A full day is not enough to cover the endless halls of the two large buildings of Moscow’s most famous museum. We have chosen the 25 best truly illicit gems.
It was the dream of the gallery’s creator, Pavel Tretyakov, to create a large public museum of Russian art, in contrast to the nobles before him who had mainly collected Western European paintings and sculptures. This successful merchant made Russian artists fashionable and eagerly bought his paintings. In the end, he achieved more than his dream and even added four wings to his mansion in central Moscow.
In the 1980s, a new building specifically for Russian art from the 20th century was built, called the New Tretyakov Gallery.
Today, the museum’s collection contains more than 190,000 works. Let’s take a look at the most important.
1. Andrey Rublev. Trinity, 1411
Only a handful of surviving works can be reliably attributed to the legendary Andrey Rublev. The Trinity icon is the most famous and valuable relic in the museum’s collection. It originally lived in Trinity Lavra in St. Louis. Sergius years Sergiev Posad, but after the revolution was moved to the Tretyakov Gallery.
2. Karl Bryullov. The Rider, 1832
Bryullov spent many years in Italy, where he painted this picture in Milan on the orders of Countess Yulia Samoilova. Contemporaries admired the skill and grace of the equestrian portrait. Pavel Tretyakov bought the painting during an auction of Samoilova’s property.
3. Alexander Ivanov. Appearance of Christ before the People, 1837-57
Ivanov’s painting was purchased by Emperor Alexander II and donated to the Rumyantsev Museum, from where it went to the Tretyakov Gallery in 1924. To accommodate the 5.4 x 7.5 meter canvas, a separate hall was built especially in the gallery.
4. Pavel Fedotov. The Aristocrat’s Breakfast, 1849-50
Fedotov is a true master of genre painting. Every canvas by him offers endless details, almost as in the small and very finished works of the Dutch Golden Age.
5. Konstantin Flavitsky. Princess Tarakanova, 1864
One of the first works that Tretyakov bought for his gallery. It shows the historical subject of Princess Tarakanova, who claimed to be the daughter of the Empress Elizabeth and was imprisoned in the fortress of Peter and Paul, where, according to legend, she died during a flood. We see the rising water, the rats and anxiety on the prisoner’s face.
6. Vasily Perov. Troika. Apprentice worker carrying water, 1866
Perov was one of the first to paint canvases on social themes, and skilfully dexterous urgent questions of the day. The depiction of suffering children carrying heavy water barrels and the general tone of the picture speak of complete hopelessness. Tretyakov bought the painting as soon as the artist put down the brush.
7. Vasily Vereshchagin. Apotheosis of War, 1871
Vereshchagin was a soldier who gained fame as a martial artist. He painted this canvas after a trip to Central Asia. The idea for the work was inspired by the legend of the Mongol khan Tamerlane, who left such mountain skulls on the battlefield. The inscription on the frame reads: “Dedicated to all the great conquerors – past, present and future.”
8. Alexey Savrasov. Rooks has returned, 1871
This landscape is considered groundbreaking in Russian art. No previous Savrasov had ever portrayed nature with such realistic “grief.” Gray birches, spring rivers, a small church – contemporaries believed that the artist had painted the soul of Russia. To buy the painting, Pavel Tretyakov traveled specifically to the city of Yaroslavl, where Saravrasov worked.
9. Arkhip Kuindzhi. Birch Grove, 1879
Kuindzhi is considered a true master of the use of light. This painting is dominated by green, and in it the artist plays with the contrast between sunspots and shadow depths. The canvas was exhibited at an exhibition of Traveling movement, where Tretyakov intercepted it.
10. Viktor Vasnetsov. Alenushka, 1881
The Tretyakov Gallery contains several works by Russia’s foremost folklorist, one of the most famous of which is Bogatyrs. Vasnetsov had long nurtured the idea of Alenushka when one day, by a pond at the Abramtsevo farm, he chanced upon a simple, bare-haired peasant woman and crystallized in his mind the painting, from which, in the artist’s own words, “the special Russian spirit of life flowed. “
11. Ivan Kramskoi. Unknown woman, 1883
One of the most famous works of Kramskoi depicts a young woman in an open carriage on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. Historians still discuss who sat as the artist’s model.
12. Vasily Surikov. Boyarina Morozova, 1884-87
This powerful composition with several figures shows a real historical event: as punishment for refusing to accept the reform of the Russian Orthodox Church, a noblewoman is delivered in handcuffs to a monastery, while the believer shows two-fingered signs on the cross to the audience. Tretyakov bought the painting at an exhibition; the canvas, which measures 3 x 5.8 meters, occupies a special place in the gallery.
13. Ilya Repin. Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan November 16, 1581, 1885
Thanks to this painting by Repin, it is believed that Ivan the Terrible actually killed his own son in a rage by beating him in the temple with his staff. Alexander III even banned the public display of the horrific image, but Tretyakov bought it anyway, and later persuaded the emperor to change his mind.
14. Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches, 1887
One of Serov’s most famous works, painted on Abramtsevo, was the daughter of his patron, Savva Mamontov. Viewers are captivated by the incredible freshness and carefreeness of childhood with which the image literally shines. The portrait was bought by the gallery in 1929 from Mamontov’s descendants.
15. Ivan Shishkin. Morning in a pine forest. 1889
The evergreen coniferous forest is Shishkin’s favorite motif. The bear cubs in the picture were painted by another artist, Konstantin Savitsky, but later he removed his signature from the work and waived the copyright. The subject is familiar to everyone in Russia, because since Soviet times it has appeared on the cover of a favorite candy.
16. Mikhail Nesterov. The vision of youth Bartholomew, 1890
The painting depicts a very important subject in the history of the church and opens the artist’s cycle of works about Sergius by Radonezh’s life. Bartholomew, the saint’s secular name, was an illiterate to a random encounter with a monk who filled him with wisdom … Nesterov considered painting to be the pinnacle of his art. Tretyakov bought it at an exhibition of the itineraries.
17. Mikhail Vrubel. The Demon Seated, 1890
An entire room is dedicated to this artist, one of the most mysterious in the Tretyakov Gallery. This is just one of many Vrubel demons and a masterpiece of Russian symbolism. The painting embodies the eternal struggle of the rebellious spirit: the beautiful, powerful demon sadly looks at the world around, which changes, as if it were broken by crystals. After the revolution, the painting was moved to the Tretyakov Gallery from a private collection.
18. Isaac Levitan. Over Eternal Peace, 1894
A disciple of Savrasov and the author of The Rooks Have Come Back, Levitan adopted and perfected the latter vision of the Russian landscape, melancholy and soul-stirring. It is considered one of the most “Russian” paintings ever created.
19. Natalia Goncharova. Self-portrait with yellow lilies, 1907
The high priest of the Russian avant-garde, together with her husband Mikhail Larionov, was a member of various progressive art associations and participated in many modernist exhibitions in both Russia and Europe. This self-portrait reflects Goncharova’s fascination with expressionism.
20. Zinaida Serebryakova. At the dressing table. Self-portrait. 1909
Serebryakova produced paintings filled with tenderness: girls, peasant women, idyllic landscapes, family members. Contemporaries were full of praise for this self-portrait in the mirror and called it a healthy, sweet and very artistic work.
21. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Bathing the red horse. 1912
Petrov-Vodkin’s art re-imagined Russian icon painting. Contemporaries interpreted the image in different ways, but at the beginning of the revolution it was believed that the red horse symbolized the path of the new Russia. The canvas was in Sweden for a long time and came to Tretyakov Gallery from private hands only in 1961.
22. Wassily Kandinsky. Composition VII, 1913
Russia’s most prominent abstractionist lived and worked in Germany for many years. He was one of the first artists to reject figurativeness and focus on color: “Color is a force that directly affects the soul.” Art critics consider this composition to be the culmination of Kandinsky’s work and find a combination of biblical themes in it: the resurrection, doomsday, the flood, and the Garden of Eden.
23. Kazimir Malevich. Black Square, 1915
The most famous and controversial image of the Russian avant-garde caused a great stir at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10, where it was first shown. It was hung in the “red corner”, the place in the home that is usually reserved for icons. X-ray examinations in 2015 revealed the presence of several layers below the final image, and originally the work resembled a cubofuturistic composition. But during his deep reflections on form and color in the painting, the artist pondered the idea of ”Supremus” – the dominance of color. Malevich went on to make several more versions of the painting, including one specifically for the Tretyakov Gallery, as the original was covered with small cracks.
Read more: Hidden signs of Malevich’s ‘Black Square’
24. Boris Kustodiev. Bolsheviks 1920
Kustodiev is mainly known for its scenes of Russian trade and village life, painted in light shades, with a focus on ancient cities, churches and folk festivals. One of the artist’s later works, the Bolshevik, reflects his impression of the 1917 revolution, which he observed from the window of his home, confined to a wheelchair.
25. Alexander Deyneka. Future pilots, 1938
Alexander Deyneka is one of the most famous Soviet artists, the creator of many propaganda pieces in a clear poster style. His future pilots are one of the most emblematic works of the official Soviet art style, known as socialist realism.