In this fascinating book Irina Sokolova, Curator of Dutch Paintings at the Hermitage, takes the remarkable figure of Pyotr Semenov (1827-1914), the creator of the finest private collection of Dutch paintings in Russia in the nineteenth century, as the focus for a broader study of the collecting of Dutch paintings in Russia. Politically Semenov was a liberal, closely associated with the campaign to end serfdom in Russia, which was achieved in 1861. He was a geographer and explorer who, as a consequence of his travels in the remote region of Tian Shen in 1856-57, was permitted to adopt the tongue-twisting name of Pyotr Petrovich Semenov-Tyan-Shansky. His personality is well drawn by Sokolova, who shows that Semenov was intrigued by Dutch painting largely because of its realism, both geographic – the largest category of painting in his collection was landscape – and social. His reasons for admiring Dutch painting were akin to those of Thoré.
Semenov’s collection came to number over 700 paintings and, as he was never very wealthy, he particularly collected smaller masters and had a special enthusiasm for signed works. Sokolova traces in detail the gradual process of building the collection, at first from within St. Petersburg, but later in Western Europe and particularly at the auction house Frederik Muller in Amsterdam. She also outlines Semenov’s increasing involvement with contemporary experts, notably his friendships with Bode, Bredius and Hofstede de Groot, all of whom visited him in St. Petersburg and corresponded with him. His expertise grew and in 1906 he published Études sur les peintres des écoles hollandaise, flamande et néerlandaise qu’on trouve dans la collection Semenov et les autres collections publiques et privées de Saint-Pétersbourg. He also catalogued his own collection in the same year and completed a manuscript supplement in 1910.
The collection was displayed frame-to-frame in Semenov’s apartment on Vasilyevsky Island as we can see in the contemporary photographs reproduced by Sokolova. Even for a specialist – or, at least, for this specialist – the collection includes a number of unfamiliar names: works by Guilliam de Ville, Zacharias Blijhooft, Aleida Wolfsen, Pieter van Bie, Justus van den Nijpoort, Jacob Marts, Martinus Lengele, Samuel Pietersz Smits, for example, are all reproduced among the book’s 323 plates, almost all in color. My only regret – at the risk of making the book even fatter – is that many of these are thumbnails rather than half-page reproductions. The closest Semenov got to Rembrandt was the Head of a Man with Curly Hair and a Beard, now in the Bader collection at Milwaukee, but he owned fine works by pupils – Flinck, Van Hoogstraten, Barent Fabritius, among others. He also owned outstanding landscapes by Salomon van Ruysdael and Jan van Goyen, fine genre paintings, and still-lifes, including a breathtaking Kalf.
Sokolova widens her account to look at other collectors in the second half of the nineteenth century in St. Petersburg and elsewhere in Russia (Moscow and Kiev principally) and introduces a wonderful cast of unfamiliar characters who seem to have stepped from the pages of Tolstoy or Turgenev. A particular strength of the book is the insight into the Hermitage and its staff during this period. We meet, for instance, the restorer Alexander Sidorov, the curator James Schmidt and the Director Count Dmitry Tolstoy. It was to Tolstoy that Semenov wrote in 1910 offering him the entire collection (including more than 3000 prints) at half its appraised value as he wished it to stay together in St. Petersburg. It was gratefully accepted, the Tsar authorized the payment of half a million rubles and, on Semenov’s death in 1914, the collection passed into the Hermitage.
Sokolova’s final chapter, subtitled “Fate scatters the Paintings,” tells the story of the Semenov paintings being dispersed to regional galleries and, sadly, being handed over to Antikvariat, the state organization which sold works of art from Russia’s museums in order to generate hard currency in the West. More than 220 of 700 Semenov paintings were sold, principally by auction at Lepke in Berlin but also at Fischer in Lucerne and smaller auction houses in Switzerland. Sokolova has two excellent appendices listing the Semenov paintings still at the Hermitage (with 415 numbers) and Semenov paintings no longer there (282).
Sokolova tells a riveting story very well and takes us into an unfamiliar and fascinating world. She has excellent notes, bibliography and indexes – the Index of People is especially valuable in giving short biographies. This is the first in a new series of books published by Brill, the Oud Holland Book series. It is beautifully produced and well illustrated, which bodes well for the success of the series. The cover, entirely appropriately, shows The Singing Lesson by the very rare Herman van Aldewereld.
Director Emeritus, The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford