Rembrandt’s David and Jonathan was purchased by Peter the Great in 1716, the first, and one of the most poetical, of the dazzling series of masterpieces by that artist to make the long journey to the North. The new capital had been founded only thirteen years earlier, a stockaded enclave still, surrounded by marshy wasteland: the picture was hung, presumably, in Peter’s charming little palace, which so self-consciously recalls the architecture of Holland where he had spent some vitally formative months. Its immediate setting was thus familiar enough, but in every other way its arrival must have seemed fantastically incongruous: local artists were still producing variants of the traditional icons, and even in the West appreciation of Rembrandt as one of the world’s great masters was only in its early stages. Other pictures followed, other palaces were built (“la fureur de bâtir chez nous est plus forte que lamais,” wrote Catherine the Great), and in 1764 the Empress installed the prizes of her collection in the sober Hermitage which she had specially made to adjoin the extravagantly baroque Winter Palace ordered by her predecessor Elizabeth. Throughout much of the history of the gallery, which celebrated its second centenary last year, there has been a strange and fruitful dichotomy between the prevailing taste of the times and the pictures that have enriched it. Shortly before the First World War French critics were congratulating themselves that fortunately only Russians and Americans were mad enough to treat seriously an artist such as Matisse—with results that can still be seen to staggering effect in both these misguided countries.
The pictures have now spread far beyond the limits of the original museum or the additions to it that were made in in the nineteenth century by Klenze and others, and have taken over the Winter Palace itself. They are hung in rooms of every shape, size, and style: sometimes, as with the fine group of Italian Baroque paintings, one above the other, up to the ceiling; elsewhere, as with the Leonardos and the Raphaels, only two or three to a room, from which one can look out at the gleaming reflection in the Neva of the golden spire of the Peter-Paul Cathedral. And upstairs, well spaced in bare, admirably lit galleries are the incomparable French paintings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In fact the present museum is far wider in scope than a picture gallery, and a high proportion of its space is occupied by an enormous collection of arts and crafts, which range from sculpture to textiles, from porcelain and silver to coins and medals. But, unlike the Russian Museum, housed in a fine neoclassical mansion not far away, the emphasis of the Hermitage is on foreign cultures and those aspects of Russian civilization which have been most affected by contact with them. The range is astonishing, and one can move from a golden comb, adorned with fighting warriors, which was made by fifth-century Scythians in the Ukraine and vividly reflects the impact of Greek colonies there, to a wooden chariot which was surely the one to which were harnessed Tamburlaine’s “pampered jades of Asia” or a small scale model of Voltaire’s house at Ferney.
But even when one confines oneself to the pictures—and any discussion must include the Pushkin Museum in Moscow to which some of the Leningrad masterpieces have been sent—the Hermitage seems erratic, with none of the consistency of taste to be found in Vienna, Madrid, or even Paris, or of the concern for historical values which is exemplified in London. Its foundations do not lie in the great collections amassed during the Renaissance or Baroque periods, and Russian sovereigns never succeeded in extending their patronage to firstrate living painters for any length of time. Catherine the Great’s qualifications for so doing were in any case rather suspect: “I understand nothing of art. I am not an amateur—I am a glutton,” she used to say in comments of candor, and none of her many recorded comments on painting gives evidence of much discrimination. But she was able to buy on a scale that was unchallengeable in the Europe of her day. Economic decline or jealous parliamentary control (as well as indifference) kept the kings of Spain, France, and England out of the running, and her only conceivable rival, the court of Saxony, was put out of action in 1764.
So spectacular was her collecting that it affected the art market all over Europe, and when it became known that she was interested in a group of pictures—and she usually bought in bulk—there was a flutter among the dealers of London and Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam. But if she herself was only a glutton, there were plenty of amateurs at hand. Because she was able to draw on advisers of the quality of Diderot, many of the great treasures of European painting found their way to the Hermitage: it is difficult to think of any other collector during the whole century able to acquire a series of pictures comparable to her Rembrandts, Claudes, and Poussins, and any serious student of these painters is still compelled to make the journey to Leningrad and Moscow. Some indication of what he will find there can be seen by looking at the reproductions in the books devoted to the Hermitage and the Pushkin referred to at the head of this review. M. Descargues gives the most useful summary available in the West of the history of the collection from its formation under Peter the Great to the sad dispersals of so many masterpieces in the Twenties and Thirties of this century. More than a hundred color reproductions of varying quality supplement his text, and the many very small black and white illustrations at the end will be of great use to those who need some record of the originals. When the modern Western pictures were divided between Leningrad and Moscow, the relatively few outstanding Impressionists in Russia were mostly allocated to the latter city, and though these are harder to reproduce than almost any other type of painting, some pale reflection of Manet’s radiant lyricism does emerge from the plate devoted to his early Déjeuner sur l’herbe. It is one of a hundred colored illustrations in the Pushkin Museum volume, accompanied by adequate notes, and with an Introduction by Mme. Antonova, the Director. This is naturally of less interest, since the gallery was founded only in 1912 and most of its greatest treasures come from the Hermitage or the Shchukin and Morozov collections, which are discussed at greater length by M. Descargues. But the volumes supplement each other usefully, and will come as a revelation to those who have never seen the originals and a welcome record to those who have.
Rich collectors, as opposed to patrons, have always attracted mixed feelings, and when in the eighteenth century particularly important paintings left for Russia (as they do today for the United States), there were outcries in France and later in England. Diderot, however, felt no qualms about helping them on their way. He pointed out that if Catherine, who was at war, could bring herself to buy them while no one in a peaceful France was prepared to do so, she deserved anything she could lay her hands on. In fact, her accumulating of pictures is only the most striking example of a process that has been at work ever since her time: the moving away of the main regions of patronage and collecting from the old creative centers of Europe—France, Italy, Spain and Holland—to the relatively non-productive periphery—England, Russia and, later, America.
That the spread of such treasures has added to the pleasure of millions is undeniable: nothing surprises and delights the West European visitor more than the milling crowds that fill the museums of New York or Leningrad. And, unlike the situation in those galleries with which he is more familiar, no specially fashionable exhibition seems needed to attract the long lines on a Sunday—lines, apparently, of local citizens rather than of foreign tourists. The popularity of the Russian picture galleries is the more impressive because (strangely enough) a small entrance fee is charged on most days of the week.
Surprise remains, but delight may wear thin (to be replaced by grudging admiration) as the foreign art historian finds his contemplation of Rembrandt or Picasso, Giorgione or Poussin disturbed by solid phalanxes, under the guidance of an eager lecturer, crawling to a stop in front of the very picture he has most wanted to see: a short breathing space, and the next battalion is on the way, for these lectures are as popular in the Hermitage as they are in the Uffizi or the Louvre. Once he can penetrate behind the scenes, however, all is different. Russian museums are run on matriarchal lines. Of the enormous staff some 90 per cent seem to be women, and their knowledge is formidable—though this and the following remarks apply much more to Leningrad than to Moscow. The notion that the widely traveled visitor can bring metropolitan wisdom and experience to bear on the provinces or impress his hosts with references to an out-of-the-way church in Bologna or a private collection in New York, is rapidly dispelled there, and he soon finds himself daunted by some quotation from an article in the Rhode Island Bulletin or the Revue du Louvre which he had inadvertently missed. The Hermitage library is very well stocked and appears to take all the current international reviews and books of importance: a glance at the museum’s own publications, which are marred only by the abysmally low standard of the reproductions, shows that for the art historian, as for the scientist, some knowledge of Russian may soon become imperative—though fortunately the black robed ladies who escort him around all speak a more familiar language. The condition of most of the pictures is excellent, and the policy of cleaning is conservative—though still sometimes controversial. The very rich reserve collections are admirably displayed on movable screens.
Such enthusiasm may appear fulsome, but it is the most commonly expressed reaction of most visitors to the Hermitage, and it is countered only by the extreme difficulty of obtaining any adequate photographs, or even postcards, of the marvels on view. (If one adds that the problem is even greater in the Hermitage than in the Louvre, long-suffering connoisseurs of these matters will realize that no further comment is necessary.)
With few exceptions, then, the art lover and the art historian will derive nothing but pleasure and instruction from visiting the Hermitage. But the original purpose behind the formation of public art galleries was to bring into being outstanding native schools of painting, and it is much more doubtful whether they have justified these pioneering hopes. Mr. Hare in his useful book on Russian art and artists is surely being generous to the point of caricature when he claims that “there is indeed a timeless quality about Kiprensky’s best portraits, which puts him on a level with the great masters whom he constantly admired (Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck) without ever becoming their slavish imitator.” Our ignorance about Russian pictures is so extreme, and the means of remedying it so limited, that the enthusiasm of the convert is refreshing, but it is again going much too far to claim that in the first half of the nineteenth century “her leading artists in oil painting did not fall below the level of their contemporaries who painted in Western Europe.” To get away with statements like that, Mr. Hare would have to do without the excellent reproductions which make such a valuable contribution to his book.
It is, however, certain, though Mr. Hare does not make the point, that when another great wave of paintings reached Russia in the early years of the twentieth century (though it did not reach her museums until after the Revolution), it was able to stimulate native genius in a way that had hitherto not been possible. Before 1914 the two most discerning collectors of modern pictures in Europe were both Russian merchants, Shchukin and Morozov, and the Cézannes, Gauguins, Bonnards, Picassos, and Matisses that they acquired (to mention only the peaks of their fabulous collections) not only included many of these artists’ masterpieces, but also helped to bring into being a group of painters who made a decisive contribution to modern art. Mr. Hare’s study of Russian painting ends curiously with a whimper, when a bang would have been more in order.
He is, however, on much firmer ground—and indeed it is here that the value of his book mainly lies—when discussing icons, and in particular the almost totally unfamiliar applied arts. The great beauty of some of these can be appreciated not only in his book, but also in Amiranahvili’s superb volume, devoted to medieval Georgian enamels in the Tiflis museum. The brilliant colors and striking designs, the richly encrusted jewels, and lavish use of gold which are to be seen in these splendid illustrations sum up everything that the layman associates with Russian art. Indeed it is surely possible to see reflections of these masterpieces, just as much as of Shchukin’s Matisses, in the great ballet decors produced for Diaghilev earlier this century—an example of creative borrowing from native tradition and foreign avant garde which dignifies the magnificent museums celebrated in these volumes.
August 5, 1965