The Collector—the Story of Sergei Shchukin and His Lost Masterpieces

By Natalya Semenova with André Delocque

Translated By Anthony Roberts

Yale University Press | 2018

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

Sergei Shchukin

When I first saw The Collector in the arts section at Vromans Bookstore in Pasadena, it might as well have been flashing, “Read me.” Trusting my instincts, I put a hold on the book at the library and within a week it was  mine to read. It’s a book right after my own heart—I loved reading it.

What a turbulent century the 20th was! starting in 1914 with the assassination of the Arch-duke Franz Ferdinand and start of World War I, then the Russian Revolution of 1919, and following that, Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the beginning of World War II; following that the Cold War with its tensions between Russia and the United States, Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and all the turmoil in the Middle East, leading to 9/11 in 2001.
Throughout the century Russia led the way in radical changes; much of the action has had to do with the struggle between capitalism and communism.

What with Expressionism and Impressionism, the end of the 19th and early 20th Centuries saw huge changes in the way art was rendered. Paris, France, was at the center of the art revolution. But art needs buyers to flourish. Foremost among the foreign buyers was the middle, sickly son of wealthy merchant capitalists, Ekaterina and Ivan Shchukin, Sergei Shchukin.

All the five Shchukin sons were collectors. Nikolai, the oldest, collected silverware and old paintings, Pietr, history and art. He had an underground tunnel gallery built from his house to another wing of it. Dimitry, an effeminate bachelor, collected old masters. Despite the enormous wealth at their command, Ivan, the youngest, was the only wastrel of the group, living a lavish life in Paris before his untimely death.

Sergei alone collected the modern art of his time—the work of Monet, Derain, Degas, Renoir, Courbet, Pissarro, Matisse, Gauguin, and Picasso. He housed his burgeoning collection at his Trubetskoy Palace, 8 Zamanensky Lane, Moscow, not far from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

He sired four children with his wife Lydia, a famous beauty, and another child, a daughter, Irina, with his second wife, Nadezhda.

Collecting new paintings was Sergei’s passion, and in this occupation, he showed remarkable discernment. He would often place a newly acquired painting in his palace and live with it until interest was converted to love. Perhaps the most difficult painting to acclimatize himself to was Matisse’s La Danse, that abstract painting of five red nudes dancing in a circle with a blue and green background.

Sergei endured his sorrow over losing his wife Lydia by taken a safari across the Sinai Peninsula.

Early in the 20th Century, the Russian Revolution loomed, casting its shadow especially over Russian kupechestvos, (capitalists.)

In the wake of the revolution, Sergei and his family fled to Nice, then to Paris, where he bought a large apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement and where he and his wife Nadezhda continued to entertain other members of the white Russian expatriate community. There he was obliged to resume buying modern art for its walls, much to the delight of the artists from whom he purchased work.

On January 8th, 1936, 17 years after the revolution forced his family to flee, at the age of 82, Sergei Shchukin died in Paris. He had never returned to Russia again. His only worry had been that the Bolsheviks might sell off his collection, as they did that of the czar’s family. He got his wish—the wonderful paintings he had collected are now part of the Hermitage collection in St. Petersburg.

My criticisms of this wonderful book are few. I wish it would have included more photographic plates, especially of paintings discussed in the text. And, occasionally the text seemed to be clumsily translated.

All in all, I would highly recommend this fine book to all with an interest in modern art and the fine art of collecting it. The book gave me new insight into the Russian soul.

Jane M. McCabe is the associate editor and frequent reviewer for the Neworld Review

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