The Nizhny Novgorod State Arts Museum

Irina Mironova

Magazine issue: 
#4 2005 (09)

Проект Золотая карта России

The Nizhny Novgorod Arts Museum traditionally participates in exhibitions of both classical and contemporary art at the Tretyakov Gallery. However, the real gems of the museum’s Russian art collection will soon be presented there in the framework of the special Volga Project, a part of the programme "Russia's Golden Map".

-Konstantin SOMOV. Two Ladies in the Park. 1919
Konstantin SOMOV. Two Ladies in the Park. 1919
Oil on canvas. 58.2 by 71.5 cm

The history of the Nizhny Novgorod City Museum can be traced back to the spring of 1896, when the city was preparing for a major event in the form of the 16th All-Russian Industrial and Arts Exhibition. It was the first time that an event of such a scale was to be held not in a major central city, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg or Warsaw, as had been the case previously, but in the provinces. Thanks to the occasion, Nizhny was to become a kind of an unofficial Russian capital for a time. Preparations started long before the opening. An exhibition complex was built on the city outskirts, in the Kanavin settlement. A new theatre, bank and stock exchange, and a regional court were built, along with power stations, hotels, and funicular railways. The first Russian electric tramway line was opened in Nizhny for the occasion, while the St. Petersburg architect N. Sultanov made a special design for the restoration of the Dmitrievsky tower of the local Kremlin. It was decided that the new municipal museum would be situated there, part of a plan to attract exhibition visitors to travel to the higher part of the city from the embankment. The local authorities were quite realistic about the city's attractions and openly admitted that, apart from its natural beauty, the city had not much to show to its high-ranking visitors.

In fact, Nizhny had an historical museum, the so-called Petrovsky museum, which occupied a unique but very small 17th-century building, where Tsar Peter the Great had once stayed. The museum was open to the public for only three hours a week, while it was a dream among locals to have a proper arts museum. The idea had long been in the air, stimulated especially by the fact that cities such as Saratov, Kazan and Kharkov already boasted such facilities: the city population thought they had every right to have a similar museum as well. What was more, an arts museum had already been functioning successfully for more than 50 years in Arzamas, a smaller town in the same administrative region. It was attached to the art school of the academician A. Stupin, the first private art institution of its kind in Russia. In the museum, Stupin assembled a unique collection of students' works, and actually made the first attempt to set up an arts museum in the Russian provinces. Unfortunately, most of the collection had been destroyed by fire.

However, the Stupin museum was not forgotten. Professor Nikolai Koshelev, a painter specialising in historical pictures and one of the artists who took part in decorating Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, vividly described his strong impressions of the pictures, sculptures and drawings of the Stupin Museum collection; later, he became one of the founders of the Nizhny Novgorod arts museum. Already in the 1880s, Koshelev spoke about the necessity to start scientifically-based restoration work in the local Kremlin, and establish a museum in one of its main towers. He also promised to present his works to the future museum, and he kept his word.

However, Koshelev's "enlightened initiative" would have remained a dream if not for support from another Russian painter, Andrei Karelin, whose energy and persistence were crucial in setting up the museum. Andrei Karelin was the son of a Nizhny Novgorod photographer, painter, collector and teacher; he was a typical member of the Russian intelligentsia, one of those individuals who devoted their entire lives to the effort of transforming the world around them for the better. Today his name is remembered only by a few experts; his legacy, however, includes not only his works of art. He participated in setting up art collections in Nizhny Novgorod and Ashkhabad, a collection of ancient Russian art in the Alexander Nevsky monastery in St. Petersburg, and was among the founders, and the first chairman, of the Society of Artists specialising in historical painting.

Andrei Karelin compiled a comprehensive report on the vital necessity of setting up an art museum, with an associated art school, in Nizhny Novgorod. His plans for the organisation of museum business and his notes on museum reforms are amazingly well-grounded and logical. His numerous appeals to local authorities finally bore fruit, as he received some support and "sympathy" from those in power. The City Council headed by Baron Delvig and Governor Baranov agreed to open a museum with two departments - in history and the arts. Karelin's convincing reasons were supported by a solid contribution of 50 art works worth up to 100,000 rubles.

Nevertheless, the authorities wanted to save money and practically combined two museums in one: the museum opened in the Dmitrievsky tower of the local Kremlin, and the exhibition of the Society of Artists specialising in historical painting opened in its grand hall. The exhibition dealt with the "Times of Trouble” period of medieval Russian history, with part of the exhibits due to be presented to the museum after its closing.

It is worth mentioning that the two departments functioned rather independently of each other, staging their own exhibitions and publishing their own catalogues, and soon even moved to different buildings. In 1934 they were officially separated.

The day when the museum opened, June 27 1896, was widely marked locally, and a special medal was even minted to commemorate the event and the beginning of the reconstruction of the Kremlin. 25 silver and 300 bronze medals were awarded to those who took part in setting up the museum or contributed money to support it. Two special gold medals were presented to the Emperor Nicholas the Second and his wife, Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, to commemorate their visit to the museum on July 19 1896.

During his tour the Emperor asked Karelin, who was honoured to accompany the esteemed visitors, how long the museum had been functioning. When Karelin answered that it had only been in existence for a few days, the Emperor was amazed and commented on the perfect state of the museum. Some years later the Emperor would bestow the title of nobleman on Karelin for his picture devoted to the 300th anniversary of the Romanov royal dynasty.

Even the very first exhibition showed an exceptionally high artistic level of paintings and a prevalence of classical trends in the newly opened museum, which distinguished it from other provincial art collections. There was nothing surprising about that, since Karelin personally addressed painters from academic circles and those who specialised in historical painting with requests to donate their works to the museum.

Koshelev was one of the first to respond to Karelin's appeal. He kept his word and donated over twenty of his paintings and drawings, as well as his large- scale work "Burial of Jesus Christ” (1881). The work was listed as the first exhibit in the museum's book of donations. Koshelev also sent a warm letter, welcoming the opening of the new museum. "Of late, nothing has given me greater joy than this event. At last! My experience has taught me to be sceptical about any bright future, but now I see that in our own country which I love so much we should believe in it”, he wrote. "Congratulations, my dear friend, and my best wishes to all those who take this cause close to their hearts."

However, the story of Koshelev's largest work, which was highly appreciated by his contemporaries, is rather sad. From the 1920s onwards it was kept in storage, and damaged during World War II (it was too large to be evacuated to Novosibirsk with the rest of the collection). Only in 1996, when preparations for the centenary of the museum began was it restored and shown in a special memorial hall in the former governor's palace. Recently, Koshelev's studies for Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which he presented to the museum, have also aroused experts' and connoisseurs' interest and were put on show. They were used during the restoration of the drum of the central dome and Koshelev's plafond in the reborn cathedral.

Many well known Russian painters presented their works to the museum, including Ilya Repin, Konstantin Makovsky and others. Andrei Karelin, of course, donated several of his large historical paintings, as well as works by the students of the Stupino art school, which he kept in his family collection after the school was closed. The name of another famous Russian painter of 1860s, Vasily Perov, is also associated with the Stupino school: the painter spent his childhood and youth in the Arzamas region, and received his first artistic training in the Stupino school. He became famous thanks to his pictures based on stories drawn from the everyday life of local people, and his son contributed the artist's later work "Pilgrim Woman in the Field" (1879) to mark the opening of the museum. The picture was then renamed, and its new title described the meaning of the sad scene much better - "On the Way to Eternal Bliss".

During the initial period of its existence the museum was strongly supported by the Imperial Arts Academy, which did much to help organise the museum and enlarge its collection. Pictures by the most eminent Russian painters of the time were sent due to efforts of the Academy's vicepresident Count Tolstoy, a direction which also matched the Academy's new charter. Leafing through museum catalogues and annual reports from the early 20th century, the names of numerous private donors can be found along with that of the Academy. They included local art lovers, local and metropolitan art patrons, including Savva Mamontov, the most powerful Russian industrialist of the period. He donated to the museum his majolica collection, and it happened that one of his favourite pictures by Victor Vasnetsov, "The Flying Carpet" (1880), also ended up there at a later date.

Looking at this picture today, it is hard to imagine that it was seen as too innovatory for its time, and that the board of the Donetsk coal-mine electric train line, for whom Mamontov initially ordered it, turned it down on that ground - the picture had been intended for the company's assembly hall. That was how this highly poetic work ended up in Mamontov's grand study in Moscow, a frequent meeting place for artists, poets and writers, and other members of the Abramtsevo circle. When Mamontov went bankrupt, the picture was sold and taken to Nizhny Novgorod into the collection of the merchant Rukavishnikov. After his death it was presented to the museum along with Kramskoy's "Woman with an Umbrella” (1883), Aivazovsky's "Golden Horn” (1872), some Western European paintings and a few pieces of applied art.

The writer Maxim Gorky also contributed numerous historical and artistic objects to the museum's collection, and in 1909 he was elected an honorary member of its management committee. Gorky helped to acquire a number of works, the best of which were by Roerich and Kustodiev. They form the basis for the large monographic collections which are the pride of the museum today.

There are two classical portraits of the wives of Nizhny Novgorod merchants by Kustodiev, "Merchant Wife Drinking Tea” (1923) and "Russian Venus" (192526). The latter work is also an unusual sample of a double portrait (there is an early family portrait of 1906 drawn on its reverse). "Russian Venus" is one of Kustodiev's latest works, created when he was already gravely ill, but nevertheless - and indeed probably because of that factor - he applied all his skill to realise his long- cherished dream and depicted a young beauty, full of life, with golden hair, a true Russian Venus. It is well known that Kustodiev's daughter Irina posed as a model for the portrait (as she did in many other cases as well).

Judging by archive materials, the Nizhny Novgorod art collection was quite famous in Russia before the 1917 revolution. There are letters addressed to Krylov, a long-term museum curator, from members of the imperial family, from Baron Nicholai Vrangel, and the commissar of the famous Russian Tavricheskaya exhibition Sergei Diaghilev, and others. The museum sent two of its works to this huge exhibition and they were returned safely. Now the museum collection has at least 15 works that were shown at the Tavricheskaya exhibition, including a famous graphic work by Serov "K.A. Obninskaya with a Hare".

However, there were also sad losses in the collection's history. A study of a barge hauler, Ilya Repin's gift to the museum, was lost on its way back from Penaty. The museum returned it to the author in 1916 on his request, since he was working on a copy of his famous picture "Volga Barge Haulers". In gratitude Repin promised to send another work to the museum, but the Revolution of 1917 interfered with the artist's plans, since the place where he was living, Kuokkala, was handed over to Finland.

The Nizhny museum collection, like many other provincial collections, grew very rapidly after 1917 due to the nationalisation of the estates of local nobles and merchants and the redistribution of paintings from the main national collections. New acquisitions, among them works by Levitsky, Borovikovsky, Lansere, Polenov, Golovin, Grabar, Benois, and the Makovets group, were exhibited from August 1925 to August 1926. In compensation for the lost work by Repin, one of his best peasant portraits, "A Timid Villager" (1877), was acquired; it was drawn in the Chuguev township of the Kharkov gubernia, which was the artist's birthplace.

The museum's large section of Russian 18th-early 19th century portraits is based on the collections of family portraits of local nobility, among them the families of the Orlov-Davydovs, Abemelek-Lazarevs and Sheremetyevs. This group of academic works was further strengthened by the collection of Burmistrova containing an excellent work by Genrikh Semiradsky. Works by Western-European painters from the Sheremetyev castle in Yurino, the most important of the local collections, served as a basis for the Western European art section. In the same way, icons from the collections of G. Pryanishnikov and D. Sirotkin formed the basis of the ancient Russian art section.

One more source of new acquisitions in this period was the State Art Fund under the Education Commissariat. In early 1920s it handed over 42 pictures to the city, mainly by avant-garde artists, for a Museum of the Culture of Painting to be set up in Nizhny Novgorod, a venture that never reached reality. In the autumn of 1921 works by Kandinsky, Malevich, Rodchenko, Larionov, Goncharova, Popova, Rozanova and other members of this artistic trend from this collection were transferred to the museum to form the basis of its avant-garde collection. However, real fame came to these artists over the last two decades, with the Kandinsky exhibition in Sweden in 1989, where his "Improvisation No.4" from the Nizhny museum was shown, particularly helping the process. Works by Kandinsky from Russian museums had not been shown abroad for about 70 years, while his last show, coincidentally, had also been in Sweden and Finland in 1916. Thus, works of international standards were again included in world artistic and cultural activities. Since then the "Nizhny avant-garde" has always been present at major Russian and international exhibitions.

Mikhail Larionov's "Katsap Venus" (1912) from the Nizhny Novgorod collection was shown recently in the framework of the "Moscow-Warsaw” project at the Tretyakov Gallery. It is well known that Larionov had a cycle of nude compositions where, alongside the Katsap (Russian) Venus, there were also Moldovan, Jewish, Turkish, Soldier, Children's and other "Venuses" - the name Katsap is a popular Ukrainian nickname for Russians. Thus Larionov's neo-primitivist style was expressed even in the title. The deformation of the object's natural form in a "low", folk style combines here with a classically arranged composition and carefully worked-out colour range.

In the 1930s provincial museums were mainly supported by major national museums such as the Tretyakov Gallery, Pushkin Fine Arts Museum and St. Petersburg's Hermitage. In 1932, the Tretyakov Gallery handed over to the Nizhny museum a classical landscape by Alexei Savrasov "The Pechera Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod" (1871); in it, an organic link between nature and ancient Russian architecture was shown in a most emotional and profound way. Another complicated and innovatory work received by the museum in 1932 was Korovin's "Autumn" (1891), which was highly praised by Repin, Surikov and Ghe, who showed special interest in new art forms. Korovin put considerable effort into it, with the picture apparently started as early as 1888 at the estate of Korovin's tutor Polenov and on his advice; rumours also exist that a relative of Polenov posed as a model. Her appearance and her reserved nature fit closely with the idea of this elegaic picture.

It would be hard to mention all the works in the museum collection which was built up thanks to the dedicated effort of several generations of museum employees. In the 1960s and 1970s the collection of late 19th-early 20th century painting grew considerably. Recent decades have been marked by a constant effort to display works which had previously been kept in the museum's reserves.

The most dynamic area is currently the selection of 20th century art, which grows faster than others. Among the most important recent acquisitions are a number of works by Russian painters living abroad such as Ernst Neizvestny, Mikhail Shemyakin, Erik Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov and others.

At present the museum is housed in two buildings, the Governor's palace and the Sirotkin house. Its collection contains over 12,000 items, which makes it possible to stage both permanent and temporary exhibitions, as well as exhibitions drawn from its reserves. Their main value is not necessarily derived from the separate works shown - unique though they may be - but in the resulting comprehensive display of all the stages and trends in the history of Russian painting. The museum's collection of Western European art represents all major European art developments from the 15th to the 19th century. There are several real gems among them, such as "Lucretia” by Lukas Cranach the Elder (1535), "The Piazza Navona in Rome" by Bernardo Belotto (1767-1770), "Young Man with a Lute” by Giuseppe Maria Chrespi (1710-15), recently attributed by experts as a portrait of Z. Troni.

In May 2004 a new historical and art exhibition devoted to Makovsky's huge picture "Minin Addressing a Crowd" (1896) opened in the museum. This is one of the most attractive works of this painter; it shows a crowd listening to Minin's appeal to collect donations to set up a people's army to defend Moscow from the Polish invaders. The size of the picture - seven by six metres - is most impressive. The picture was presented to the Nizhny museum in 1908 by the Imperial Court Ministry, since it was here that the popular army was formed. About 70 years later it was transferred to a specially-built hall of the museum, which since then has been popularly known as the Makovsky hall. Symbolically, this gem was first shown to the public in 1896, also in a separate hall, at the All-Russian Industrial and Art Exhibition, which proved the beginning of the Nizhny Novgorod Arts Museum.

Konstantin SOMOV. Two Ladies in the Park. 1919. Detail
Konstantin SOMOV. Two Ladies in the Park. 1919. Detail
Oil on canvas. 58.2 by 71.5 cm
Karl BRYULLOV. Svetlana the Fortune-teller. 1836
Karl BRYULLOV. Svetlana the Fortune-teller. 1836
Oil on canvas. 94 by 81 cm
Ivan SABLUKOV. Portrait of an Unknown Sitter. 1770s
Ivan SABLUKOV. Portrait of an Unknown Sitter. 1770s
Oil on canvas. 63.3 by 50.2 cm
Ivan GORBUNOV. Grandmother and Granddaughter. 1831
Ivan GORBUNOV. Grandmother and Granddaughter. 1831
Oil on canvas. 66.5 by 57.7 cm
Isaak LEVITAN. Lake. Gloomy Afternoon. A study. 1895 (?)
Isaak LEVITAN. Lake. Gloomy Afternoon. A study. 1895 (?)
Oil on cardboard. 47.5 by 57.3 cm
Nikolai KOSHELEV. Burial of Jesus Christ. 1881
Nikolai KOSHELEV. Burial of Jesus Christ. 1881
Oil on canvas. 400 by 540 cm
Victor VASNETSOV. The Flying Carpet.
Victor VASNETSOV. The Flying Carpet. 1880
Oil on canvas. 165 by 297 cm
Konstantin KOROVIN. Autumn. 1891
Konstantin KOROVIN. Autumn. 1891
Oil on canvas. 175 by 132 cm
Boris KUSTODIEV. Russian Venus. 1925–1926
Boris KUSTODIEV. Russian Venus. 1925–26
Oil on canvas. 200 by 175 cm
Konstantin MAKOVSKY. Minin Addressing a Crowd. 1896
Konstantin MAKOVSKY. Minin Addressing a Crowd. 1896
Oil on canvas. 693 by 594 cm
Mikhail LARIONOV. Sea. 1912–1913
Mikhail LARIONOV. Sea. 1912–13
Oil on canvas. 50 by 70.5 cm
Vasily KANDINSKY. Improvisation No. 4. 1909
Vasily KANDINSKY. Improvisation No. 4. 1909
Oil on canvas. 107 by 158,5 cm
Kazimir MALEVICH. Hay-maker. 1912
Kazimir MALEVICH. Hay-maker. 1912
Oil on canvas. 113.5 by 66.5 cm
Mikhail LARIONOV. "Russian" Venus. 1912
Oil on canvas. 99.5 by 129.5 cm
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Spring in Petrovsky Park. 1909–1910
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Spring in Petrovsky Park. 1909–10
Oil on canvas. 105 by 116.8 cm





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