Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family

Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family

July 2, 2000 to October 1, 2000

The Stroganoffs were among imperial Russia’s wealthiest and most influential families, whose impact over five centuries included aggressive entrepreneurship as well as social vision and patronage of the arts. Their renowned art collections, encyclopedic in scope, ranged from classical antiquities and religious icons to old master paintings and the decorative arts, and were rivaled only by the holdings of the czars.

Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family reassembled masterworks of the Stroganoff collections for the first time since their nationalization after the 1917 Russian Revolution. The more than 230 objects showcased in this traveling exhibition are now housed at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, and in other Russian museums and palaces, where they have become celebrated treasures. Most of these works had never before been seen outside Russia.

At the exhibition’s core was a group of magnificent paintings from the famed Picture Gallery of the Stroganoff Palace, one of the grandest 18th-century buildings in St. Petersburg, reuniting masterpieces by Sandro Botticelli, Anthony van Dyck, Bernardo Strozzi, Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain, and featuring a large and spectacular painting by Luca Giordano, The Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs (c. 1688). Other highlights of the exhibition included 18th-century French paintings by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Hubert Robert, and a selection of Russian icons from the famed Stroganoff School.

The history of the Stroganoff family is closely intertwined with that of Russia’s imperial family. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, the Stroganoffs served as soldiers, advisers, courtiers, and companions to the czars. The roots of the fabled Stroganoff fortune lie in the remote northern reaches of Russia. In 1515, Anika Stroganoff discovered a salt lake on the Vychegda River and set up a salt extraction and distribution industry. The outpost was called Solvychegodsk, combining the word for salt (sol) with the name of the river that carried this essential product to central Russia. The Stroganoffs supplied financial backing to the czars and were rewarded by enormous grants of land to the east in Siberia, newly won from the Tatar Khans. Thus Russia’s borders and the Stroganoff fortune expanded together, with the family stabilizing the new territories while building their commercial salt empire and diversifying into fur and other trading.

As the family’s wealth grew and their settlements flourished, they turned their attention to the founding of churches and monasteries. They also created workshops to furnish these new religious establishments with icons, embroideries, enamel and metalwork, and illuminated manuscripts and books. Examples of all the varied forms that Stroganoff patronage assumed in the 16th century were gathered from museums in St. Petersburg and Solvychegodsk, including exquisite textiles embroidered with gold and silver thread, objects decorated with enamel and silver filigree, and a stunning collection of icons that together illustrated the depth and richness of the Stroganoffs’ commitment to religious art.

The 16th century is generally regarded as the golden age of Russian icon painting, with distinctive styles practiced in Novgorod and Moscow. It was from Moscow that the Stroganoffs engaged masters to decorate their cathedral in Solvychegodsk and to instruct local artists. By the early 17th century a luminous miniaturized style of painting had developed that characterized the work of the Stroganoff artists. Works in this style came to be known as the “Stroganoff School.” The icons on display included large iconostasis panels and a number of smaller works, many of which were originally created for the interior of Annunciation Cathedral (completed in 1584), one of the few surviving Stroganoff churches in the Solvychegodsk region.

The Stroganoffs first began collecting European art in the late 17th century during the reign of Peter the Great, who was deeply interested in Europe and European culture. When the czar relocated the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, he urged Russia’s noble families to fill the city with beautiful new palaces of European design. The Stroganoffs hired the court architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who had designed the Winter Palace for the imperial family, to build their impressive Baroque palace on the Nevsky Prospect, and they filled it with exquisite objects from all over Europe.

It was the next generation of Stroganoffs, however, that greatly expanded the family’s European collections. Alexander Stroganoff (1733–1811)—who was educated and lived for long periods in Europe—began collecting European paintings and sculpture in the mid 1700s. In his roles as art advisor to Catherine the Great, private collector, and president of the Imperial Academy of Arts, he was responsible for introducing a number of European artists to Russia and directing Russia’s artistic gaze westward. He also patronized notable Russian artists, including the architect and designer Andrei Voronikhin, who was particularly known for his innovative use of semiprecious stones for decorative objects. A highlight of the Russian art from the Hermitage Museum is a magnificent large-scale, three-legged coupe in malachite, mosaic, and gilt bronze, which Voronikhin designed for the Picture Gallery at the Stroganoff Palace.

The exhibition also explored a vast range of art styles and cultures that engaged the Stroganoff family’s interest as discriminating collectors: Greek and Roman antiquities; medieval art, including French ivories, Limoges enamels, and a rock crystal and gilt copper crucifix from 14th-century Venice; Iranian silver from the 7th and 9th centuries; pre-Columbian objects; and Chinese art, including an altar set of cloisonné enamel from the 18th century.

A lavish catalogue of the exhibition was published by the Portland Art Museum in collaboration with Harry N. Abrams, Inc. It is available in the Museum Shop for $35 (paper) and $60 (cloth).

The exhibition was organized by the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, where it was displayed from February 19 through May 31, 2000, the State Hermitage Museum, and the State Russian Museum, in cooperation with the Stroganoff Foundation. Portland and Fort Worth were the only American venues for this unprecedented exhibition, which traveled to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, before completing its international tour at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

The exhibition was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The coordinating curator for the exhibition was Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, formerly a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, currently vice-president, Rosenberg & Stiebel, Inc., New York.

Caption: Attributed to Andrei Voronikhin, Malachite Coupe (detail), Russian (Peterhof Lapidary Works), c. 1809–10, malachite and bronze. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Transferred from the Stroganoff collection in 1925