From Brewery to Rembrandt

Alexei Boldinyuk

Article: 
WORLD MUSEUMS
Magazine issue: 
#1 2007 (14)

Helsinki can hardly be called a city famous for its art museums. True, there is the Athenaeum, a collection of Finnish classical art, in its cosy centre, and not far away is Kiasma, where works of modern art are exhibited. Otherwise, there are several country estates housing art galleries, donated in the wills of their previous owners. And, of course, mention should be made of the Sinebrychoff Museum of Fine Art, without which Helsinki is simply unimaginable.

The specific feature of this museum is very much like the unusual outline and character of the Finnish capital itself, a young city built on the pattern of St. Petersburg with a Swedish accuracy and precision. The intertwining and interconnections of the cultures of Russia, Sweden and Finland are especially pronounced in this museum: this is not a simple art gallery or an exhibition of its interiors, but instead a monument to the history of the three states.

The basis of the collection of pictures started by Paul Sinebrychoff is formed by portraits of Swedish aristocrats dated "prior to 1809”. It was then that Finland was annexed by Russia and ceased to be a part of Sweden. It is difficult to say why the collection was formed in this way, but the fact remains, namely, that the Swedish portrait of the 17th-18th centuries was represented in the luxurious mansion of the Sinebrychoff family in the fullest manner possible.

The economic flourishing of this family of Russian merchants who had settled in the small Finnish town of Kotka began right after the formation of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Helsingfors (such was the Swedish name of the new capital) became a military centre with a considerable garrison deployed there, and Sveaborg (Savonlinna) was turned into a naval fortress and the western military outpost of the Russian Empire. The Sinebrychoff brothers settled in Sveaborg, carrying on active trade operations and gradually accumulating capital. The elder brother Nikolai stood at the head of the family business. In 1819 he acquired the exclusive right "to brew beer and distil wine” in Helsingfors. The calculating and thrifty merchant invested the resulting income in buying plots of land in the rapidly developing capital of Finland.

On the outskirts of the city, near his brewery, Nikolai Sinebrychoff built a very large house for his family. But there were very few people to live there, for both brothers were bachelors, and Nikolai remained in his little house in Sveaborg until the end of his days in 1848. His brother Paul moved to the new mansion and started a family, having married the daughter of his housekeeper at a rather venerable age. Their marriage was happy, despite a 30-year age difference, and soon Paul and Anna Sinebrychoff had two sons and two daughters. The firm was thriving and became one of the biggest in Finland by the end of the 19th century. According to tradition, it was to be owned and headed by Paul's eldest son, Nikolai. Unfortunately, Nikolai did not inherit the professional qualities, knowledge and skills of his father and uncle, and he was more interested in hunting and yachting, caring little for the development of the family business. Finally, he was removed from managing the company and left the country. He died abroad before he turned 40.

The younger brother, Paul, who became the director of the "Sinebrychoff Joint-stock Company, not only succeeded in expanding its brewery business, but also strengthened his position in the bank sector of Finland and bought up several enterprises in the country. Shortly beforehand, Paul Sinebrychoff had married the Swedish theatrical actress Fannie Gran. After their wedding they went on a prolonged honeymoon journey across Europe and visited numerous art museums and galleries around the continent. It was then that the couple decided to start their collection of art works. Paul and Fannie wanted not only to decorate their luxurious mansion in Helsingfors, but also to make a valuable collection of pictures with a view to presenting it to the nation in the future.

The Sinebrychoff couple had a special sympathy for Swedish art. In a letter to the Stockholm antique dealer Aksel Durling, Paul Sinebrychoff wrote that there were no pictures worthy of attention in Finland. Judging by such words, the young and developing Finnish culture was alien and uninteresting to him. His collection was distinguished by the features typical of the epoch when Sweden and Finland were a single state. Sinebrychoff did not miss any auction in Stockholm and spared no money to buy a picture he liked. In the late 19th century Sweden lived through a period of economic difficulties, and this only helped Paul Sinebrychoff achieve his aims as a passionate collector. There are indications that subsequently the Stockholm National Museum had tried in vain to buy some of the works acquired by Paul Sinebrychoff.

Eventually, his collection was augmented with works by Dutch and Flemish masters of the 17th century - from gala portraits to still-lifes and landscapes. The Swedish art scholar Oswald Siren, who later became the curator of the Swedish National Museum, was Paul Sinebrychoff's consultant and expert. He went on a trip to Europe with a view to finding some "old Dutchmen” for Paul. Over a period of about 30 years Paul and Fannie Sinebrychoff collected around 900 canvases. They had no children, and three years after the death of her husband, according to his will, she presented the collection to the State of Finland, which became independent on April 14 1921. In the autumn of that year a museum of Sinebrychoff's collection was opened in three rooms rented by the state from the owners of the house: at the time it could admit no more than 35 visitors a day.

However, this was only the beginning of the history of the Sinebrychoff Museum. Until 1975 the house of the Sinebrychoff family was owned by the joint-stock company which continued to brew "KOFF” beer, famous both in Finland and beyond its borders. The old building, which had suffered a great deal from the bombing raids on Helsinki during World War II, housed a chemical laboratory of the Higher Technical School. The "Sinebrychoff” Company invested considerable funds to maintain the building in a proper state, but the organization and maintenance of a real museum required much greater sums. This could only be tackled by the new owners of the real estate in Bulevardi Street, namely the Finnish government and the Helsinki city council.

The museum of fine arts was opened in 1980 in the now well-restored building, and it contained the full collection of the Sinebrychoff family, which included works by Swedish, Flemish, Spanish and Italian masters of the 16th-17th centuries, and a collection of 350 miniatures of the 18th century, as well as unique furniture. For instance, the Empire drawing room has a set that belonged to the Russian Emperor Paul I, and in the Gustavian salon there are pieces from the interior of the Swedish royal palace. In recent years restoration work on the interior of the entire building was completed, which cost the state about seven million euros. The fully renovated Sinebrychoff Museum was finally opened in February 2003.

The museum's rich collection boasts many works of West European fine art from the fund of the Academy of Art of Finland. These works have also been donated, as part of a long-established tradition: in the mid-19th century this was originated by Emperor Alexander II who presented the Athenaeum with the collection of Baron Otto Wilhelm Klinkowstrom. One of the collection's pictures is the "Portrait of a Young Woman” by Lucas Kranach the Elder, and fully gives an idea of the value of the canvases donated to the Finnish museum by the Russian emperor.

The fact that Paul and Fannie Sinebrychoff left their precious collection to the state was not something unexpected or extraordinary. For example, the businessman Victor Hoving who lived in Viipuri (now Vyborg) bequeathed all his possessions and a collection of 14 canvases, which included works by Corot and Daubigny, to the Finnish Academy of Art in 1876. His example was followed by Doctor Herman Fritjof Antell in 1893: he presented 44 works by artists of the Barbizon school to the Athenaeum. Professor Eliel Aspelin-Haapkyula, General A. Ramsay, the industrialist Linder (his collection included Rembrandt's "Reading Monk”), and Doctor Karl von Hartmann followed suit... The list of the patrons of art who donated their collections to the Academy of Art contains more than 30 names. The very cultural atmosphere of Finland presupposed that the priceless art treasures should not remain the private property of the collectors' heirs, but should become public property. This worthy tradition continues to this day, as the Academy of Art continues to receive new collections from private individuals.

Any visitor could return to the Sinebrychoff Museum again and again - it is wonderfully cosy and homely environment. One can sit in the armchair at the bay window of the Gustavian salon, and the dining room of the 16th century in Dutch style seems ready for receiving guests. The museum has many masterpieces of different epochs and cultures, pictures by Watteau, Domenico, Tiepolo, Rembrandt and other artists, yet it does not look eclectic. Although there is practically no Russian art represented in the exposition, there is much to remind the visitor of the national roots of the previous owners of the house. It was in the Sinebrychoff Museum that an interesting and popular exhibition of Russian wine cups and goblets from the time of the first Tsar of the Romanov dynasty right through to the year 1917 was held last autumn. The family of the Russian merchants whose members turned their income earned from brewing beer and distilling wine into outstanding works of art has left a noble memorial to itself as a vivid example of high spirituality and unselfishness.

Illustrations

Jacopo BASSANO. Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and Saint Anthony the Abbot (Sacra Conversazione). 16th century
Jacopo BASSANO. Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and Saint Anthony the Abbot (Sacra Conversazione). 16th century
Oil on canvas. 108 by 130 cm
Joos de MOMPER. Windmill Landscape in Flanders
Joos de MOMPER. Windmill Landscape in Flanders
Oil on canvas
Pieter de RING. Still life
Pieter de RING. Still life
Oil on panel. 32 by 34 cm
Unknown artist 17th century. Flowers and Parrots
Unknown artist 17th century. Flowers and Parrots
Oil on canvas. 67 by 86.5 cm
Claude-Joseph VERNET. A Southern Port in France
Claude-Joseph VERNET. A Southern Port in France
Oil on canvas. 49 by 63 cm
Jan BRUEGHEL. Vase with Flowers
Jan BRUEGHEL. Vase with Flowers
Oil on copper. 24 by 20 cm
Jan BRUEGHEL. Allegory of Water
Jan BRUEGHEL. Allegory of Water
Oil on copper. 36 by 47 cm
Cabinet-On-Stand. First half of the 17th century
Cabinet-On-Stand. First half of the 17th century
Antwerp Mahogany, ebony, brass, turtle shell. 54 by 60.5 by 31.5 cm
Jan van GOYEN. A Stormy Seascape. 1665
Jan van GOYEN. A Stormy Seascape. 1655
Oil on canvas. 110 by 159 cm
Jean Jacques LAGRENEE, the Younger. The Three Graces
Jean Jacques LAGRENEE, the Younger. The Three Graces
Oil on canvas. 47 by 56 cm
Anthonie Jansz. Van der CROOS. Park of the Castle Huis ten Bosch
Anthonie Jansz. Van der CROOS. Park of the Castle Huis ten Bosch
Oil on canvas. 95.5 by 118.5 cm
Willem Claesz HEDA. Still life. 1637
Willem Claesz HEDA. Still life. 1637
Oil on panel. 45 by 65 cm
Gustaf LUNDBERG. Poet Gustaf Fredrik Gyllenborg
Gustaf LUNDBERG. Poet Gustaf Fredrik Gyllenborg
Pastel. 64 by 49.5 cm
Frans POURBUS, the Younger. Two sisters
Frans POURBUS, the Younger. Two sisters
Oil on copper. 33 by 40 cm

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