The huge masterpiece that Tretyakov could never buy (and a Photo Tip!)

Pavel Mikhaylovich Tretyakov was a Russian businessman, patron of art, collector, and philanthropist who gave his name to the Tretyakov Gallery. The Moscow merchant acquired works by Russian artists of his day with the aim of creating a collection, which might later grow into a museum of national art. He started collecting art in the middle of 1850. The founding year of the Tretyakov Gallery is considered to be 1856, when Tretyakov purchased two paintings of Russian artists: Temptation by N.G. Schilder and Skirmish with Finnish Smugglers by V.G. Kudyakov. In 1867 the Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov was opened. The Gallery’s collection consisted of 1,276 paintings, 471 sculptures and 10 drawings by Russian artists, as well as 84 paintings by foreign masters.

In August 1892 Tretyakov presented his art gallery to the city of Moscow as a gift.  Entrusting the collection to the city, he presented certain conditions: the gallery must be open “permanently” and be free of charge, and it must operate at least four days a week, excluding Easter, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Today the Tretyakov gallery is the foremost depository of Russian fine art in the world. Unfortunately the entrance to the gallery is no longer free (but this of course does not deter visitors, both Russian and foreign, so do expect to stand in a line for half an hour to an hour, decidedly more during the holidays and most week-ends).

The official opening of the museum called the Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov took place on August 15, 1893. On opening day the Gallery was visited by almost 700 people. The newspapers reported that the visitors were artists from various generations, students, artisans, shopkeepers, clerks and peasants. However, there were practically no women among them.

The gallery was located in a mansion that the Tretykov family had purchased in 1851. As the Tretyakov collection of art grew, the residential part of the mansion filled with art and it became necessary to make additions to the mansion in order to store and display the works of art. Additions were made five times: in 1873, 1882, 1885, 1892 and 1902-1904, when the famous façade was built.

On June 3, 1918, the Tretyakov Gallery was declared owned by Russian Federated Soviet Republic and was named the State Tretyakov Gallery. In 1925, during the Soviet regime, the foreign paintings in the Tretyakov Gallery were divided among the State Pushkin Museum and the State Hermitage Museum. That is how, for example, the Pushkin Museum obtained Jules Bastien-Lepage’s masterpiece Love in the Village. Pavel Tretyakov had died in 1898, so he didn’t live to see his collection dismembered (nor the end of Tsarist Russia).

Until 1938 a monument of Lenin had stood in front of the Tretyakov Gallery. In 1939 it was replaced with a statue of Stalin. Only in the 1980s was Stalin’s sculpture replaced by that of the gallery’s founder, that you can see today.

During his lifetime, Tretyakov’s authority among artists was so high that he was secretly given the privilege of buying paintings first. The collector’s taste and ability to detect a masterpiece were undeniable. If Tretyakov showed interest in a painting, even members of the royal family sometimes could not purchase it. 

This was, however, not the case for a very special painting that Tretyakov had wanted to acquire for a very long time: The Appearance of Christ Before the People or The Apparition of the Messiah. This is generally regarded as the magnum opus of Russian painter Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov and took 20 years to complete (1837–1857). The narrative of the painting is based on the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, also described in the first chapter of the Gospel according to John and the canvas measures a whopping 40,5 square meters (436 square feet).

In the foreground we see people who watch the scene unfold but are undecided what to do, both young and old men. In the center there is a wealthy man who was too rich to follow Christ and a slave, about whom Ivanov remarked that he meant to depict people who experienced, after a life in despair and suffering, “joy for the first time“. To the right there is a figure, that stands nearest to Jesus, who was depicted as the painter’s good friend, the writer Gogol. Before the wanderer with a staff seated not far from John, is a figure seated with a red headgear. The figure is a self-portrait; the artist has captured his own features on the canvas.

Tsar Alexander II bought The Appearance of Christ Before the People for 15,000 rubles (almost 250,000 US Dollars in today’s money) only a few hours after the death of painter Alexander Ivanov. Pavel Tretyakov was left only with its sketches.

However, in 1925, in the Soviet period, it was decided to transfer the painting to the Tretyakov Gallery. A special hall was built in the gallery that could fit the 540 cm × 750 cm canvas. It has been there since 1932.


In most Russian museums photography is welcomed, with the following conditions: tripods are not allowed (and this is easily “enforced”) and flashes are forbidden (although many people don’t know how to turn them off, especially if they are using point and shoot cameras…. no comment! and you still see a sporadic camera flash here and now, sometimes followed by a stern warning from the museum employees, sometimes not). Some museums apply a “photo surcharge” and you pay extra and get a special ticket (or sticker to put on your camera strap) that allows you to take as many pictures as you please. This “surcharge” usually varies from a mere 50 Rubles to a maximum (that I have seen) of 200 (roughly 0.75 to 3 Euros / USDs). In my experience it is always worth paying this little extra. In the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow this is completely free of charge.
But before you run to a Russian museum with all your photo gear, do keep in mind that most museum also prohibit wandering with a photo backpack or a photo bag. This is important to know because you might or might not want to leave your photo bag with your gear in the cloakroom. In my experience these cloakrooms are very safe, with both honest and competent personnel and when I had to leave my camera bag with a few lenses and accessories I never had any problem, but I take no responsibility were you to ever experience a different outcome.
Usually there is a rule specifying the maximum size of the bag you can carry (usually the largest dimension can not exceed 40 cm – 15.5 inches), but the ultimate judge of that is always the entrance guard or museum employee. Prepare to be annoyed by the fact that inside the museum you will see a number of women with purses much larger than the photo bag you were told was too big for you to bring into the museum halls…. there is literally nothing you can do about it! 😉



Would you like to take part in a photowalk or a photo tour of Moscow or any other Russian destination with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking photographer (me) showing you the sights, the best time and viewpoint(s) to capture them in your images and helping you improve your photo technique with practical tips? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!



2 thoughts on “The huge masterpiece that Tretyakov could never buy (and a Photo Tip!)

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    1. Dear Paula, as always you are too kind and I am very slow in replying! As they say “on the telly”… stay tuned for news about tours (individual and groups) in Russia in the coming weeks. We are working hard to turn this dream of bringing people to discover the beauty of Russia into a running operation! 🙂


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