Anna Poznanskaya

Magazine issue: 

The interest in Norwegian painting arose in Russia at the end of the 19th century. Painting in Norway and Russia of this period has some similar features that can been seen in both the works of individual artists and artistic groups. Such distinctive features developed and co-existed as part of general trends taking places in European art at that time.

Russian art collectors and patrons of art were not only interested in paintings by Scandinavian artists, but were involved in the artistic movements of Northern Europe. They realized that the dramatic leap forward which was occurring in the cultural life of these countries could set an example for Russia, opening for it a new way of relationship with western art culture - in particular, that of France. At the turn of the 20th century these ideas inspired art lovers to form art collections with preference for artists who had made their name in Europe. One of the first Norwegian paintings which found its way into a Russian private collection was Gerhard Arij Ludwig 'Morgenstjerne' Munthe's (G.A.L. Munthe) picture "Hunters in the Snow" acquired by Dmitry Botkin. The son of a successful Moscow tea dealer and a well-known Russian collector of European painting, Botkin was one of the Russian art collectors who took interest in Scandinavian art. Paintings by such an important figure in Norwegian landscape art as Munthe were bound to attract his attention.

Munthe studied at the Art School in Dusseldorf (now the Dusseldorf Art Academy) which in the third quarter of the 19th century exerted enormous influence not only on European, but also on Russian art. In time he went beyond the dry academism typical of German art tradition; Munthe rejected complicated structures and bright colours, favouring grey and ochre pigments and filling his landscapes with the finest and most delicate colour harmonies and undertones. This painting technique places Munthe close to the young generation of Norwegian artists. At the same time, his landscape style is remarkably close to the works of French painters of this period, and particularly to the artists of the Barbizon school, who were extremely popular with Moscow art collectors. It should be remembered that Dmitry Botkin's sister, Yekaterina, was married to Sergei Shchukin, the great collector.

In 1894-1896 Shchukin turned his interest to European art. Fritz Thaulow's pictures were among the first to appear in Shchukin's mansion in Moscow, marking an important stage in the formation of his collection of modern paintings. It was by no means easy for a would-be collector and great lover of Russian realistic art to develop a liking for the much brighter work of artists such as Matisse and Picasso. Three paintings by Thaulow, which Shchukin acquired at the Salon of the National Society of Fine Arts in Paris, played a pivotal role in his involvement in contemporary European art. "A View of Venice", "A Freezing River" and "Boulevard Madeleine in Paris" (1895), painted in the free manner so distinctive of impressionism, were markedly different from the Russian realistic style. At the same time the realistic source of landscapes and tender colour palette, qualities of Thaulow's artistic style, would not shock the would-be collector.

The prominent art critic Yakov Tugendhold wrote: "Shchukin's first acquisitions at the end of the 1890s were landscapes by Thaulow, Peterson, Kotta and Simon. They could be characterized as the art of a golden mean, which stands away from the great and turbulent art stream of the present time"1. However these art works taught Shchukin how to perceive European painting, and later to accumulate one of best collections of French art in the world. Some years later Shchukin commissioned his own portrait from the Norwegian artist Xan Krohn. The picture was painted in a manner characteristic of the so-called Norwegian "expressionists", Henri Matisse's  students  and followers. Subsequently Shchukin had this portrait hung in his remarkable mansion in Moscow, in the room devoted to Matisse's works.

Paintings by Norwegian artists played a major role in the formation of another major Moscow art collection, that owned by Mikhail Morozov. Thaulow's "Night" was one of the first European paintings acquired by Morozov who had initially preferred Russian painting. Shortly before his death the collector also purchased Edvard Munch's undoubted masterpiece, "White Night. Asgardstran (Girls on the Bridge)". The picture is a copy by the artist depicting his favourite theme deeply grounded in the lyricism of Munch's art. Asgardstran was a small town on the shore of a fjord by the sea near Oslo, where Munch had a house, and where he came to stay every summer. Munch painted this variant soon after he completed the initial painting now exhibited in the National Gallery in Oslo. We cannot rule out the possibility that it was painted for the "Salon des Independants" exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists in Paris in 1903 . The picture was acquired by Morozov there, a fact confirmed by two letters posted to Munch by A. Rutyer, the secretary of the exhibition.

A major figure promoting Scandinavian art in Russia was the Russian patron of arts and critic Sergei Diaghilev. Like many of his compatriots, Diaghilev first saw the paintings of Scandinavian artists in France, where he became acquainted with the most outstanding artists of Northern Europe, whose works later found their way to Russia. In 1895 Thaulow wrote to his colleague Erik Theodor Werenskiold about Diaghilev: "Some Russians have been here to visit me. One of them - a young, rich man - is founding a gallery in Petersburg. He travels around and picks out the very best things. He is very intelligent and has exceptionally fine taste. He requests me to ask you whether you are willing to send him a picture for 1,000 francs. You may decide the motif, size and time for delivery yourself. I trust him. His address is: Sergei Diaghilev, St. Petersburg, Fontanka, 24" 2. Later Diaghilev met with Werenskiold and bought from him the picture "A Lake in Telemarken (Evening Landscape from Kritessid)", painted in August 1895, and meant for the exhibition in St. Petersburg. In a letter of 14 (26, by the Old Style) November 1895 Diaghilev wrote to the artist, "This morning I received your picture which I had been looking forward to eagerly. I am extremely grateful to you, as I was happy to receive one of your paintings, and it is a work of such considerable artistic value"3.

In Norway Diaghilev made the acquaintance of Gerhard Munthe. On July 30 1897 Werenskiold wrote, "Dear Munthe, Diaghilev saw your pictures and asked me to arrange a meeting with you..."4. A list of Munthe's pictures selected by Diaghilev for the exhibition was attached to the letter. The watercolour "Twilight" which Diaghilev was going to buy for himself was also put on the list. Following the lead of Shchukin and Morozov, Diaghilev chose the works of Scandinavian artists for his first major exhibition in St. Petersburg, as they represented "a moderate version of the latest European art trends"5. Thus, Diaghilev intended to gradually introduce Russian viewers to modern Western art. The fact that Scandinavian culture was well-known in Russia became a supporting factor. "At that time - at the end of the 1880s - Russia was filled with admiration for Scandinavian music by Edvard Grieg, dramas by Ibsen and Bj0rnstjerne Martinius Bj0rnson and Gauptman's novels," the famous Russian artist and art critic N.A. Prakhov wrote. "The Russian artist Vrubel was the first to provoke interest in them among our young company [the Abramtsevo artistic circle]."6

It's an impression backed up by Grigory Sternin, an expert in Russian culture of the 19th and 20th centuries: "Let's remember that Scandinavian motives took the central place in Balmont's early poems. It was at that time that Strindberg became very popular in Russia and Ibsen's dramatic art played an important role in the repertoire of the young Moscow Art Theatre, etc. It is clear that under the circumstances, the exhibitions of the Scandinavian, Russian and Finnish artists which followed one after another were meant to satisfy a growing public interest, and cannot be called a 'chance phenomenon' in any way, because the Russian public showed rather wide artistic tastes."7

The interest in Norwegian culture remained strong at the turn of the century. Thus in 1898 Russian theatre lovers widely celebrated Henrik Ibsen's 70th anniversary - in 1899 Konstantin Stanislavsky staged Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" at the Moscow Art Theatre - and in 1900 Andrei Bely wrote the poem "The Northern Symphony", devoted to Edvard Grieg. All this contributed to the positive effect which Diaghilev's "Exhibition of Scandinavian artists", opened on October 11 1897 in the halls of St. Petersburg's Society for the Encouragement of Arts, produced on the general public and art critics. Despite their relatively high prices, the paintings from the Scandinavian exhibition sold quite well and received high estimation and praise. In his exhibition review for the magazine "World Illustration" (No. 1502, 08.12.1897) the famous Russian art critic Vladimir Chuiko wrote: "Just as Anders Zorn is a great master of portraits in Sweden, so Thaulow is a great master of landscape for Norwegians. Each of his landscapes is a unique work of art. He, if it could be put so, makes nature personal, gives it sense and spirit, inspires life with it, and represents it either as charming or dreadful..."8

The exhibition catalogue shows that at the moment of its opening Diaghilev and his relatives the Ratkov-Rozhnovs (Zinaida Ratkova-Rozhnova, nee Filosofova, was Diaghilev's cousin) were virtually the only owners of Scandinavian paintings and graphics in St. Petersburg. However, a year later the artist, art critic and trustee of the Tretyakov Gallery Ilya Ostroukhov purchased through Diaghilev's mediation one of Thaulow's pastels for his collection. Unfortunately, some works of the Norwegian artists which were repeatedly mentioned in different sources at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, disappeared forever after the Russian revolution of 1917. The same happened to Munthe's watercolours from the collection of Princess Maria Tenisheva, who may have acquired them at the 1897 exhibition on the advice of Diaghilev.

In his letter of October 8 1897 to the Russian artist and critic Alexander Benois, Diaghilev wrote: "The princess [Tenisheva] is in Petersburg, and we have become great friends. She will stay in Petersburg all winter till March... She is full of energy and - it seems - of money. She intends to buy something from the Scandi-navian exhibition, and asked me for advice and instructions. Of course, I will not palm off any rubbish on her"9. But later, in November 1897, in another letter to Benois he wrote, "the princess [Tenisheva] bought only two watercolours. However, there were few watercolours at the exhibition, unfortunately ..."10 . There is no doubt that he is writing of Munthe's watercolours. These watercolours are not mentioned anywhere, but from documents related to the Tenisheva auction of 1903, in the department of manuscripts of the Tretyakov Gallery, it is clear that Munthe's watercolours were purchased by Alexandra Botkina. After that their traces are lost: they could have been destroyed, or may still appear abroad, or remain hidden somewhere in Russia.

The fate of Thaulow's art was no less disappointing. The archives and catalogue of the State Museum of New Western Art, closed in 1948, give information about ten of his paintings, which came to the Moscow Museum Fund when private collections were nationalised in Russia after the revolution. Today, four of them (three pictures from Shchukin's collection and one pastel) are in the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Moscow, and two more in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Other paintings were signed away to various museums in the 1930s or disappeared, disguised that the entry in the inventory book: "Assigned in charge of Narkompros [the name of the Ministry of Education]".

Today, only the documents that remain and the enthusiastic responses of artists, art critics, art collectors and art lovers give an idea of how popular Norwegian art was in Russia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The value of art works can be judged by the paintings from the collections of Diaghilev, Shchukin, Botkin, Morozov and Ostroukhov which are kept in the Hermitage and Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. These pictures, alongside paintings by other Northern European artists, were presented at the exhibition "Land of Refreshing Coolness. The Art of Northern European Countries of the 18th-early 20th Centuries from Museum Collections in Russia", which was held at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in 2001, the one which happened more than a century after the Diaghilev show, re-opened the art of Nordic Countries for Moscow viewers. Many works of painting, graphic art, arts and crafts, which for decades had been kept in the depositaries of Moscow and St. Petersburg museums, were published and presented to the general public for the first time. A wonderful selection of Norwegian art of the first quarter of the 20th century was shown at the exhibition "The Rise of Modernism in Scandinavian Painting 1910-1920". In 1989-1990 this travelling project was presented in all the Scandinavian countries, as well as in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The exhibition showed art by significant representatives of Norwegian modernism - Ludvig Karsten, Per Krog, Axel Revald, Henrik Sorensen and Rudolph Thygesen.

A new wave of interest in Norwegian culture in Russia arose in response to the large-scale exhibition project "Russia-Norway: Through Centuries and Borders", dedicated to the centenary of Norway's independence. The project surveyed more than a millenium of the history of economic, political and cultural ties between Norway and Russia, from the era of the Vikings up to the present day. Different sections of the exhibition were focused on natural, geographical, archaeological and ethnographic aspects of the history and people of the European North, on the relations between Russia and Norway in the 18th to early 20th centuries, modern history, and cultural and scientific ties between Russia and Norway. The last and the most extensive section contained exhibits dedicated to contacts between Russian and Norwegian national cultures as well as literary, theatrical and art links that were not lost during the Soviet period. The exhibition was shown in the Norwegian National Museum in Oslo in 2004, and in the following year at the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg. In addition, in 2005 the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum presented "To Russia with Love. The Collection of the Norwegian Consul Yunus Lid", testifying that Russian art also aroused interest in Norway.

In the modern cultural context artistic ties between Norway and Russia continue to develop. Curators and art critics from both countries have united their efforts to generate remarkable projects devoted to actual art. The best example of such joint work is the exhibition "Watch Out! Art from Moscow and St. Petersburg", organized in Oslo in 2004, and the project "Northern Art Today", held in St. Petersburg's "Loft Project FLOORS" art space in autumn 2011. Norway was represented there by the artists Lene Berg, Leander Dj0nne, Ivan Galuzin, Goks0yr & Martens, Siri Hermansen and Bodil Furu.


  1. Tugendhold, Yakov. 'The French Collection of S.I. Shchukin'. "Apollon". 1914. No. 1. Pp. 5-46
  2. Werenskiold М. "Sergei Diaghilev and Erik Werenskiold". Oslo, 1992. P. 26
  3. Ibid, p. 29
  4. Ibid, p. 29
  5. Mukhina T.D. "Russian-Scandinavian Artistic Ties in the 19th-early 20th Centuries". Moscow. 1984. P. 63
  6. Sternin G. "Russian Art Culture of the Second Half of the 19th-Early 20th Century". Moscow. 1984. P. 109
  7. Ibid
  8. "Sergei Diaghilev and Russian Art". Moscow, 1982, vol. 2, p. 345
  9. Ibid, p. 28
  10. Ibid, p. 29





Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play