Borovikovsky from Paris

Lyudmila Markina

Magazine issue: 
#3 2008 (20)

The Tretyakov Gallery expresses sincere gratitude to OAO “Surgutneftegas” and to “British American Tobacco” for their financial support of this exhibition project.

Last year marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky (1757-1825). The artist was the last of the acclaimed painters of the 18th century. His portraits of personalities of the age of the Enlightenment, and first of all the sentimental young ladies whose beauty was “preserved by Borovikovsky” (in the words of the poet Yakov Polonsky) won him a deserved acclaim.

Yet, such secular images harmoniously coexisted with iconography in Borovikovsky’s art. “An inspired religious artist,” the first researcher of Borovikovsky’s art Vasily Gorlenko wrote. In the art criticism published before the Bolshevik revolution the artist’s religious paintings were treated as very important and were highly praised.

Borovikovsky’s icons were kept in the private collections of Fyodor Pryanishnikov and Ivan Tsvetkov. In the rooms of the Rumyantsev Museum at the Pashkov house these pictures were featured alongside Borovikovsky’s portraits. Under Soviet rule, the artist’s icons were vandalized, just as were the churches. The surviving pieces for a long time were kept in the reserve departments of museums and were barely accessible for scholars. The general public practically never got a chance to see those works.

Such works include, for instance, a monumental iconostasis from the Trinity church in the Smolensky graveyard in St. Petersburg (now at the Russian Museum) - the master’s last oeuvre. In October 2008 the Tretyakov Gallery is to open in its Krymsky Val exhibition hall the first show completely dedicated to Borovikovsky. The artist’s non-religious and religious paintings from the Tretyakov Gallery, Russian Museum, Hermitage, other regional museums of Russia and private collections are to be featured alongside each other for the first time. Russian art lovers will have a unique chance to see Borovikovsky’s works from the Louvre Museum.

There are still many things uncertain with respect to the attribution and location of Borovikovsky’s known works. For a long time it remained unknown what happened to a series of portraits of the Yakovlevs, a family of rich industrialists. As it transpired during the perestroika period, several different individuals in Paris owned separate pieces. After several attempts to recover the works, two were purchased by the Tretyakov Gallery, while three others remain isolated from each other. They are to be brought under the same roof for the first time in Moscow.

Early in the spring of 1987 an editor of the “Khudozhnik” (Artist) magazine Yulia Mikhailova showed me amateurish slides that she had been given by a singer from the Bolshoi Theatre Alexander Vedernikov. The slides featured four portraits of the members of the Yakovlev family, supposedly made by Borovikovsky. The paintings were kept in a private collection in Paris. Late at night back home I took my projector, watched the images on the screen, frantically leafed through Tatiana Alexeyeva’s monograph about the artist (Alexeyeva then supervised my work on doctoral dissertation) and... could not bring myself to sleep. I was in possession of reproductions of the works which Tatiana Vassilievna mentioned but whose location was unknown to her[1].

When he was famous, Borovikovsky received many portrait commissions from dignitaries and noblemen of the era. He portrayed “his Highness” Duke Alexander Kurakin and Pyotr Lopukhin, and daughters of the senator Gavriil Gagarin. For many years the artist was connected with the family of rich industrialists, the Yakovlevs, who were awarded the title of hereditary noblemen in the second half of the 19th century. The family descended from a commoner from Ostashkovo, Savva Yakovlevich Sobakin, who came to St. Petersburg, as legend has it, “with a few pennies in his pocket and a parents’ blessing”. In the “Northern capital” the resourceful entrepreneur made a big fortune, then went on to multiply it in ore and gold mining. Savva Yakovlev bought from a famous industrialist Pavel Demidov four manufacturing plants in the Ural region, and later acquired paper-and cloth-making plants near Yaroslavl. In 1774 Catherine the Great issued a decree ordering Sobakin to change his bad-sounding family name (its roots hinted at dogs). From then on he was to bear a surname originating from his patronymic — Savva Yakovlev. After the patriarch’s death his colossal fortune was divided between his five sons and two daughters. The members of this big family clan were portrayed by many Russian and foreign artists including Borovikovsky. And now the works long deemed to be lost were found and it was up to me to introduce them into the scholarly perspective.

As soon as the next morning I was in the manuscripts department of the Tretyakov Gallery, and a week later I visited the Central State Archive of the Bolshevik Revolution (now the State Archive of the Russian Federation), where the artist’s diaries are kept. As soon as May 1987 I made a presentation at an academic conference “Russia-France. Age of Enlightenment” in the Hermitage about my sensational discovery[2].

After the presentation I was approached by a prominent art scholar Alexander Punin who said that he was well acquainted with the owner — an architect Vladimir Gofman. Punin saw these pieces in Paris and could give me the owner’s Parisian address. I began a correspondence with Vladimir Rostislavovich and learned that in June he was coming to Russia for the first time with his mother Tatiana Viktorovna. In Moscow we saw each other in person and Gofman visited the reserve department of the Tretyakov Gallery.

There were talks then about returning the paintings to Russia and possibly donating them to the Soviet Culture Fund. However, Gofman, a son of a music historian from St. Petersburg who emigrated to Finland in the 1920s, did not have all the portraits of the Yakovlev family. The best picture of the series was then in possession of the gallery owner Garik Basmadzhyan. An Armenian from Jerusalem who studied philology at Yerevan University, Basmadzhyan showcased his collection in 1988 at the Krymsky Val hall of the Tretyakov Gallery. It was then that I first saw “Portrait of Darya Yakovleva” — the true gem of the collection[3].

The painting was created in 1801, a year when Borovikovsky’s art was at its prime. It is distinguished by the originality of its composition and accomplished craftsmanship. The fascinating and memorable face of a hazel-eyed beauty with a tender glow on her cheeks is pictured against the thick verdure of a park. Her ink-black hair is entwined with a pale gauzy scarf arranged on her head like a turban. Darya Semenovna is dressed in the latest fashion wearing a pearl-blue dress in the Empire style with a low neck and a high waistline. She does not look like the sensual and languorous young ladies portrayed by Borovikovsky in the 1790s (Maria Lopukhina, Yelena Naryshkina). The artist depicted a mature woman who had an extraordinary sensitivity and innate ardor.

The subject was a descendant of an ancient Georgian noble family. In the mid-1790s she married Nikolai Yakovlev, a very rich industrialist. A mother of five, Darya Yakovleva was a sweet-natured and child-loving parent. Her unusual personality greatly impressed the artist. As Borovikovsky’s journals suggest, he was closely connected with the Yakovlevs, creating for them icons and portraits of the emperor. In the early 19th century the artist portrayed three Yakovlev brothers — Ivan, Savva and Nikolai — and the members of their families. It seems that the sittings took place in the Yakovlevs’ three-storey mansion on Gorokhovaya Street, and then the portraits were finished in Borovikovsky’s studio in his house on Bolshaya Millionnaya Street.

In 1988 while the exhibition of his collection was on, Basmadzhyan expressed his wish to part with several of Borovikovsky’s works (including the portrait of Darya Yakovleva). The directors of the Tretyakov Gallery started negotiations with the ministry of culture of the USSR, but, unfortunately, nothing came of it. Soon Garik Basmadzhyan went missing in Yerevan under mysterious circumstances. It appears that he was killed but his body was never found. Garik’s sister came into possession of his collection, but under existing laws she had to wait for ten years (lest the owner should re-appear) until she could officially become the owner and manage it. All that could be done was to arm oneself with patience, hope and wait.

Meanwhile, I went on digging for historical data about Borovikovsky’s portraits, and the findings were summarized in my article published in the “Nashe Naslediye” (Our Heritage) magazine[4]. It turned out that the story of the works was very interesting.

Portraits of the Yakovlev family members were kept in a private collection of doctor Ivan Mikhailovich Yakovlev in St. Petersburg. In 1905, preparing for a grandiose exhibition of Russian portraits in the Taurida palace a prominent art promoter and critic Serge Diaghilev took notice of these works and selected them for exhibition, including their reproductions in a big catalogue first[5]. However, we could not find the reproductions among the old negatives (from the photo collection of the Tretyakov Gallery) with images of the exhibits and the interior of the exhibition rooms. We found an explanation in the manuscripts department of the Tretyakov Gallery. As followed from an extant letter of Alexandra Botkina, Pavel Tretyakov’s daughter, to the artist and a member of the Gallery board Ilya Ostroukhov, the Yakovlev family portraits were not displayed because of disputes with the owner over the insurance amount.

“Many years ago, when the exhibition at the Taurida palace was on,” wrote Alexandra Pavlovna, “Diaghilev told me about a rich and eccentric man who had five of Borovikovsky’s portraits but did not lend them for the show. That senile, snuffling, loose-tongued, stingy and dismal fellow said that for the exhibition, i.e. for the insurance policy he priced them at 40,000. Then the Great Duke decided that paying 400 roubles for the policy was too much, and the portraits were not selected for the show.”[6] Three years later, in 1908 Ivan Yakovlev finally decided to part with his family treasures. He again turned to Serge Diaghilev, who informed Botkina and strongly recommended that the Tretyakov Gallery buy them. “Recently Diaghilev phoned me,” Botkina apprized Ostroukhov, “saying that that fellow contemplated selling them and that I could have a look if I wanted to. We met in the home of the owner of the noble ancestors... He wants the pieces to be kept at a museum, not just any museum, but the Tretyakov Gallery, and he agrees to mark down the price by 15,000. And he sells them at 5,000 a piece, but only all together or none at all.”[7]

Having examined the pictures, Alexandra Botkina selected only twin portraits of Yakovlev and his wife. In her opinion, they differed from the rest by their better physical condition and a greater craftsmanship. This shyness with respect to selection of the old masters’ works was no whim on the part of the famous collector’s daughter. The reason for it was a particular stance taken by the Gallery board. Ostroukhov, keen on expanding the collection, reminded about financial difficulties in his letter of response. “As for Borovikovsky,” he wrote, “let me tell you again: try to buy the two portraits, which you like most, for 5,000 each. It doesn’t hurt to try, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Our financial standing at the moment is such that we have to be careful about spending. We have only 25,000 for the entire year. Of course, this is a big sum, but it is determined by the scope of acquisitions.”[8]

The Tretyakov Gallery by then had 12 works by Borovikovsky, including such masterpieces as the portraits of Lopukhina and the Gagarin sisters. Pavel Tretyakov was one of the first Moscow collectors to take notice of the works of the by-then nearly forgotten Borovikovsky. “I need to point out,” Botkina reminisced, “that Pavel Mikhailovich loved and admired ‘the old guard,’ which love we fully inherited from him... he had several lovely portraits by Borovikovsky, among which Lopukhina’s image was our favorite.”[9]

Thus, at the time when the Gallery board existed, it was impossible to acquire five more of Borovikovsky’s pieces at once spending an entire annual budget on it. Doctor Yakovlev, who understandably was reluctant to divide up the family treasures, would not make any concessions. The opportunity to acquire the Borovikovsky works for the Tretyakov collection was missed. Later on, most likely after the Bolshevik revolution, the paintings were taken outside Russia, destined to experience exactly what he was afraid of. While the portraits were changing hands, the sitters’ names were forgotten and eventually the pieces found themselves in different collections. In the early 1980s the pictures went up for sale at an auction in Paris designated as family portraits of the Lazarev family and were bought by three collectors, including Gofman and Basmadzhyan.

Nearly ten years went by after the events described here. In the mid-1990s I learned that Vladimir Gofman sold three portraits to another Parisian collector Vladimir Tsarenkov, who, in turn, offered to sell two of them to the Tretyakov Gallery. The two pieces were portraits of Nikolai Mikhailovich and Maria Nikolaevna Yakovlev. “Married to a paragon of gentleness,” Nikolai Mikhailovich Yakovlev (1761-1813) was an example of a virtuous family man, which was equally in line with the ideals of the century. The epitaph on his tomb stated that he was “a tender husband, child-loving father, loved his family, and was an unflattering friend to strangers”.

The portrait of the elder daughter of Nikolai Mikhailovich and Darya Semenovna created by Borovikovsky in 1812 is the latest in the series of the family portraits. Maria Nikolaevna Yakovleva later married the major-general Karl Georg August Bistrom who was killed during the Russo-Turkish war. The face of the 16-year-old girl who inherited her mother’s beauty is well modeled with sharp lights and shades. The supple silhouette of Maria Nikolaevna’s neat figure stands out against a reddish drape. The composition of the portrait resembles that of the portraits of Dolgorukova and Madame de Stael created by Borovikovsky (both are at the Tretyakov Gallery now). However, the image of the Russian young lady is of a poorer quality than the image of the French writer. Maria Yakovleva’s portrait was subject to a heavy renovation. In 1996 it was bought, together with Nikolai Yakovlev’s portrait, by the ministry of culture of the Russian Federation, but instead of the Tretyakov Gallery it went to the Rostov the Great and Yaroslavl Open-Air Museum of Architecture and Art.

Nikolai Yakovlev’s portrait was reproduced in an academic catalogue of the Gallery’s collection[10]. And yet I never lost hopes to have the husband and wife reunited one day and to have Darya Semenovna’s portrait returned to the Gallery. In 2000 a famous Parisian antiques dealer Maurice Baruch (“Popoff et Cie”) with whom we had long been friends got hold of the portrait. Thanks to the financial support of the Russian ministry of culture the painting was acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery. The dream of Pavel Tretyakov’s daughter came finally true. The twin portraits of the man and wife were finally reunited and took the place they deserve in the exhibition.

The earliest of the family portraits — “Portrait of Ivan Mikhailovich Yakovlev” (1801) — was still in the possession of Vladimir Gofman. Ivan Mikhailovich was Nikolai’s elder brother. Unlike his grandfather, he received an excellent education and belonged to the new generation of enlightened Russian industrialists.

Of all the brothers he was the only one who was actively engaged with the Yaroslavl manufacturing plant. The determined mien of Ivan Mikhailovich on the Borovikovsky portrait is in line with what we know about him as a pragmatic and strong-willed person. However, the refined portraitist captured not only the features of a businessman, but also his noble simplicity and great dignity.

When in 2001 I first came to Paris to lecture at a seminar at the Sorbonne, I visited the Gofmans’ hospitable house. Vladimir [Gofman] by that time was ready to part with the last painting from the Yakovlev series. However, times changed. The ministry of culture could not afford the sum requested by the owner, there were no sponsors to be found and the painting was “lost” to a private collector. At the exhibition in Moscow the portrait will be shown to the general public for the first time. We are also to see there another image of Ivan Mikhailovich (1810s, Tsarenkov’s collection, London). That portrait features Yakovlev not only in a gentleman’s suit with an order of St. Anne around his neck, but also with a medal of the land guard. This decoration in 1807-1811 was awarded to individuals who were active in building up the popular resistance troops during the Patriotic War against Napoleon. Recently this version of the portrait was featured at “A Time To Gather...” exhibition mounted, to great acclaim, in the Russian Museum and at the Tsaritsyno Museum.


  1. Tatyana Alexeyeva. Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky and Russian culture at the turn of the century. Moscow, 1975, No. 184.
  2. Lyudmila Markina. Portraits of the Yakovlev family by Borovikovsky in Parisian collections // Russia-France. Age of the Enlightenment. Abstracts of presentations at international academic conference. Leningrad, 1987.
  3. Exhibition of artwork of the 16th-20th centuries from Basmadzhyan's collection. Catalogue. Moscow-Leningrad, 1988, no pagination
  4. Lyudmila Markina. Portraits from Paris // Nashe Nasledie (Our heritage) magazine, No. 6, pp.7-11
  5. Catalogue of historical and artistic exhibition of Russian portraits at the Taurida palace. St. Petersburg, 1905, pp.34-35.
  6. Manuscripts department of the Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 10, item 1712, sheet 4
  7. Ibidem, back side of sheet 4
  8. Manuscripts department of the Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 48, item 512, back side of sheet 1
  9. Alexandra Botkina. Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov in life and art. Moscow, 1993, p.106
  10. Tretyakov Gallery. Paintings of the century. Catalogue of the collection. Volume 2, Moscow, 1998, p.74
Portrait of Ivan Mikhailovich Yakovlev. 1800
Portrait of Ivan Mikhailovich Yakovlev. 1800
Oil on canvas. 71×56.8 cm. Private collection, St. Petersburg
Portrait of the Princesses Yekaterina Kurakina and Alexandra Kurakina. 1802
Portrait of the Princesses Yekaterina Kurakina and Alexandra Kurakina. 1802
Oil on canvas. 94.3×74.5 cm. The Louvre, Paris
Portrait of Nikolai Mikhailovich Yakovlev. 1802
Portrait of Nikolai Mikhailovich Yakovlev. 1802
Oil on canvas. 74.5×60.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of Darya Semenovna Yakovleva. 1801
Portrait of Darya Semenovna Yakovleva. 1801
Oil on canvas. 74×60 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of Sergei Yakovlev. c. 1805
Portrait of Sergei Yakovlev. c. 1805
Oil on canvas. 80.7×62.7 cm. The Louvre, Paris
The Virgin with the Child
The Virgin with the Child
Oil on copper. 45.3×36 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Borovikovskyʼs Dream. 1824
Borovikovskyʼs Dream. 1824
Oil on cardboard on wood. 51×43.5 cm. Sergiev Posad Museum Reserve
Portrait of Maria Ivanovna Lopukhina. 1797
Portrait of Maria Ivanovna Lopukhina. 1797
Oil on canvas. 72×53.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of Prince Alexander Borisovich Kurakin. 1801–1802
Portrait of Prince Alexander Borisovich Kurakin. 1801-1802
Oil on canvas. 259×175 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of Sisters - Princesses Anna Gagarina and Varvara Gagarina. 1802
Portrait of Sisters - Princesses Anna Gagarina and Varvara Gagarina. 1802
Oil on canvas. 75×69.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of Ivan Mikhailovich Yakovlev. 1810s
Portrait of Ivan Mikhailovich Yakovlev. 1810s
Oil on canvas. 72×55 cm. Tsarenkovʼs collection, London
Portrait of Princess Margarita Ivanovna Dolgorukaya. 1811
Portrait of Princess Margarita Ivanovna Dolgorukaya. 1811
Oil on canvas. 85.7×66.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery





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