Much Russian art in the 19th century accurately portrays the movement away from Western culture that was permeating the country during that time. Russian artists began to take focus on the unique qualities of Russia rather than the trending styles of the world. With this isolation, a focus on realism emerged. Russian artist wanted to represent subjects from everyday life and Russian history to show their strong nationalism. They painted scenes from the everyday man in his everyday life (genre painting). They also painted the middle class; however, these paintings were normally critical.
With the rising liberal atmosphere, Alexander II decided to free millions of serfs in 1861. Many artists felt obliged to play a role in the education of the new, eclectic population of Russia. They used art as an instrument of social criticism. Russia and its people were the center of attention. To them, art was more than an aesthetically interesting piece of work; it was more a way for them to express their political perspectives.
The liberal atmosphere also lead some artists to separate from the overwhelmingly conservative Russian school of painting and sculpture, formally controlled by the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. These 14 separated artists became known as the Wanderers. They believed that painting should tap into reality by depicting real life situations. They thought people should be portrayed as individuals. Furthermore, attention should focus on their inner life more so than their external appearance. They were progressive not only in the subjects they chose, but also in the way they reached their viewers. Earlier exhibitions had been limited to Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Wanderers changed the nature of displaying art when they founded the “Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions". They took exhibitions to various cities and towns in order to introduce the latest artistic developments to a much wider range of people. Their first exhibition made a successful tour of 48 Russian towns. The Wanderers not only shifted the subject and style of paintings but also how and where they were exhibited.