Of all the artists of Russian America, Mikhail Tikhanov had, perhaps, one of the most tragic fates. He was born in 1789 a serf of Prince Golitsyn, and judging from the unusual attention bestowed on him by the Prince, perhaps his illegitimate son. In 1806 Golitsyn wrote to the President of the Russian Academy of Science asking him to accept “his boy” as a student. Entering a serf into the Imperial Academy was not a typical affair, but Tikhanov’s talent and the high status of his patron, who paid for his education, were also exceptional. For the next ten years he studied historical painting and was awarded several medals for his art, which he could not receive because of his social status, which also made it impossible for him to officially graduate from the Academy. In 1815, he was finally freed from serfdom and was issued his diploma, but had to provide for himself with nothing but his skills and talents. For a while he was allowed to reside in the Academy’s dormitory, but by the spring of 1817 this arrangement was coming to the end. At about the same time, V.M. Golovnin was at the final stage of preparation for his round-the-world voyage on the sloop Kamchatka. The President of the Academy, Alexei Olenin, initiated an appointment of Tikhanov as expedition artist, arguing that all of the foreign expeditions had an artist on staff and that visual record would add to the achievements of the expedition. Tikhanov was accepted at the same pay rate and conditions as lesser officers, and was even assigned a servant. Upon his return, he was to receive a promotion and pension “according to the example set by the artists of Captain Kruzenshtern.”
On August 15, 1817, the Kamchatka sailed from Kronshtadt on the usual route around Cape Horn, to Marshall Islands and then Kamchatka. Tikhanov took his new appointment seriously and was constantly drawing, but as he stated in his letter to Olenin sent from Petropavlovsk, found it very difficult to keep a journal. Instead, he carefully recorded the information about his models and places where the images were made, in image captions. From Petropavlovsk, the expedition set course along the Aleutian Chain to Sitka. En route, Tikhanov drew portraits of the people of the Fox Islands, Kodiak Archipelago and the Alaska mainland. His dedication to his duty is evident from the number of images he produced: the Kamchatka’s nine day-long stay in St. Paul Harbor on Kodiak Island, for instance, is recorded in six surviving watercolors.
After a month in Sitka the expedition proceeded to California, and then to Hawaii and Manila on the return voyage, arriving to Kronshtadt in September of 1819. The safe return was marred by the illness of the expedition’s artist, who, according to Golovnin developed severe melancholy, and at the end of the journey “had the misfortune to lose his mind completely.” Once again, Olenin took active participation in Mikhailov’s fate, campaigning for a place for him in St.Petersburg’s overcrowded hospital, securing his pension and selecting a reliable caregiver. Although Mikhailov’s conditions improved at times and he lived to the advanced - for the standards of that time – age of 74, he never returned to his artistic career.
Golvnin selected 17 of Tikhanov’s images for illustrations in his first edition of the Voyage of the Kamchatka, which were listed but not included. The notice dated December 15, 1823, attached to Part I of this edition explains that the engravings of the illustrations were not ready and “in order not to delay any longer this account of the voyage … the department of the Navy decided to publish it without the engravings, which no doubt will soon appear.” This remained a wishful thought. Only one of Tikhanov’s images – Alexander Baranov’s portrait - was published during his lifetime. In addition to Alaskan images, forty-three surviving watercolors include images of Brazil, Peru, California, Hawaii, the Marianas, and Manila. The collection is curated by the Museum of the Russian Academy of Art. Seventeen pictures listed by Golovnin are missing from this group.
Sources and Literature:
Goncharova N.N. O portretakh A.A. Baranova [About portraits of A.A. Baranov], Letopis’ Severa [Chronicle of the North] 9 (1979): 263-272.
Pierce, Richard A. Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary, The Limestone Press, Kingston, Ontario and Fairbanks, Alaska: 507-507.
Russian Historical Archive, file 789-20-19, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Tselishceva, L. Zabytye avtory izvestnykh kartin [Forgotten authors of famous paintings], Khudozhnik 5(1989): 38-57
Shur, L.A. Artists in Russian America: Mikhail Tikhanov (1818), Alaska Journal 6 (1975):40-48