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Xenia Egorova

Prince Paul Viazemsky and his Gothic Hall

Among 19th-century Russian collectors Prince Pavel (Paul) Viazemsky stands alone in many respects. He was the offspring of a family of the oldest nobility, belonged to a milieu of the highest culture, and was accustomed to associate with leading literary figures of his time. He was a diplomat and a scientist well versed in the Russian and European mediaeval heritage. His collecting activities reflected the whole range of his varied intellectual pursuits.

The Viazemsky family was said to descend from the legendary Norman chief Rurik, who was invited to Russia in the 9th century by the people of Novgorod. According to the annals, the people said: “Our land is rich, but there is no order in it, come and rule over us.” The Russian tsars until the end of the XVI century were descendants of Rurik, as well as some families whose lineage goes back to independent princes of the Middle Ages. Such were the Viazemskis, whose principality, including the town of Viazma, was situated at the north of the Russian territories. For centuries the region has been a battlefield. Although by the 18th century the Viazemskis had lost their ancient power and grandeur, they were still a very rich and respected old princely family, full of contempt for the new nobility which surrounded the throne after the accession of Peter the Great. For a Viazemsky prince mediaeval history was a matter not of academic but of personal interest. Among the family icons was an image of their ancestress, Princess Juliania Viazemskaia, who was murdered in a 13th-century struggle and who was proclaimed a saint of the Russian church.

In the late 18th century a prince Andrey Viazemsky served in the Russian army fighting the Turks. Later he was governor of Nizhni Novgorod, but his independent and critical disposition hindered his career. In 1792 he bought the manor of Ostafievo to the south of Moscow and in 1800-02 built there a large and beautiful house as a summer residence. The name of the architect is not known, but doubtless it was a highly professional member of the architectural school flourishing in Moscow at the epoch. The style reflects late classical taste, elaborating on an 18th-century type of palace with open colonnades leading to two side pavilions. Especially beautiful is a large oval reception room with French windows giving onto the park. Between the main entrance and the oval room there is a handsome vestibule which would later contain an important part of the Viazemsky collection.

In 1807 Prince Andrey died and was succeeded by his only son PiotrAndreevitch Viazemsky (1790 – 1878). During the French invasion of 1812 thelatter joined the Russian army as a volunteer and was decorated for his courage. In 1811 he married Princess Vera Gagarina. The bride was not handsome, but had a very gay and steadfast disposition. Later she would need both qualities to bear the good and bad fortunes of her married life.

Prince Piotr was a poet who wrote very good lyrical and satirical verse. He was a wit and a popular society figure, but unfortunately also a gambler. Thus, in a letter to his wife he informs her of having lost at cards half a million rubles in one night – an enormous sum for that or any period. His house in Moscow was burned in 1812 during the French occupation, and Ostafievo became the main family residence. Prince Piotr would invite his literary friends to stay there. Among the visitors were all the outstanding writers and critics of the time, including Pushkin and Gogol. Pushkin was a close friend of both the master and the mistress of the house. A half-sister of Prince Piotr was married to the great Russian historian Karamzin, who would stay with the Viazemskis for months and years writing his classical History of the Russian State. Guests of a different type were entertained at huge receptions, fancy-dress balls and theatricals with the best Moscow singers and dancers invited at great expense. The result was that the prince got into debt, had to stop entertaining at such a scale and change his way of living. An attempt to enter state service was soon interrupted: Piotr Viazemsky was dismissed for his free-thinking and exiled from St. Petersburg to Ostafievo. Later he resumed his career, but it never formed his principal concern.

The couple’s only son was Prince Pavel Petrovitch Viazemsky (1820 -88), whose person and activities form the theme of our paper. No doubt, his family traditions spurred his interest for mediaeval history of Russia, Byzantium and Western Europe. He grew up in an atmosphere of brilliant intellect, which later helped him to find an honourable place in the scientific and cultural developments of his time.

From 1840 to 1856 Pavel Viazemsky served in the Russian diplomatic service at the embassies of Istanbul, The Hague, Karlsruhe and Vienna. He used his stay in each city to gather information in various fields that appealed to him. In Istanbul he would search for mementoes of old Byzantine culture, the main source of intellectual life in mediaeval Russia. Especially acute was his interest in mediaeval Greek manuscripts, anticipating his later activities as a specialist in the old written language of Russia. The stay at The Hague brought an acquaintance with the famous collection of King William II and the urge to form a similar collection of Gothic art for himself. Here and below we use the word “Gothic” as it was used at that epoch, meaning both mediaeval and Northern Renaissance art without distinction.

In 1848, while still in Istanbul, Prince Paul Viazemsky married the young widow Maria Boeck née Stolypina, a famous society beauty and a rich woman. He had ample means and used them freely to acquire the beautiful and rare objects that caught his sophisticated eye. Later he continued collecting Gothic art – and not that alone – during his stays in Germany and Austria. One such acquisition was a pair of shutters with singing angels, dated 1517, by Suess von Kulmbach. They turned up under that name at an auction in Cologne. We do not know whether Viazemsky bought them at the auction itself or some time later from a subsequent owner. The shutters now belong to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Their attribution is still accepted, and the date regarded as marking a turning point in the career of the artist.

Returning to Russia in 1856 Paul Viazemsky brought with him a large collection of considerable importance. For instance, there were two altarpiece shutters with St. Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene that in 1854 had been sold from theHermitage together with about a thousand paintings that Emperor Nicholas I considered unworthy of the collection. In the auction they were listed as “German school,” but they certainly are by Pieter Coecke van Aelst or his studio. The Pushkin Museum bought them from a private owner in 1973. The subject matter, the material data (transferred from wood to canvas) and especially the unusually tall and narrow dimensions made it possible to identify them as the works mentioned in the Hermitage auction list. Later this was confirmed when we found them on an old photograph of a drawing room at Ostafievo.

In 1861 his father gave Ostafievo to Prince Paul, who needed the house for his growing family and had the means to maintain it. In due course the new owner installed his collections there. There were a large group of Western paintings and sculptures, prints and drawings, manuscripts and incunabula, furniture and folk art. The house contained a huge library of about 32,000 volumes as well as the family archives, including his father’s correspondence with his literary friends.

Once in Russia, Viazemsky resumed his official career. From 1856 on he was active for the Ministry of Education. In 1862 he became a censor for foreign literature, later the head of the Publications Department, and he ended as the senator for matters of heraldry, which in Russia was a position one held for life. His personal interests were mainly directed to mediaeval Russian literature, on which he published several studies. In 1877 he became one of the founders of the Society of Devotees of Ancient Manuscript Literature. In fact he was elected its president, a post he held until his death. He also published two volumes of materials on Pushkin from the Ostafievo archives, adding his personal recollections of the poet.

In the course of time the focus of Viazemsky’s collecting activities shifted to old Russian manuscripts and other objects of national mediaeval art and culture. He was one of the first to recognize the great artistic value of old icons, which at the time were seen mostly as testimonies of folk and church traditional beliefs, far beneath European standards of professional art.

The distribution of the Viazemsky collections in the house was remarkable for its combination of the methodical and the fanciful. There was a special room for the icons, memorial rooms devoted to Pushkin and Karamzin and to the owner’s father, the poet Piotr Viazemsky. The varied collection of old Russian, eastern and western arms was centered in the dining-room. Objets d’art of all kinds were spread through the various drawing rooms. The heart of the house was the so-called Gothic Hall, a large vestibule between the main entrance and the oval ball-room. It contained mostly German and Netherlandish works of art of the 15th and 16th centuries placed closely together and nearly covering the walls. The place of honor given to Gothic art testifies to its importance in the eyes of the owner. He possessed also a number of outstanding Italian paintings, from a 14th-century Florentine triptych down to a “St. Sebastian” by Guercino and a “Crucifixion” by Magnasco. His French pictures were less important to him. Later he gave them to his son-in-law, Count Sergey Sheremetev.

After the death of Prince Paul in 1888, Ostafievo was inherited by his only son, Prince Piotr Pavlovitch Viazemsky, who showed little interest for the place. He transferred some paintings to his house in St.Petersburg, neglected Ostafievo and even rented it to a wealthy but uneducated merchant, to the horror of Moscow intellectuals and high society. By the end of the century he sold Ostafievo to his brother-in-low, the above-mentioned Count Sergey Dmitrievitch Sheremetev (1844-1918). The latter was both an intellectual and an aristocrat. A very rich man, he possessed two other beautiful country houses near Moscow, Ostankino and Kuskovo, which contained large collections of objets d’art. He was an historian a special interest in archive research. He edited the publication of the complete works of his wife’s grandfather, the poet Piotr Viazemsky, and other materials from the Ostafievo archives. He also published a book of memoirs of his father-in-law Prince Paul in 1888, the year of the latter’s death, and succeeded him as President of the Society of Devotes of Ancient Manuscript Literature.

Count Sergey Sheremetev and his wife Ecatherina Pavlovna née Viazemskaya felt that Ostafievo, with its memories and treasures, had a particular meaning not only for their family , but also for the public as an important center of Russian culture. They tried to restore the interiors to their condition at the time of Prince Paul, and on certain days the public was allowed to visit. Sheremetev commissioned a catalogue of the library and an inventory of the works of art. The latter, describing about 600 paintings and sculptures, was completed by 1902. Although it luckily survived in the Moscow archives, it is nonetheless very often impossible to identify existing objects with those mentioned there. A great help is provided by the photographs that were taken of the rooms. These enabled us identify a painting by Pieter Aertsen on the wall of a drawing room, and the shutters by Coecke van Aelst in another. Both artists’ names were unknown to the cataloguer, so that without the photographs we should be at sea, as in many other cases as well.

Between them, the lists and photographs help us to form an idea of Ostafievo at the turn of the 20th century. Sheremetev intended his restoration of the house to its former shape as a sort of homage to the memory of his father-in-law. Yet tastes and habits were changing. On the photographs of the drawing room we recognize several paintings that do not belong in a Gothic Hall. Nonetheless, we are not certain whether they were there originally or not. In any case, it would seem that nothing new was brought into the house, although a number of paintings were taken away to other Sheremetev residences. The striking character of the Gothic Hall was probably somewhat diluted, yet Ostafievo still held the most important private collection of Gothic art in the country, in some respects competing with imperial treasures at the Hermitage.

In 1918 Sergey Sheremetev died and was succeeded by his son Dmitriy Sergeevitch. After the decree for the nationalization of great art collections Ostafievo was established as a museum, and the owner appointed its curator. By 1924 it was decided that the museum should be mainly dedicated to the history of Russian literature. The most important works of art were moved to the museum of Fine Arts (later the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts) in Moscow. A list of them (ca. 30 objects) is kept at Pushkin Museum archives.

By 1930, in spite of public protests, the museum of Ostafievo was closed, and the building turned to other uses. The collections were divided between several museums, libraries and archives. In some cases the destination was dictated by the objects themselves. So, the memorial objects connected with Pushkin went to the so-called Pushkin-house in St. Petersburg (the last flat where the poet has lived). Some scattered among the smaller art and history museums of the region. Some were given to the Moscow Museum for Religion and Atheism, from which in 1935 the Pushkin museum of Fine Arts received a group of Gothic paintings including “Christ and Samaritan Woman” now attributed to Pieter Aertsen. It is impossible to ascertain the fate of many of the works mentioned in the list of 1902. Quite a number of them seem to have passed into private hands.

In our days Ostafievo is being repaired with the aim of re-opening it as a museum, but the historical house has lost its contents. Perhaps some of the manuscripts or drawings could be re-installed there in form of copies or even, in the case of minor paintings from local museums, in the original. However, the beautiful cultural complex brought together by the Viazemskis and maintained by the Sheremetevs will never be recuperated.

In broader terms than those of art-collecting alone, the Viazemsky home had a particular significance. In Russia, the Romantic enthusiasm for the mediaeval past had a specific tinge: it meant a sort of opposition against the official trend of taking part in western politics, imitating western technical achievements and ways of living, admiring Paris fashion etc. The Viazemskis weakened this antithesis. They themselves were a part of the Russian historical past, but at the same time they were highly cultivated European intellectuals. They knew Germany well, the native land of the Romantic movement, and possessed a collection of Caspar David Friedrich watercolors (now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). The collections of prince Paul Viazemsky reflect both the national and the western trends. As a scholar he studied old Russian manuscripts, while in the field of western Gothic he played the part of an extremely gifted amateur. What did he know and what did he think of the works of art which took his fancy? The Viazemsky papers in the Moscow archives have never been studied thoroughly from that standpoint. Perhaps a future researcher will find there keys to the names and the values Prince Paul Viazemsky attached to his purchases. It would be revealing to compare the attributions of the middle of the 19th century to those of 1902 and of the present time.

The image of Ostafievo would be distorted if we think of it only as a sort a museum. In reality it was the nest of a large family. Many family souvenirs and portraits, as well as photographs of the Ostafievo rooms, belong to Ecatherina Vassilievna Sheremeteva, the granddaughter of the last owner. She is still living in Moscow.

Xenia Egorova

Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow


Page last updated on 3 June 2002