If I was to ask you to name one famous museum of art in Russia I think most of you would give me the Hermitage in St Petersburg but actually the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow has the largest collection of paintings by Russian artists in the world and includes numerous portraits by them, some of who may be better known for their non-portraiture works. In the next few blogs I am going to look at the genre of portraiture and in particular Russian portraiture held at this great institution. To start, let me tell you a little about the Gallery itself.
To talk about the Tretyakov Gallery one must first speak about its founder, Pavel Tretyakov. Pavel’s ancestors came from the town of Maloyaroslavets which lies sixty miles south-west of Moscow. His great grandfather was a merchant who had brought his family to Moscow in 1774. In 1801 Pavel Tretyakov’s father Mikhail was born. Mikhail turned out to be an astute and very successful businessman whose shops, which he ran with his brother Sergei, sold textiles. On his brother’s death in 1831, aged just twenty-five, Mikhail became the head of the family business. In the same year that his brother died, Mikhail married Alexandra Borisova, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a year later, in 1832, the couple had the first of their eight children, a son Pavel. As a teenager Pavel helped his father in the shop. In 1850, when Pavel was eighteen years of age, his forty-nine-year-old father died. The business was then headed up by Mikhail’s widow who in 1859 relinquished control of it, making her sons Pavel and Sergei joint partners in the company and the brothers made their sister Elizaveta’s husband, Vladimir Konshin, the third partner. In August 1865 Pavel married Vera Nikolaevna and the couple went on to have six children.
The Tretyakov family bought a house on Lavrushinsky Pereulok in the Zamoskvoreche district of Moscow at the end of 1851. This was a district where merchants used to congregate during the nineteenth century. The following year, whilst visiting St Petersburg on a business trip, Pavel Tretyakov became fascinated with art and he decided to buy eleven simple drawings from a book shop at Sukhareva Market which he used to visit when he was in the city. This was followed by the purchase of oil paintings by Old Dutch Masters. Although not rich enough to buy paintings by contemporary Russian artists, in 1856, he raised enough money to buy two paintings which are, to this day, believed to be the first two paintings of the Tretyakov collection.
One was entitled Skirmish with Finnish Smugglers, painted by Vasily Khudyakov and the other was entitled Temptation by Nikolai Shilder.
Pavel was a tireless worker and secured his family financially but was always careful with his money. In a letter to his daughter he wrote:
“…Money should serve better purposes, than just be wasted for everyday needs………. Since my early age I knew, that acquired from the society should return to the society in some useful to it form. … Living conditions should never allow a person to live idle…”
Pavel’s art collection grew each year and he had special outbuildings added to the family’s main residence to house them. For the next four decades, he committed large amounts of money to develop and enlarge his collection. His dream was to house a collection of national portraits within his gallery to commemorate prominent Russians in public, intellectual and cultural life and to achieve that aim he commissioned Russia’s leading painters to portray them. Tretyakov donated the museum and his collection of almost two thousand works of art to the city of Moscow in 1892. The official opening of the museum called the Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov took place on August 15th, 1893. Pavel Tretyakov died in 1898 and four years later the residence in Lavrushinsky Pereulok was redesigned transforming the private house into the current great museum with its famous façade designed by the artist Viktor Vasnetsov.
In June 1918, the Tretyakov Gallery was declared as being owned by the Russian Federated Soviet Republic and was named the State Tretyakov Gallery. Today, it forms the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s national gallery in Moscow and is acknowledged as the greatest collection of Russian art in the world. In total it houses more than 170,000 works of art ranging from early religious icons to modern art and it spans a period of a thousand years.
In my next blog I will start to look at some of the work by famous Russian artists whose works grace the walls of the Tretyakov.