I never tire of looking at the heavy coffee table kind of books illustrated with works of art from the world’s great museums—our own National Gallery, the Chicago Art Institute, and lots of places I’ve never visited like Madrid’s Prado and the Getty in Los Angeles. One place I have been able to visit many times is the State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow, Russia, which contains one of the world’s foremost collections representing a wide range of agrarian art styles and periods. Located on a quiet backstreet several blocks south of the Kremlin, the gallery courtyard entry hosts crowds year-round who first pass beneath the imposing statue of founder Paul Tretyakov, the prominent Russian businessman who established the museum in 1856.
Tretyakov’s brooding bronze seems to be judging the worthiness of approaching visitors who seek admission to the wonders behind the gallery’s grand fairy-tale facade adjacent to the Museum Church of St. Nicholas. No Early Church Father is more venerated in Orthodoxy than St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, the fourth century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. His righteous life is commemorated for dedication to the welfare of others retold in tales of his miraculous provision of wheat for the people of Myra during time of famine.
A member of the museum church congregation in the late 1800s, Tretyakov recognized the need to preserve priceless icons of St. Nicholas and other religious figures. He also risked material support of great artists even when clerical and state arts officials condemned their pastoral works because of realistic if sometimes unsettling depictions of rural life. Forbidden to exhibit and sell their works through official channels, a group of Russia’s greatest nineteenth century artists including Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, and Grigoriy Myasoyedov founded their own “Itinerant” art exhibitions for which their stylistic school is named. Tretyakov’s controversial generosity enabled them and other artists from Europe and Russia, where they were also known as “Wanderers,” to continue their mission. Tretyakov bequeathed to later generations the grand galleries that vividly acquaint viewers with Old World traditions of reaping, gleaning, and other vital aspects of agrarian life from an age when family and community survival depended on favorable summer harvests.
Monumental canvases painted by Venetsianov, Myasoyedov, and the Itinerants show fieldworkers in mixed groups reflecting the Slavic commune’s traditional practice of distributing harvest labor as well as bounty among the peasantry of the steppes. Their paintings are also among the first to realistically depict their subjects as individuals. Some contemporary viewers characterize these rural depictions of toil, revelry, and celebration as quaint. But the play of colors enlivening field labors enhances appreciation for the profound impact harvests past and present have had on the inhabitants of these places, whose work is the bedrock of any people’s prosperity. Art historian Neil McWilliam has written of the risks in offering commentary on the complex interplay of nineteenth century art, and presumably visual imagery from any period, with the era’s “social mythology.“