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Riddles of the Tretyakov Gallery: What secrets hide paintings of Kramskoy and Vrubel

The unique collection of the museum has more than 180 thousand works of Russian art from different eras and styles. And behind each masterpiece of the Tretyakov Gallery is its own history, the study of which is like an exciting detective story. However, detectives, too, did not avoid the paintings from the museum. What role did Italian policemen play in the life of the gallery, why did Ivan Kramskoy cut the last lifetime portrait of Nikolay Nekrasov into pieces and how was Vrubel’s forever lost work?

Theft in Genoa
In 1991, the exhibition of the Tretyakov Gallery “Russian Art of the Time of Alexander II” was exhibited in Genoa. The exhibition was popular, according to information from the gallery, it was visited in three months by as many spectators as it did not visit the museum in a year.

And on the night of September 25-26, 18 out of 76 paintings were stolen from the Villa Croce gallery. The investigation lasted two months. After the arrest, it became clear that the criminals took advantage of the thunderstorm on the night of the robbery, penetrated the gallery window with the help of a ladder, and then took out the canvases and loaded them into a truck.
At that time, almost all Italian newspapers wrote about the robbery, Interpol joined the search for pictures. Two weeks later, most of the canvases were discovered, but the “Rest” painting by Ilya Repin was found last in the attic of the house in which one of the robbers lived. The criminals who stole the canvases, had little idea what value they had. And offered them for sale in antique shops in Italy. However, they could not sell a single masterpiece of Russian painting. But the Italian police successfully uncovered this loud case and handed over the paintings to the rightful owner – the Tretyakov Gallery.

For a long time, museum specialists could not unravel the mystery of the last portrait in lifetime of the poet Nikolai Nekrasov. An attentive viewer may have noticed that there are cuts in the picture. Only in 2006, the experts of the Tretyakov Gallery had at their disposal equipment, with which it was possible to explore the picture in full.

By order of the gallery owner Pavel Tretyakov, Ivan Kramskoy had to write a portrait of Nikolai Nekrasov. However, the artist was given the condition that the portrait must be in his lifetime. Ivan Kramskoy visited the poet in those days when Nekrasov was already very sick and spent all his days in bed. The artist worked in fragments, for 10-15 minutes a day. The original portrait of Nekrasov was depicted in the form in which the artist saw him: lying in bed.

When the painting was finished, the members of the Kramskoy family opposed such an image of the great poet, as the author of the painting, Pavel Tretyakov, reported in his personal correspondence. To show the impregnable strength of the spirit of Nikolai Nekrasov in the portrait, Ivan Kramskoy cut the canvas into several parts and assembled the picture anew, enlarging the canvas and incorporating fragments of the already finished portrait into it. As a result, the poet was not lying, but sitting on the bed. The final portrait, which today is in the Tretyakov Gallery, consists of seven pieces. The artist assembled them like a mosaic and completed the necessary interior details. However, he did not sew the pieces, and glued them on the back side with a thick layer of mastic.

In this case, the portrait is the date of 1877, although Ivan Kramskoy finished his work in 1878, after the death of the great Russian poet. Experts of the Tretyakov Gallery explain this fact by the fact that the artist considered Nikolay Nekrasov the best poem “Bayushki-Bayu”, written on March 3, 1877, as the best poem. This date he marked in his signature.

The history of the painting by Mikhail Vrubel is full of paradoxes and secrets. “Princess of Dreams” was written by the artist commissioned by the famous philanthropist Savva Mamontov to decorate the pavilion of painting and art in Nizhny Novgorod. The pavilion was supposed to be one of the departments of the All-Russian Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition.

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