Chapel (private church of the House of Romanov), designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. So Nicholas Benois did not have to deal with the problem of choosing the style when, in 1847, by the highest order, he was commissioned to build a new complex for the Court Stables at Peterhof. It became the first and most grandiose of the architect's projects, notable for its impressive complexity and extensiveness of design, purity of forms and elegance of the Gothic style.
Benois displayed a subtle tact to another major Peterhof construction — the Ladies-in-Waiting Block — housing for a suite of the imperial family, built in the vicinity of the Grand Peterhof Palace. The project was influenced by immediately surrounding magnificent masterpieces by Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Benois erected two buildings connected by a gate into a single unit, thoroughly executed in the Petrine Baroque style of the nearby architectural ensemble.
The construction was started at the reign of Nicholas I, but was finished only in 1858. N. Benois intended to complete the Ladies-in-Waiting Block, adjoining to the palace, with the rounded wall of the corner house. ...
Appointed the main architect of Peterhof in 1850, Benois designed the Court Hospital in Peterhof, using a draft made by the emperror himself, he also built the Almshouse, the Post Office in the Gothic style and together with Alberto Cavos, the Chapel on the Market Square.
He also worked in the Peterhof Park, repairing and reconstructing the park fountains such as the Lower Grotto and Grand Cascade, Marly Cascade and Chessboard Hill.
An outstanding building of the New Peterhof Railway Station is considered the most famous landmark of Benois' Gothic Revival Style. Unfortunately, the project was underfunded and thus could not be perfectly executed as intended. For his excellent masterpieces built at Peterhof, in which the architect showed his outstanding knowledge of historical styles, Benois was appointed as professor of architecture in 1858.