Until the 1960s, the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, which came to share the Shchukin and Morozov paintings, rarely lent them to exhibitions outside the Soviet Union. Americans didn't begin to see any of them until 1973, when an exhibition of impressionist and postimpressionist pictures toured this country. The Soviet-American cultural- exchange agreement signed at Geneva in 1985 has brought more of these paintings to the United States, beginning with a 1986 exhibition of impressionist to early-modern works drawn from the Hermitage and Pushkin collections. Two current exhibitions, in New York and Washington, feature a number of paintings that originally belonged to the two pioneering Russian
"From Poussin to Matisse: The Russian Taste for French Painting," opens today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will run through July 29 before moving on to the Art Institute of Chicago (Sept. 8 to Nov. 25). ''Matisse in Morocco" is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through June 3, after which it will be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 24 to Sept. 4.
Neither show is about Shchukin and Morozov per se, yet in each case their presence is so strongly felt as to constitute a subtext. One can't look at either exhibition without being reminded that the truly prescient collector is a rare but essential catalyst in the development of new aesthetic ideas.
Both men were wealthy textile merchants who lived in Moscow and spent considerable time in Paris. Shchukin began collecting Russian art in the early 1890s but soon switched to Monet, Renoir and Gauguin and eventually embraced Matisse and Picasso. Morozov began in 1903, also with impressionism; but eventually, like his friend's, his taste extended to early modernism.
"Poussin to Matisse" is made up of 51 French paintings that, reflecting the history of Russian collecting, fall naturally into two distinct groups. The first begins with the classicism of Poussin in the early- to mid-17th century and concludes with the neoclassicism of David and Ingres in the early 19th. The second begins with Manet and Renoir and ends, magnificently, with 10 paintings done by Matisse between 1908 and 1913.
The first half of the show documents the collecting of royalty, especially that of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), during whose reign Russian Francophilia reached its peak. After the Napoleonic wars, however, Russian interest in French culture waned, which is why Gericault, Delacroix and Courbet are conspicuously absent from the exhibit.
The second half of the show concerns private collectors - that is, Shchukin and Morozov. Counterpointing the 10 canvases by Matisse, who was Shchukin's favorite painter, are six by Cezanne, who was Morozov's. There also are four beautiful Bonnards, three Gauguins and two small but exquisite Renoirs.
The two principal Soviet museums hold so much French art that 51 paintings seem like a meager offering. But the selections have been made judiciously, to convey the quality of the whole and the essence of the major holdings without trying to rationalize the obvious lacunae.
Thus, of the four Poussins, two are pendants on a Biblical theme, painted soon after the artist arrived in Rome in 1624, and another - the most transcendent - illustrates an epic poem by Tasso. The two landscapes by Claude Lorrain also are pendants; one involes a battle between the Emperor Constantine and a rival, the other the mythological rape of Europa. The old master section also includes a small Watteau, a deliciously erotic Boucher depicting a tryst between Hercules and Lydian Queen Omphale, a small and saucy Fragonard, and two elegant genre scenes by Louis Leopold Boilly.
The disconcerting transition from the static and contrived Sappho, Phaon and Cupid, commissioned from David in 1808 by another important Russian patron, Prince Nikolai Yusupov, and the anecdotal informality of Manet's The Bar, painted 70 years later, proclaims the advent of the modern era - and of Shchukin and Morozov.
The principal attractions in this section are the Bonnards, the Cezannes and the Matisses. The Bonnards, all owned by Morozov and dating from 1908 to 1912, include the work called Summer, The Dance, one of four large decorative paintings the collector commissioned for his Moscow house. But the most engaging of the four is an interior, painted in harmonious blue and gray tonalities, in which a nude is reflected in a mirror over a dressing table.
Morozov's partiality to Cezanne eventually ran to 18 pictures, while Shchukin owned seven. The half-dozen in the show (four bought by Morozov, two by Shchukin) are grouped in pairs - two peasant pipe-smokers, two still lifes (one closely related to a painting at the Barnes Foundation in Merion) and two Mont Saint-Victoires.
The concluding Matisse gallery owes nine pictures to Shchukin, who owned 37, and one to Morozov, who had 11. It's centered on the monumental Conversation, a reductive study in blue of Matisse and his wife, both in profile. Flanking it are two smaller pictures, Nasturtiums and "Dance" and Corner of the Artist's Studio; the three works were owned by Shchukin and arranged in his dining room as a triptych.
Another wall holds a hieratic portrait of Matisse's wife, Amelie, which was completed in 1913 after the painter's second trip to Morocco. A third wall features four still lifes against vigorously patterned interiors or backdrops, in the manner characteristic of Matisse's work before he settled in Nice.
Aside from its ostensible purpose, "Matisse in Morocco" at the National Gallery also affirms the passion that Shchukin in particular developed for Matisse, and his early recognition of Matisse's ultimate importance to the history of 20th-century art. Organized by Jack Cowart of the National Gallery and Matisse scholar Pierre Schneider, the exhibition includes 23 paintings and 45 of the more than 60 drawings that Matisse made in Morocco. It's the first show to explore this aspect of Matisse's career in depth.
Matisse traveled across the Mediterranean to Tangier twice, in January and October of 1912, looking for new motifs. Each time he remained for several months, fascinated by the architecture; the intense, clear light, and the vivid colors of what he considered this exotic locale.
Research for this exhibition turned up a number of pen-and-ink sketches previously unknown. These are visual notes that Matisse made as he roamed Tangier looking for subjects; they are useful mainly as an indication of what caught his eye.
The paintings include still lifes, figures, gardens and an abstracted synopsis of the artist's experience, The Moroccans, now in the Museum of Modern Art. Three pictures commissioned by Morozov - a landscape seen through a window, a view through a Casbah doorway and a seated female figure - came to be called the Moroccan Triptych and are displayed in the exhibition as such.
Matisse showed his Moroccan paintings at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in April 1913. Shchukin bought seven; thus, he and Morozov originally owned 10 of the major works from this series of two dozen.
Albert C. Barnes, the irascible American collector, bought one around 1924; it's not in the show, since the Barnes Foundation doesn't lend, but it's discussed and illustrated in the exhibition catalogue. By including The Seated Riffian, as the Barnes painting is called, Cowart and Schneider point up the connoisseurial kinship between the two Russians and Barnes, who also anticipated popular taste and bought works by his favorite artists, including Matisse and Cezanne, in considerable depth.
Because the Shchukin and Morozov collections were nationalized, they have remained more or less intact, although divided between the Hermitage and the Pushkin and not identified as such within each museum. Ironically, while nationalization restricted access to the pictures for many years, it ultimately has facilitated the organization of such shows as"Poussin to Matisse" and "Matisse in Morocco" because the pictures had not been dispersed among a number of private owners.
Shchukin and Morozov both stopped collecting when World War I broke out, and they died in exile. But now that their collections are finally traveling, we can appreciate just how bold they were, especially when compared to their American contemporaries.