The Fictional Life of A Very Real Man

Sergei Schukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)

It is a story that invites the envy of this writer of fiction. A Tolstoy-worthy tale replete with unimaginable wealth, unbounded love, profound loss, revolution, a daring escape, theft, intrigue, and a treasure trove of the world’s most remarkable art. Sergei Shchukin, a Russian textile heir, and magnate began buying art on trips to Paris. His love of the unconventional art and artists he found in Paris after the Great War lead him to start his collection. However, the deaths of his wife, sons, and brother led him to try to fill the void created by their loss, with art. His grief led to Shchukin’s frantic collection of more than 275 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern paintings including multiple works by Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and Van Gogh.

As it is in Russian tragedies, Shchukin would not only lose his family but his country, home, art collection and ultimately, his name. When Lenin began his purge of the bourgeois during the Russian Revolution, Shchukin, fled to Paris — his opulent home and prized art collection were seized by the state. The new Russian government had no use for Shchukin or his decadent art; they planned to dismantle the collection and destroy it. The wife of the director of the Hermitage was thankfully a lover of modern art and convinced her husband to distributed the collection to Russian Museums away from Moscow. For nearly 100 years, the magnificent paintings languished in obscurity. Shchukin’s name was erased from the collection’s provenance and from the history of commerce and art in Russia.

Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

Shchukin’s story is the stuff of fiction, except that it is real. And in August of 2016, through his grandson’s efforts, the collector and the collection once again made art history in the landmark exhibition, “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,”  at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The exhibition, featuring 130 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern works from the collection of this early 20th-century collector, is scheduled to close on March 5, 2017. If, like me, Paris is not on your itinerary, Richard Nahem, an ex-New Yorker who writes his I Prefer Paris blog from “a fabulous 18th-century apartment in the fashionable Marais district of Paris,” has taken some stunning photographs of the showstoppers in the exhibition.

Every art collection tells the collector’s story but rarely is one as vivid in art and as exciting and tragic in life as that of Sergei Shchukin; a story so real, it seems the stuff of fiction. Though I did not know about Sergei Shchukin when I wrote my novel, Provenance, the similarities between Shchukin and my protagonist, Lance Henry Withers, are striking. Because of government persecution, they both sought refuge in Paris. Shchukin and Withers lost the countries of their birth, their homes, and their names. They used art to heal the profound loss of home and loved ones. Influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein, they became lovers of what was unpopular art during their time in Paris—Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and Modern art. And by collecting art, they found a way to once again experience love and life. They were truly kindred souls—real and imagined—in life and in art.