The Great Collectors

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How did Russia, a relatively poor country on the fringe of Europe, manage to
amass one of the world’s best collections of European art?

The answer
is simple: thanks to its private collectors.

Russia’s
first great collector was Empress Catherine the Great, who purchased a private
collection of art from a German merchant in 1764 and began to add buildings on
to the Winter Palace to house it. Now the collection, amounting to more than
three million works of art, is known as the Hermitage Museum.

But many of
the Hermitage’s most famous works came to Russia thanks to the great 19th
century Russian collectors of art.

The Great
Collectors

In Moscow,
two brothers, Sergei and Pavel Tretyakov, began to use profits from the
family’s textile trade to collect paintings by Russian and European masters. In
1892, Pavel donated the collection, largely of Russian art, to the city of
Moscow. Today the Tretyakov Gallery is the greatest museum of Russian art in the
world.

Meanwhile
in another part of Moscow Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were collecting
European artists. Shchukin was a textile merchant whose obsession with art
seems to have begun in 1897 with his first trip to Paris. He brought back a
work called “Lilacs in the Sun” by Claude Monet. Within a few years he bought
another 13 paintings by Monet, and then almost 40 paintings by Henri Matisse,
as well as canvases by Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. While
other collectors laughed at him, he was the first collector to appreciate Pablo
Picasso and brought over 50 works back to Moscow. By the time of the 1917
Revolution, Shchukin had gathered the finest and most prescient collection of
impressionist and post-impressionist works in the world.

Ivan
Morozov was another Moscow merchant who fell in love with French art,
particularly the impressionists and their successors. His favorite painter was
Cezanne, although he brought works by Renoir, Pissarro, Bonnard and many others
to Moscow.

The 1917
Revolution forced both collectors to emigrate from Russia, and their
collections were expropriated by the state. First the government repurposed
Schukin’s mansion into the State Museum of New Western Art to house the works
of both collectors. But the collections were eventually divided up among state
museums — primarily the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of
Fine Arts in Moscow.

Continuing the Tradition

During the
Soviet era, purchasing art from artists or individuals directly, outside
official galleries or state commission stores, was illegal. Threat of
imprisonment did not, however, stop collectors, who furtively acquired art
works and hid them in their apartments. Only after the dissolution of the
Soviet Union did some of these collectors come out of their rich closets. To
house these extraordinary collections and honor the men and women who gathered them,
the Pushkin Museum dedicated a new building, the Museum of Private Collections.

Throughout
the 1990s and into the next century, Russian oligarchs — successors, in some
ways, to the rich merchants and industrialists of the 19th century — began to
follow the national tradition.

Perhaps the
best known and most successful new collector and patron of the arts is the oil
tycoon Roman Abramovich, who has channeled millions into new cultural
establishments, like the remodeled New Holland Island in St. Petersburg and the
Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow.

The Museum
of Russian Impressionism, opened in 2016 in an impeccably repurposed confection
factory, was founded by Boris Mints, owner of the investment holding company O1
Group. About 15 years ago he began to seriously collect the work of Russian impressionist
artists. Now his collection, and the stylish space and adjacent business
center, is a welcome addition to the Moscow art scene.

themoscowtimes.com