Ivan Morozov, Russian Art Collector

Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) was a wealthy Russian textile merchant who is best remembered today for his collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modernist art. In this biography, Russian art historian Natalyam Semenova seeks to resurrect the man who made the collection. Morozov is often spoken of in conjunction with his famous compatriot, businessman and supporter of the French avant-garde Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936). In many ways, their fates were intertwined. Both were Muscovites who made their income from manufacturing and trading, both visited Paris and met avant-garde artists personally and bought their art at the start of their careers. Both had their collections and properties confiscated by the Soviet government upon the 1917 Revolution without compensation. Both men died in exile in Paris.

Shchukin has been honoured and understood better (not least with a big exhibition of his collection 2016-7 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris), now this biography fleshes out the elusive figure of Morozov. (Semenova previously wrote a biography of Shchukin.) Evidence is that Morozov was deliberately reticent about his private life, giving only a single interview towards the end of his life. (It is reprinted in full here.) He seemed camera shy and averse to publicity. This biography coincides with an exhibition of the Morozov collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (22 September 2021-22 February 2022).

The Morozovs were descended from an Old Believer family of serfs who had made their fortune making and selling fabric over the course of the Nineteenth Century. Ivan’s mother was Varvara Khludova (1848-1917) of another wealthy cloth manufacturing family, the Khludovs. She married Abram Morozov (1839-1882) in 1869. Ivan was born in 1871. The marriage was cut short by Abram’s death through tertiary syphilis, a painful, humiliating and untreatable death. With a considerable legacy, the widow Morozov immersed herself in charity and philanthropy, especially for educational causes and treatment of the insane. Semenova paints the life of immense wealth, Russian Orthodox observance and civic duty in late Tsarist Russia, using quotes from the memoirs, diaries and letters of the participants. The benefits of wealth were attended by the duties of arts patronage and social fixtures.

Mikhail Morozov, Ivan’s older brother, was a noted biographer and critic. He was also an enthusiastic collector of new Russian painting and the first prominent supporter of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), a Symbolist who made paintings on historical, literary and religious subjects. A voracious glutton and drinker – as well as an impetuous collector – Mikhail Morozov died in 1903, but his legacy as a collector was taken up by his brother Ivan.  The third brother Arseny, died in 1908 following a drunken shooting accident.

Ivan Morozov studied chemistry at Zurich University (1892-4) and painted landscapes to relax. He took classes from Konstantin Korozov (1861-1939), Impressionist landscapist. Ivan worked in the family’s mill (Tver Textile Mill Company) but art collecting became his overriding passion and pastime. Following his brother’s example, Ivan started buying paintings in 1900. It seems Morozov was influenced in his collecting by connoisseur of modern painting, Sergei Vinogradov, a landscape painter. Unlike Shchukin, Morozov purchased art by Russians. These included famed Russian Modernists such as Larionov, Goncharova and Chagall, who need no introduction to Western art lovers but other figures are less familiar, some of whom belonged to the Wanderers Group (Peredvizhniki). Isaac Levitan (1860-1900), whose landscape paintings can best be described as tonalist in character, died young. Valentin Serov (1865-1911) was one of Russia’s great realists, capable of painting truthfully and with panache. He was a famed portraitist who developed a bravura manner, inflected by realism. His portrait of Morozov is on the book cover. Vrubel was also another artist Morozov collected.

However, it is for his collection of Ecole de Paris that Morozov is best remembered. He bought art by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh (Night Café (1888)), Renoir, Cézanne, Maillol, the Independants (Post-Impressionists) and the Fauves. Morozov bought La Grenouillère (1869) by Renoir, an outstanding early Impressionist painting. He paid a very hefty 200,000 francs for a total of six Renoirs. He developed a passion for Gauguin paintings of Tahiti. He even progressed (cautiously) to freshly made and aesthetically challenging paintings by Vuillard, Bonnard, Picasso (the Rose-period Young Acrobat on Ball (1906)) and Matisse (still-lifes and Moroccan scenes). Profits from manufacturing uniforms for the catastrophic Russo-Japanese War of 1905 gave Morozov vast wealth to spend.

In total, Morozov bought 486 paintings and 30 sculptures. The sculptures included ones by Rodin, Maillol and Matisse. However, not all his collecting was of the highest discernment. His (early) taste for bar scenes of the demi-monde led to the acquisition of a large number of scenes by forgotten non-entities of voguish Cosmopolitan Realism (Guignet, Lempereur, Lissac, Morrice). To house this collection, he built a mansion in Moscow and commissioned Maurice Denis to paint mural panels. Denis travelled to Moscow to install the work, which proved a disappointment as the artist had not properly assessed the setting. Shchukin weekly opened his home to art lovers, allowing them a glimpse of the most advanced paintings that Paris had to offer. These experiences would help form the outlook of the Russian avant-garde. Morozov, in contrast, kept his mansion closed and his personal life secret.

“Can we see Shchukin and Morozov as competitors? Hardly. There were no instances of one poaching a painting from the other, although in respect of some artists their tastes coincided almost entirely. The main difference was in their approach to collecting. Morozov preferred to ‘wait, rather than rush in and make mistakes’, as Boris Ternovets put it. He was incredibly discriminating and thorough, carefully considering which work of each artist he would choose as representative, where exactly he would hang the canvas, and how it would fit in with the others. Sergei Shchukin gave not a moment’s thought to such matters.”

The Great War led to disruption to Morozov’s business and the general society. Travelling to Paris was out of the question. Come the 1917 revolution, Morozov’s mansion was occupied and his art confiscated by the state. Not that the state was sure what to make of the non-realist art – partly a daring strike against convention and partly bourgeois degeneracy. But it was property that had, at least, monetary value. Gangs of Communists and Anarchists stole, defaced and destroyed valuable art, books and furniture, ostentatiously demeaning the property of their former social superiors. Morozov initially stayed on, attempting to protect the collection which was no longer his. For whatever reason, he fled the USSR in 1919, travelling with his wife and daughter. He died in 1921, his (unwilling) contribution to Russian (and Soviet) culture went unrecognised.

Semenova narrates the crude and capricious treatment of the collection in the Soviet era. Morozov’s mansion was turned into a museum, with one floor converted into flats. The collection was later split up and moved. The Tretyakov Gallery got the best of Morozov and Shchukin’s collections. In 1933 a number of paintings were sold to provide valuable foreign currency, leading to the sale of Van Gogh’s Night Café, eventually to join the collection of Yale University – a matter of recent litigation.

The book includes an index, family tree and endnotes. The book is well illustrated with period photographs and a colour-plate section shows some of the masterpieces of Morozov’s collection. This book is a tribute to the commitment of a patron of the arts and a timely warning about the arbitrary power of the state to destroy and mishandle material that would have been better protected by a private owner.  

Natalya Semenova, Arch Tait (trans.), Morozov: The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection, Yale University Press, 17 November 2020, hardback, 288pp, 29 col./27 mono illus., $32.50/£25, ISBN 9780300249828

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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