Home>History>Petersburgers>Famous Foreign Visitors>French Figures

The contribution made by Frenchmen to the cultural, political, and social life of St. Petersburg is immense and touches almost every field of endeavor. It begins with the engineer Joseph-Gaspart de Guerin, who helped Peter the Great choose the site for his new city and begin fortifications of the Peter and Paul Fortress, and reaches its apogee in the shining career of Marius Petipa, the legendary ballet master who presided over the Golden Age of Russian ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre.

Among the greatest neoclassical architects to work in the city were several Frenchmen, starting with the highly influential teacher Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe, designer of the Bolshoy Gostiny Dvor, through to the extraordinary career of Auguste de Montferrand, who spent over half his life on the construction of the magnificent St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The early 19th century also saw an influx of French engineers and scientists, many of whom came to teach at the recently established Institute of Transport, among them Pierre-Dominique Bazaine, who became the Institute’s rector.

Catherine the Great, who professed a life-long admiration for the ideals of the Enlightenment, corresponded with several major figures of French thought and culture, among them Voltaire and Diderot, and it was through the latter that she invited large numbers of French artists, musicians and dancers to her court. Among them were Maurice Etienne Falconet, the sculptor of the famous Bronze Horseman, and the painter Gabriel-Francois le Doyen. The number of French citizens coming to the city increased rapidly after the French Revolution, and included people from all walks of life. The confectioner Louis Jules Benois, for example, became the father of an extraordinary artistic dynasty that included the architects Nikolay and Leontiy Benois, and the great stage painter Alexandre Benois, who with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russses began to reverse the direction of the cultural exchange.

Ballet has always been at the centre of the relationship between St. Petersburg and Paris. Prior to Petipa, the Imperial Ballet Theatre had already witnessed the careers of several brilliant French dancers and choreographers, including his immediate predecessors Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Leon, both of whom were stars of the Paris Opera.

Jean-Baptiste Le Blond (Architect, 1679-1719)
An architect of genius whose life was cut short by smallpox after only three years in Russia, Jean Baptiste Le Blond nonetheless accomplished a huge amount as an urban planner in St. Petersburg and a garden designer at Peterhoff and Strelna. »»»

Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe (Architect, 1729-1800)
One of the earliest practitioners of neoclassicism in St. Petersburg, Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe was hugely influential as a teacher, training a whole generation of Russian architects, and also designed some of St. Petersburg’s most prominent buildings. »»»

Jean-Francois Thomas de Thomon (Architect, 1760-1813)
The designer of one of St. Petersburg’s most memorable vistas, the Spit of Vasilevskiy Island, Thomas de Thomon was a royalist refugee from the French Revolution who provided a model for the recreation of strict classical forms in the city. »»»

Auguste de Montferrand (Architect, 1786-1858)
Almost unknown outside Russia, Auguste de Montferrand gave over half his life to the construction of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg’s largest church, and was also the designer of the Alexander Column on Palace Square. »»»

Etienne Maurice Falconet (Sculptor, 1716-1791)
A renowned sculptor in France at the cusp of neoclassicism, Falconet spent two decades in St. Petersburg working on one monument, the colossal Bronze Horseman, which has become probably the most famous symbol of the city. »»»

Jean-Baptiste Lande (Ballet dancer, choreographer and teacher, ?-1748)
A French dancer and teacher who had previously worked at the Polish and Swedish courts, Lande founded St. Petersburg’s first ballet school, and taught the earliest members of the Imperial Ballet. »»»

Joseph-Gaspard Lambert de Guerin (Engineer, ?)
The first recorded French figure to contribute to St. Petersburg’s development, de Guerin was an engineer who fought for Peter the Great and helped the Tsar to choose the site of his new city, although he left Russia in disgrace. »»»

Louis Caravaque (Artist, 1685-1752)
Caravaque was one of the first foreign artists to work in St. Petersburg, and enjoyed a long career painting portraits of Russia’s high nobility and royal family, many of which provide the best historical likenesses we have of St. Petersburg’s early rulers. »»»

Gabriel-Francois le Doyen (Artist, 1726-1806)
A respected painter in France who was forced to flee following the Revolution, le Doyen found a warm welcome at the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, where he eventually became director of the Imperial Academy of Arts. »»»

Jean-Louis Voille (Artist, 1744-1806)
Voille came to St. Petersburg as an actor, but soon found greater success painting portraits, and was adopted by the future Paul I of Russia as his personal painter. A number of his works can be seen in St. Petersburg’s museums. »»»

Jean-Baptiste, Marquis de Traversay (Naval commander, 1754-1831)
A French Creole naval officer who became a hero of the American Revolutionary War, Traversay enjoyed a long career with the Russian Imperial Navy, serving as Minister of Naval Affairs for nearly 20 years, and implementing many important reforms. »»»

Joseph de Maistre (Diplomat, political philosopher, 1753-1821)
The Ambassador to Russia from the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, de Maistre is recognized as one of the fathers of European conservative thought. He became a leading figure in St. Petersburg society, and wrote extensively about his time in the city. »»»

Charles-Louis Didelot (Dancer, choreographer, ballet master, 1767-1837)
Although he was outshone by his successors, Didelot made a massive contribution to ballet in St. Petersburg. He choreographed over 40 productions with the Imperial Ballet Theatre, won international recognition and did much to improve ballet training in Russia. »»»

Jules-Joseph Perrot (Dancer, choreographer, ballet master, 1810-1892)
A glamorous figure who was admired as the finest principal dancer in Europe and became a skilled choreographer, most famous for his 1841 ballet Giselle. He worked as ballet master at the Imperial Ballet Theatre for over a decade. »»»

Marius Petipa (Dancer, choreographer, ballet master, 1818-1910)
Acclaimed as the greatest choreographer in history, Marius Petipa came to St. Petersburg as a young dancer and gave the rest of his life to the Imperial Ballet Theatre, which under his direction became the finest ballet company in the world.  »»»

Gabriel Lame (Mathematician, 1795-1870)
A mathematician who achieved significant theoretical advancements and put his abilities to practical use in a wide range of engineering and technical project, Lame was among several prominent Frenchman who taught at the nascent Institute of Transport in St. Petersburg. »»»

Pierre-Dominique Bazaine (Engineer, 1786-1838)
Hired by Alexander I on the personal recommendation of Napoleon Bonaparte, Bazaine was responsible for several major public works in St. Petersburg, and is probably best known for building bridges, although he was also a prominent scientific writer and teacher. »»»

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