Unknown Dutch Artist, Portrait of a Family, mid-17th century onwards, oil on canvas, 157cm x 208cm Gösta and Bertha Stenman Donation Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Sinebrychoff Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen & Henri Tuomi

Old Masters Meet Russian Revolutions

Kersti Tainio, MA, PhD Student, University of Helsinki

Old Master paintings in the Sinebrychoff Art Museum that came from Russia to Finland as a consequence of the Russian Revolutions are the subject of Kersti Tainio’s research undertaken during her recent internship at the Finnish National Gallery


The political turmoil in Russia has unexpectedly given us a chance to rescue some of the treasures threatened with being swept away by the whirlwind of the revolution, but again, the opportunity has not been fully exploited. Some works of art have ended up here through private initiative but there have been no systematic purchases, although the owners of celebrated art collections would have sold their old Flemish and Italian works rather than see them being smashed or plundered by the Russian utopians. Now many of these works have gone to England and America.[1]

 This is what the art dealer Gösta Stenman wrote in 1919 after he had brought dozens of Old Master paintings from revolutionary Russia to Finland. In this article I shed light on the period of time between the two Russian revolutions in 1917 when there were a few Finnish people actively buying art in the chaotic capital of Russia. I will show, case by case, how this extraordinary situation affected the art collection of the Sinebrychoff Art Museum.

Provenance research is an important part of museum practice, as it may clarify or confirm attributions and dating, or even reveal the original commissioner of an artwork or help to identify a portrayed person. The subject I studied during my internship has not been systematically researched, although there are informative museum catalogues, one of which actually raised my interest in the first place.[2] Provenance research is most typically carried out in connection with forthcoming exhibitions, and that was the case with the painting Young woman with a glass of wine, holding a letter in her hand, by Gerard ter Borch. The former Chief Curator of the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Marja Supinen, made an effort in the 1990s to tease out its convoluted provenance. The painting found its way to the museum collection in the early 1920s, when a Russian citizen brought it to Helsinki from Petrograd[3] and sold it to the museum. The painting had ended up in St. Petersburg in the aftermath of the French Revolution when Prince Alexander Bezborodko (1746–99) purchased it in 1795. Over 100 years later, the painting left Petrograd, ironically enough, as a consequence of the Russian Revolution.[4]

[1] ’De politiska omvälvningarna i Ryssland ha plötsligt skänkt oss en möjlighet att rädda en del av de skatter stormfloden hotat att sopa bort, men även nu har tillfället icke utnytjats. Visserligen har en del verk på privat initiativ funnit vägen till oss, men ett planmässigt förvärv har icke ägt rum. Och dock ha ägarna till berömda samlingar, hällre än de sett sina gamla holländare och italienare förstöras eller rövas av de ryska världsförbättrarna, – försålt sina skatter. En stor del av dessa verk har gått till England och Amerika.’ Gammal konst. Stenmans konstsalongs publikationer II. Helsingfors: Frenckellska Tryckeri-Aktiebolaget, 1919. My translation.

[2] Supinen, Marja. The Ter Borchs Meet Again. Helsinki: The Museum of Foreign Art Sinebrychoff. The Finnish National Gallery, 1995; Supinen, Marja. The Fine Arts Academy of Finland, Sinebrychoff Art Museum: Foreign Schools: Summary Catalogue 1: Paintings. Helsinki: Suomen taideakatemia, 1988; Keltanen, Minerva, ed. Art & Atmosphere. Helsinki: Sinebrychoff Art Museum, 2014.

[3] St. Petersburg became Petrograd in 1914 when, following the declaration of war between Germany and Russia, the former name was considered to be too German. In 1924 Petrograd was again renamed, remaining as Leningrad until 1991.

[4] Supinen 1995, 34–35, 43.

Featured image: Unknown Dutch artist, Portrait of a Family, mid-17th century onwards, oil on canvas, 157cm x 208cm, Finnish National Gallery / Sinebrychoff Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen & Henri Tuomi

Public domain. This image of a work of art is released under a CC0 licence, and can be freely used because the copyright (70 full calendar years after the death of the artist) has expired.

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