Founders of the gallery. How the Tretyakov brothers fell in love with art

October 21

Pavel Tretyakov and his younger brother Sergei started working for the family business when they were children. They did all sorts of jobs and were not above unskilled labour: they kept books, bargained with wholesalers and swept the floor in their father’s shops. When they grew up, they took charge of the entire family business and their name continued to be famous in Moscow. Some time later it began to evoke admiration, when Pavel Treatykov presented Moscow with a glamorous gift.

Strict upbringing and big responsibility

Little is known about the founder of the dynasty, merchant Yelisei Tretyakov. He moved to Moscow in 1774 from the town of Maloyaroslavets in the Kaluga province. His wife and sons moved with him.

His grandson, a merchant of the second guild, was the first of his successors to remain in Moscow history. He had five small shops in a merchant centre, where he sold flax linen and also ran two factories — dyeing and trimming. He was largely helped in business by the family of his wife. He was married to Alexandra Borisova, a daughter of a rich merchant who exported bacon to England.

Mikhail paid special attention to the education of his children. He meticulously selected their teachers and often attended classes himself. Once, on agreement with a Moscow printing shop, he published the book “Flowers of morality, selected by Mikhail Treatyakov from the best authors for the admonition of young people.” This book was primarily meant for his own children.

He planned to pass on his business to his sons Pavel and Sergei. Treatyakov Sr started introducing them to the work of his factories and shops fairly early. His sons were involved in his business under his supervision: they invited customers to come in into his shops in the street, sold goods to wholesalers and kept books. The brothers did not shrink from picking up a broom to tidy up the premises. They were not allowed to sleep in until noon: they had to wake up at the crack of dawn and start studying or working.

Mikhail died when his eldest son just turned 17. He left a will that gave all his property to his wife because his sons, Pavel and Sergei, were too young. He forbade his wife to give them money to squaner on “weaknesses or debauchery.”  For some time, Mikhail’s widow, Anna, was formally in charge of the factories and shops but several years later she turned the business over to her sons.

By that time, their sister Yelizaveta married senior sales manager Vladimir Konshin. In cooperation with him the brothers founded ”a shop of linen, paper and woolen goods, domestic and foreign, of the trading house of brothers P. and S.  Tretyakovs and V. Konshin in Moscow.” The Tretyakovs’ brother-in-law worked in the shops, Pavel dealt with accounting, while Sergei was responsible for overseas trade. Soon they decided that it would make sense not only to sell linen but to produce it as well. So said so done: in 1866, they opened a textile and weaving factory in Kostroma, which created thousands of jobs. This became a major event in the city.

The brothers also made an impact on the appearance of central Moscow. With a permit from the authorities, they built a small street between Nikolskaya Street and Teatralny Proyezd, which made it easier to deliver goods to the trading house.  The new street was called Tretyakovsky  Proyezd and it accommodated clothes, perfume and tea shops, as well as banks and notary’s offices.

It all began with “The Temptation”

In the autumn of 1852, Pavel Tretyakov visited the Hermitage Museum and several other cultural institutions in St. Petersburg. He was greatly impressed. Paintings, statues, busts and antique vases made him stand in awe similar to which he probably experienced only during religious services. This is how he fell in love with art.

The future collector bought his first painting four years later. He paid 150 roubles for “The Temptation” by Nikolai Schilder. This was a handsome sum: it was enough for a worker’s family to live on for two months. The second of the two paintings which started the collection was “The Clash with Finnish Smugglers” by Vasily Khudyakov.  Tretyakov was nervous that he was not experienced enough to tell a good copy from the original. This is why he liked commissioning paintings directly from the artists, without any mediators. He used to say: “For me, the most authentic painting is the one that I bought from the artist myself.”

Nikolai Schilder. 1856. Serpukhov History and Art Museum

He had to fight for some paintings in real earnest. One of them was “Princess Tarakanova” by Konstantin Flavitsky. The artist wanted 5,000 roubles for it but Tretryakov was only ready to pay 3,000. After the artist’s death, the collector asked his brother to sell him the painting but he asked for 18,000 roubles. After lengthy negotiations, the price was reduced to 4,300 roubles.

Since 1869, Pavel Tretyakov became interested in the portraits of his talented contemporaries — composers and writers, or, to be more precise, in their creation. He ran large campaigns to attract both artists and famous models. The latter included Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Apollon Maikov and other figures of literature and art.

Ilya Repin. Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov. 1883. State Tretyakov Gallery

How some portraits were painted

Pavel Tretyakov always loved Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music and followed his career. He even attended a piano recital in Paris, where pianist Nikolai Rubienstein performed pieces by the famous composer. Tretyakov dreamt of meeting Tchaikovsky and decided to add his portrait to his collection. His dream came true and they even became relatives.

Praskovya Konshina, Pavel’s niece, married Anatoly Tchaikovsky, the composer’s brother. Pyotr Tchaikovsky was not too happy about this marriage but not because he didn’t like his sister-in-law. He found her very nice but considered her numerous relatives a burden, especially since they were well known in the city. In his letters to friends he complained that he had to meet all of them and there was no end to these courtesy visits, although “these people were highly reputable, educated and decent…” Delighted with this twist of fate, Pavel asked his new relative to pose for a portrait. The latter couldn’t turn down the request and spent many hours for several days sitting still before artist Vasily Makovsky. Regrettably, this portrait was lost.

Tretyakov dreamt of having a portrait of Leo Tolstoy in his collection. But on hearing the proposal, Tolstoy turned it down point blank. He didn’t want to be painted and had no time for posing (he was busy writing “Anna Karenina” at that time). The collector received help from his friend, artist Ivan Kramskoi, who volunteered to persuade the stubborn count. Having come to see him in Yasnaya Polyana, Kramskoi started a pleasant conversation about art. The conversation lasted for a long time. Kramskoi kept returning to the portrait proposal but Tolstoy didn’t want to hear anything about it. Finally, Kramskoi used his last argument. Acting like a conspirator, Kramskoi told Tolstoy that his portrait will be painted anyway, whether he wanted it or not because the whole world would demand this. At that point he added: “It will only remain to feel regret that it wasn’t painted from life by a contemporary…”

This argument proved to be decisive. Tolstoy not only agreed but even asked the artist to make a copy for the family. The artist painted two portraits that were a bit different from each other and offered the count to choose. Leo Tolstoy modestly picked the one that was slightly less accomplished.

Ivan Kramskoi. Portrait of writer Leo Tolstoy. 1873. State Tretyakov Gallery

House for paintings

When it came to collecting paintings, Tretyakov never lost momentum. He bought pieces by the best artists of his time — Alexei Savrasov, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Ivan Trutnev, Vasily Surikov, Vasily Polenov, and Alexander Ivanov. Sometimes he purchased whole collections. For example, he bought over 100 paints by Vasily Vereshchagin in one go. In his search for interesting pieces, he also visited antique shops.

The rooms in the mansion in Lavrushinsky Pereulok, where he lived since 1851 and kept paintings, could no longer accommodate all of them. So, in 1872 he started thinking about building a separate place just for his paintings. He consulted his brother, who supported him. A new building was added to the southwestern corner of the main house. The building was modified several times and new premises added as the collection continued to grow. This process was headed by family architect Alexander Kaminsky, Sergei’s brother-in-law.

The collection never distracted Pavel from the family business, which was his main concern while the collection remained a hobby, albeit quite a serious one. Every morning he invariably visited the gallery before going to his office in order to spend at least a bit of time among his favourite paintings. His wife Vera, a cousin of entrepreneur and philanthropist Savva Morozov, supported her husband. She highly appreciated the desire of her husband and her brother Savva to help people. Tretyakov gave a lot to charity, mostly anonymously. He was also a trustee of a home for hearing impaired children and helped Nikolai Miklukho-Maklai with his expedition to the South Seas. Himself, he preferred to lead a modest life, wearing inexpensive clothes and eating simple food.

Fan of foreign artists

Sergei Tretyakov was also interested in art. But, unlike his brother, he preferred paintings by foreign artists. He was particularly fond of Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet, Jules Dupre and other members of the Barbizon School that united French landscape painters. In the 1880s, he decided to collect the works of artists from the largest schools of painting, Spanish, Belgian and German.

As distinct from his brother, Sergei was reluctant to show his collection and was not as passionate about it: he could easily exchange a painting or even sell it, whereas Pavel never parted with even a single piece.

 Valentin Serov. Portrait of Sergei Tretyakov. 1895. State Tretyakov Gallery

Sergei Tretyakov took an active part in the city’s life: he occupied the position of the leader of the Moscow Merchants and was a member of the Slavic Benevolent Committee, which was established in 1858 to support Orthodox believers who moved to Russia and sponsored the opening of schools and churches.

He was elected twice to the Moscow State Duma — in 1877 and1881. Sergei achieved an increase in funding for education and began a fundraising campaign for soldiers during the Russo-Turkish war. Owing to his efforts Sokolnichya (Falcon) Grove became part of the city.

According to the will

The brothers, who were unanimous in almost everything, decided long ago that at one time their collections would be donated to the city. It was important for Pavel, who was sometimes reprimanded by his younger  brother for his  insufficient involvement in public affairs, that his collection should benefit all Muscovites.

“For me, who genuinely and fervently loves painting, the best wish is to lay the foundation for a public, accessible-to-all repository of fine art that would be useful for many and bring pleasure to all.” He wrote these words in his will compiled in 1860.

Sergei Tretyakov died before his older brother, in 1892. According to his will, his collection passed on to Pavel. In the same year of 1892, Pavel addressed the City Duma, expressing his desire to donate his collection and the collection of his brother to Moscow, together with the building. This was a very generous gift, and on the same day Pavel found himself in the focus of attention. However, he did not want to receive this flow of gratitude at all, preferring to keep a low profile. He even left the city with his family for some time to let the commotion die down. On his return to Moscow, he visited the gallery out of habit — it was already called the Pavel and Sergei Tretyakovs City Art Gallery.

He declined a title offered by Tsar Alexander III. “I was born a merchant and I will die a merchant,” he said. However, he accepted the appointment of the gallery’s trustee for life. He also joined the Moscow branch of the Council for Trade and Factories and became a commercial advisor.

Successors: an artist and a politician

Pavel Tretyakov had six children but they failed to match the achievements of their father. However, Sergei’s son, Nikolai Tretyakov managed to achieve success. Having fallen in love with art as a child, he became an artist himself, and was quite well known. He received a silver medal of the Academy of Fine Arts for his painting “Morning at the Dacha” made in 1888. Many of his paintings are kept in the Tretyakov Gallery.

His son Sergei became a businessman and politician and was also a member of the Tretyakov Gallery Council. He helped establish the Bank of Moscow and headed the Board of Directors of the Russian joint stock society of the flax industry. He opposed the monarchy and was a deputy chairman of the Executive Committee of the Moscow Public Organisations.  He was expected to make a great political career but moved to France in 1920, a country whose art was so much admired by his grandfather. He got disappointed in politics and worked his whole life at the Illustrated Russia magazine.


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