The family of the girl with peaches: A history of the Mamontov dynasty

October 3, 2020

The Mamontov family, which was destined to become famous both in Moscow and all over Russia, had originated in the small town of Mosalsk in the Kaluga region. The name Mamontov that resonates with the stomp of prehistoric mammoth (mamont is the Russian word for mammoth) was derived from that of St. Mamas, an early Christian martyr from Caesarea. A humble shop assistant named Kondraty was baptised as Mamantov.  His son, Nikita, who bought himself out of serfdom, was already registered as Mamontov. His grandson Fyodor was a liquor merchant: he paid government taxes and could set his own prices.  This made him a fortune that he passed on to his sons Mikhail, Nikolai and Ivan. 

Ivan Mamontov and the railway

Ivan Mamontov was the only one of the three brothers who carried on their father’s business. He lived in Mosalsk, Shadrinsk, Oryol and Pskov. In 1849, he moved to Moscow and over time became one of the city’s citizens of honour. 

He had six children by his wife Maria. They had a house in 1st Meshchanskaya Street, which had once been owned by the Tolstoy family. Ivan Mamontov believed that his big family should have plenty to live on and looked for additional sources of income.

Ivan F. Mamontov. Photographer unknown

The latter half of the 19th century was a period of active railway construction in the Russian Empire. The imperial government had a vested interest in expanding the railway network, because the lack of the wherewithal for speedy troop redeployments across the country was one of the main reasons for its defeat in the Crimea War of the 1850s was. So, it was giving all-out support to the private entrepreneurs who decided to invest in rail construction projects, with them literally fighting with each other to gain contracts. 

Ivan Mamontov was lucky: in 1859, he won the tender to build the Troitskaya Railway from Moscow to Sergiyev Posad. He invested nearly 500,000 roubles, a fortune, and soon got his money’s worth. The very first year of operations brought him over 400,000 roubles. His investment was recouped and he could now reap the fruits of a good deal. 

He later co-founded a joint stock company, the Moscow-Yaroslavl Railway Society, and also bought out the shares of the Moscow-Kursk Railway Society. Ivan Mamontov was a member of the Moscow City Duma and contributed money to support photography enthusiasts.

Savva the Brainy Maverick

Mamontov loved Savva, his third eldest child, more than his other offspring. He thought that he was smarter and more talented and would carry on his business better than the others, even though Savva was wild, ungovernable and did not like to study at all. Savva skipped lessons at the law department but had a passion for art, in particular, theatre. He very nearly became an actor, but was stopped by his father who feared that Savva would “play music, sing and make merry in the dramatic society.”

Fyodor, Anatoly and Savva Mamontov. Photographer unknown. 1856

He sent Savva to Baku to protect him from possible police persecution following the student unrest of 1862.  In Baku, Savva engaged in the affairs of his father’s Trans-Caspian Trade Partnership, but two years later he went to Milan for health reasons. His love for the beautiful blossomed again in Italy where he took singing lessons because it turned out that he had a good voice. He was even offered a role in a local theatre, but a telegram called him back to Moscow where a female relative was on her deathbed.

Savva’s father allocated him money so that he could take up his own business. Savva rented a building in Ilyinka Street where he sold Italian silk fabrics. He also became interested in railway construction.

The railway empire

Savva succeeded his father, Ivan Mamontov, after he died in 1869, became a board member of the Moscow-Yaroslavl Railway Society and was elected the company’s director in 1872.

Savva proposed building a railway line from Yaroslavl to Kostroma and Kineshma (the line was extended to Arkhangelsk in 1897). The other board members feared that this expensive plan would be the end of their business. But Savva held a controlling stake and so could make whatever decisions he liked. Anyway, the board’s fears did not materialise.

In 1875, Savva won a tender for the construction of the Donetsk Coal Railway and established the Donetsk Railway joint stock company. More than 500 km long, the Donetsk railway was the largest railway network in the world at that time. Its development included the renovation of old stations and terminals and the construction of new ones.

A Donetsk Railway bond

Savva also had a hand in the renovation of Moscow railway stations. The renovation of the Yaroslavsky railway station began in the 1890s at his initiative. The station became a major transport hub after Mamontov extended his railway line to Arkhangelsk and complemented it with other lines. Savva wanted the design of the station to reflect Moscow’s connection to the provinces. The design was entrusted to architect Fyodor Schechtel. Mamontov’s friend Konstantin Korovin painted landscapes for the station’s main hall. Savva believed that the ordinary people who would use the station should be taught to appreciate beauty.

The building of the Northern Rail Terminal of the Moscow Railway (Yaroslavsky Station). Photo by Dmitry Chernov. 1955. Moscow’s Main Archives

His other plans included the construction of a railway line from St Petersburg to Vyatka. He wanted to control all aspects of the project, including the production of everything needed to build the railway line. It was an ambitious and expensive project, but Mamontov was willing to take the risk. He took the money that belonged to the Yaroslavl Railway Company.

He bought and rented several plants, which he planned to turn into a concern. However, all of them were outdated and had to be modernised, which entailed investment, sometimes of vast sums.

The downfall

Money was running out, and soon Savva had to sell some of his shares in the Yaroslavl Railway Company to the Mezhdunarodny (International) Bank and took out a loan on the security of his remaining shares and bills. Yet it was not enough. Mamontov had to transfer funds from one of his companies, which was against the law.

A bond of the Moscow-Yaroslavl-Archangelsk Railway Society

An audit revealed the violation in 1899 when he failed to repay his loan to the bank. Savva was arrested and sent to the Taganka prison; his property was seized, and the newspapers accused him of embezzlement. He spent several months in prison.

Fyodor Plevako, a famous lawyer and Savva’s friend since his time at the law department, defended him in court. Plevako proved that there was no criminal intent in his client’s actions, that Savva did not embezzle the funds but was only trying to benefit society. Savva, who stood trial together with his brother Nikolai and sons Sergei and Vsevolod, was acquitted.

He came out a free man, but he was bankrupt. His railway line was turned over to the state; his property was sold out. His business reputation, which he developed over years, was ruined.  Savva had neither the desire, nor the strength to begin anew.  His only joy in life was art pottery. Some of the items he made were sent to the 1900 world fair in Paris (the Paris Exposition) and won him a gold medal.

Savva the Magnificent

Industrialist Savva Mamontov put a lot of time and effort into railways, yet he never forgot about his other great passion, the arts. He made his own estate in Abramtsevo outside Moscow into a place that attracted artists, actors and musicians.

The Mamontov family first saw the home in 1870, when Savva Mamontov decided to purchase the suburban estate. The property belonged to the writer Sergei Aksakov’s daughter. The mansion was very poorly kept and run-down, but the future owners were fascinated by the picturesque nature around, and that made up for the huge investment in repairs.

The house at the Abramtsevo Museum Reserve. Photo by Leo Raskin. 1951. Moscow’s Main Archives

Savva’s wife, Yelizaveta, became active in public projects. In 1873, she opened a hospital for peasants, and a year later, a school with a carpentry workshop. The Mamontovs were visited at their renovated estate by artists Ilya Repin, Viktor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Vrubel and Vasily Polenov; actress Glikeria Fedotova; composer Sergei Rachmaninoff; art collector Pavel Tretyakov; and singer Feodor Chaliapin. Mamontov saw Chaliapin in one of St Petersburg theatres in and invited him to his place in Moscow. Collaboration with Savva Mamontov gave an impetus to the great singer’s career.

И. Репин. Летний день в Абрамцеве. 1880 год

It was here in Abramtsevo that Valentin Serov painted his iconic Girl with Peaches, now a gem of the State Tretyakov Gallery. The model was Mamontov’s 11-year-old daughter, Vera. It took the artist almost two months to complete the piece, as the restless child wouldn’t sit still and pose, but the artist always found the right words to persuade her.

В. Серов. Девочка с персиками. 1887 год

In 1873, Savva opened a studio for his artist friends. He kept the door open for them at any time and also liked to spend time there sculpting. His guests were welcome to stay in Abramtsevo overnight or even live there for a while. They could be sure they could work there in peace, without anyone distracting them. Mamontov was nicknamed Savva the Magnificent, an allusion to Lorenzo “il Magnifico” de’ Medici, a patron of Renaissance arts.

М. Врубель. Портрет Саввы Мамонтова. 1897 год

Mamontov's private opera

With time, they became known as the Abramtsevo artistic circle, a society that brought together not only painters, but also other creative people. When he travelled to Italy, Mamontov met the artist Vasily Polenov, the sculptor Mark Antokolsky and other artistic people. He wrote to Polenov: “In all seriousness, you will not regret it if your entire circle comes to live and work in Moscow for a period of time.”

His numerous guests composed plays and poems, played music and sang. In 1882, Mamontov wanted to stage operas based on all the classic canons, so he invited professionals from theatres and the conservatory. His first productions were Faust and The Merry Wives of Windsor. In 1884, Nikolai Krotkov's The Scarlet Rose premiered at Abramtsevo. Soon Krotkov was appointed the fictitious director of the Moscow Private Russian Opera established by Mamontov (officially the Krotkov Theatre, unofficially the Mamontov Opera). Savva Mamontov was de facto in charge, but he did not want his name to be mentioned anywhere in the papers – his business partners and family were embarrassed by his hobby.

Московский Государственный Академический театр оперетты. Е. Самарин.

The theatre opened on 9 January 1885 with the premiere of Alexander Dargomyzhsky's The Little Mermaid. Critics gave a cool reception to the production, describing it as amateur. In its second season, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden was shown, and that was when the audience changed their minds. They said that the opera was even better than the St Petersburg Opera adaptation. The troupe included Russian and foreign vocalists such as Tatyana Lyubatovich, Nadezhda Salina and Antonio and Francisco d'Andrade. The stage sets were designed by artists from the Abramtsevo circle.

In 1888, the theatre closed, but in 1896, it reopened as Winter’s Private Opera (at the Solodovnikov Theatre). It was managed by Claudia Winter, the sister of the actress Tatyana Lyubatovich, but again, was tacitly sponsored and led by Mamontov. The theatre changed its name twice more, to the Private Opera Society and the Moscow Society of the Private Russian Opera, and eventually closed in 1904.

Gifted children

Savva Mamontov’s children shared both his passion for art and his passion for the family business. Sergei Mamontov was a member of the board of the Moscow-Yaroslavl-Arkhangelsk Railway Joint Stock Company, and also collaborated with newspapers and magazines to write about exhibitions and theatre productions. He was also a student of Ilya Repin, and his paintings were displayed in exhibitions of the Union of Russian Artists. His stage plays were adapted by many theatres.

In 1911, he founded the Mamontov Theatre of Miniatures, which mainly produced small one-act plays. Among the actors that debuted there was Alexander Vertinsky. The theatre was active for only four years.

Vsevolod Mamontov also held a seat on the company’s board. After the trial that cost his father his entire fortune, Vsevolod left Moscow for a small place near Mtsensk, and devoted his time to hound hunting. He became so enthusiastic about his new activity that he began to regularly write articles for specialised publications. In Soviet times, in the 1920s, he was appointed to head the Moscow hunting hound testing station.

When she became older, Vera Mamontova – the former girl with peaches – later posed for Mikhail Vrubel, Nikolai Kuznetsov and Viktor Vasnetsov. Vasnetsov used her services for one of his most famous works, Girl with a Maple Branch.

Savva Mamontov with daughters Alexandra and Vera. Photographer unknown. 1884

Other Mamontovs: artists and patrons

Not only Savva Mamontov and his children but also other members of the Mamontov family were art lovers, for example, his elder brother Anatoly. The family did not associate with him for years after he married without his family’s blessing. Anatoly was disinherited, yet he managed to open a printing shop, named Anatoly Ivanovich Mamontov, and several bookshops in 1866. His son Mikhail studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where famous painter Vasily Polenov was among his tutors. From the middle of the 1860s, Mikhail took part in many exhibitions, and co-founded and belonged to the Russian Union of Artists. His paintings Path in the Ravine and Autumn are on view at the Tretyakov Gallery.

Anatoly I. Mamontov’s printing shop in Leontievsky Pereulok Street. Photo by Yevgeny Samarin.

Savva’s cousin Ivan Nikolayevich Mamontov was a famous patron. He helped launch the Public Health project, which collected funds from Moscow entrepreneurs to open 49 shelters and kindergartens, 33 alms houses, nine sewing training shops for girls and many other facilities. His son Sergei loved music and was a conductor at Savva Mamontov’s Moscow Private Opera. After the 1917 revolution, he moved to Estonia, where he chaired the Russian Music Society and taught at the Tallinn Conservatory.

Savva’s niece Maria Yakunchikova, the wife of entrepreneur Vladimir Yakunchikov, and Savva’s wife opened a Russian Goods Shop in Petrovka Street in 1890, which sold handcrafted items. Later they opened a small company that produced women’s wear and embroidery in a village in the Morshansk District. Their products enjoyed success at the Paris Fair. Maria Yakunchikova also produced pileless carpets, which were extremely popular at exhibitions in Moscow and Paris. The government allocated her 400,000 roubles for a carpet factory, which operated until 1914. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, Maria went to France where she continued to engage in the arts.

Maria Yakunchikova’s mansion in Prechistensky Pereulok Street. Photo by Yevgeny Samarin.

Savva’s cousin once removed Margarita Kirillovna, who was married to Mikhail Morozov from a famous merchant family, patronised artists, in particular composer Alexander Skriabin, after her husband’s death. She also co-financed the publication of periodicals and the construction of schools, poorhouses and hospitals. Her property was nationalised after the 1917 revolution.

Family ties

Members of the extended Mamontov family married the Tretyakovs, Samarins and other families prominent in Moscow and Russia. Savva Ivanovich married Yelizaveta Sapozhnikova, a cousin of director of a cable factory and theatre reformer Konstantin Alexeyev, who is better known as Stanislavsky. They met in Italy and never parted from then on.

Vera Mamontova married Alexander Samarin, a gentleman by birth. His family did not approve of their marriage, believing that a merchant’s daughter was not worthy of the famous name. Alexander and Vera only married after his father’s death.

Alexander Samarin and Vera Mamontova. Photographer unknown. Rome.1903

Savva’s cousins Vera and Yevdokiya married prominent members of Moscow society. Yevdokiya married Konstantin Rukavishnikov, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and became the patron of the Rukavishnikov Poorhouse after his death.

Vera married Pavel Tretyakov, an entrepreneur and the founder of the Tretyakov Gallery. Their daughter Alexandra married Sergei Botkin, a doctor, collector and son of a famous Russian clinician and therapist. Like many other members of the Mamontov family, Alexandra loved the arts and excelled in photography.


Latest Events

Inna Malikova and New Samotsvety

January 3, 2020

Christine Opoleis

February 25, 2020
If you continue to use our website, you are agreeing to accept the use of cookies on your device. Cookie files ensure the website’s efficiency and help us provide you with the most interesting and relevant information. Read more about cookie files.
Accept ccokies