Ilya Ostroukhov - Moscow artist and collector

Lidia lovleva

Article: 
ART COLLECTORS AND PATRONS
Magazine issue: 
#2 2006 (11)

Ilya Semenovich Ostroukhov was a leading collector in the Moscow art world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His collection, which later became the Icons and Paintings Museum, located in Ostroukhov's home on Trubnikovsky Pereulok near the Arbat, was referred to in a 1914 city-guide as one of Moscow's foremost attractions[1], and was frequented by art lovers, which gave considerable trouble, as well as pleasure, to its owner. Ostroukhov was by that time a well-known landscape artist, first actively involved in the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) movement, who later rebelled against and broke with that group, creating in 1903 together with fellow malcontents who had split from the movement the Union of Russian Artists, concentrated primarily on the Moscow tradition of painting.

The library in Ostroukhov’s houseThe library in Ostroukhov’s house
The library in Ostroukhov’s house. Photograph

Ostroukhov's debut as an artist in 1886 at the Peredvizhniki exhibition was a success. In 1887, 1888 and 1890 Pavel Tretyakov purchased some of Ostroukhov's works, including the best one, a painting called "Siverko", which was later recognized as one of the main works of the Russian realist landscape school of the late 19th century. Ostroukhov continued to paint until his death, but from the 1890s the artist's time and attention was divided among many other pursuits, prime among them his collecting activity, a passion that must be described as deriving "from birth". As Ostroukhov confessed in his autobiographical essay[2], he had been collecting one thing or another for as long as he remembered: in childhood it was illustrated children's books, while in youth he became interested in biology and collected birds' eggs and nests[3], and when he became an artist, he collected drafts and sketches for paintings made by his friends and mentors, who were, like himself, active participants of the Abramtsevo artists' workshop - such figures included Ilya Repin, Vasily Polenov, Alexander Kiselev and many others. Ostroukhov believed that Polenov's sketch "A Boat", given to him as a gift in Abramtsevo in 1883, was the beginning of this collection. When he was presented with - or maybe even begged for - this picture, Ostroukhov hardly knew how important this gift would prove to be for his future collection, but that was a period when Russian artists were starting to realize that painting from nature had a value in itself; besides, asking for a gift of a small sketch was more appropriate than asking for a finished painting, and Ostroukhov did not yet have sufficient funds to afford major acquisitions.

Ostroukhov was born in 1858 into a merchant's family of modest means. His father was a flour miller and, typically, did not encourage his son's interest in birds, then art, so remote as they were from his own practical pursuits. The future artist from early days had to rely only on himself, all the more so because in addition to his desire to become an artist and his passion for collecting that remained dormant for a while, Ostroukhov was all his life greatly interested in music and theatre. He himself was a fairly good piano player, and his home on Trubnikovsky Pereulok was to become a veritable hub of musical life in Moscow, with Feodor Chaliapin singing and Wanda Landovskaya, Konstantin Igumnov and other Russian and European celebrities playing at its gatherings. Oddly, his hitherto dormant passion for collecting was awakened by the felicitous marriage of the young but already well-known artist: in the summer of 1889 Ostroukhov married Nadezhda Botkina, daughter of the rich Moscow tea-merchant Pyotr Botkin. Ostroukhov's friends and foes - the latter were fairly numerous, given his quick temper - used to tease him over his choice, although it should be noted that the marriage turned out quite well and the couple would live together for quite a long time, in harmony and fidelity. The wife's sizable dowry made Ostroukhov financially quite secure, although it did not contribute to his growth as an artist. But Ostroukhov attained more considerable financial security when, as a member of the Botkin family, he became a share-holder in their trading house and the manager of a large sugar plant near Kharkov, in what is now Ukraine. As part of the dowry, Ostroukhov's father-in-law gave the newlyweds the Trubnikovsky Pereulok house, not very big but spacious enough, which was later to become the home of Ostroukhov's Icons and Paintings Museum.

Thus, with a secure independent income, Ostroukhov entirely devoted himself to his true passion, although he did not drop painting, nor did he stop participating, actively enough, in the Peredvizhniki movement and the Russian Archaeological Society, as well as the many other societies and charities of which he was a member. From every trip to Europe - he now went there regularly, several times a year, for both business and pleasure - he would bring back various items, both antique and modern, including medieval Spanish oil lamps and Copenhagen faience ware, Egyptian household and sacred objects from the excavation sites and GraecoRoman statuettes and vases, European and Chinese porcelain and Japanese fans and etchings. As for Russian art, the "draft- or-sketch" gifts from the previous decade, as well as a close acquaintance and even friendship with the much respected Pavel Tretyakov, helped Ostroukhov to form a clear understanding of the aims and purposes of his collecting. The example of Tretyakov - the founder of Russia's first museum dedicated to the history of Russian art - was one to which nearly every collector looked as a model. No matter what the Russian collectors accumulated - whether Russian antiquities, like Pyotr Shchukin, or modern European art, like Pyotr's brother, Sergei Shchukin, or Ivan Morozov - and regardless of what aims each collector set for himself (even when he did not have any aims in mind but collected spontaneously, picking up whatever came his way), they still looked to the collecting of the Tretyakov brothers and involuntarily followed suit. Ostroukhov was no exception, but as an intelligent person he understood that competing with Tretyakov was useless, while picking up the thread from him in the field of the new, "post- Tretyakov" history of Russian art was something that Ostroukhov was called upon to do by Tretyakov himself, as well as by his friends and the Moscow city council: after Tretyakov's death in 1898 and until mid-1913 Ostroukhov was regularly elected to the Tretyakov Gallery Board of Trustees, and from 1904 he was its chairman, responsible not so much for the upkeep of the museum as for purchasing new items for the gallery's collection. Thus, it was the realities of his life that made Ostroukhov seriously think about the character of the personal collection that he was putting together himself. He was not able to follow Tretyakov's suit to buy the best of modern art: his financial situation, though much better than before, still would not have allowed for that (it should be remembered that the Tretyakov brothers were among the wealthiest men in Russia), and besides, his house on Trubnikovsky was not large enough to accommodate even as few as ten big paintings, to say nothing of the fact that building a new wing would have required considerable extra expenditure. Ostroukhov focused his attention on the secondary, or auxiliary, material that he knew so well. His artistic intuition told him that often this "secondary" material was better than the original. So, while the Tretyakov Gallery possessed (and still has) Ilya Repin's big painting "Not Awaited", Ostroukhov had a draft of it, a beautiful sketch; while Tretyakov had "Religious Procession in the Kursk Province", also by Repin, Ostroukhov had an impressive sketch made for the painting, "The Head of a Hunchback". There were also other sketches and studies by Repin, now in the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum - "The Raising of the Daughter of Jair" (in the Russian Museum), "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan" (Tretyakov Gallery), "Emperor Alexander III Receives Foremen of Districts" and others. There were more pieces by Repin than by any other single artist in Ostroukhov's collection: the collector obviously favoured Repin's spontaneity in his treatment of nature, and Ostroukhov sought it out in Repin's art wherever he could - in small-sized studies, such as "Under Escort. Muddy Road" or "The Annual Memorial Meeting at the Wall of Communards in the Cemetery Pere- Lachaise in Paris", and even in the portraits he purchased, such as that of Repin's daughter Nadya "In the Sun".

Ostroukhov's approach to Repin is equally true of his approach to other prominent Russian artists of the second half and the end of the 19th century, whose pieces made up the mainstay of Ostroukhov's collection - Vasily Perov, Ivan Kramskoi, Vasily Surikov, Viktor Vasnetsov, Vasily Polenov, Isaak Levitan, Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin, Mikhail Vrubel and many others. Thus, Ostroukhov possessed the three best, major studies for Surikov's painting "Boyarynya Morozova" ("Boyarynya Morozova on the sled", "A nun with her hands raised to her face", "A boyar's young daughter with her hands crossed on her chest", all at the Tretyakov Gallery); Viktor Vasnetsov's few existing drafts for his paintings "Warrior Knights", "Alenushka", "The Stone Age"; Vasily Polenov's sketches for "Christ and the Fallen Woman" and "The Sick Woman". Ostroukhov undoubtedly treasured his large collection of landscape drafts by Fyodor Vasilyev and Isaak Levitan, as well as those by the collector's friends such as Konstantin Korovin, Valentin Serov and other landscape artists. His attitude to Mikhail Vrubel was more complex. While holding in high esteem the original talent of the painter who started Russian symbolism, Ostroukhov nevertheless was obviously somewhat wary of his strange and unpredictable character. The majority of acquisitions of Vrubel's art, both for the Tretyakov Gallery and for his own collection, were made by Ostroukhov after 1906, when the great master had fallen prey to an incurable mental disease. Nevertheless, Ostroukhov owned one of Vrubel's masterworks, the best sketch for the 1900 painting "Lilacs". Like Tretyakov, Ostroukhov, aspiring to turn his personal collection into a museum, did not neglect to buy works by Russian artists of the late 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries. Here, too, he managed to find things rare and unusual. It is enough to mention "Encore, Encore!", a true master- work by the "Russian Hogarth" of the 1830s-1840s, Pavel Fedotov - the collector believed the study was a sketch for a never-realized painting titled "Officer Billeted in Village"; or the peasant-focused paintings, "Girl with a Calf" and the pastel "Peasant Girl with Sickle" by Alexei Venetsianov, whose pieces are just as hard to come by and who is considered the founder of the Russian "Biedermeier". Ostroukhov had five works by Venetsianov in all, a number surpassed only by the Tretyakov Gallery. Ostroukhov was also a discoverer of works by Venetsianov's apprentices, the so-called "Venetsianovites," whose most outstanding pieces were naive and touching pictures of the comfortable interiors of the estate houses of the Russian gentry ("Indoors" by Kapiton Zelentsov, or "Inside the House of A.A. Semensky in the Tver Province" by Fyodor Slavyansky - all in the Tretyakov Gallery).

Because Ostroukhov as a collector had a very clear sense of purpose and direction, very soon his collecting moved towards a more academic basis: the collector not only drew upon existing Russian art scholarship, but was also looking for and discovering new chapters, boldly opening them up and introducing them into the pool of historical knowledge. This kind of approach to collecting, which quite soon turned the collection into a museum, made Ostroukhov famous and influential not only as an appreciator of, but also as an expert on Russian art.

The new times gave rise to new trends in Ostroukhov's occupation. In the early 1900s he became close to Sergei Diaghilev and the group of artists around the "World of Art” magazine. His acquisitions included Konstantin Somov's "Springtime at the Sea-shore" (at the Tretyakov Gallery), pieces by Alexander Benois, Leon Bakst (watercolours), and Fyodor Malyavin ("Portrait of a Girl", at the Tretyakov Gallery). The collection also grew due to the many works by Ostroukhov's friends from the Union of Russian Artists, the majority of them donated - by the likes of Abram Arkhipov, Appolinary Vasnetsov, Sergei Ivanov, Sergei Malyutin and others, most of them Moscow artists for whom impressionist sketchiness in painting was a norm and tradition. After the exhibitions of the Russian symbolists, such as the "Pink Rose" and the "Blue Rose", organized by the "Golden Fleece” magazine, Ostroukhov came into possession of pieces by Nikolai Sapunov ("Ballet", the Tretyakov Gallery), Martiros Saryan ("Fruit Store. Constantinople", the Tretyakov Gallery), Nikolai Millioti ("Portrait of L.N. Gaush", the Tretyakov Gallery), Fyodor Botkin ("Silhouette of Woman", the Tretyakov Gallery). However, Ostroukhov's interests in new tendencies in Russian art had by no means reached their limit. Oddly, Ostroukhov, who valued greatly the French impressionists and post-impressionists and was avidly keeping track of what Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were buying for their collections (he admired Henri Matisse as an artist and an individual and gave Matisse the warmest possible welcome in 1911, both at his home and at the Tretyakov Gallery) - all that notwithstanding, Ostroukhov was not interested in, and did not accept the Russian avant-garde. He never acquired for his collection any work by any of the Russian avant-garde painters of the 1910s. To be fair, however, it should be mentioned that by the time the avant-garde started gaining a foothold in Russia, Ostroukhov the collector was entirely absorbed by his new vocation and new artistic discovery, Old Russian icons. Ostroukhov, an "avalanche" of a individual, was struck by the passion for collecting icons as by thunder, and it claimed him completely for ten years[4]. Previously, Ostroukhov favoured trips to European countries, and that was where he mostly looked for his treasures[5]; now the Russian North became his destination. In 1912 and 1914, he made repeated and long visits to Rostov the Great, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Vologda, Kirillov and Feraponto- vo, to the Old Ladoga and the New Ladoga, to Pskov, Novgorod, Tver and other old Russian towns, where treasures of ancient Russian culture could still be found, still almost untouched.

According to Ostroukhov's own testimony[6], as well as that of his biographers, he acquired the first icon for his collection in November 1909. Most likely, that piece was an icon now dated to the second half of the 16th century, "The Fiery Ascent of Elijah the Prophet, with Scenes from His Life" (the Tretyakov Gallery). However, it seems that Ostroukhov had long been interested in Russian icons. In 1904 he organized at the Tretyakov Gallery an icon hall, where icons acquired by Pavel Tretyakov in the early 1890s were on display in showcases. Upon Ostroukhov's request a prominent medievalist scholar N.I. Likhachev completed the first scholarly systemization and compiled the catalogue of the icon collection. The icon hall was the opening room of the Tretyakov Gallery's permanent exhibition.

At the same period, in 1904 and 1905, the Moscow Archaeological Society recruited Ostroukhov as an organizer and supervisor of the first professional (at that time) restoration effort (or "cleaning”) of the famous "Old Testament Holy Trinity" by Andrei Rublev (the Tretyakov Gallery), then at the Trinity Cathedral at the Trinity- St. Sergius Lavra.

It should be remembered that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the great majority of original images in Old Russian icons were buried under thick layers of later over-painting. The "cleaning” effort was just in its infancy, but what lovers of the antique saw emerging from under the swabs and lancets of the icon restorers was stunning in its beauty and fineness. Collecting icons became all the rage in Russia, and Ostroukhov was one of the initiators of this movement. A year after his first acquisition he reported to Alexandra Botkina: "<...> in order to restrain myself at least a little, I contaminated all of Moscow with this passion."[7] And in the next letter, not without pride: "I came to St. Petersburg because of the sale of a remarkable collection. I managed to beat Ryabushinsky [Stepan Ryabushinsky, also an icon collector - L.I.], Kharitonenko and other envoys from Moscow following in the footsteps."[8] By October 1911, when Henri Matisse came to Moscow on Sergei Shchukin's invitation, Ostroukhov already had several dozen superb pieces of Old Russian painting, which stunned the famous French artist when he first saw them. Some fragments describe how the enraptured artist reacted read: "This is a truly people's art. This is the source for the artist to draw on in his quest. Modern artists should look for inspiration to these primitives"; "In Moscow I have had an opportunity already to see the collection of Monsieur Ostroukhov <...> and everywhere I see the same brilliance and the manifestation of a great emotional force <...>."[9] In 1914 the renowned art scholar and writer P.P. Muratov compiled the first description and published an album of Ostroukhov's icons.[10]

Collecting icons, Ostroukhov was guided by the same principle as in his other collecting activities, namely the high artistic quality of the work. Almost every icon in his collection was a small masterpiece. Over the last century many of the attributions made by Ostroukhov himself or Muratov and other specialists have been revised, but the great artistic merits of the nearly 100 of Ostroukhov's icons now in the Tretyakov Gallery never fail to astonish. The revision of their attributions to date concerns mostly the dating and places of origin. Thus, in the early 20th century the majority of icons found in Northern Russia were associated with the Novgorod school. Now, however, we have the Pskov, Tver, Rostov-Suzdal, Yaroslavl, and finally Northern schools. As for the Moscow school, many such icons used to be associated with Andrei Rublev, but now many are re-attributed to "Rublev's circle" or "Rublevian legend". Only the least dubious icons or those that clearly show his hand remain attributed to Rublev - and, unfortunately, there are not many of them. The rest of the icons are now attributed simply to the Moscow school of the 14th-16th centuries.

Apart from its icons, the Old Russian Art section had over 100 of the oldest Byzantine, Kievan, Novgorodian small icons and crosses carved of stone (encolpions[11]), and a major library (with over 15,000 volumes)[12] including several ancient hand-written books and Gospels, some of them decorated with the most singular and finest miniatures.

Ostroukhov continued collecting actively until 1918, braving the hardships of World War I and the pre-revolutionary years. The Bolshevik revolution in October drastically changed the whole tenor of Russian life. In the chaos of the revolutionary terror, many renowned collectors (Sergei Shchukin and Vladimir Girshman among them) fled, leaving behind their nationalized collections or entrusting them to museums for perpetuity, and others died (like Ivan Morozov, in 1921). In December 1918 Ostroukhov's collection was nationalized too. It numbered then almost 2,000 pieces, not counting the library[13]. The private collection became state property and was named the Icons and Paintings Museum. Due to the pleading of his friends, most of all the Education Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky, Ostroukhov was appointed life-long custodian of his nationalized collection-cum- museum. Considering the circumstances of the time, that was certainly the best result for safeguarding both the collection, and the collector himself. Regrettably, though, this did not make Ostroukhov immune to encroachments of different "workers" demanding that the museum be terminated and the bourgeois be made to "share" their apartments, which was, indeed, what happened almost immediately after Ostroukhov's death on July 8 1929. A month and a half later, the government shut down the Icons and Paintings Museum, and the house was turned into one big communal apartment. The artist's widow (who died in 1935) was left two small rooms on the second floor, while the entire collection was promptly moved to the Tretyakov Gallery, where it was quickly divided over the autumn and winter: nearly all the Russian holdings were left with the Tretyakov Gallery, while the old Western art went to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and the Oriental applied art to the Museum of Oriental Cultures. Some pieces were sent to provincial museums.

Thus ended the life of one of the most original art collections in Moscow, which, through its owner's efforts, had grown into a real, large museum, one where, as the critic and essay-writer Abram Efros put it, "... a young Corot could be compared to a Sylvester Shchedrin, Shebuev's 'Death of Phaethon' could be matched with a composition by Gericault, and Serov and Degas, Goya and Manet could be brought together; there, a blue landscape by Alexander Ivanov called for a missing Cezanne, and Repin's 'Wall of the Communards' to Menzel; there the 18th and the 20th centuries were brought together in portraits and pulled apart by nature, etc."[14] The Moscow museums that received the masterpieces from Ostroukhov's collection undoubtedly gained, but Moscow's artistic life indisputably lost out.

 

  1. "Various facts for I.S. Ost- roukhov's biography, written by himself, and about him by his editor." - Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, fund 822, item 31.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Regarding the "suddenness" of Ostroukhov's passion for icon collecting, his great friend and fellow manager of the Tretyakov Gallery, Alexandra Botkina-Tretyakova noted jokingly in 1910: "<...> I have always been amazed by your vocations, which come down as an avalanche on the unsuspecting fields of art. And this avalancheness always scares and perplexes me<...>" (Manuscripts department of TG, fund 10, item 1793).
  5. The Ostroukhov collection had a relatively small (compared with the Russian one) collection of European art of the 14th-19th centuries. Besides the already mentioned works of applied art, Ostroukhov possessed several dozen pieces by old German, Dutch, French and Italian masters. Over time, many of them had their dating or attribution revised, though some works of the new and modern art, such as Goya's "Nun on Deathbed", Manet's "Portrait of Antonin Proust", drawings by Degas and Matisse, small marble pieces by Rodin and some other works until now have been on display in the permanent exhibitions of Russia's largest museums of Western art, such as the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Hermitage.
  6. This information is contained in the drafts of the introductory biographical article, with amendments entered by Ostroukhov himself, kept at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow; the text was intended for the "Catalogue of the Anniversary Exhibition of I.S. Ostroukhov's Works (Moscow. Published by the Tretyakov Gallery, 1925) - Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, fund 822
  7. Manuscripts department of TG, fund 48, item 626
  8. Ibid, item 630
  9. Quoted from: VI .Antonova, N.E. Mneva. Catalogue of the old Russian paintings. A tentative historical and artistic classification. Volume 1. 11th-early 16th century. Iskusstvo publishers, Moscow, 1963, p21
  10. P Muratov. Old Russian icons in Ostroukhov's collection. Moscow, Published by K.F. Nekrasov.
  11. Published in: Tretyakov Gallery. Catalogue of the collections. Volume 1. Old Russian art of the 10th- early 15th century. Moscow, 1995.
  12. In 1914 a catalogue of Ostroukhov's library was published: Alphabetical Index to Ostroukhov's Library. Moscow, City printing shop, 1914.
  13. The correlation between the collection's different sections was approximately as follows: Russian paintings - about 330, Russian drawings and watercolours - 550, sculpture - 14; foreign paintings, graphics and sculpture - about 55, icons - 125, applied art of all periods and nations and archaeological finds - about 800. Culled from the insurance lists (1916?) and Ostroukhov's rough notes, deposited at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (fund 822, items 1046 and 141).
  14. Abram Efros. Profiles. Moscow, 1930, p.65.

Illustrations

Ilya Ostroukhov in his study. Photograph. 1914
Ilya Ostroukhov in his study. Photograph. 1914
Ilya OSTROUKHOV. The Siverko (The Northern Wind). 1890
Ilya OSTROUKHOV. The Siverko (The Northern Wind). 1890
Oil on canvas. 85 by 119 cm
Nadezhda Botkina (Ostroukhova), Ilya Ostroukhov. 1889 or early 1890s
Nadezhda Botkina (Ostroukhova), Ilya Ostroukhov. 1889 or early 1890s
The western European art hall in Ostroukhov’s house
The western European art hall in Ostroukhov’s house
Ilya OSTROUKHOV. The First Green of Spring
Ilya OSTROUKHOV. The First Green of Spring
Oil on canvas. 71 by 105 cm
St. George and the Miracle of the Serpent. Late 16th century
St. George and the Miracle of the Serpent. Late 16th century
The Novgorod school (?). Tempera on panel. 82 by 63 cm
The Descent from the Cross. Late 15th century (?)
The Descent from the Cross. Late 15th century (?)
The Novgorod school (?). Tempera on panel. 91 by 62 cm
The Entombment. Late 15th century (?)
The Entombment. Late 15th century (?)
The Novgorod school (?). Tempera on panel. 91 by 63 cm
The Dormition of the Virgin. Late 15th century
The Dormition of the Virgin. Late 15th century
The Tver school. Tempera on panel. 113 by 88 cm
Vasily SURIKOV. Boyarynya Morozova on the Sled. 1884–1887
Vasily SURIKOV. Boyarynya Morozova on the Sled. 1884–1887
Oil on canvas. 75 by 101 cm
Vasily SURIKOV. A Boyard’s Young Daughter with Her Hands Crossed on Her Chest. 1884–1887
Vasily SURIKOV. A Boyard’s Young Daughter with Her Hands Crossed on Her Chest. 1884–1887
Oil on canvas. 46 by 35.5 cm
Isaak LEVITAN. The Footbridge. Savvinskaya Sloboda. 1884
Isaak LEVITAN. The Footbridge. Savvinskaya Sloboda. 1884
Oil on canvas. 25 by 29 cm
Isaak LEVITAN. Near Bordighera. North Italy. 1890
Isaak LEVITAN. Near Bordighera. North Italy. 1890
Paper mounted on canvas. 24 by 33 cm
Mikhail VRUBEL. Lilacs. 1900
Mikhail VRUBEL. Lilacs. 1900
Oil on canvas. 160 by 177 cm
Edouard MANET. Portrait of Antonin Proust. 1877–1880
Edouard MANET. Portrait of Antonin Proust. 1877–1880
Oil on canvas. 65 by 54 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
Ilya REPIN. In the Sun (Portrait of Nadezhda Repina, the Artist’s Daughter). 1900
Ilya REPIN. In the Sun (Portrait of Nadezhda Repina, the Artist’s Daughter). 1900
Oil on canvas. 94.3 by 67 cm

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