Henri Matisse taught the Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin to trust artists rather than critics. When, in 1910, Shchukin acquired the two
oversized and critically vilified murals, La Danse and La Musique, he had to be nudged by the artist into making these daring purchases. Through lengthy
correspondence with Matisse, Shchukin was eventually persuaded to abandon his conservative and decorative preferences in favor of the striking originality, not to mention blatant
nudity, of these works. It was a fateful decision that led him to become more and more daring. Like a gateway drug, Shchukin’s taste for the work of Matisse led him to
purchase the early Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso and eventually amass a total of more than 50 Picassos.
Currently being exhibited at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne just outside of Paris, this is the first time the works have
been shown in their native France since Shchukin purchased them between 1898 and 1918.
La Danse by Henri Matisse; commissioned by Shchukin in 1908
The collector’s formidable fortune from his industrialist family enabled him to amass a collection of nearly 300 Impressionist,
post-Impressionist, Cubist, Symbolist, Nabi and Fauve paintings. The collection of mostly French artists, or artists working in
France, such as Picasso, became an important influence upon Russian artists working at the time. Shchukin opened his home,
the Trubetskoy Palace, to the public every Sunday so that artists and students of art could tour the rooms, sometimes guided by the collector himself.
Matisse wasn’t the sole influence on Shchukin’s collection. He also frequented prominent Parisien dealers including Paul
Durand-Ruel and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and other collectors of what was then considered radical art. These collectors included Gertrude Stein, her brothers, Leo and Michael, and
Michael’s wife Sarah. As Shchukin became bolder he was perhaps also inspired by a sense of competition with these
Americans. He once wrote that he didn’t collect what he liked but what he thought he should like. He spent time with his
paintings as a way of both understanding them individually and to cultivate his aesthetic.
It is interesting to note that these paintings, which have come to define the history of French art in the 19th and 20th centuries,
were not initially collected by the French themselves. Because of the vitriolic reactions of the critics, the public mostly ridiculed
the work of Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and their contemporaries.
The Pink Room, Trebetskoy Palace, circa 1910
Sadly, at the end of World War I, multiple tragedies struck Shchukin’s family and also the collection. Multiple deaths in his
immediate family, including his young son and his wife, were followed by the violent upheavals of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Trubetskoy Palace was confiscated and the entire collection became property of the state. Eventually the masterpieces were
enveloped into the permanent collections of the Pushkin Museum of the State in Moscow and the Hermitage State Museum in Saint Petersburg. Ironically, Shchukin had planned
to donate the collection to the state eventually but the Revolution hastened this outcome when Shchukin fled Russia under an assumed name with a fake passport and only a few
While living in exile in Nice and later Paris he did not maintain contact with the artists, collectors and dealers who had been the
intense obsession of his Russian life. Art during the time between the two world wars had become more conservative and perhaps held less of his interest. Matisse was now painting
odalisques and other figures that did not spark anything like the controversy of the earlier work. Shchukin lived a reclusive life in exile until his death in 1936.
Icons of Modern Art, The Shchukin Collection will be exhibited at the Fondation Louis Vuitton through February 20, 2017.