Russia’s evolution in art collecting
By Judy Wells
Scratch a great collection of art and you will find a grand mélange of situation, opportunity, passion, and competition to rival any soap opera, with plot lines to intrigue and personalities to love, hate, loathe, or admire. Royals and the royally rich may get the most attention but none of it would have happened without businessmen and women.
In Russia you find them all. Take the Hermitage Museum, its collection challenged only by that of the Louvre. Originally the St. Petersburg home of Catherine the Great, its walls needed filling so she bought its first 225 paintings in 1764 from Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, who had overextended himself amassing the collection for Frederick of Prussia and was deeply in debt. Empress Catherine was hooked by the collecting bug (and one has to think, getting the better of male competitors). Within ten years she had more than 2,500 paintings in her home and by her death 22 years later, the palace and its collections had grown to include 4,000 objects including gemstones, medals, and a luxurious library.
In the process she alienated Western museum heads and antiquarians by snatching away choice collections. Of course, Italians had complained as collectors such as English banker John Lyde Browne bought up the choicest classical pieces from their native land. Catherine wasn’t fond of sculpture, but the Lyde Browne collection was a major one, the price was right and her gardens at Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo needed statuary. Michelangelo’s “Crouching Boy” and other pieces now form the majority of the classical sculpture collections of the Hermitage. The British complained when Catherine also whisked away works from the Spanish School amassed by another London banker who had obtained them from the collection of Josephiné de Beauharnais, future wife of Napoleon and first empress of France.
Catherine’s purchases were primarily Western art, which Peter the Great had impressed—as in, forced—upon the country with his establishment of St. Petersburg in 1703. Prior to Peter, Russian society was conservative. Women at court wore long, neck-to-fingers-to-toes robes. Suddenly they were expected to adopt European styles of dramatically defined waists, full skirts, and hardest of all, bared shoulders.
Russian artists, whose work had been restricted to painting icons in the Greek Orthodox style, had an equally rude awakening: Peter brought in painters from Europe to produce the realistic portraits he admired. He also sent Russian artists to Europe to absorb the new technique, but once they had caught up and come home, there was little demand for their work. Everyone wanted French or Dutch or Italian creations. Then Pavel Tretyakov came on the art scene in Moscow. The son of a successful textile factory owner and his well-to-do wife, Pavel and his younger brother Sergey both became art collectors, although Pavel was by far the more dedicated. They were astute businessmen, expanding the family’s holdings and factories to employ more than 5,000 people.
Almost from the purchase of his first paintings in 1854, Pavel had more than investment or personal pleasure in mind. He had two purposes: to concentrate on collecting works by his Russian contemporaries and to share his collection with the Russian public. As he said later, “The idea to return to people everything I gained from society stayed with me all my life.”
The result is the Tretyakov Gallery, the finest collection of Russian art in the world. In the late 1860s Pavel began collecting portraits of notable Russians – “writers, composers and other cultural figures”—to form a museum within a museum—a national portrait gallery. He purchased Russian-painted portraits of the dead, commissioned portraits of the living.