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The Romanovs, Tsars and Art Collectors at the Pinacotheque de Paris
Rembrandt (Harmensz Van Rij, dit), David et Jonathan, 1642. Huile sur bois (parquetage), 73 x 61,5 cm. INV. N° ГЭ 713. Provenance : 1882, Imperial Picture Gallery in the Monplaisir Palace, Peterhof. Musée de l'Ermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg. Photographe © Musée de l'Ermitage. Photo de Pavel Demidov.

By: Marc Restellini

PARIS.- For the opening of its new rooms, the Pinacothèque de Paris has organised an exceptional exhibition around a major theme: the birth of a Museum. Through May 29 2011, the Pinacothèque de Paris displays the treasures of the Romanovs, a unique ensemble consisting of a hundred works from the Hermitage Museum in Saint-Petersburg.

Assembled since the end of the 17th century, the Russian imperial collections have quickly become part of the largest European collections. As early as 1785, Count Ernst von Münnich declares: “The foreigners and visitors eager to know the country who have been given the opportunity to see the vast and rich galleries of paintings all agree on their magnificence.

The chronological organisation starts with the presentation of the works gathered by Peter I (1672-1725). An inquiring mind and a well informed collector, Peter I sends his agents all over Europe with the task of bringing back paintings and sculptures to Saint-Petersburg.

Particularly interested in Dutch paintings, Peter I buys on the art market in Amsterdam biblical paintings like the splendid David and Jonathan by Rembrandt as well as seascapes and genre paintings of outstanding quality like The Marriage Contract, by Jan Steen. The Italian school is represented by a superb Entombment by Garofalo, then attributed to Raphaël, a gift from Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.

An enlightened sovereign immersed in the Age of Enlightenment, Catherine the Great (1729-1796) enlarges the collections. Between 1764 and 1775, she builds the first site dedicated to their exhibition: the Small Hermitage, close to the Winter Palace. Very soon, the building is too small for the increasing number of works and the Large or Old Hermitage is built a few years later, between 1771 and 1787.

Catherine the Great gives the collection an encyclopaedic dimension, which enables her to assert her political prestige. Paris is the place where she purchases her main masterpieces, through prestigious correspondents such as Diderot or Baron Grimm. In Jean de Julienne’s collection, she selects, among others, Physician Visiting a Sick Girl, by Gabriel Metsu. But her greatest success is probably the acquisition of the whole collection of the banker and patron Gabriel Metsu: the Portrait of an Actor by Domenico Fetti, the sketch for The entry of Marie de Médicis in Lyons by Rubens, the Lovers in a Hunting Party and Venus, Faun and Putti by Poussin, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Van Dyck or the Portrait of a Young Man in a Hat by Greuze; all these works become part of the imperial collections. Finally, it is also in Paris that she purchases Count Baudouin’s Cabinet in which Van Dyke’s paintings compete with those by Rembrandt, Rubens or Ruysdael. Each time, a wave of indignation shakes the Parisians, reluctant to see so many great works leave the French territory to be exported towards Russia. Catherine’s prestige is enhanced by her actions. When she dies, the gallery counts more than 4000 paintings.

Alexander I (1777-1825), Catherine II’s worthy grandson, also leaves his mark in the imperial collections, providing the Hermitage, among others, with a superb collection of Spanish masters. During the Napoleonic wars, the Russians, feeling assaulted, identify with the heroic Spaniards who resist the French troops. The acquisition of the Coesvelt Collection enables the great names of the Spanish Golden century to enter the imperial gallery. Among them, the extraordinary Portrait of Count-Duke of Olivares by Velasquez and the mystical Annunciation by Murillo. Among the 38 paintings purchased by Alexander I, the exquisite Breakfast by Gabriel Metsu.

Nicolas I (1796-1855) stamps on his time with the building of the New Hermitage (1842-1852), following the fire which destroyed the Winter Palace in 1837. It is the birth of the modern museum made in the image of those which begin to sprout throughout Europe, the Louvre and the British Museum, as well as the museums in Berlin and Munich. However, Nicolas I’s reputation was to be stained by the sale, in 1855, of more than 1200 works judged second-rate. Despite these transfers, he enriches the gallery with Italian paintings from the Renaissance: Entombment by Francesco Francia and numerous Titians coming from the Barbarigo Collection. The Flemish Primitives enter the Hermitage during the posthumous sale of the king of Netherlands’collection, William II.

Within two centuries, the Romanovs have constituted one of the most outstanding collections in the world and built a modern museum open to the public as early as 1805.

Around this unique and unconventional theme – the birth of a museum – the Pinacothèque de Paris offers the visitors a history of collectionism and tastes within the most brilliant European elites of their times.

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