Russian Louvre

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“I will collect the truth,” was the credo of the man who founded the world famous Tretyakov Gallery

Brothers Pavel and Sergey Tretyakov, from the family of the Moscow merchants, were among the city’s wealthiest citizens by the middle of the 19th century. They owned several weaving factories and stores, successfully ran their businesses and led a frugal life. But they had a trait that was seldom found among merchants of that time – they were good-hearted and fair. Their idealism made them desire to serve their fatherland and their native city even better.

European education combined with their natural love of the beautiful opened up the world of art for the brothers. They began investing all available money in paintings. They were mostly attracted to works of their contemporary artists. At the time, collecting art was believed to be an activity for aristocrats, a delight of czars. The collection of the Hermitage in St Petersburg provides a clear picture of the time’s preferences: French grandeur, pompous gestures, the beauty of the Italian school, Biblical characters, ancient gods… Russian art was virtually not known, except in part that imitated the European style.

Snow, the symbol of Russian nature, for the first time appeared in a Russian painting only in 1827, on a modest work by Nikifor Krylov, The Russian Winter. Before that, Russian painters had not noticed it at all… Pavel Tretyakov’s idea to collect Russian art was revolutionary. This is why his first purchase made in 1853, A Brawl with Finnish Smugglers by Vasily Khudyakov, was an outstanding event.

The canvas depicts an everyday scene from the life of the customs service: the shore where the smugglers’ boat landed, goods scattered on the sand, a mounted Russian border guard with a sword in his hand… no grandeur, just a vivid depiction of an episode.

The elder brother brought the acquisition to his two-story house in Zamoskvorechye, a city district on the bank of the Moskva river opposite the Kremlin. “I will collect the truth,” he said and he stood by this credo throughout his life.

At the time, the bet on realism was a challenge. The younger brother, Sergey, chose a different path and started collecting European paintings. Among his acquisitions were poetic works of the Barbizon school, canvasses by Millet, Corot, Theodore Rousseau, Daubigny…

There was one thing the brothers agreed on: their collections were to be eventually given to the city, and this decision immediately made them prominent figures in Moscow.

Besides, the interest in realism coincided with the riot of the Itinerants, who refused to follow the standards of the European-style full-dress portraits and declared a war on biblical plots and ancient heroes in favor of ordinary people’s lives.

And unexpected support from a wealthy patron was exactly what they needed!

This was the beginning of the future world-famous gallery. First an oakling, then a sturdy fairy-tale oak and, finally, an oak grove of masterpieces. Tretyakov wrote to his daughter, “My idea was to gain in order for that which was gained from society to return to people. This thought has been with me all my life.”

The depiction of this man with ideals wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that he was a trustee of a school for the deaf and mute and also helped Orthodox missionaries…

But let’s go back to the art collection. Among Tretyakov’s favorites was painter Vasily Perov, who sympathized with the insulted and humiliated. His paintings were the manifest of the truth as it was understood by masters of realism: children, pulling a huge barrel of water on a sledge in the cold winter past the indifferent walls of a Moscow monastery, a drown woman on the river bank, young and beautiful… Another painter, Konstantin Makovsky, whose Children Running from a Thunderstorm was bought by Tretyakov, was too picturesque, his brush flattering the nature.

At first, there were a lot of weak works in Tretyakov’s collection, but gradually his taste developed and became more flexible.

In 1888, Tretyakov bought Valentin Serov’s masterpiece The Girl Covered by the Sun and paid the artist 300 roubles, which was a lot of money at the time. However, this work was not at all common for the realistic school – it is an example of Russian Impressionism. Streams of sun shoot through the emerald leaves and cover the girl with magic yellow and green ripples… The mastery is breathtaking. And? Far from everyone accepted the impressionistic work, which tells us something about the difficult atmosphere in which the unique collection was created…

Moscow of the time was gradually becoming a trendsetter and a place of ideal taste. A Mecca for many artists, not only Russians. Following Tretyakov, the passionate love of art took hold of other famous merchants and industrialists, such as Shchukin, Mamontov, Morozov… Home galleries became the first private museums of Gaugin, van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, who were not yet recognized in France. Remarkable was the shrewdness and intuition of Sergey Shchukin. The Moscow collector paid liberally for almost 50 paintings of young Picasso, whose works were not bought in Paris and who became a favorite and rose to fame thanks to Shchukin. “A Russian prince is buying him,” Paris was saying.

Towards the end of Pavel’s and Sergey’s lives, their collection filled the entire old house. True to his promise, Pavel gave his collection together with the house to the city in 1892. But the building was too small for the public, and the Moscow city parliament gave a commission to painter Viktor Vasnetsov and expanded the gallery, turning it into an ornamental Russian-style palace, which has become a well-known symbol of Russian culture.

The Tretyakov Gallery is more than an exposition. It is a cosmos of Russian land and Russian history: spacious, inspired landscapes by Levitan that were so loved by Chekhov; portraits by Serov, who so shrewdly and sadly depicted the doomed face of the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II. The Russian forest painted by the divine Shishkin – rye fields, golden pines at the sunset, meadows and groves! Or the brilliant Repin who depicted Ivan the Terrible murdering his own son with such a scary power… And these are just four names out of the first dozen.

Tretyakov’s death did not put an end to his lifework. It was taken up by new patrons. Among them were new art figures – Valentin Serov, Ilya Ostroukhov, Igor Grabar. By the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, the Tretyakov Gallery had earned the status of the supreme judge – getting into it was the climax of an artist’s career.

The Russian Empire fell in the early 20th century, but national culture seemed to absorb the fresh thunderstorm air. Realism that dominated the halls of the Gallery was pushed aside by masterpieces of avant-garde, the status of the hierarchy changed, the classic standards now included challenge and attack. It is enough to remember Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square… A remarkable fact: the Gallery’s researchers recently deciphered the first name of the painting, written in a pencil: “Black People Fighting in the Dark.” The master obviously mocked the desire to write something more than just a painting.

Having become the capital of the proletarian republic, Moscow led the global onslaught of the new language of art. The Tretyakov Gallery revised its priorities, even if for a short time; avant-garde was replaced with Stalinist gigantism, art was equated to propaganda of Communism. Still, even despite the historical changes, the Gallery remained true to itself, preserving its referee status: today, the famous museum demonstrates with equal deference a variety of Russian art: icons, portraits, landscapes, genre pieces, marine landscapes, sculptures, abstract art, constructivism and futurism, 17th-century portraits and architectons. Here you will find evangelical episodes, full-dress portraits of emperors, commanders, victories of Russian armies, the Red cavalry, leaders, workers, farmers, and popular anecdotes… Exhibited here is Russia’s thousand-year history at its best.

I’d like to try to select the top ten most legendary exhibits of the Gallery.

The Trinity, an icon painted by medieval master Andrey Rublev, is truly a heavenly masterpiece. Three angels at meal are depicted with a strong, heart-breaking tenderness… Another grand moment for every visitor will be the hall of Alexander Ivanov with The Appearance of the Christ before the People. The painter spent almost twenty years in Rome working on the painting, and he depicted a pilgrim with Nikolay Gogol’s face next to Christ. The Russian writer also lived in Rome and often visited Ivanov.

Among the best landscapes in the collection are Isaac Levitan’s Over Eternal Peace, Alexey Savrasov’s The Rooks Have Come Back and Arkhip Kuindzhi’s Moonlit Night on the Dniepr. Each of them makes one wonder about the mastery that caught the spiritual nature of the moment: a flood of the desolate river, the fluster of the northern spring, the autumn chill above a lake, the mysterious moon and its reflections in the black southern night.

And the most popular work is Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Ivan Kramskoy, depicting a woman in a luxurious carriage in the city street, a sensual beauty with languid black eyes surrounded by thick lashes, whose name the painter concealed from the public and who has not been identified in the past 100 years.

Two revolutionary masterpieces catch one’s eye among avant-garde works. One is the Model by Vladimir Tatlin painted in 1913 with incomparable freedom of line and the other is Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Bathing of a Red Horse, where a connoisseur will find the features of young Nabokov in the youth mounted on the scarlet horse.

The true gems of the Tretyakov Gallery are found in the sections dedicated to geniuses. Vrubel, for example. The unbelievable Demon Seated in a Garden or The Swan Princess, whose wings are painted with a Rembrandt’s force and the face with a magic comparable to that of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

And the final accord is the Vasnetsov hall, offering a diorama of the Russian spirit: the Bogatyrs at the outpost, A Knight at the Crossroads and, the paramount fairy-tale mystery, Ivan Tsarevich Riding a Gray Wolf, with the coveted trophy – a beautiful princess – in his hands.

The Tretyakov Gallery stores over 170,000 items and is rightfully included in the world’s top five museum alongside the Hermitage, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and the Uffizi Gallery.

Anatoly Korolev, writer