Within the Bois de Boulogne, the Fondation Louis Vuitton sits like a recently landed spaceship, a mass of glass and steel designed in Frank Gehry’s trademark style and planted in the woods where the real-life Parisians who inspired Balzac and Maupassant used to go to see and be seen. Until 22nd February, though, the real show is to be found inside its exhibition galleries, where the walls are a mass of colour, and a testament to the extraordinary taste of two men. Rather than gather in the park, the artistic world of late-19th century Paris, and the thrilling modernity that it ushered in, now dominates the Fondation’s interior, as two hundred works from one of the world’s great art collections temporarily come home to roost.

Along with Sergei Shchukin, their fellow Muscovite millionaire and collector, Mikhail (1870-1903) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) devoted their time and vast resources to buying paintings. The family’s textile business gave them the means to do so, and in barely seventeen years the brothers acquired nearly five hundred works by Russian and western European artists, many of them carefully selected from Parisian dealers and some commissioned directly from the artists themselves. The exhibition, like that devoted to Shchukin’s collection in 2016 at the same venue, showcases the role that these Russians played not only in shaping the art market at the turn of the century, but in drawing to Russia some of the most innovative painting and sculpture of the time.

The Parisian location feels wonderfully apt, as both Morozov brothers were frequent visitors to the city, taking apartments on its fashionable boulevards to use as bases while they visited the dealers’ showrooms and Salon exhibitions before picking their purchases and settling the bills. Each year saw at least one visit, criss-crossing the continent on the same railways that would often carry the paintings eastwards, and every visit led to the purchase of something. On 28th May 1902 Mikhail paid Galerie Bernheim-Jeune 19,000 francs for Renoir’s ‘Portrait of Mademoiselle Jeanne Samary and Monet’s ‘Field of Poppies’ – both now in the Hermitage. The previous spring he had visited the Salon des Indépendents and acquired ‘La Mer aux Saintes-Maries’ by Van Gogh, the first painting by the artist to enter a Russian collection, alongside another work by Gauguin, whose own ‘La Pirogue’ had been the first painting of his in Russian hands in 1900, when Morozov had visited the city for the Exposition Universelle and found time to fit in some purchases while he was there. Although the overall tallies of paintings are remarkable, though, to tour the exhibition is to see the fruits not of impulsive buying, but of careful and considered acquisition, where the new addition is weighed alongside the larger whole, and the collection expands with each purchase, to the delight of the collector.

Claude Monet, ‘Field of Poppies’ (1891, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

Both brothers shared this passion for art, and through assiduously blending the established and the new Mikhail provided the foundation of the collection that his brother Ivan would develop in the years after 1903, when Mikhail’s death at the age of just thirty-three pushed his younger brother to the forefront of the family business and the collection that it funded. Building on his brother’s taste for Impressionism, Ivan Morozov added Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse to existing holdings of Monet and Renoir. The walls of his home filled with landscapes and portraits. These works were often produced or sold in Paris, but even thirty years on from the shock of the first Impressionist exhibition the artists did not always find the same appreciation in the city as they enjoyed in the Morozovs’ eyes. While the French public was debating and sometimes grudgingly recognising the innovations of the Impressionists and their descendants their works were already hanging on walls far from the French country and urban scenes they captured. Leisurely afternoons by the Seine and Fauvist landscapes decorated a mansion on Moscow’s Prechistenka Street. The exhibition’s crowded galleries today attest to the appeal that this art now holds for the French public, only a minority of whom, perhaps, have ventured to Moscow or St Petersburg to see such essentially French images in their Russian home. Even in a city whose galleries are now filled with the work of these artists, the quantity and quality of the Monets, Cézannes, Gauguins, and Matisses that the Morozovs collected draws appreciation from visitors aware of just how well these Russians saw the paintings’ merit while many in France were still debating whether they did indeed have any.

Like Shchukin, who acquired Matisse’s ‘La Danse’ and ‘Music’ with a view to their decorating his staircase, Ivan Morozov even went so far as to commission decorative schemes from French artists. A cycle of paintings from Maurice Denis depicting the legend of Eros and Psyche was conceived to decorate the music room in Morozov’s home in 1907. The project grew as Denis persuaded his patron to expand the initial five-panel series to a total of thirteen, along with decorative vases featuring his designs, and four bronze statues by Auguste Maillol. By the time this ensemble was completed in 1911 Morozov had also arranged with Pierre Bonnard for five large canvases to adorn the stairwell, including a ‘Mediterranean Triptych in which a sunlit terrace seems to extend towards the pale blue sea. The coming together of patronage and talent in these projects is quite breathtaking.

There are subtle, but revealing differences in the collectors’ tastes. Morozov’s enthusiasm for the art of Bonnard, Denis, and their associate Nabis was not shared by Shchukin, in the same way that Shchukin’s enthusiasm for Picasso’s cubist works was largely resisted by his fellow collector (albeit with the exception of a wonderful portrait of Ambrose Vollard on display here). These differences, however, make their respective collections more individual, like extensions of the collector’s personality, pursued with the financial means that only a few people before or since have been able to call upon.

Henri Matisse, ‘Moroccan Triptych’ (1913, Pushkin Museum, Moscow)

Morozov did, nonetheless, add the Picasso portrait to his collection, alongside a ‘Young Acrobat with Ball’ from the artist’s Rose Period that Gertrude Stein decided to sell in 1913. Perhaps, as Natalya Semenova suggests in her 2020 account of the family’s collection, he felt that there should be a Picasso included, if only in the interests of completeness. This is a reminder that, as with Shchukin’s treasures, the paintings existed both for private pleasure of their owners and for the benefit of the Russian public who could visit and tour the house for themselves on designated days. Indeed, as this exhibition makes clear through the inclusion of loans from the Tretyakov Gallery alongside the foreign paintings, these exotic arrivals from France were also stimuli for Russia’s emergent avant-garde. Ivan acquired works from Goncharova, Malevich, and Serov to compliment his French purchases: early indications of a dialogue between the new generation of Russian artists and those abroad that was to be cut short by the outbreak of war and the Revolution that followed. Some of the Russian avant-garde, like Larionov and Goncharova, would eventually settle in Paris. Others, like Malevich, would find the city tantalisingly out of reach as the Soviet Union’s borders and horizons (both political and artistic) narrowed in the 1920s. Sadly, many of the energised aesthetic dialogues of the early 20th century did not survive the upheavals of its second decade.

Morozov always planned to bequeath his collection to the Russian state, but the Revolution changed the terms of that bequest, along with everything else. In the immediate chaos that followed October 1917 he had remained in Moscow, cautiously hopeful that Lunacharsky’s Commissariat of Enlightenment would indeed by enlightened enough to keep the collection together even as the family’s textile business was nationalised in the summer of 1918. Shchukin had already left the country by this point, and his collection would be appropriated later that same year. Morozov’s collection was designated the ‘Second Museum of New Western Art’ and the family assigned three rooms on the ground floor of their mansion while Morozov himself became the ‘Deputy Director’ of the new museum. In reality his role was little more than that of a curatorial assistant. In the late spring of 1919 he and his wife and daughter left Moscow for Petrograd, later crossing the border into Finland and into exile. Morozov would die in Karlsbad on 22nd July 1921.

The Cézanne Room in the Museum of Modern Western Art (former mansion of Ivan Morozov) Moscow, showing works taken from both the Shchukin and Morozov collections (1932, Pushkin Museum Archives, Moscow)

Archival photographs in the exhibition show Morozov’s paintings, amalgamated with those in Shchukin’s collection, displayed in a series of re-arranged rooms in one or other of the Moscow mansions of their former owners. These arrangements would not last long, however, as changing artistic policies handed down from the Soviet Union’s leadership made such Western images, and a taste for them, seem politically suspect. Their formal innovation now became ‘formalism’ – the label that anyone active in Soviet cultural circles lived in fear of having applied to their work – and in a state whose artistic taste was increasingly realist, and then Socialist Realist, they stood out like exotic imposters from the decadent West. In the 1930s, some works from the collection were actually sold off, with the American business Stephen Carlton Clark acquiring several paintings including Cézanne’s ‘Madam Cézanne in the Conservatory’, Degas’ ‘The Singer in Green’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Night Café in Arles’. The sale of the latter is, perhaps, particularly to be regretted as Gauguin’s pendant painting on this theme remained in the USSR and features in this exhibition.

Destined to spend years packed away in the museum storerooms of Leningrad and Moscow, Morozov’s paintings only returned to view in the later years of Soviet rule, eventually being recognised among the highlights of the museums into which they were incorporated. Today, as a visitor to the Pushkin Museum or the Hermitage will attest, these works are among the greatest attractions of their homes. Divided as they usually are, though, between the two institutions, this exhibition serves a valuable role in briefly merging the paintings together so we may appreciate again the taste of the men who so carefully set about acquiring them.

That personal element is what makes this exhibition so valuable, elevating it from what would be a stunning display by any standards into a tribute to Mikhail and Ivan’s taste and judgment. A final reminder of this can be seen in the figure of Ivan himself. In an early room of the exhibition, the viewer is surrounded by portraits of the Morozov family and their circle, painted by some of the leading Russian artists of the time, from Konstantin Makovsky to Valentin Serov. In some of these works we see already how Russian painters were absorbing new approaches to subject matter, adopting more Impressionistic brushwork and suggesting greater psychological subtlety beneath their subjects’ exteriors. In the main, however, the sitters are still figures of business and good social rank: their tailcoats, wing-collars, and cravats are worn like black and white uniforms. Towards the end of one’s tour, though, in amongst the Matisse canvases that he acquired (or in the case of the Moroccan Triptych, directly commissioned from the artist) a final portrait of Ivan Morozov can be found. Painted in 1910 by Serov, he sits at a table with Matisse’s still life ‘Fruits et Bronze’ resting at an angle behind him. The recently completed work has, we may conclude, been delivered to its owner’s home, and he poses with its profusion of colour spilling out behind him as his hands emerge from their starched shirt cuffs and rest on the table. It is an unusual image for a man of business to project, but if we see the painting instead as that of collector keen to be captured along with his most recent acquisition it is easy to spot the twinkle of light that Serov captures in his sitter’s eyes and, behind the moustache, a clear hint of a smile.

Valentin Serov, ‘Portrait of the Collector of Modern Russian and French Paintings Ivan Abramovich Morozov’ (1910, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

‘The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art’ is at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, until 22 February 2022. The exhibition catalogue is available in an English language edition, published by Editions Gallimard.