This project grew from questions of value and meaning of the artistic legacy of Russian America. Images created during the Russian voyages of exploration to Alaska are typically referred to as expedition art, and are treated as a scientific and ethnographic record - a faithful representation of their subject, and thus a reliable historic source. Indeed, the accuracy of representation was one of the main requirements. In the words of a President of the Russian Academy of Art Alexei Olenin, who recommended artists for Russian round-the-world voyages, their mission was to produce the “perfect likeness of the nature without adding any imagination.” Yet these images are not impersonal reproductions of life. Each reflects the individuality of its creator, his personal experiences, and style. Each encompasses the moment of encounter between two very different worlds. Despite their best efforts, the artists did not “copy” Alaska, they envisioned it. Their images are cultural palimpsests containing many layers of information both about the subject of artwork and the historical context in which they were created.
Even more layers of meanings evolved once these images reached larger audiences. Published in the accounts of scientific expeditions, this artwork captivated readers in Russia, the US and Europe, and “delivered” Alaska to the world’s capitals, thousands of miles away, shaping public and political opinions about this land and forging powerful perceptions about its cultural and socio-political identity. It can be argued, that the very concept that the vast expanse of land from Chukchi Sea to Sitka inhabited by dozens of Native nations could be seen as one socio-political unit was introduced and defined by the colonial efforts of the Russian American Company. Along with maps and political statements, the artistic record was instrumental in delivering this concept. Depicting Alaska’s varied natural settings and a wide array of Native cultures, the artists of Russian America projected an image of imressive diversity and richness, and at the same time presented it as a single entity. The cumulative effect of these images went far beyond a mere collection of exotic views and portraits – it formed a powerful concept of Alaska as a place that despite its environmental and cultural diversity had a shared identity and a geographical, political and cultural entity. In many ways, this vision of Alaska as a multi-cultural unity remains at the core of the modern identity of the state.
The collection of images presented here is not a comprehensive body of all artwork created during the time when Russia called Alaska its land. Rather, this is a visual guide to the images of this period and the artists who created them. In selecting the images the preference was given to the representation of people, places, and objects which can enhance understanding of cultural history of Alaska. Drawings and watercolors of flora and fauna, although both beautiful and informative, were not included. Images of coastline recorded for navigational purposes are represented by just a few examples.
Images are organized in two ways: artwork following individual artists biographies introduces personal artistic accomplishments, while the interactive map allows for review of representation of particular geographical locations. The ultimate goal of this project is to foster understanding and appreciation of the artistic legacy of Russian America and to make this legacy more accessible for both scholars and general public. This project was supported in part by the Alaska Historical Commission and the State of Alaska Office of History and Archaeology.