Collectors in St Petersburg


Every country and every age is familiar with the passions of collectors – enthusiasts who build up unique, odd, remarkable and surprising collections in all manner of ways. They do this mainly for their own pleasure, and sometimes, during their lifetime or after their death, for the benefit of the public art collection. In St. Petersburg the passion for collecting is immediately associated with Catherine the Great, and her vast collection forms the core of the present Hermitage. But apart from the tsars and their huge collections, there were numerous wealthy, aristocratic families who built up their own private collections in their palaces on the Neva and the Moika. The Hermitage Amsterdam is to introduce four collectors of paintings to the Dutch public in the exhibition ‘Collectors in St. Petersburg’, which will be held from 7 October 2006 to 11 March 2007. These four collectors had different preferences for certain movements, schools and countries. As noble and rich inhabitants of a major European city like St. Petersburg, they played an important role in the international art trade in the 19th century. This will be the sixth exhibition since the first phase of the Hermitage Amsterdam opened in February 2004.

When Peter the Great founded his city in 1703, he ordered the wealthiest families to build palaces there. The more serfs the family had, the bigger the palace had to be. The impressive residences of the Orlovs, the Shuvalovs, the Shermetevs, the Yusupovs and the Stroganovs were soon built. Gradually these great houses were filled with art of all kinds. Up to then there had been hardly any collections worth mentioning in Russia. The paintings and objects were used to furnish the tsars’ residences. It was Peter the Great who opened his Kunstkamera in 1718 and displayed exotica from all over the world, including the renowned 17th-century collection of anatomical specimens assembled by the Dutchman Frederik Ruysch. Peter’s daughter Elizabeth I continued his collecting policy and on her death St. Petersburg had eight imperial painting galleries, two national galleries and twelve important private collections. From 1762 her daughter-in-law Catherine the Great added hundreds of thousands of objects from European collections to the imperial collection. Through her, the Russian nobility were encouraged to actively collect art. In the second half of the 18th century the city had no less than fifty significant private collections. Many of these ultimately ended up in the Hermitage. The exhibition in Amsterdam introduces four of these remarkable private collectors of St. Petersburg, each with his own story and background.

Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov (1751-1831)

The Yusupovs are one of the best known noble families of Russia. Their fame is due in part to their later involvement in the murder of Rasputin. Nikolai Borisovich became the first and greatest collector in the family. His collection was a direct result of his travels in Western Europe and the time he spent in Italy as a diplomat.

He commissioned work from contemporary artists like Pompeo Batoni and Angelika Kaufmann. His collection expanded and the result was a balanced ensemble with a great deal of French 18th-century art. A selection of these works (by Claude Joseph Vernet, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Hubert Robert and François Boucher) can be seen in Amsterdam. In 1827 a catalogue of his entire collection, over 500 paintings and nearly 300 sculptures and other works of art, was published. After the 1917 Revolution Felix Yusupov, one of the murderers of the notorious Rasputin, fled to Paris with the little from the immense family collection that he could take with him. That collection, consisting of over 45,000 works, was divided between several Russian museums. The Yusupov palace on the Fontanka river in St. Petersburg is now a museum and is still redolent of the grandeur of this wealthy family, even though the walls in the painting galleries are almost bare.

Dimitri Tatishchyev (1767-1845)

This former bugle player in the Imperial Cavalry had a highly successful diplomatic career, partly because he was related to influential noble families. He represented Russia in Istanbul and Vienna. He lived in the latter city for twenty years and filled his residence, in the palace of the Prince of Liechtenstein, with art treasures. His passion for collecting often brought him close to financial ruin, but the tsars regularly came to his rescue. They had an interest in keeping him available as a diplomat. The exhibition in Amsterdam reflects his love of Spanish and Italian art, with works by Luis de Morales, Juan de Castillo, Murillo (circle of) and a copy of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.

These last works show how personal a collection could be and how it could include pieces that would not normally be bought by a museum. Authenticity is often not the prime concern of private collectors. Contemporary painting was almost entirely missing from his collection. He died in Vienna in 1845, blind and penniless. He bequeathed his collection to Tsar Nicholas I. Of the 185 paintings, 60 went to the Kremlin in Moscow; the rest came into the Hermitage collection.

Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov (1798-1883)

The Gorchakovs were descended from the first tsars and related to all the important noble families of Russia. Alexander Gorchakov was Minister of Foreign Affairs under Tsar Alexander II, who owed much of his success abroad to him. Painting was the minister’s great passion. He concentrated on the (cheaper) contemporary painting from Belgium and the Netherlands of the 19th century. The Hermitage Amsterdam presents a selection of paintings by these often unknown Belgian artists (Eugène de Block, Theodore Fourmois, Nicaise de Keyser, Joseph Stevens, Louis Gallait and Florent Willems). He was in touch with many artists and dealers abroad in connection with buying and selling his paintings. His son and grandsons continued the collecting tradition. Among other works they acquired two paintings by Canaletto that were seen earlier at the Hermitage Amsterdam in the Venezia! exhibition.

Count Nikolai Alexandrovich Kushelev-Bezborodko (1834-1862)

Count Nikolai was a worthy successor to one of his forebears, the ‘irreplaceable’ secretary to Catherine the Great, Alexander Bezborodko. Nikolai built a splendid palace in St. Petersburg and assembled an extensive collection that rivalled the leading collections in the city. Nikolai bought his first work at the age of 15 and, after a brief career in the army, devoted himself wholly to his painting collection. He had a particular liking for the French Romantic painters of the day. The exhibition shows work by Delacroix, Boulanger, Bouguereau, Vernet and Rousseau. On his death in 1862 Nikolai left his 275 paintings to the Academy of Fine Arts so that they would ‘form a gallery that will be permanently open to artists and the public’. Other private collections were later added to his. The gallery attracted many visitors and for Russia painters it was a source of inspiration, ‘our window on Europe’ as Repin put it in 1937. Much of the collection was later transferred to the Hermitage.

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The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Roy Beusker Fotografie

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