Reuniting an Art Collection Once Swept Away by History

Over a century ago, Mikhaïl and Ivan Morozov assembled a singularly important art collection that survived both the Russian Revolution and the Cold War. Now, for the first time ever, it is accessible to the public, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, in Paris.

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From the Morozov collection, "L’Étang à Montgeron," 1876, by Claude Monet. Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

There are 200 works and 200 masterpieces,” says Jean-Paul Claverie, who for more than two decades has been the cultural adviser to Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of LVMH. “It is just extraordinary.”

Claverie is giving an insider’s look at the Vuitton Foundation’s “Icons of Modern Art: The Morozov Collection,” which opened this month. Spread out over the entire Frank Gehry–designed building in Paris, the show celebrates the astonishing modernist paintings by, among others, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Matisse, and Picasso that were assembled by Mikhaïl Abramovich Morozov (1870–1903) and his brother, Ivan Abramovich Morozov (1871–1921). In scale, content, and ambition, the exhibition is the follow-up to “The Shchukin Collection,” which pulled in 1.3 million visitors to the foundation four years ago, including New York collectors who jetted over to Paris just to see it. And critics were rapturous. “The history of collecting, the development of painterly style, the changing fortunes of individuals and nations—you will think about all these things on your second go-through,” stated the New York Times review of the Shchukin opening. “Your first visit will probably elicit another, less intellectual reaction: dumbstruck awe.”

The Morozov show, like the Shchukin before it, offers the chance to see something incredibly rare for any museum: art history in the making. After the Morozov brothers’ collections were assembled, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, they were swept away by history. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, the art was confiscated, divided among museums, and thrown into storage for decades. It was only after the death of Joseph Stalin, in 1953, that some of the works began to reappear, first in the Soviet Union and then, from time to time, in the West. But as recently as 2014, when the Vuitton Foundation team began preparing the Shchukin exhibition, the great modernist canvases on the walls of the Hermitage Museum and the Pushkin Museum had no indication of provenance, no suggestion of how they might have ended up in Russia. It has taken the Shchukin and Morozov exhibitions to bring all of the works back together, giving the world, for the first time in nearly a century, a true sense of the boldness of these collectors and the power of the art they assembled.

The story of the Morozov family’s remarkable ascent began with Mikhaïl and Ivan’s grandfather Savva Vassiliévitch Morozov. Born a serf in a small village some 50 miles from Moscow, he managed in 1797 to obtain his freedom and the right to begin a family business making silk ribbons. After the Napoleonic war of 1812, when major Moscow textile manufacturers were destroyed, Savva walked to the Russian capital, going door-to-door to sell linen fabrics, embroideries, and ribbons that had been handwoven by his family. Within two decades, the Morozov factory had grown to include 11 buildings, employing 200 workers. In the 1890s, when Mikhaïl and Ivan turned 21, each received an inheritance of several million rubles, at a time when the average annual wage in Russia was only a few hundred rubles. Ivan, who was active in the business and became chairman of the board, tripled the size of the family fortune between 1904 and 1916.

Since the earliest age, the Morozov brothers, like others in their family, had been sensitive to art, literature, and history. Mikhaïl, while still only in his 20s, was one of the first donors to the new Fine Arts Museum of Moscow (later the Pushkin), giving 30,000 rubles for the construction of a gallery of Greek sculpture. Ivan, meanwhile, was having a theater built for employees who worked in his family’s factory. In 1894, Mikhaïl began buying contemporary Russian art. “Mikhaïl became a multimillionaire with an incredible way of life, in terms of the houses he owned, a trip around the world he took with his young wife, and an apartment he bought in Paris,” explains Anne Baldassari, the former director of the Picasso Museum in Paris and the curator of the Morozov exhibition. In 1900, Mikhaïl went to Paris for the Universal Exhibition and acquired a Tahitian landscape by Paul Gauguin and an important Édouard Manet. “He was the one who brought to Russia the first Gauguin and the first van Gogh, well before Shchukin and well before his brother, Ivan,” Baldassari continues. “He was someone who really discovered new artists.”

Portrait of Mikhaïl Morozov, 1902, by Valentin Sérov.

Courtesy of Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Portraits of Ivan Morozov, 1910, by Valentin Sérov.

Courtesy of Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Lilas, by Mikhaïl Vroubel, 1901.

Courtesy of Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The Gauguin room in the Morozov Palace.

Courtesy of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Manuscript Department, Moscow.

The elder Morozov brother, who moved with his new wife into a 19th-century palace in Moscow, clearly enjoyed his fortune. “Mikhaïl lived in a very grand bourgeois style,” the curator points out. “He was a real bon vivant—he drank too much and ate too much. He had his house done by a trendy architect, which he filled with his paintings and objects. It was particularly in his private office, where he received artists, that he had his French paintings.”

By the time he died, in 1903, of the kidney condition nephritis, at the age of 33, Mikhaïl had amassed 44 works by Russian artists and many important French Impressionist paintings—Manet, Renoir, Degas, Monet—along with Postimpressionist works by Gauguin and van Gogh, and sculptures by Rodin. “Collections and collectors are still so rare in Russia,” wrote Sergueï Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, in a tribute. “We can only imagine how serious the collection of Mikhaïl Morozov would have become if his early death had not interrupted such a promising start.”

In 1895, Ivan, like his older brother, began his collection with Russian painters. By 1901, he was joining Mikhaïl on his trips to Paris, staying at the Grand Hotel next to the Opéra. A year after the death of his brother, he made the first of his annual visits to the Salon d’Automne in Paris, which was filled that year with more than 1,300 paintings and sculptures by almost 400 artists. Ivan was particularly interested in the salon’s retrospectives of Renoir and Cézanne. On that first trip, he bought major paintings by Renoir, Vuillard, Pissarro, and Sisley.

In Moscow, Ivan bought a palace that had belonged to a member of the aristocracy. “And he decided to make a museum,” explains Baldassari. “He demolished a mezzanine to raise the central spaces, creating ceilings that were 39 feet high. He had a glass skylight installed for even more light from above. He invented a form of central heating hidden in the architecture, in order to have temperature control for the art. He took out much of the decoration so that the eye would not be distracted.”

Ivan spent over a decade filling his new gallerylike home with great Russian and French artists. He commissioned Pierre Bonnard to do a massive triptych, La Mediterranée, which was positioned between two columns at the top of the grand stairway. In 1912, he asked Matisse to do another triptych, which, after much correspondence and after the artist’s long stay in Morocco, became a remarkable ensemble: La Vue de la Fenêtre. Tanger; Zorah sur la Terrasse; La Porte de la Casbah. Months before the end of World War I, Morozov acquired his final European painting: Picasso’s Acrobate à la Boule, 1905, an exquisite large canvas that had belonged to Leo and Gertrude Stein.

As Ivan built his collection, he invited select Moscow artists to see his paintings, helping to inspire the local art scene. He also built an armored room on the ground floor, where the works could safely be stored. And just as his house museum was completed, in 1905, the first great unrest came, when a national general strike was repressed by the forces of Tsar Nicholas and hundreds of protesters were killed. Twelve years later, in October 1917, the Russian Revolution began.

In 1918, the year the tsar and his family were executed, Ivan bought his final painting, the Morozov factory was nationalized, Sergeï Shchukin fled to France, and decrees nationalizing the Shchukin and Morozov collections were issued. The Shchukin and Morozov houses became the first and second National Museum of New Western Art, respectively, and were opened to the public. A specialist in modern art was assigned to inventory the Morozov collection, and Ivan, relegated to a few rooms on the ground floor of his house, became his assistant. “Both collections were defended, protected from being dispersed, by artists who had gone to see them over the years,” Baldassari explains. “Trotsky’s wife played a role, making sure that the works were cataloged in a systematic way, which created a sort of safety net that lasted for a little over 10 years.”

One-third of Triptyque Marocain, 1912–1913, by Henri Matisse.

Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

One-third of Triptyque Marocain, 1912–1913, by Henri Matisse.

Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

One-third of Triptyque Marocain, 1912–1913, by Henri Matisse.

Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

The main staircase in the Morozov Palace.

Courtesy of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Manuscript Department, Moscow.

The facade of the palace.

Courtesy of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Manuscript Department, Moscow, F.13, inv.VI, doc. 45, l.4.

Ivan made it out of Russia, illegally crossing at the border with Finland. He and his family made their way to London, where he had deposited a small fortune, then they headed to Paris. He died in 1921, at the age of 49, after a heart attack on a trip to the Czech spa city of Karlovy Vary. In 1928, the Soviet state requisitioned the Shchukin house, and that collection was taken to the Morozov property. “It was all packed in like sardines,” Baldassari says. “All of the Russian works were taken down, and the two collections were mixed in the Morozov Palace.” In 1929, the first and last catalog of the collections was published, with the collectors identified only by the initials of their last names.

As the economic situation worsened in the 1930s, the Soviets decided to sell from the collections, and some important works by van Gogh and Cézanne made their way to the West. All of the modern paintings that stayed in Russia, however, went underground. “It happened first with the Russian collections, which was terrible—they just disappeared,” Baldassari says. “And the French ones were taken down, crated, and stored elsewhere. Then, in 1948, Stalin forbade the display of the French works, so they stayed in storage.” After Stalin’s death, some paintings were hung again at the Hermitage, making front-page news in The New York Times: “Russia’s famous collection of modern Western art, including some of the world’s finest Picassos, Matisses, and Cézannes, has been reopened to the general Soviet public.” Certain paintings began to travel, and though the original collectors were identified in the West, they were erased from history in the Soviet Union.

One of the important goals of the Morozov Collection at the Vuitton Foundation is to bring Russian painters back into the narrative. “I wanted to show connections between the Russian and the European avant-garde, which I was not able to do with the Shchukin show,” Baldassari explains. “There, I did it only at the end of the exhibition. Here, each gallery has some Russian art. And the show opens with a series of portraits by Russian artists of the Morozov circle, including the brothers and other major patrons, such as Shchukin, Mamontov, and more. I wanted to juxtapose Russian and Western modern art. This will give the full Russian historical background.”

The curator also points to the galleries with paintings by Gauguin, Matisse, and particularly Cézanne. “Ivan owned 18 paintings by Cézanne,” Baldassari explains, “the densest part of the collection. Then there is one gallery with nudes, because he collected a lot of nudes, which was not at all the case with Shchukin. There is a great decorative gallery, a series of seven panels by Maurice Denis that was commissioned for the Morozov Music Room, along with four early sculptures by Aristide Maillol. These are being lent for the last time—they will never again leave the Hermitage. And then there are some artists that are few in number but not lesser in terms of quality. There are three Picassos, for example, produced five years apart, and each is exceptional—they are markers for the evolution of the art of Picasso.” Two intimate pastels by Degas, La Toilette and Après le Bain, are also of particular significance. “The Hermitage has never agreed to lend these,” she says.

In order to stage the exhibition in the midst of a pandemic and ongoing geopolitical tensions, the Vuitton Foundation used its considerable resources and diplomatic skills, working closely with the staffs of the Hermitage, the Pushkin, and the Tretyakov Gallery. “We had to organize special transport, special cases, and a team of handlers,” Baldassari says. “And the Vuitton Foundation and LVMH have really helped the Russian institutions, for example, by funding a conservation lab at the Pushkin. There has been a remarkable sense of teamwork over the past four years.”

Claverie, noting that LVMH also funded the re-creation of the Morozov Music Room at the Hermitage, says that Arnault shares his passion for these exhibitions of Russian collectors. “To see all of these Russian works, in addition to the French, is fascinating and moving,” he says. “This is one of those moments that we will never forget.”

Fatata te Mouà (La Montagne Est Proche), 1892, by Paul Gauguin.

Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Les Deux Saltimbanques, 1901, by Pablo Picasso.

Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

Acrobate à la Boule, 1905, by Pablo Picasso.

Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

Portrait d’Ambroise Vollard, 1910, by Pablo Picasso.

Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

The Matisse and Denis room in the Morozov Palace.

Courtesy of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Manuscript Department, Moscow.

Self-Portrait and Portrait of Pyotr Konchalovsky, 1910, by Ilya Mashkov.

Courtesy of the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Jeune Fille au Piano (L’ouverture de Tannhäuser), 1869–1870, by Paul Cézanne.

Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.