Ivan Morozov, painted by Valentin Serov . . .  © Alamy
 . . . and by Konstantin Korovin © Getty Images

A century of Russian society through the prism of a painting collection: Natalya Semenova’s biography of Ivan Morozov has jewel-like focus yet epic scope, reads as sumptuously as a 19th-century novel, and makes stunning use of material still emerging from Soviet archives to illuminate dark corners of history.

Morozov begins with a serf who wangled a loan for his freedom, married a peasant whose dowry was the ingredient for a secret dye, and established a weaving factory. By 1855 Savva Morozov, still illiterate, was Russia’s biggest cotton producer. His sons became textile magnates, his grandsons bought art.

In some ways it was a natural progression: a flair for colour, shape and pattern unites both pursuits. Not coincidentally, Russia’s two most famous art patrons, Pavel Tretyakov, founder of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, and Sergei Shchukin, passionate supporter of Matisse, whose works shaped the supreme modern holdings of St Petersburg’s Hermitage, were also textile men. Private collecting on this scale, with the patriotic aim of bringing glory to national collections, was a distinctive late 19th-/early 20th-century Russian phenomenon, reflecting social concerns of even the very wealthy in an unstable political climate. (Today’s Russian and Ukrainian collectors — Roman Abramovich and Victor Pinchuk respectively — reiterate the ambition for global trophies, but share neither the flair nor the broader social agenda.)

Ivan Morozov, Savva’s most successful grandson, reserved, retiring, slow-moving but unwavering in pursuing his destiny, is the intriguing third man of Moscow collectors. As lavish as the others, he was uniquely decisive in shaping Russian artistic creation — he bought from local, living painters, as Tretyakov had done, while acquiring new French pictures on a level with Shchukin. He thus directly opened the path for the Russian avant-garde: artists including Malevich, Chagall, Goncharova, Larionov saw Paris modernism at first hand in Moscow and responded to it with Russian expressionist and cube-futurist painting, blending western abstracting styles with influences from Russian folk art and everyday life. Morozov bought from many of these young artists.

But this effect is most touchingly shown in his own 1910 portrait by Valentin Serov, an elderly realist who, on sight of Morozov’s collection, suddenly turned radical: he flattened the merchant’s bulky form, flabby face, awkward goatee beard, and set him against the pulsing rhythms and wild colour of one of Morozov’s Matisses. Serov’s lumbering Russian encompassed by Paris chic is warmly affectionate. Testimonies from several Moscow artists similarly recall “this kind, lazy man . . . suffused with invariable goodwill”, “a portly, exquisitely dressed gentleman with big red cheeks and cheerful, sparkling eyes”.

Semenova, a Russian art historian, casts Morozov as the quiet, placid point around which revolved countless crazy dramas, the personal always implying the political in febrile pre-Bolshevik Moscow. Older brother Mikhail gambled away a fortune and died at 33. Younger brother Arseny built a fantastical Moorish palace on Vozdvizhenka Street, one of Moscow’s fanciest addresses, boasted of being immune to pain, and to prove it shot himself in the foot — fatally.

Ivan Morozov’s brother built a fantastical Moorish palace on Vozdvizhenka Street, Moscow, in 1899 © Getty Images

Their mother Varvara, vain (“I am not altogether an ordinary being”), uneasy about privilege, unloving, unloved, had married their father reluctantly; when he too died young — psychosis — she threw his inheritance at charitable causes. An uncle dressed as a Roman gladiator kept a tiger and mistakenly murdered his wife — a poisoned cup of coffee intended as fratricide. An over-liberal cousin, advocating that workers at the Morozov factory should share in the profits, was exiled and committed suicide at the Royal Hotel, Cannes.

Ivan Morozov’s only rebellion was, discreetly, to marry a chorus girl;
then he continued prudently, meticulously, bringing home recent French art. An empty space for the right “blue Cézanne” took three years to fill. Morozov stalked his prey with tremendous acumen, underpinned by a longing for tranquillity — rapturous Gauguins; Bonnard’s harmonious panels; Monet’s early, little-known and monumental “The Pond at Montgeron”.

War detached Morozov from Paris but favoured his Tver Textile Mill Company — 15,000 employees produced four million metres of fabric, thousands of grenade covers, gas masks. Then in 1918 Morozov calmly handed the keys for the safe of the now nationalised business to a worker. Whereas mercurial Shchukin fled Moscow, passive Morozov accepted the post of deputy director of his own collection — soon the state “Second Museum of Western Art” — and prepared to sit out the revolution in the three rooms allocated him within his palace. Eventually deprived even of these, he left Russia and his paintings, and the mask fell: Serov’s weighty collector is unrecognisable in the haggard, haunted Morozov of a 1920 photograph from France. Months later Morozov, 49, died of a heart attack.

A Soviet co-operative examining his pictures in 1930 found only nine passed the test of “worker and peasant subject matter”; the collection was separated, the canvases rolled up, and it was forbidden to name the “Moscow capitalist” who had “caused great harm to the development of Russian and Soviet art”, according to an edict signed by Stalin. It was so effective, although later in the century his pictures were displayed again at the Hermitage and Pushkin museums, that Morozov remained relatively obscure — until brought to life in this beguiling biography.

This article has been amended to correct Victor Pinchuk’s nationality.

Morozov­­: The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection, by Natalya Semenova, Yale, RRP£25, 288 pages

Jackie Wullschläger is the FT’s chief visual arts critic

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