With the grey slush of March on the streets again, this week's walk retreats inside the wonderful Tretyakov Gallery. Here you can celebrate International Women's Day (March 8) by looking at how Russian artists have viewed women across the centuries and how women as artists began to find an identity of their own. The Tretya kov Gallery on Lavrushinsky Pereulok (m. Tretyakovskaya) is open every day except Monday, from 10 am to 7:30pm and costs 250 roubles. The museum's collections are basically ordered chronologically, conducting you from the 18th century through to the early 20th, but the medieval works of art are downstairs so that you will come to them last. These icons, which constitute the world's finest collection of early Russian art, are brilliant examples of their highly stylised genre. In the 12th century "Ustyug Annunciation", the submissive Mary, holding the yarn with which she was weaving the temple curtain, already has a miniature Christ springing out of her womb, while in "The Great Panagia" he sits in her chest as she raises her hands in a gesture of intercession. These and their successors were the main role models available when Russian painting broke free of the church and the earliest portraits have something of the quality of icons.
In the first room, on the right at the top of the stairs, there are two contrasting Empresses. Facing the door is the Empress Anna who terrorised her people into submission while opposite is her successor and cousin, Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. Elizabeth ruled from 1741 to 1762, overseeing the establishment of Moscow State University and the building of several grand palaces, most notably at Tsarskoye Selo. The smaller equestrian portrait gives a great sense of her independence and vivacity.
Most of the portraits of this era are of noblewomen and royalty, but a notable exception is Mikhail Shibanov's detailed and dignified "Signing of the Marriage Contract" in room No. 4, where a Suzdal peasant woman, dressed in her embroidered finery, seems to be looking at an imagined future. Another intriguing glimpse of peasant life is the unknown woman depicted in Ivan Argunov's luminous portrait in the same room. Argunov himself came from a family of serf artists and architects belonging to the Sheremetyev family; the woman is thought to be the Sheremetyevs' wet nurse.
The half-smile of the Duchess Ursula Mniszek in the next room contrasts brilliantly with these patient peasant women. She is sandwiched between two other portraits by Dmitry Levitsky, depicting the hostess of a glamorous literary salon, Maria Dyakova/Lvova, before (right) and after marriage. In Vladimir Borovikovsky's most famous portrait in room No. 7, Maria Lopukhina is leaning dreamily on the wall of a stylised landscape garden with the symbolic pink rose of youth already wilting by her elbow.
In room No. 8 we move into the 19th century with the work of Orest Kiprensky, most famous for his painting of Pushkin. His portrait of the poet, Yevdokiya Rostopchina, shows her as a passionate young woman. She was initially forbidden by her family to write poetry and later struggled against critical and political obstacles. Room No. 9 is devoted to Karl Bryullov. His "Rider", painted in 1832, shows a young woman, Giovanina Pacini, on horseback with her younger cousin looking on. The picture is full of action and what Gogol called "a whole sea of radiance".
Don't miss a small, but interesting work by the doorway into room No. 16. In Sukhovo Kobylina's self portrait, the artist is holding her brushes and palette with a hint of defiance as she places herself consciously in a (so far) male-dominated realm.
The tear-stained pallor of the young bride in Vasily Pukirev's "Unequal Marriage" (1862), under the lecherous gaze of the elderly bridegroom, perfectly illustrates the inequalities of 19th century society, just as the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky did when he wrote sympathetically of "The Girl without a Dowry". Wo men's rights was racing up Russia's social agenda.
Konstantin Flavitsky's impassioned "Princess Tarakanova", also in room No. 17, returns from contemporary to historical themes for inspiration. Yelizaveta Tarakanova was a pretender to the Russian throne who called herself "Princess of Vladimir" and claimed to be a daughter of the Empress Elizabeth. Catherine the Great sent Count Orlov to seduce and trap her and she was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress where she soon died of tuberculosis. In Flavitsky's version of the story, however, she is about to die more romantically in the great flood of 1777. In reality, she had already been dead for two years, but the dramatic swooning of the false princess as the waters rise around her prison bed is irresistible.
The late 19th century was a golden age for Russian landscape painting, from Alexei Savrasov's famous rooks in their bare birch trees to Ivan Shishkin's chocolate-box bears. Vasily Surikov, however, a member of the itinerant "Peredvizhniki" movement, is best known for his historical paintings. His epic painting of Feodosia Morozova in room No. 28, detailed in characteristically vivid colours, is an extraordinary study of religious conviction. The noblewoman clearly signals her undying faith in the "Old Belief" by using two fingers rather than three to make the sign of the cross as she is dragged through the snow.
Ilya Repin, another prolific realist, painted portraits, like his one-sitting portrait of the actress Pelageya Strepetova, and dramatic scenes like "They did not expect him", in room No. 29, where a family is surprised by the return of a political exile. Repin used his own family as models and each character betrays completely separate emotions. In the first version of this painting, the returning exile was a woman.
The newly refurbished "Vrubel Rooms" near the stairs contain some of Mikhael Vrubel's many impressionist portraits of his wife, the opera singer Nadezhda Zabela. "All female singers sing like birds, but Nadia sings like a human being," he said of her. She sang for many years as a soprano in Savva Mamontov's Private Russian Opera, after which (in 1904) she became the soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre. In one unfinished picture he has drawn her, in pastels and charcoal, resting after a concert, wearing a dress that Vrubel had designed for her.
Paintings by the versatile Valentin Serov are downstairs on the ground floor. They include Savva Mamontov's daughter, Vera, depicted at the table in the artists' colony at Abramtsevo in "Girl with Peaches" and, in room No. 42, a portrait of the Maly Theatre actress, Maria Yermolova.
A new artistic movement arrived with the advent of the 20th century. The Mir Iskustva, or "World of Art" group, founded by Alexander Benois, turned away from the social concerns of the Peredvizhniki towards the art nouveau ideals of "culture and taste".
Women artists also make a serious appearance around this time. Zinaida Serebryakova's 1909 "Self Portrait" in room No. 44 is a breakthrough in many ways. Growing up in an artistic environment, she has the confidence to reveal herself as a supreme artist. The directness of the eye contact, movement and informality all make this picture remarkable and her other work in the gallery is also startling and brilliant - a fitting end to our tour.