Back to top

Korneev, Emelian Mikhailovich

Korneev, Emelian Mikhailovich (1789-1839)

Emelyan Korneev, the artist of 1819-1822 voyage of the sloop Otkrytie, is arguably one of the least-known artists of Russian America. This lack of acknowledgement was not a reflection of quality of his work – many of his contemporaries praised both his talent and prolific production – but rather a result of the extremely unlucky fate of his collection. Only two of his Alaskan images (Aleuts and An Inhabitant of Fox Islands) survived to nowadays. Both unfortunately pre-date his voyage to Alaska and are fanciful rendering of people of the Aleutians, likely based on ethnographic objects collected during earlier expeditions and published representations. Over 300 drawings and watercolors created during the 1819-1822 voyage remain lost.

Korneev was born around 1780, to a middle-class family in the Poltava region. In 1789, he entered the Department of Historical Painting of the St. Petersburg Academy of Art. Eleven years later he graduated with honors and was offered a paid trip abroad for further improvement of his skills and talent, but opted to travel in Russia as a member of G.M. Springporten’s 1802-1805 survey of Russia’s strategic and border fortifications. The expedition traveled across the entire breadth of Siberia, surveyed the Caucuses and Ural Mountains, and visited Crimea and Volga region. Korneev’s task was to create a portfolio of “views and costumes of various peoples.” Upon his return from this expedition, Korneev traveled to Italy, and then held several appointments including the position of icon artist in the newly build Kazansky cathedral in St. Petersburg. In 1808, he was made an Academician at the Russian Academy of Art.

In 1810, Korneev met the Bavarian ambassador to the court of Alexander I, Charles de Rechberg, who offered to help publish his expedition art. The two men traveled to Munich, where Korneev worked on preparing his drawings for publication. The result were two volumes of Les peuples de la Russie ou description des moeurs, usages et costumes des diverses nations de l’Empire de Russue, accompagnee de figures colories, published in Paris in 1812-1813. Due to the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars neither Korneev nor Rechberg were involved in the last stage of the volumes’ preparation and some fanciful details may have been added at this point. The above-mentioned Aleutian images were published in the second volume of this publication along with other 94 color plates – all based on Korneev’s art. Some of Korneev’s original watercolors created during the Springporten’s expedition are currently at the Russian Historical Museum in Moscow.

In 1819, Korneev received an invitation to join M.N. Vasiliev’s expedition in search of the Northeast Passage. After lengthy negotiations about the terms of employment, Korneev boarded the sloop Otkrytie, which together with the second expedition ship Blagonamerennyi rounded Cape of Good Hope, made landfall in Port Jackson (Sydney), Australia, and arrived in Petropavlovsk in June of 1820. Over the following two years, the expedition surveyed the waters and coast north of Bering Strait, discovered Nunivak Island, visited St. Lawrence, St. George and St. Paul Islands, and made landfalls in Unalaska, Honolulu and Sitka. Both ships returned to Kronshtadt in August of 1822. A month before the return, Vasiliev requested Korneev to submit to him all images and sketches, as it was prescribed by the instructions for the round-the-world voyages.  Few of nearly 300 images were finished and after much negotiation, the artist was allowed to continue working on them. The financial compensation for this work, however, remained a subject of extensive debate for nearly four years. In addition to financial difficulties, the artist had to deal with declining eyesight and a natural disaster: the infamous St. Petersburg flood of 1824 which destroyed all his possessions.

To help his financial recovery and to “prevent six years of his work from complete oblivion” Korneev petitioned the emperor for permission to publish some of his round-the-world images in a volume similar to the Les peuples de la Russie. The naval authorities, however, were adamantly against this, insisting that these images should accompany the official publication of Captain M.N. Vasiliev’s account. In 1828, 170 Korneev’s drawings were transferred to the Naval Research Cabinet “for future publication”, which never took place. Russian art historian N.N. Goncharova undertook an extensive archival research looking for these images, but did not succeed in locating them.

One of the last of Korneev’s artistic appointments was the chief artist of the Russian Imperial Theater, a position he occupied until 1828. In the same year two of his creditors requested that he pays his debts, which resulted in the official confiscation of his St. Petersburg apartment, and most of his property. Crushed by these circumstances, Korneev left the theater and moved to Moscow, where he took a meaningless state bureaucratic job, and died circa 1839. An explorer, academician, icon maker, graphic and theater designer, he lived a rich artistic life and produced an important body of work, of which only a very small part has survived. The fate of his round-the-world portfolio remains a tantalizing mystery, and further archival research may perhaps reveal its location and uncover the lost images.

Sources and Literature:

Goncharova, N.N. “Khudozhnik krugosvetnoi ekspeditsii 1819-1822 gg, E. Korneev” [Artist of the round-the-world voyage of 1819-1822, E. Korneev], Izvestiya VGO (1973) volume 105, part 1.

N.N. Gonharova, E.M. Korneev: Iz isstorii russkoi grafiki nachala 19-go veka [E.M. Korneev: Excerpt from the History of Russian graphic], Moskva, Iskusstvo, 1987. 

N.N. Goncharova, E. I. Korneev, a Biographical Sketch, translated by Glynn Barrett, Ms. In Glyn Barrrett’s collection, Alaska State Library.

Rechberg, Charles De and Georges Bernhard Depping, Les peuples de la Russie ou description des moeurs, usages et costumes des diverses nations de l’Empire de Russui, accompagnee de figures colories. Paris: de l'Imprimerie de D. Colas (Treuttel et Wurtz), 1812-13.

Tokarev, V. P. Khudozhniki Sibiri, XIX vek. Uchebnoe Posobie[Artist of Siberia, 19th Century, Textbook]. Nauka, Novosibirsk, 1993.