The Collector: The Story of Sergei Shchukin and His Lost Masterpieces by Natalya Semenova with André Delocque (Translated by Anthony Roberts) - review by Rosalind P Blakesley

Rosalind P Blakesley

Treasures of a Trailblazer

The Collector: The Story of Sergei Shchukin and His Lost Masterpieces


Yale University Press 288pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

One evening in late 1908, Henri Matisse introduced a short, dapper visitor to the community of often struggling artists who tended to congregate at the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre. Picasso was there, as was his iconoclastic painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, then still known by its original title, Le Bordel d’Avignon. Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s lover and muse, was underwhelmed by the newcomer. He was, she later recalled, ‘a small, wan figure, with a heavyset, hoggish head and a terrible stutter’. Picasso himself would caricature the gentleman shortly afterwards as a bristly pig, inscribing the sketch ‘Monsieur Stschoukin Moscou’.

The new arrival who attracted such disobliging comments was nonetheless a man of remarkable aesthetic daring: the Russian textile merchant and collector Sergei Shchukin. Arguably the most important patron of the Parisian avant-garde at the turn of the century, Shchukin had already given Matisse some pivotal commissions. If the Russian detected the less than gracious welcome he received at the Bateau-Lavoir, he was clearly unbothered by it: no fewer than fifty works by Picasso would eventually adorn his Moscow home.

The extraordinary story of how this third son of a Russian textile magnate assembled one of the greatest collections of modern Western art has come in and out of focus over the last century. It had its chroniclers during Shchukin’s lifetime and played a starring role in All the Empty Palaces, Beverly Whitney Kean’s book about Russia’s merchant patrons of modern art, which was published in 1983.

Most dogged of all Shchukin researchers, however, has been Natalya Semenova, whose meticulous reconstruction of Shchukin’s life and career has filled three Russian-language biographies, the first coauthored with Alexandra Demskaya in 1993 and the most recent appearing in 2010. Galvanised by the exhibition Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection, which was staged to acclaim at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2016, Shchukin’s grandson André Delocque has now adapted Semenova’s texts, adding family insight of his own. In Anthony Roberts’s elegant translation, the result conveys in exhaustive detail the challenges, joys and tragedies of Shchukin’s life.

In spite of his privileged background and family wealth, Shchukin’s ascent was not without its obstacles. A delicate, skinny child, he was the only one of five brothers not to be subjected to the rough and tumble of distant, disciplinarian boarding schools, cosseted instead with his sisters in the care of governesses at home. The same determination that Shchukin would later display in his artistic patronage saw him take control of the family firm and set up home in the Trubetskoy Palace. Here his growing collection of modern art gradually interrupted cornices and architraves. A spectacular array of paintings by Gauguin hung in the dining room and a staircase was emblazoned with Matisse’s La Danse and La Musique – paintings so scandalous that Shchukin twice reneged on an agreement to buy them before finally summoning the courage to bring them to Moscow. Even then, he felt obliged to daub over the private parts of the flautist in La Musique so as not to offend the honour of two young orphan girls whom he had taken into his home. Matisse, visiting Shchukin in Moscow in 1911, generously turned a blind eye to this delicate amendment to his work.

Yet great sadness accompanied Shchukin’s life: one son drowned in the River Moskva at the age of seventeen, months after the 1905 Revolution; Shchukin’s beloved, broken-hearted wife, Lydia, died two years later at the age of forty-three; and, perhaps most punishing of all, his second son committed suicide just three years after that. These and other episodes are recounted in prose that veers towards the purple at times. Lydia, for example, ‘was a creature that nobody had ever taught to suffer and she was quickly carried off by her sadness’. There are some dogged assertions: ‘Even today, university academics seldom complete their courses,’ we are told. A brief discussion of Russia’s Realist artists known as the Wanderers is also dated, rehearsing the standard narrative of the Soviet period, which has long since been overturned.

Yet any fanciful speculation is balanced time and again with riveting facts: for example, that Shchukin’s brother Dmitry briefly owned a large painting by a Dutch 17th-century artist but sold it because it couldn’t meet his high standards of authenticity. Dmitry was apparently commendably sanguine when, just months later, it was purchased and identified by the director of the Mauritshuis as The Allegory of Faith by Vermeer.

Shchukin’s mansion, with its kaleidoscope of Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings, was no stranger to controversy in the pre-revolutionary era. While some thrilled in his purchases, others found that there was something of the emperor’s new clothes about them: Shchukin was ‘like a rabbit in the thrall of a cobra,’ wrote the artist Mikhail Nesterov after touring his galleries. ‘At last, with his excruciating stutter [a common target among Shchukin’s detractors, it would seem], he began to define the wisdom of Picasso. We stood listening in silence, none of us willing or able to speak up and declare that the king was naked, that Picasso was chicanery and fraud skilfully packaged in theoretical pathos.’

The spotlight of attention initially continued after the revolution. Shchukin’s gallery was nationalised and designated the Museum of Modern Western Painting No 1, opening to the public on 15 August 1920. In 1922, it was combined with the collection of Shchukin’s friend and occasional rival in the art market Ivan Morozov, forming the State Museum of Modern Western Art.

In 1948, however, the museum was dissolved, being seen now to contain ‘the bourgeois art of western Europe, bereft of ideas, anti-national, formalist, and with no interest for the progressive education of the Soviet public’, to quote the decree that led to its closure. The collections were duly dispersed, largely to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, where their display was erratic and their provenance was carefully erased. Shchukin himself had fled Russia soon after the revolution and died in Paris in 1936, gratefully surrounded by his family but bereft of paintings, having never summoned the will to collect on such a scale again.

Thanks to Semenova and others following in her footsteps, Shchukin’s legacy is now secure. Her passion for her subject is certainly never in doubt. While her writing tends towards the hyperbolic at times – we are told that his was ‘the world’s most stupefying collection of twentieth-century modern art’ – this fast-paced and painstakingly researched book provides unique testimony of a supremely agile and intellectually curious patron, who from the edges of Europe injected precious energy into the vanguard of modern art.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter