Ilya Samoilovich Silberstein

Ilya Silberstein Collection

The collection of Ilya Samoilovich Silberstein (1905--1988) occupies a special place among private collections in post-revolutionary Russia. This reason lies not only in the sheer quantity of works by Russian and West European masters -- more than two thousand -- but also in their artistic merits and historical importance.

Ilya Silberstein devoted his entire life to collecting. Born in Odessa on 28 March 1905, he studied at Novorossiisk University, before entering the Faculty of History and Philology of Petrograd University in 1923. His favourite pastime as a student was to scour the second-hand bookshops for books on fine art and such periodicals as [Old Years] and [Apollo]. He avidly read the articles on art written in them by Alexander Benois and Sergei Ernst, which became his first school of art history.

After transferring to the Faculty of Philosophy, Ilya Silberstein began penning his own articles. Living in Leningrad, he came into contact with such interesting personalities as Pavel Schegolev (historian and expert on Alexander Pushkin), Stepan Jaremich (artist, critic and collector) and Anna Somova-Mikhailova (sister of the [fin-de-siècle] artist Konstantin Somov). Silberstein’s circle of contacts with art lovers grew when he moved to Moscow in the 1930s. He was a friend of such local collectors as Nikolai Pakhomov, Nikolai Vlasov and Pavel Ettinger, each of whom played an important role in the formation of both his personality and his collection.

In 1926, Ilya Silberstein began publishing his first articles and books on the life and works of Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Griboyedov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev. He moved to Moscow to work on a publication of the collected works of Anton Chekhov. In March 1931, he started to realise his cherished dream -- the publication of archive materials on the history of Russian literature and philosophy. The name of this unique publishing project was [Literary Heritage]. Over the next fifty-seven years, until his death on 22 May 1998, he published almost one hundred compilations, half of which he edited himself. As he wrote in his autobiography: “My life’s toil is forty-five books of [Literary Heritage].”

Ilya Silberstein also studied the history of art. In 1948 and 1949, he published two volumes of [Artistic Heritage] on Ilya Repin. This was followed by [Alexander Benois Reflects] (1968), [Konstantin Korovin Recalls] (1971), [Valentin Serov in the Reminiscences, Diaries and Correspondence of Contemporaries] (1971), [Sergei Diaghilev and Russian Art] (1982) and [Valentin Serov in Correspondence, Documents and Interviews] (1988).

Ilya Silberstein’s remarkable career as a researcher of archive materials helped to shape his own collecting interests. The start of the collection dates back to his youth in Odessa, when he acquired two first-class drawings by Boris Grigoriev. Sixty years later, the collection formed the basis of his book on the history of pre-revolutionary Russian drawings and watercolours (late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries). Silberstein’s collection included virtually all the leading names in Russian graphic art. Each master was represented by a number of works far exceeding the traditional scales of private collecting.

Notwithstanding all its breadth and diversity, the Silberstein collection -- like all private collections -- contains a core body of works reflecting the collector’s own personal interests.

The [Russian section] of the collection consists of more than sixty works by Ilya Repin, twenty-two drawings by Pavel Fedotov and works by the members of the World of Art, including a hundred pictures by Léon Bakst and Konstantin Somov and seventy-two drawings by Alexander Benois.

The Silberstein collection contains some of the finest drawings and watercolours by the leading masters of the World of Art. The collection includes Alexander Benois’s series of illustrations to Alexander Pushkin’s poem [The Bronze Horseman] (1903--18), [King Louis XIV Promenades in Any Weather] (1898) and his designs for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet [Pétrouchka] (1911). Unlike any other museum in Russia, Silberstein owned a complete collection of designs by Léon Bakst for a single theatrical production -- Jean-Jules Roger-Ducasse’s ballet [Orphée] (1914--15). Besides working for the theatre, Bakst also painted and drew portraits. The Silberstein collection includes his portrait of the famous Russian ballerina [Anna Pavlova] (1908) and the American dancer [Isadora Duncan] (1908).

The works of Zinaida Serebryakova are complemented by the theatrical designs of Sergei Chekhonin and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. Silberstein also owned one of Valentin Serov’s finest drawings -- his portrait of the Belgian violinist [Eugène Ysaÿe] (1903) -- drawings by Mikhail Vrubel and Boris Kustodiev’s portrait of [Fyodor Chaliapin] (1920--21). The latter work is commonly regarded as the most successful portrait of the famous opera singer and one of the artist’s best drawings. The Silberstein collection includes countless other outstanding works of graphic art.

Drawings and watercolours constitute the main body of works in the Silberstein collection. The number of oil paintings does not exceed one hundred. The permanent exhibition includes such first-class canvases as Vladimir Borovikovsky’s official [Portrait of Adjutant General Count Pyotr Tolstoy] (1799), Leonid Solomatkin’s refined genre scene [Along the Tightrope] (1866) and Andrei Bogolyubov’s rare urbanscape [View of the Church of Christ the Saviour from Prechistenka in Moscow] (1880). Depicting a view onto Volkhonka Street, the latter work is particularly dear to the Museum of Personal Collections.

Ilya Silberstein was particularly interested in the oeuvre of Ilya Repin. Room 209 contains one of the master’s most poetic paintings -- [Summer Landscape. Abramtsevo] (1879) -- and a portrait of his daughter Nadia [At Hunting] (1892). Besides thirteen oil paintings, Silberstein also owned more than fifty works of graphic art by Repin, including such famous drawings as [Portrait of the Writer Nikolai Leskov] (1899), [Leo Tolstoy under the Vaults of his Study at Yasnaya Polyana] (1891) and [Maxim Gorky Reading his Drama] Children of the Sun (1905).

Ilya Silberstein differed from most other collectors in his attempt to research his own collection. He not only enjoyed collecting works; he also studied them in great detail. He published his findings, sharing his discoveries with other researchers. Part of his collection served as the basis for the major monograph [The Decembrist Artist Nikolai Bestuzhev], published in Moscow in 1977. Silberstein owned seventy-six portraits of Decembrists and their wives, drawn by Nikolai Bestuzhev at Petrovsky Prison and Chita Jail in the 1830s. It is impossible to overrate the importance of this gallery of faces, as these portraits are the only surviving images of many Decembrists exiled to Siberia after 1825. Many collectors sought this body of works in the first half of the twentieth century, but only Ilya Silberstein managed to find them in 1945.

Spending much time in archives, Ilya Silberstein understood the importance of collecting sketches and studies. He acquired a folder of drawings by Andrei Ivanov, Alexander Ivanov and Alexei Yegorov -- fleeting pencil sketches, compositional modelli of famous paintings and studies of artist’s models. The Silberstein collection demonstrates the sense of beauty and harmony and refined plastic art of Alexander Ivanov (1806--1858). Ivanov’s studies reflect genuine artistic talent and a clear understanding of the professional tasks. The Silberstein collection also includes an interesting album of portraits, genre scenes and compositional sketches by Karl Brullov.

Ilya Silberstein owed a great debt to Stepan Jaremich and Alexander and Konstantin Somov, from whom he inherited outstanding works of graphic art by Russian and West European masters. Among such works are five rare drawings made in Paris in the 1780s by Ivan Yermenev, an artist of the second half of the eighteenth century. Yermenev’s younger contemporaries -- the Russian landscapist Mikhail Ivanov and the French landscapist Jean-Balthasar de la Travers -- are also represented in the Silberstein collection. The latter artist worked in Russia, where he painted views of towns, monasteries and country estates.

The first half of the nineteenth century was a golden age of Russian graphic art. This period is represented in the Silberstein collection by the works of Orest Kiprensky, Alexander Orlovsky, Pavel Fedotov, Alexander Brullov, Vasily Sadovnikov and Alexei Venetsianov. While the main core of works in the collection is graphic art, Silberstein also acquired around a hundred oil paintings by such famous Russian artists as Vladimir Borovikovsky, Vasily Tropinin, Alexei Bogolyubov, Vasily Polenov, Leonid Solomatkin, Konstantin Korovin and Osip Braz.

While the [West European section] is more modest than its Russian counterpart, the Silberstein collection includes such outstanding works of sixteenth-century graphic art as Flemish artist Bartholomeus Spranger’s [St Martin] (1596) and Genoese master Luca Cambiaso’s [The Deposition]. Both are drawn in the free and aristocratic spirit of the sixteenth century. Although the collection of Dutch drawing is not large, it includes Rembrandt’s biblical subject [Abraham Taking Isaac to the Sacrificial Altar] (1643). Rembrandt interpreted the white ground of the paper as the equivalent of eternal space. The lines of his drawing fluctuate in this space, clashing and dissolving in the light. The master transformed the world of art with the help of light.

The collection of French drawings is more extensive. The seventeenth century is represented by Jean Le Pautre. [In Palace Chambers] captures the solemnity and splendour of French art during the reign of King Louis XIV (1643--1715).

The drawings of Hubert Robert and Jean-François Janinet offer an overview of French graphic art in the eighteenth century. Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun left France after the revolution and drew [Self-Portrait] (c. 1800) in Russia. Late nineteenth-century artist Jean-Louis Forain is represented by [Young Man in a Top Hat] and [That, That Is Fit Only for a Cemetery!]

A group of drawings and watercolours by leading European architects and decorators occupies an important place in the Silberstein collection. The majority of these artists worked in Russia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries -- Ferdinando-Carlo Bibiena Galli, Giuseppe Valeriani, Pietro Gonzago, Giacomo Quarenghi and Jean-François Thomas de Thomon. Their creations represent the most comprehensive group of works in the collection of West European drawings.

Ilya Silberstein called collecting a passion and a disease. How else does one explain the fervour with which he hunted out the lost portraits of the Decembrists? Or the hundreds of other monuments of Russian and world culture? These works are now public property. The collector believed that history should be accessible and comprehensible -- in living pictures of past ages, portraits of historical figures and views of towns and villages.

The Silberstein collection is a minor museum of Russian and West European art. The integral composition of the collection was maintained even after the scholar donated it to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in 1987. Parting with such an outstanding collection required great courage and great insight. Ilya Silberstein was confident in the knowledge, however, that transferring his collection to public ownership was the only way to keep it intact.

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